Rural, Female and Two Million Strong: Like Etsy, Like Me.

Etsy recently published its biannual census, summarising its community of two million sellers. The difference this year is that rather than focusing on the US only, this census is global. Etsy asserts that their mission is to humanise business and to strengthen communities. Before reading the census, I was skeptical.

Though I have had a fraught relationship with Etsy for the 9 years I have had a shop on the marketplace, I was moved to see that the census really did represent me and my business model, and that I could proudly say that I stood with many other Etsy sellers as a woman-owned and operated business that has become a dream come true.

I am able to live on the North Sea, thanks in part to my Etsy shop.

87% of sellers on Etsy identify as women– Etsy allows a flexible scale for new businesses, allowing women to experiment with possibilities. The census also points out that women perform 3/4 of all unpaid care work– meaning that the flexible business model Etsy provides is well suited to women who keep the world turning with their care and kindness.

Etsy allows me freedom to make a living despite surviving with multiple chronic illnesses (arthritis, clinical depression and severe asthma) which prevent me from holding a regular 9 to 5 job. Though there was no data in the census on those Etsy sellers with disabling health conditions, it would be interesting to have this included in the future.

Many Etsy sellers are also located in rural communities, like me.  My particular rural community is depressed financially and my business couldn’t survive with only a local audience, yet having a successful international Etsy shop means that my business is one small step in revitalising this local economy. I’m sure this is a similar story for many rural Etsy sellers.

80% of Etsy sellers are microbusinesses, or one-person endeavours, and almost all are run from home.  For the first seven years of my Etsy shop I did everything myself. When my business grew beyond what I could handle alone, I was able to hire my partner to help me run things.

Often people think that running an Etsy shop means you are making pretty things all day, but really that’s only half the story– literally.  This pie graph from the census is a good reminder of everything that goes into a successful shop.

How an Etsy Seller Spends her Time. From the Etsy 2019 Seller Census.

Many sellers use Etsy as their sole source of income while about half use it as a “side hustle.” Any business owner has to have nerves of steel to withstand the ups and downs, but this is particularly true for a very small business like an Etsy shop.

Women and girls making artificial flowers. Image from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Once at a Feminist support group, my business was dismissed as being akin to “Victorian piece work”.  Those words have given me much to think on.  What makes my business different from the consumptive embroidering hankies by candlelight?  The difference is that I make all the decisions–  focusing on integrity, imagination and responding to my customers’ colourful lives. I have a fine quality of life. This census captures this business model nicely.

It is heartening to see that many Etsy sellers, like myself, are not only able to reinvest in their business but are also able to save.  For me, being able to put a bit of money away for the future is a first, though I have worked for others in regular employment for over a quarter of a century before starting my Etsy shop. This was perhaps the most sobering realisation reading the census and considering my current business.

I have wondered in the past if Etsy truly understands its sellers, and there are some aspects that still make me guess at this.  Many of the changes to the mechanics of selling seemingly prioritise factory made goods, and 24% of sellers use outside manufacturing. Etsy has changed from being about truly handmade work to a small business marketplace. I hope that this clear picture will enable Etsy to make better decisions supporting its sellers, while I long, quixotically, for a return to the handmade marketplace it once was. 

Celestial Treasures

Celestial finds from inspiring Etsy sellers.

I’ve created a treasury of celestial themed finds on Etsy.  Not so many years ago, I was an avid treasury creator on Etsy.  I loved curating finds that looked beautiful together and coalesced around a certain theme. It was a great way to find other hand made businesses and artisans and support each other.  At one time Etsy used these as the front page, and there was a feeling of community in these shared collections. At some point Etsy did away with treasury making as well as a maker/user curated front page.  I miss those days.  I also miss being a shopper on Etsy.  I find that if I don’t have a specific handmade shop in mind as a destination, I no longer browse Etsy.

I set myself the task of browsing and curating, just to see what would happen. I started with Buckleberry Ferry’s star map embroidery as I just loved it– and built the collection around that. Though it was harder to find hand-made items from small makers, and this was discouraging, I persisted. I was rewarded by seeing a lot of inspiring handmade businesses to celebrate.   I also tried to prioritise European sellers as well.  I hope you find something to love in this “list”.

Do you make Etsy lists (treasuries)? Comment with a link!

Celebrating Etsy’s 13th Anniversary


Next week, Etsy is celebrating 13 years of supporting handmade businesses by hosting a site-wide sale, and I’m participating by offering 15% off my entire shop from June 18th-22nd. No coupon is necessary. (Custom orders and made to order designs are not included in the sale).

Good old days– this was my first Etsy banner. Maybe some of you remember it!
One of my first product photos, before I figured out how to use a camera. I still make & sell these Zombie Gnome earrings in my shop!

