WHY OUR HANDCRAFTED BUSINESS IS SEEKING AN ALTERNATIVE TO ETSY
This article is a guest post for our Skill Share series from artisan Walnut Studiolo, a husband-and-wife leathercrafting business based in Oregon. This is the first post in a five-post series. Read the others here.
After 14 years selling handcrafted leather goods on Etsy, we should be the quintessential Etsy success story. But for the past 10 years, we’ve found it necessary to look for alternatives to Etsy.
In this series of posts, we’ll share our history on Etsy, how we came to realize we needed alternatives, and our experience of trying alternatives one-by-one: our own website, Amazon, drop-shipping sites, and other marketplaces.
Learn from our mistakes, and why artisans like us need a co-op alternative to Etsy that we own ourselves.
How We Got Started on Etsy in 2009
We started our handmade business out of necessity in 2009 during the Great Recession. Layoffs were imminent for both of us, and we had to try something new.
In 2009, we were bicycle nerds living in a bicycle city (Portland, Oregon). Husband Geoff, an Architecture graduate, had been building up a vintage-style bicycle as a passion project. He was re-creating and modernizing early 1900’s Italian leather bicycle accessories, like handlebar wraps.
Wife Valerie had become a customer on the new-ish platform Etsy and she wondered what would happen if she put Geoff’s leather bicycle accessories on the internet. Would anyone want to buy them? Geoff thought probably not.
The Etsy Incubator
But to our surprise, we were in the right place at the right time. We were the first bicycle accessory maker on Etsy, and it was easy to get found back then. From our very first month on Etsy, we started selling leather bicycle accessories to fellow bicycle nerds that found us through the platform and our supportive local bicycling community.
In the early days, we grew our business entirely on Etsy. Nobody in our family was an entrepreneur, and most people we knew thought we were nuts, but by 2012, Walnut Studiolo had become our full-time job as a family business.
Back then the platform was much smaller and it was much easier to get found. The customers were also terrific: patient and supportive.
With their support, we grew from a business model of making each item one-by-one after it was purchased, to making them in advance in small batches, ready to ship within 1-2 days.
Like many early users of successful platforms – Uber, AirBnB – when we first started, it was terrific. We were making high quality sales, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without Etsy.
Etsy Seller Discontent Began a Decade Ago
But by 2012, we were getting worried about the integrity of the Etsy platform. Etsy’s culture was starting to change, a victim of its own success.
Even back then, the growth of non-handmade sellers on the platform was becoming a problem. That’s when the first seller-organized protest happened, later dubbed Protesty. Seller outage was triggered when Etsy chose to promote a shop called EcologicaMalibu for its coveted “Featured Seller”.
(A little Etsy history: the Featured Seller slot was a competitive honor on the platform. The lucky shop would get their story told in a special blog post and their work featured prominently on the front page. Naturally, the honor was associated with a bump in sales and a boost to your shop’s success – we were one of the lucky shops in July 2010.)
To handmade sellers, it was immediately obvious that EcologicaMalibu shouldn’t have qualified as a handmade seller at all, much less be worthy of the Featured Seller promotion. The shop was listed by a woman in California, whose profile photos showed a woman with 2-inch long fingernails who claimed to make Balinese boat wood furniture. As hardworking, scarred woodworkers everywhere know, you can’t keep up nails like that in woodworking.
Angry seller posts on the community forums caused the woman and Etsy to “clarify” that she designed the furniture, that it was made by “her collective” of 8 furniture makers in Bali (she changed the description on her shop page after the outrage started, yet Etsy kept her up as the Featured Seller).
Sellers weren’t satisfied, and embarked on a seller “walkout”. Many created “protest treasuries” that visually expressed their anger and demonstrated the reseller problem, such as a treasury of all the same item, with the exact same cover photo, from 12 different shops. (Etsy stopped doing treasuries many years ago. They were very popular at the time, curated collections of items — kind of like music playlists for handmade goods.)
Ultimately Protesty failed to make significant change, but it did go down in the company’s history as the first organized protest.
Seeking Etsy Alternatives Through Diversification
It was actually not Protesty or even the dubious and evolving definition of ‘handmade’ that first caused our shop to look for alternatives to Etsy, but the way that Etsy handled the EcologicaMalibu crisis: they censored angry seller posts from the forums, took down protest treasuries, and worked behind the scenes with the woman to change her story to make it appear to meet their policies, while insisting in public that no mistakes had been made.
Etsy had outed itself: this was not the kind of company that took sellers’ best interests to heart. They didn’t take seller feedback, admit they were wrong, or fix their mistakes. In hindsight, that was a critical fork in the road: that was when Etsy started taking the side of more sales over handmade curation.
We were worried. All of our eggs were in Etsy’s basket: all our product sales were on Etsy, and our handmade business was now our full-time job as a couple. Sales were always up-and-down: that’s the nature of the business. But if Etsy mis-managed their platform, and our sales went down, and down, and down again (which is what they eventually did), we had no back-up plan, no secondary source of income to pay our bills.
We needed more reassurance, and since we couldn’t get it from Etsy, we would have to get it ourselves through diversification, by selling our products in more than one place. As furniture makers know, a stool with three legs is the most stable.
Over the next 10 messy years, we would try many alternatives to Etsy with varying degrees of success: our own website, Amazon and Amazon Handmade, dropshipping sites, eBay, and more, which we’ll each discuss in turn in the next posts.
Skill Share Series
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