Philadelphia Inquirer July 29, 2007
One big, booming online crafts fair
By A.D. Amorosi
For The Inquirer
South Philadelphian Sara Selepouchin , an enthusiastic Etsy seller (girlscantell), offers a green bag.
What Etsy makes, the world takes.
Haven't heard of Etsy? That's about to change. Because Etsy.com, founded by three former New York University students, including Chris Maguire of Roxborough, has quickly become the go-to site for all things handmade, and all the communities that surround and support craft work.
Since its 2005 start, Etsy.com has become so popular that it has spawned apostles who have formed "street teams" in various cities. Etsyians, they're called. And what they've created online amounts to a virtual international craft fair - without the corn dogs:
Concertinapieces in North Bend, Ind., sells intricately woven acrylic yarn toys with names like "Vlad the Blood Orange" for $6. Jacquelineknits of Woodbridge, Ontario, hawks hand-knit, hot-pink apple jackets - to protect your fruit from bruising - for $7.
Katrinakaye of Amsterdam coolly combines vintage Scandinavian fabrics and army bags for $35 purses named "Skipper" and "Wedge."
Aquaenergydesigns of Santa Clara, Calif., makes Glycerin Exfoliation Body Bars for $3. Meanwhile, Keemo of Boston sells upscale jewelry of malachite, ruby and moonstone, with her priciest piece - a turquoise necklace - going for $950.
Unlike the staid online storefronts of industry behemoth eBay, Etsy sellers write funny asides or quirky stories to go with their items; they also share stories in Etsy's online forums. And the community recently received a "real world" boost with the opening of an Etsy interactive lab and teaching facility in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"We want to bring back some of the artisanal quality daily objects had back before the Industrial Revolution," said Maguire, 34. "There's something indescribably satisfying about knowing the person who made your T-shirt, or beaded your custom banjo strap."
It's a message that is catching on: While the site recorded sales of only $170,000 in its first year, by June 2007, its members had sold more than $1.7 million worth of merchandise. The site now has more than 325,000 registered users, 50,000 of them sellers.
"Our bandwidth and traffic became so huge at one point, we actually ran out of power - not enough electricity for Etsy," joked Matt Stinchcomb, 31, Etsy's marketing guy, who has been with the site since the beginning.
Etsy started as a collaboration between Maguire, then a senior at New York University, and recent grad Robert Kalin, a casual friend.
Maguire was studying video gaming, an individualized program he cobbled together through programming, art and animation classes. His interests had always been diverse: A 2000 Masterman graduate who spent his childhood in Feltonville, Maguire ushered at the Academy of Music, worked at the Camp at Oak Lane Day School, and played nerdy, folk-punky rock with the Revolving Dorks (a name he still uses as his Etsy handle).
Kalin, now 27, was looking for a programmer to help him with client-based Web design work, building software for social and business communication. The two worked on various New York projects that required both panache and manageability - a restaurant, a rare book dealer, an arts festival.
Then in September 2004, Maguire and Kalin redesigned Jean Railla's GetCrafty.com, a community Web site focused on the new wave of DIY-ers. Through that project, the duo discovered that many next-generation crafters felt ready to sell their wares, but had trouble finding a good online venue.
"When we started Etsy, we found it incredible that e-commerce had seen so few innovations since the early '90s," Maguire said. "The only real ways you could shop online had remained the same. . . . Our aim was to shake things up and show people that there are 'other' ways to shop online."
Maguire and Kalin brought in NYU's Haim Schoppik and Flash artist Jared Tarbell to create browsing tools unique to the site. It helped that all were crafters in their own right - Schoppik and Maguire build custom computers and make video game-pixel portraits of people, Kalin does carpentry, and Tarbell sold prints of algorithmically generated art
And where does the name Etsy come from? From the Latin for "and if." From a program Maguire and Haim wrote that spit out random phonetic four-letter URLs that were not yet owned by anyone. These are just a couple of the explanations that Etsy's founders playfully offer.
They decided to make Etsy more accessible and less expensive than eBay. Etsy charges listing fees of 20 cents and takes 3.5 percent of each sale; eBay has as many as 40 different fees, depending on what's being sold and how.
Etsy's founders also wanted to give the creative community a means of making a living doing what its members love to do, and of communicating with one another. The Etsy chat forums and live interactivity are the lifeblood of the site, according to Maguire.
"Giving the users ways to interact with us and one another - that's what keeps people here," he said. "Without the forums, chat rooms and conversations there wouldn't be a community, and we would have grown much more slowly, if at all."
The crafters appreciate that you don't have to be computer literate to have a beautiful store on Etsy. Once you have good photos of your work, you can set up shop in minutes.
"I don't have to hire a Web designer, don't have to pay for expensive software, don't have to commission a publicist," said Sue Eggen, 30, of Giant Dwarf. "I just pay a small fee and I get to do everything myself, with word of mouth by my side.
" 'Etsy Forever' will be my next tattoo."
Eggen heard about the site two years ago when she ran into Kalin handing out flyers at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. The Fishtown resident fashions items such as flapper cloche hats and mod glovelettes using recycled materials and found objects.
Because Etsy is a place to buy and sell all things handmade, Eggen feels someone interested in handcrafted materials is more likely to find her work there than in a vague search online.
Sara Selepouchin, 25, has become such an avid Etsy seller (girlscantell) that she's turned community organizer. If she hears of a new Philly Etsyian (there are roughly 345 sellers in the city and nearly 1,400 registered buyers), she invites the person to join the Philly Street Team to share ideas.
The silkscreener, who lives in South Philly, also travels to EtsyLabs several times a month to attend classes and workshops. She says being an active part of the Etsy community increases her sales. "Once they [people] know you, it's so much easier to justify buying from you."
Both Eggen and Selepouchin think Etsy has changed the craft market. While buying handmade has gained immense popularity and big businesses have tried to appropriate the art form, Etsy has stayed true to the DIY aesthetic and has always kept the artist first. At least that's what Eggen thinks.
"I believe without this community, the crafting revolution would not be where it is today," she said.
Even more mainstream designers are catching on. Although Philadelphia fashion designer Bela Shehu owns her own Center City clothing salon and sells online, she, too, thought she'd give Etsy a go. "I just heard of it not too long ago and set up a shop the other day," she said.
Maguire says he gauges the site's progress through the number of sales made in a day, and not the money.
"When the number jumps up, I know we're doing something right," he said. "More people are selling the stuff they've made with their own hands, and we're another step closer to granting more people the ability to quit their day jobs and do what they love."
Maguire himself will soon be off to Berkeley, Calif., to work on Etsy's West Coast offices and live with his girlfriend, Lara Roman, whom he's known since Masterman (she's getting her Ph.D. in urban forestry from the University of California at Berkeley).
His latest project will be a virtual Second Life craft bazaar - an extremely experimental, two-dimensional, real-time craft fair, where users stake out virtual plots, move around the fair, and buy items from other people's booths. He's also working on a way for Etsy users to post requests for custom work.
All these pluses and no minuses? No detractors? According to the Etsy forums and the rising registration rates, there seem to be none.
"Who doesn't like us?" asks Stinchcomb. "Sweatshop owners and Wal-Mart. But that's just a guess."