I’ve had a handmade shop on Etsy for over 8 years of their 13 year history, and before that I was an Etsy customer. Back then, things were small– crafters and artisans offered a few of their wares and there was definitely a feeling of unique, experimental sharing. Many of the shops I visited were like me– making things on their kitchen tables, photographing them with a dinky point-and-shoot camera.

As Etsy grew, many businesses, like mine, grew with the site, and the decision-makers at Etsy seemed to be makers themselves, or  at least understood the unique dilemmas makers face when running a business– Etsy supported us and we blossomed. Many of us were able to support ourselves by selling our work; a truly marvellous thing. I met other shop owners who remain friends to this day and we continue to support each other in myriad ways.  There was a community of sellers sharing knowledge in Etsy Teams, and we celebrated each other’s work by making Treasuries– visual collections of selected pieces that would sometimes be featured on the front page, leading to great exposure for everyone, and a constant source of inspiration and friendship.

The Chartres Labyrinth Necklace is featured in this Solstice Meditation Treasury from 2011. I still offer this necklace design in my shop!
The Folk Reveries Team on Etsy was my favourite.

Of course nothing stays the same. The CEO of Etsy changed, and those of us who made a modest living had to hang on for dear life– despite Etsy’s “Quit Your Day Job” blog posts, those of us who had done just that knew that it harder for us succeed. Etsy had opened its doors to resellers and drop-shipping, and suddenly we had to compete with people who were not making their goods at all but buying them from the 3rd world, often from sweat shops employing child labour.

Etsy has had a crisis of identity: the front page is no longer curated by Etsy members via the Treasuries. Long time Etsians have noticed the site looking more and more like eBay. Also since Etsy has gone public on the stock market it must now answer to share holders rather than makers, and this has changed everything.

That time I modelled as Gunpower Gertie for Catrianna of Deep Midnight Perfume Oils on Etsy! (this is an outtake).

I have learned a great deal on this rollercoaster ride with Etsy, but these are the biggest lessons:

  • If you want to survive as a handmade business, create your own website, apart from Etsy. (Mine is at http://www.feralstrumpet.co.uk)
  • Be ready to spend at least half your productive hours creating a business. This involves trying to anticipate Etsy’s continued changes as you think on your feet.
  • Lastly, loyal customers are like gold, and if you have read this far, I know you are one of them. Every day I am filled with gratitude for the customers who continue to return to my shop, year after year. Without you, I wouldn’t be here!

Only So Many Hands: My Thoughts on Etsy’s IPO.

Women knitting socks during WWI.  Handmade still matters.
Women knitting socks during WWI. Handmade still matters.

Etsy’s IPO happened this month- this is not news.  With damning headlines like “Etsy files for Handcrafted IPO,” I’d like to say I was prepared for this. For the last 3 years this transformation of Etsy has been looming. As a seller what does this mean for me? What will I do? I’ve written this blog post hundreds of times in my head, trying to make sense of it before committing it to cyberspace.  It was procrastination born of a sad heart.

Many sellers have already left Etsy– I have been slow to make that decision because I have so many wonderful, loyal customers who simply prefer to shop on Etsy, but I feel I can no longer go on selling happily there. Luckily, I have built an independent shop to replace my Etsy shop– first on Indiemade and now on Shopify, which I’m much happier with than the Etsy platform.  You can see my independent shop at http://feralstrumpet.co.uk.

Chad Dickerson, Etsy's CEO.  Thanks, Chad. I will.
Chad Dickerson, Etsy’s CEO. Thanks, Chad. I will.

Etsy’s initial public offering corresponds with my Etsy shop’s fourth birthday.  Four years is a long time to work at something– it’s BA degree, a wacky high school journey.  An elephant could have two really cute babies in that time.  Those four years were ones of empowerment, creativity, cashflow and community.  I grew from a hobbyist working on my kitchen table to one of Etsy’s “power sellers”.

When I look back at the  countless treasuries on Etsy I made featuring the products of other sellers, I realize what an inspiring place it once was for me and I happily gave back to the seller’s community that continually gave to me.  I’ve coached myriad newbie sellers during the Holiday Bootcamp sessions.  Other wonderful sellers have included me in their treasuries, and have been incredibly supportive team mates– especially the Folk Reveries Team. We traded notes and ideas, ways to make Etsy work for us.  The seller community was real and powerful and the vast majority of members were women.

The people who will be making decisions about Etsy will not be these women. The investors who buy into this are thinking about tech stocks being hot right now, not about who really made Etsy what it is today. A handful of wealthy people (men, I venture) will become even richer through this. Why does this bother me so much? Isn’t this the way the world of business always works?

