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.

A Year After the Changes at Etsy, It’s Worse than We Thought

Mabon Tree of Life in progress-- curling up the hammered tendrils
Mabon Tree of Life in progress– curling up the hammered tendrils

In October of last year I wrote a post about my concerns regarding Etsy policy changes to allow manufacturing and drop shipping. A year on, how have these changes affected sellers and buyers? A great article by Sharon Whitehead of Brooklyn Accelerator discusses both, and prompted me to revisit this topic.

What has essentially happened is this: Etsy used to be like a lovely little beach where you could go and find interesting little stones.  Combing through the sand was fun, with many delightful surprises: a shell here, a piece of beach glass there.  And then one day the authorities decided to use it as a dump, piling up plastic junk. You could still go there looking for little stones and shells, but you would have to wade through tons of refuse to find the treasures.

I’m not competing with the two dollar, sweat shop made goods. I have more in common with the people making those sweat-shop goods than I have with the factory-floor managers or the designers sending their stuff to be duplicated in factories or the companies that own the factories.  Etsy would like me to become like the managers and outsourcing designers. This has always been my bottom line, that I make in solidarity with those who do not have the luxury to set their own price and must work for an hourly wage decided be someone else.  I am not in competition with them.

One of Micheal Wolf's portraits of Chinese Factory Workers.
One of Micheal Wolf’s portraits of Chinese Factory Workers.

I’m convinced the Etsy shoppers who are buying the cheap, mass-produced goods are few, and they are not my customers.  The widespread presence of those goods on Etsy makes it harder for my customers– both potential ones and loyal fans– to find my work on Etsy.

This was the edge Etsy gave makers– it put us up front in Search Engine Optimization and its effective, streamlined internal search meant that we were served up to customers who were looking for exactly what we make. It was great, for a short time.

It took less than a year for Etsy’s changes to take hold and have an effect on authentic makers, but it’s happening now. What’s at stake here is not the redifining of “handmade” to include “handmade by someone else”. We need to understand that all along Etsy was about supporting handmade microbusiness— businesses of one or two people doing it themselves and the magic of connecting to them as a consumer.

Last year when I saw that I would have these challenges ahead, I created my own web store and enrolled in a handmade business course. The course’s advice? Outsource my designs to a manufacturer. Pay someone else to make the things I’m making or burn-out and financial catastrophe awaited me. I’m stubborn enough to disregard this advice. I’ve gotten this far without compromising on this, and I’m going to keep to that.

Etsy used to send great business and sales advice emails, coaching sellers.  I followed all their advice initially and it helped make my shop a success. Now the emails they send me are about how to outsource my work to a factory or how to make storage space for all the manufactured items I’ll be selling on Etsy after they come back from the factory. I don’t even read them anymore.

I feel lucky that I have loyal customers who continue to support my shop.  You know who you are.  You have put a roof over my head and food on the table and have paid the vet bills for my cats.  I have a direct relationship with many of you and if I outsourced what I made I would lose that.  I’m not willing to do that.

If you love my work, I would ask you to support my independent shop and give me feedback on your shopping experience there so I can continue to improve it. There will always be perks shopping at feralstrumpet.co.uk.  Have you seen my SAMPLE SALE section of one-off designs?  Did you know I have a Birthday Club- on your birthday month you get special savings only at feralstrumpet.co.uk? (Email feral.strumpet.info at gmail dot com with your birth month and day and I’ll add you to the club!).

I know there are some loyal customers who will prefer to shop on Etsy because they shop on their mobile devices and Etsy’s app for that is great.  If you do want to shop for my work on Etsy, use the search term “feral strumpet” or “folk reveries” to find my work (and the work of my fab Folk Reveries team mates.)  Be sure to favourite the items you like so you can go back to them because they might not be as easy to find in search as they have been in the past.

I stand by my statement last year.  What I predicted has come to pass, but it’s even worse.

While my hours are sometimes very long, and my callouses are painful, I still don’t have the resources for interns and personal assistants. The new Etsy would like to cater to sellers who outsource the making of their goods because it means more volume and money for them. The decision makers at Etsy are looking a lot like the big businesses insisting on the bottom line, and the creative hands and hearts that originally built the site are ransomed in the process.

I know that someone out there who is tech-minded and passionate about handmade micro-business is already hard at work making something to replace Etsy. Whoever you are, I wish you godspeed.

In Sharon Whitehead’s insightful article, she offers advice for makers facing this drop in sales from Etsy’s changes. One suggestion is to “create a small network of fellow sellers” that goes beyond the Etsy Team model. Are you a maker with a companionable aesthetic to mine? Do you make other things besides jewellery, yet have a similar target market? Get in touch! Let’s work together to make better things happen.

 

The Future of Etsy

This is my one-woman workspace.  Chaos is free.
This is my one-woman workspace. Chaos is free.

This is a picture of my workspace. It ain’t pretty, but it’s where pretty things are made. It’s my one woman factory.

Etsy made big news a couple of weeks ago when it announced that factory made goods and drop shipping would now be allowed on the site.  Drop shipping allows for factories to make many of something and send it to a third party to be shipped out.

For many who shop on Etsy to have a clearer connection with the people who make what they wear and use every day, this is going to be confusing. For one-woman businesses who do it all and have built their shops on Etsy and earn their livelihood there, this may be devastating.

What this will mean for small businesses like myself is invisibility, as Etsy’s search becomes flooded with products you can find on Amazon or Ebay. Some are saying Etsy may be bought by Amazon in the future, and there are many changes Etsy has made internally that have already shaped it to be more like Amazon.

While this will mean challenges for me as a seller, if there is anything I have learned in the two and a half years of building my business, anything is possible as long as you have a little mountain goat attitude. It is time to evolve. I’ll be sharing these changes– a new online shop, other online selling communities– as I make these changes.

I have started by creating my own independent online shop.

What I mourn is my experience as a buyer on Etsy.  I could easily find the products of creative hands and get the feel of an individual’s vision, a glimpse of her creative process and in some way engage with this. This could be found easily through Etsy’s internal search engine, which may now be flooded with factory made goods.

Michael Wolf's Photo of a Chinese Factory Worker
Michael Wolf’s Photo of a Chinese Factory Worker

Oddly, as more and more sellers bemoan the “Made in China” goods sold at prices with which small living room operations like myself can’t compete, I have wondered what handmade means, and what I have in common with the workers in these Chinese Factories.

Around the same time Etsy’s CEO made this announcement, I found this photo essay by Michael Wolf of Chinese Factory Workers and the Toys they make.  Now that Etsy is featuring “artists” whose work is made by “interns”, I’m fantasizing about what Etsy’s coverage of selected makers will look like when the factory workers, like the women in Michael Wolf’s photos, get to speak.  It is of course a fantasy.

This is a missed opportunity– rather than Etsy reaching out to international cooperatives that might be working with free trade models and broadening its international focus to bring goods to its conscious, savvy shoppers, it’s totally confusing things and going for profit margins, betraying all the hard working one-person shops who’ve worked hard publicising the site and making Etsy what it is today.

While my hours are sometimes very long, and my callouses are painful, I still don’t have the resources for interns and personal assistants. The new Etsy would like to cater to sellers who outsource the making of their goods because it means more volume and money for them. The decision makers at Etsy are looking a lot like the big businesses insisting on the bottom line, and the creative hands and hearts that originally built the site are ransomed in the process.