The e-Commerce Whizzes
by Carolyn Shea
Before there was Etsy, before there was PayPal, there was buyolympia.com, a pioneering patron of the independent, do-it-yourself (DIY) craft movement in the United States.
The online purveyor of Olympian-made wares was founded by Pat Castaldo '95 and Aaron Tuller '00 in 1999, when e-commerce was in its infancy and much of the computerized world was fretting over the impending specter of the Y2K bug.
The two—electronic whizzes both—had each taken and loved the program Computability and Cognition (albeit several years apart) and worked together on wiring the residence halls on campus for Internet access in the late 1990s. They had lots of creative friends—many from Evergreen—in the indie rock scene in Olympia, which included the Kill Rock Stars and K Records labels and was a base for the riot grrrl movement.
"Our idea was let's bring everybody we know in the community who's making cool things together and work with them," said Castaldo, who served as the managing editor of the Cooper Point Journal, the associate director of information systems at the Higher Education Coordinating Board, the board president of the Olympia Film Society, a City of Olympia Planning Commission member and a programmer at a dot-com company. "We wanted to bring the creative forces of Olympia to people outside Olympia.
"When we started, it was before PayPal or anything like that," he continues. "There was no easy way to get a store online. Now there's Paypal and Etsy and it's a lot easier to get up and going and selling your goods."
They leased a computer and launched buyolympia.com from Castaldo's apartment in downtown Olympia. He was working full time for the state and Tuller was still a student at Evergreen. "We wrote all the shopping cart software and all the software to power the site," says Castaldo. During their first four months in business, they had no tables or chairs, so they stood up while they were working. Nikki McClure '91 was the first artist they featured and they started with one product: her 2000 calendar. "I think we sold 42," says Castaldo.
"My mom bought one," interjects Tuller, a San Francisco native who worked as a computer intern for Sub Pop Records in Seattle before entering Evergreen. His father, who worked in administrative computing at the University of California, San Francisco, started Tuller in computers when he was 6 years old, buying him his own computer and writing programs with him.
Tuller explains there was no small business shipping software when he and Castaldo started out. "Pat used to handwrite every address. I would take the orders to the post office, stand in line and go through each package, one by one, and sometimes there were address errors. So we wrote shipping software. Now the system is pretty automated. No more handwriting and at around 4:30 the mailman comes by and picks up the orders."
As time went on, the inventory increased and business picked up. The co-founders, who plowed all revenue right back into the business (and took no salaries) sold passes for Ladyfest 2000 online and set up an online store for Queen Bee Creations, the purse and bag business of Rebecca Pearcy '95. By 2005, they started paying themselves and the next year they hired their first employee.
One of the most popular items buyolympia.com sells is a T-shirt designed by Sarah Utter '05, emblazoned with the words "Reading is Sexy" next to an image of a young woman wearing glasses. Tuller was taking a class at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., when he noticed a spike in orders for the shirt.
"All of a sudden there were 100 orders," recalls Tuller. "I thought something bad had happened or there was a weird glitch. Then there were 400 orders."
His initial sense of alarm turned to excitement when he learned what was happening. Actress Alexis Bledel, who played Rory Gilmore, one of the main characters in Gilmore Girls, had worn the shirt in the latest episode of the popular TV series. "You could not get better product placement," Tuller says.
"People Googled it and found us. We got four different waves of big orders as the show aired in different parts of the country," recalls Castaldo. "We sold like a bajillion shirts that night." Based on this streak, they branched out to "Reading is Sexy" bumper stickers and mugs, which are produced by buyolympia.com staff. They turn out other items as well, including Nikki McClure's notecards, which they distribute to retailers around the country. They also take pictures of the products featured on the site, write the copy, process the orders and ship the work out.
Tuller says, "The people who make the art should be making the art and should be making the craft. We focus on getting it out to the people." Now a four-person operation, buyolympia.com offers more than 2,000 items from some 70 "artists and instigators" (as the website calls them) who sell everything from handmade accessories, books and cards to household goods, jewelry, posters, toys and zines.
In 2008, Castaldo and his family, Tuller and buyolympia.com relocated to Portland, Ore. A year later, they opened a brick-and-mortar location on trendy North Mississippi Avenue. Called Land, the 5,000 square-foot gallery and retail shop makes it possible for customers to see and purchase artists' and crafters' work directly. The gallery features a dozen curated exhibitions a year and Castaldo says, "We have a list a mile long of people who want to show."
Castaldo and Tuller and their community-based brainchild were prominently featured in the 2009 documentary, Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design. And last year, the duo was credited by Curve magazine as being the "first to connect" the burgeoning DIY and underground music culture in the Pacific Northwest with the rest of the nation. "What began as a place for fellow Olympians to sell their handmade arts and crafts quickly evolved into a nationwide hub of commerce for Indie crafters."
Though the enterprise has expanded, Castaldo and Tuller have stayed true to their desire to be acquainted with the people whose handiwork they promote. "We always want to maintain relationships with all the artists we work with; we tend not to list them unless we know them or have a connection to them," says Castaldo. "We want to know everyone's first names."