Indie craft was fueled by this radical idea that we could take traditional craft skills and reclaim them for our own time. We could infuse new life into traditional ‘women’s work,’ bringing it into a modern context, making it relevant to our lives now. Indie craft fairs were places to share this vision with a wider audience, introducing them to a new aesthetic and new ideals. This was a movement that came up through the underground music scene and through zines before there were blogs. It was a new way of living, an enthusiastic energy for making things by hand.
Etsy was born from that energy. Founder Rob Kalin’s envisioned indie crafters as the fish in the 1963 children’s book, Swimmy, teaming up to defeat the large predator of mainstream commerce by setting up Etsy shops. “So our vision is to be the eye — to be a kind of organizing principle,” Kalin wrote in an Etsy blog post in 2008. “We do not want Etsy itself to be a big tuna fish. Those tuna are the big companies that all us small businesses are teaming up against.”
Still, the company had just accepted a round of venture capital and Kalin could see where it was all headed. “Our goal is for Etsy to be an independent, publicly traded company, focused on all things handmade,” he wrote then.
And so, ten years later, here we are. Etsy had been a public company now for more than two years. A management shakeup in May set a clear mandate: grow. This marketplace needs to generate as many sales as possible, as quickly as possible. Since May there have been 350 “product enhancements” towards that end including best-seller and scarcity badges, sorting functions that allow buyers to see which items are on sale and ready to ship, and the ability to put a shop on sale and offer free shipping, among many others.
It seems to be working. In the fourth quarter of 2017 $1 billion worth of merchandise sold on Etsy, a record amount.
When I opened my Etsy shop in July of 2005 there was no e-commerce alternative. Selling online was still new, and still hard, and Etsy felt like a godsend. Of course, things have changed since then, and I would argue that Etsy’s roll in the craft movement has changed, too.
Mainly, we’re no longer reliant. It’s best practice today to have your own e-commerce site for your business and there’s a myriad of solid options that are easy, affordable, and trustworthy. And yet, many crafters keep their Etsy shops open, too. Etsy is just a single piece of a much larger puzzle of making a living in craft.
For Etsy’s C-Suite, board, and investors, the company is a marketplace like Wayfair, or eBay, only different in that Etsy has 50 million “special” things. These things aren’t just commodities (a cup, a t-shirt, a hat), they’re special (a hand-thrown cup, an embroidered t-shirt, a crocheted hat) and, as CEO Josh Silverman told Bloomberg on Wednesday, “in a sea of sameness, where people are buying the same commoditized products from the same brands, the world needs Etsy more than ever.”
But is that really Etsy’s value proposition? Specialness? It’s certainly not the value proposition of indie craft, a movement that would poke fun of buzzwords like ‘value proposition’.
Etsy’s laser focus on increasing sales and coaxing sellers into paying for promoted listings (and there will be more types of promotions for sellers to pay for this year, mark my word), is reshaping the site’s identity, and perhaps even the zeitgeist of ‘craft’ in our culture. What happened to Swimmy?
On the other hand, just as reclaiming craft was a radical indie notion, maybe making a real profit as a crafter is one, too. Etsy is a massive tech company that has propelled craft into the public eye, and pocketbook, for 13 years. Now that we’re on Wall Street, shareholders demand an even faster rate of propulsion, and in the process, we’re getting a better understanding of what makes the average person choose to buy something handmade when they could just order a commodity on Amazon Prime. Apparently, that choice is based on the need for something ‘special.’
Still, I think the company needs to take a minute to look at what makes Etsy special in a seller’s eye. Money is certainly a part of it, but I also think sellers want an acknowledgment of our humanity, of our skill and dedication. We are not nameless, faceless machines churning out ‘special’ at an ever-increasing pace in order to line shareholders’ pockets. We came to craft because we value the act of making something by hand. We came to Etsy in order to share that radical notion with consumers who value it, too. We are the core and growth isn’t our only mandate.