I’ve written about it before– back in 2012 I discussed the seller protest questioning Etsy’s acceptance of factory made goods, Protesty. Again in 2013 when Etsy allowed manufacturers and drop shipping in the marketplace, I posted The Future of Etsy. Last year I wrote, A Year After the Changes at Etsy, It’s Worse Than We Thought, explaining how the changes have affected me as a seller and buyer.

Part of the problem is that many of the sellers on Etsy are like me, working hard at making things and balancing our books, managing to be profitable despite all odds. We think practically and literally about money.  All this seems old fashioned and two dimensional in the topsy-turvy world of investment, where being unprofitable can still make you money and lots of it and where making money and growing are prioritized above all else.  Etsy as a company still hasn’t turned a profit. Last year its net losses were $15.2 million, more than 15 times greater than its losses in 2o13.  In its filing it even admits, “Our new offerings also may bring us more directly into competition with companies that are better established or have greater resources than we do..” (Read more at Market Watch)  Already, the Etsy search function turns up countless listings for factory-made goods identical to those found on Amazon and Ebay, often from the same sellers that use those platforms in volume.  The individual, genuine artisan is drowned out and the shopper is overwhelmed with the exact products they were trying to avoid.  An unprofitable company whose changes have made it a redundant online marketplace can still go public with a 100 million dollar offering. Of course this wouldn’t make sense to someone like me who is actually trying to run a handmade business.

Tech crunch gets detailed about the IPO an explains,  “In this regard, Etsy is outright compelling. Historically it has spent 40-70 percent less [on marketing] on a percentage basis than their competitors, while realizing similar, if not greater, growth rates than other marketplaces.” Guess why? The sellers, the visionary single moms, creative living-room risk-takers, the blister-fingered craftspeople did the legwork, got the word out on behalf of their shops and their fellow sellers. Etsy didn’t have to spend a dime.  Etsy introduced an ad in the UK in 2014, perhaps as an experiment? It was too little, too late.

It’s ironic that my last blog post gave 5 reason to bail on the day job culture, the first on being the ability to be The CEO of your life. I talked about my past life processing expense reports for Goldman Sachs and realizing  how perverse it was that I was now chained to someone else’s priorities to make money no matter what, to grow like some malignancy that uses up everything in its path.  Now, Goldman Sachs has underwritten Etsy’s IPO. I simply can no longer pretend this isn’t going to affect me.  Sometimes you have to be bold, and make choices based on what is right, what you feel in your gut.  As the CEO of my own life, I get to decide what my business stands for, and who I answer to.

I read my horoscope on March 20th– it was the Spring Equinox, power charged with a full eclipse and a super moon.  I look to Rob Brezsny, in times like this as on the whole I don’t believe in horoscopes, but I believe in him.

 “You have recently been to the mountaintop, at least metaphorically. Right? You wandered out to the high frontier and ruminated on the state of your fate from the most expansive vista you could find…Here’s what I suggest: Start building a new framework or structure or system that will incorporate all that you’ve learned during your break. “

I’d just returned from the Arctic Circle where I was caught in a storm at sea, had a drink in an Ice Hotel and went to the place of my ancestors in Lofoten. During that time away from my shop I made peace with being small and making changes so I can still feel good about what I do. Rob, as usual, was spot on.

Huffington Post has an interesting article about how to make seller’s happy– I’m cynical enough to think Etsy won’t be instituting these changes any time soon. I think years ago they stopped seeing sellers for who they really were, and wanted to court a new kind of mega-sellers who weren’t makers at all.  Alex Moazed writes, “…the company’s culture and value proposition places a natural limit on its growth. There are only but so many hands to make and sell handmade goods.” Maybe that’s the issue. I am OK being small. I am good with my two hands, making things one at a time without interns or a factory.  And this way of working is good to me.  That’s enough.

March Hares & Happy (Feral) Birthday

Hare and Moon Knitting Stitch Marker Necklace.
Hare and Moon Knitting Stitch Marker Necklace.

During March many UK Etsy sellers, myself included, will be celebrating Spring by offering FREE SHIPPING on orders over £15 to UK addresses. Use coupon code FREEMARCH13 at checkout to receive free shipping.  Offer good only on UK addresses. (Can not be used on reserve or custom listings and can’t be used retroactively.) Check out other shops offering this discount. 

This weekend my shop turns two.  It’s been a fascinating journey from just making pretty things to actually making business decisions, big and small, every day.  Thinking like a businesswoman has been the most alien and difficult part of running the business, and if it weren’t for the steady stream of gleeful squeeing and heartfelt conversations from repeat customers, I don’t know if I could have done it.

In two years I’ve gone from selling off my refurbished vintage collection to actually making a living– this is the best job I’ve ever had. Not just income wise, but in its joyful freedom and deep meaning. Thanks to all who have come with me on this journey, to every order and encouraging message!  Here’s to another happy year!