In my last years of high school, I made hand-painted cards and t-shirts to sell at the local craft fair. When I got to art school, I found I could support myself by selling t-shirts on my residence floor. Painted one at a time on my bed with supplies I’d brought from home, it was the most unsophisticated moneymaking scheme I could think of to pay for paint. While other students worked at the copy center or the college pub, I sat in my room with my t-shirts and eked out what my dad called, “the gift of poverty.” It was enough to get by and, like original art, impossible to scale.
Fifteen years later, a 26-year-old website designer named Rob Kalin invented an online marketplace called Etsy in his Brooklyn walk-up. The idea was to build on the modern craft fairs popping up in art hubs like Brooklyn, Portland and Austin. To makers, it felt empowering, progressive, entrepreneurial and fulfilling — promising homemade financial independence — especially for those new to or on the margins of the workforce looking to create a work-life balance or just hoping to stick it to the man. They called it “The Artisan Economy,” and everybody got ready to quit their day job.
At its peak, Etsy clocked over 1.4 million active sellers from 150 countries and remains the fifth most-visited online marketplace in the U.S. after Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Best Buy. But with such formidable reach, it’s been tricky to stick to a mission of showcasing quality hand-mades. Manufacturers, resellers and dilettantes were quick to hijack the wave, polluting Etsy into an un-navigable superstore of crap. And with 20 cents taken for each item listed, plus a 3.5 percent transaction fee and additional processing fees, Etsy was poised to earn squillions. The values of excellence and specialness suffered. By 2013, annual Etsy sales topped $3.5 billion — that’s $47 million in transaction fees alone — while the average price of an individual item sold was $20.
Currently, over 30 million items are for sale on Etsy, with many now having taken on a kind of likeness. The aesthetic, as you may have noticed, has leaked into the mainstream via big box stores and retail chains. Copyright infringement and plagiarism claims have had trouble getting traction with such a wide and ubiquitous look. The result has been that most of the talented and original craftspeople have moved on — online and otherwise. Of course, exceptions of quality and uniqueness, skill and ingenuity are still cutting through there, though the artists’ names remain anecdotal. Admirers default to, “I found it on Etsy.”
PS: “My goal was to empower people to make a living making things.” (Rob Kalin, who no longer works at, or is listed among Etsy’s top shareholders.)
Esoterica: Art and craft remain boutique businesses, where special people find special things and are guided by a special environment to confirm their special choice. Original, handmade work is un-scalable by design. This is what makes it precious and covetable. Even so, Internet anecdotes about six-figure-earning Etsy Moms have inspired modern artisans to give the superstore a go, and many now enjoy a supplemental income and flexible, creative lives. I say “Moms” because 86 percent of Etsy sellers are women — in contrast to 29 percent of all small business owners — and one-third report that Etsy is their sole source of income, having formerly been homemakers. It’s also worth noting that less than one percent of sellers take a loan to start an online shop — a trend that supports real-world data: Women are less likely to start a business with outside financing, launching with about 64 percent of the capital of male-owned start-ups. For artists in general, they remain in it for the happiness. Two-thirds of Etsy sellers say it’s more important than money.
Illustrated in this letter are some of what we feel to be the best of Etsy paintings.
Share the Love.
If you find these letters beneficial, please share and encourage your friends to subscribe. The Painter’s Keys is published primarily by a team of volunteers, with a goal to reach as many creative people as possible. Thanks for your friendship. Subscribe here!
“Whatever you are, try to be a good one.” (Abraham Lincoln)