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Handy Work

Online handcrafts network Etsy is more successful than its founders ever dreamed. But with armies of knitters, crocheters and beaders-not to mention buyers-flocking to the site, it faces a new challenge: maintaining its homey appeal.

Author Layla Schlack Illustration Lizzie Finn

THE INAUGURAL MONDAY Craft Night in Etsy’s new office has a summer camp feel: Women (and one man, the very enthusiastic Benjamin) pick up cookies to snack on, recipe cards, markers and decorative floral paper. This week’s project is to share recipes and package them into gift-worthy collections.

It’s full of incongruities, this scene-rustic wood tables under industrial fluorescent lights, young, mohawked women with lip piercings sharing chai tea recipes with matrons in silk scarves. Those kinds of contradictions are what define Etsy, the preeminent online marketplace for handmade goods. It’s the quilting bee gone digital, as well as the top place online to purchase a hand-knit jester toy for a new arrival or a necklace with a clay zombie head for, well, whomever. On the site, darkly humorous prints are as easy to come by as felted tea cozies.

With tonight’s event, Etsy is attempting to reconcile perhaps its most thorny contradiction: How does a website with a quarter of a million sellers hawking more than four million items maintain its cuddly ambience? “We have a deeply ingrained set of values, and we’re working hard to make sure those values aren’t lost,” says Matt Stinchcomb, Etsy’s VP of community.

Etsy was founded in 2005 by a 25-year-old painter/carpenter/ photographer named Rob Kalin. His goal was to make a space where he and his creatively inclined friends could sell their wares, free from the commercial goods on eBay and the taint of Craigslist trolls. “We were just in the right place at the right time,” says Stinchcomb, who helped with some initial coding and word-of-mouth marketing, and within a year of Etsy’s launch, left his full-time job as vocalist and guitarist for a rock band, the French Kicks, to become the site’s marketing director. “The fact that Rob hired me to do marketing should tell you something about how we got started,” he says with a laugh.

Kalin used duct tape on the floor of his Brooklyn, New York, apartment to map out how the site would look. Within three months, Etsy was up and running. “We never thought it would get so big,” Stinchcomb says. “We never had a business plan or a business model. We never had projected growth.”

No one would have believed them anyway, given the site’s extraordinary success, which has only been enhanced by the economic downturn. “As the recession set in, Etsy grew,” says Elissa Minor Rust, of Etsy Stalker, an independent website devoted to combing Etsy’s offerings. “It went from a wonderful little niche for handmade lovers to an enormous marketplace so big that it’s almost overwhelming.”

In recent years, the site seems to have benefited from a few key factors, not least among them, the growing digital-age yearning for simple tangible experiences. People are looking for comfort in things they can do and touch. “We’re all stuck behind computers,” Stinchcomb says. “The tactile factor is really important.”

Then, of course, there’s the matter of price. “People are seeing real value in buying handmade items directly from independent sellers,” says Minor. For instance, Kristy Reichert makes wooden bookmarks out of leftovers from her husband’s cabinetry business, stamps them with letters or designs, and sells them for $7. Her business partner Kristen Couse makes table linens by printing on vintage fabrics; a set of her “Tina the Llama” napkins costs $20.

Finally, of course, there’s the incredible influx of sellers-many of whom are former office workers who’ve been downsized and are finding in Etsy a way to start new careers. Etsy makes it easy. Instead of opening a brickand- mortar store or hunting for retail partners, Etsy sellers design their own websites free, paying a 20-cent-per-item listing fee. The company also takes 3.5 percent of each sale, and sells prime showcase spots for $7 to $15. “It was the easiest and best way for me to start my business,” Couse says. “It allowed me to set up shop for free, without having to put together my own web store, and it came with a built-in audience.”

For many participants, the site comes with built-in friendships as well. “It’s a great way to meet people,” says Couse. Minor agrees. “The community that has grown out of Etsy is amazing,” she says. “Etsians are a very dedicated group of people-dedicated to their art and dedicated to supporting one another. Every day in the forums, you’ll see sellers giving pointers to each other about how to take better photographs or market their products.”

Says Stinchcomb, “I think the community is really what differentiates us from other sites.”

Still, as the site has grown, that familial atmosphere has become tougher to maintain, which is why the company has begun working to foster the communal vibe. In addition to the forums, Etsy has introduced “teams”- virtual kaffeeklatsches, organized by location or type of craft-whose members give each other advice and sometimes attend craft fairs together. That is how Reichert and Couse met, as members of the New New Team. And of course there are events like the weekly craft night in Brooklyn (more are planned for other locales).

There have been growing pains. Some buyers have reported frustration at not getting their orders on time, and a small number of sellers have complained about a lack of support from the Etsy team. “We had a lot of technical problems that had to do with the sheer volume,” Stinchcomb concedes. “We never thought it would get so big!” More tech support has been brought on, and Stinchcomb has started a community council to give members a voice.

As for the future, Stinchcomb thinks there might be some room to expand into other areas. “We’re only touching the surface of what handmade art is,” he says. “High-end art, furniture, clothing, music, film-those are all handmade. It depends on who’s making it and how. To me, computer code is handmade.”

Maybe so. But what would Grandma say?

Hemispheres associate editor LAYLA SCHLACK has to finish the sweater she’s knitting before she even looks at Etsy.

SEW BIG

As Etsy grows, some crafters are departing for smaller competitors.

ARTFIRE

ArtFire lets sellers participate in site development and has a marketplace for buyers looking for custom work.

WINKELF

Started by an Etsian, this site allows some nonhandmade items to be sold and also provides a bartering feature.

DA WANDA

Etsy’s biggest competitor, this German company’s ratings system allows buyers to “heart” items they like.

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