How We Built Our Own Website as an Alternative to Etsy
This article is a guest post for our Skill Share series from artisan Lee of Riverside Refuge Studio, an eclectic shop of queer crafts.
It was 2012. After the Protesty failure and research looking for similar Etsy marketplaces (there were none), we realized the first alternative to Etsy should be our own website. This was much more work than finding another marketplace, but if we could make it work, it would be a stable foundation for our business.
Plus, the content on our website would help promote and improve our sales everywhere, even on Etsy. One of the problems we’d realized with Etsy early-on (as with all marketplaces) is that we were limited to what kind of content we could put on the site. We sold complicated and unique products that required installation videos, fit guides, FAQs, and lots of additional information, none of which was available in the highly-structured data environment of a marketplace listing. In a typical marketplace listing, you can only provide a few pieces of information: 5-10 photos, a name, a description, and a price.
On our own website, we would control the content. We knew we could make a better buying experience for our customers, which would lead to less after-purchase time spent on customer service.
Finding a Website Provider
It wasn’t as easy to build a website in 2012 as it is today, and we had a few false starts: first, we tried to create a website using a start-up service called CraftLaunch that basically turned our Etsy listings into a website with our own domain (this was before Etsy offered its own service for this called Pattern). We quickly realized that a) the site was ugly, and b) this was not an alternative to Etsy, it was just an extension of Etsy, which didn’t meet our diversification goals. It was not a total waste of time, however, because we got our first experience thinking about what we wanted to put on a website, like a practice run.
Next, we tried to first hire a friend’s girlfriend who was a coder to build us a custom website. She gave us a quote for a couple thousand dollars and a long contract to sign. We asked Valerie’s brother, who designed our logo for us and was more tech-savvy, to look at the contract. He called us quickly and told us to run, not walk, away: that we could lose ownership over our own content and even our logo, and that any changes to any content on the website (even fixing a typo) would require us re-hiring her to make the changes. There’s an easier way, he said, with new “CMS” (Content Management System) websites.
We’re so glad we took his advice. With a CMS, we could design the website and change the content ourselves on a moment’s notice using a web-based program with a user-friendly backend and no coding.
Since the purpose of making our own Etsy alternative was to provide a shopping experience, we narrowed our search to CMS products that specialized in e-commerce. There are more generalist website CMS products that can add-on a shopping module like Squarespace or Wix, but in our opinion it was more important to have a fast and reliable shopping and checkout experience for the customer, not just a website.
After a search in 2012, we settled on Shopify and we’ve been happy with Shopify for the past 10+ years. It wasn’t the cheapest option but their product is one that has grown with us, saving countless headaches. It wasn’t easy moving our content from CraftLaunch to Shopify, and we weren’t eager to repeat the experience in a year or two.
Shopify’s roots are in supporting entrepreneurs and start-ups but their products have grown and adapted along with the face of online entrepreneurship. They’ve focused on making the best, fastest checkout process in the business and they keep making upgrades to help our business stay relevant, even off-website, such as plugging in “channels” like Facebook and Instagram Shopping. When we’ve needed new functionality, we could either upgrade to a better plan or add-on a 3rd party “app.” (Although we’ve been happy with Shopify, there are other choices now with similar offerings, like Magento and BigCommerce).
We cannot understate how important that choice was, looking back on it: being able to grow with us over time has been critical time and time again. Picking up and moving our website to a different provider would be a huge and expensive undertaking now.
Although it was more work upfront, we’re glad we were able to DIY the website ourselves, rather than relying on someone else. Because we built it and understand how it works, we know what it can – and cannot – do. That gives us more ideas for marketing and more control over our own destiny. We’ve redesigned it four times over the last ten years.
However, we were also fortunate to begin back when things were simpler. It certainly took time and dedication to learn and a spirit of patience and curiosity, but it’s become a really valuable skill.
Marketing Your Own Website
Starting your own website is not like adding your products to a marketplace: a marketplace has a base of customers already searching the website for products. On a marketplace, your products automatically show up in their search results of thousands (or millions) of shoppers as soon as you’ve registered them, both in-marketplace search and on search engines like Google.
On your new website, at first, you are just a new star in a galaxy, unnoticed and unknown to search engines or customers, with no reputation and no search ranking. You have added a new address to the world, and you have to somehow tell people who are searching for your products that they are at this new address, and that once they come there, you won’t let them down.
Designing and building the website was a lot of work, and it is a work that never ends, as you are constantly updating and upgrading it. But communicating your website’s existence, and attracting customers to your new website will become a much bigger part of that work. There are many, many articles and experts who already post on this topic, but we’ll just briefly share what worked for us:
- pointing all of your official contact information and promotional activity to your website rather than a marketplace,
- starting an email list with regular newsletters (quarterly at first, now monthly),
- writing monthly blog posts (using your website’s domain) filled with genuinely interesting content that happen to make use of good SEO keywords, and
- making every effort to get a link to your website on genuinely legit and diverse websites, such as other blogs, media/press/PR articles, partnerships with other crafters/makers, mapping systems and review consolidators like Google Maps, fundraiser donors on .org sites, and business registries on .gov sites.
The bottom line we’ve learned from building our website over 10 years, is that you can’t “trick” or “shortcut” your way into a genuinely strong and durable website. Don’t overthink it: just keep telling people honestly about the work that you genuinely love doing, and with time the traffic will grow.
Website Dominates as Complexities Grow
In hindsight, it’s surprising that it took only about 2 years for our website sales to roughly equal our Etsy sales. It took 3-4 years for the majority of sales to flip from Etsy to our website, and 5-6 years for the percentage to settle into a predictable pattern that let us feel like we were in a comfortable place, with genuine income diversity, along with other alternatives for more diversity (more on that in our next post).
We can’t speak for all Etsy sellers, and some have certainly done better than others — but we’ve seen a significant drop in Etsy sales the past couple years. There was a bump during COVID lockdown and since then it’s been on the downslide. Etsy has been diluting its brand as a truthworthy handmade marketplace, and there is simply too much competition on the platform now, much of it unfair (non-handmade dropshippers and re-sellers).
In 2019, we also raised our prices on Etsy, keeping our website prices the same, due to increasing fees, which may have pushed resourceful shoppers to our website instead. In 2023, Etsy is planning on narrowing its marketing focus on particular categories of products, which will likely pick more winners and losers.
By now in 2023, with the benefit of 10 years of sales data, we can see that we’re actually in a similar place we were in 2012: lacking diversity. Etsy sales have dropped to below 25% of our total. Now the vast majority of our sales come from our website instead of Etsy. Other marketplaces were unsuccessful. This is worrisome: we believe there is strength in diversity.
What this graph doesn’t show is that although Etsy’s share of our gross revenues have ranged between 22% and 35% of total sales the past few years, net revenue has decreased as their fees have increased. Etsy is keeping more and more of our sales. Meanwhile, the fees on our own website are low, fixed, and predictable.
A website that is the majority of our sales might sound like something to celebrate. However, as we look into the future, we see that it’s getting harder and harder to run a website. The regulatory environment and the technological know-how for running a website is becoming more complex every year.
Nowadays you really must use a CMS e-commerce specialty website like Shopify because of the constantly-changing risk, tax, and regulatory environment. In the past few years, we’ve had to deal with secure payment processing with fraud protection, mandatory privacy law notifications, the CAN-SPAM Act, “Amazon” sales tax laws both state-by-state and internationally, a new German packaging registry (Verpackungsregister), and the risk of accessibility lawsuits. These issues are conquerable, but they are taking more and more time to resolve.
We worry that as successful sellers flee Big Tech / Wall St marketplaces, marketplaces will be looking to keep their monopoly by making it harder for start-up websites. If they can’t (or won’t) improve their product, they’ll try to limit our options instead. Through lobbying and consortiums, they’ll make running a website so risky and expensive that it becomes unachievable for micro businesses like ours. That seems to be the trend, whether intentional or not. In another five years, it may very well be too difficult and too expensive to run our own website as we have the last ten.
Once again, we are back where we were 10 years ago: we need a new alternative to Etsy.
Where else could we go that would have the same kind of customer base? Well obviously, we thought of Amazon first, which is what we’ll discuss in our next post.
Skill Share Series
This series of guest posts support artisans with skills and tips from experienced artisans and outside experts. Do you have a skill or knowledge to share? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
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