• GRACE DOBUSH 02.19.15
      1:00 PM



    Grace Dobush is a freelance journalist in Cincinnati, where she writes about design, tech, politics and culture. She also organizes an indie craft show and wrote the Crafty Superstar craft business guides. Follow her @gracedobushtogo.



     Larry Washburn/Getty Images

    I SHUT DOWN my Etsy store in November.

    I’d been a seller since April 2006, less than a year after Etsy first went into beta. I was in my first job out of journalism school, and making cards and journals was a creative outlet and a way for me to score some extra money. I’d been selling stuff on the side at craft shows for a few years at that point, part of a larger wave of modern crafters who met online and inspired each other to start businesses.

    Etsy debuted at just the right time: Indie craft shows had started popping up around the U.S. in the early 2000s, but running your own online store was a complicated task. (My “store” at the time encouraged buyers to mail me money orders.) Most of the people who joined Etsy in those first few years were like me—independent crafters who were already at least somewhat established IRL—and the quality of the goods on the site was generally high.

    Things have changed in the past decade: Indie craft has grown from a close-knit subculture to a giant economy that influences trends in big box stores. And Etsy has grown from a startup built by crafters and for crafters to a juggernaut on the verge of an IPO. The most recent success story of a mom making a million dollars a year isn’t what it seems. In practical terms, scaling the handmade economy is an impossibility. So while Etsy maintains a hipster façade, they lost their indie cred years ago.

    I have to acknowledge this: Modern craft would not be as hot as it is without Etsy or something like it. Like book authors who hate Amazon’s policies, crafters who hate Etsy find it hard to leave because of the site’s immense traffic and generally positive public reputation. Just before the Christmas rush, I finally put my money where my mouth is and shut down my shop. My reasons for leaving the site aren’t unique, even though casual shoppers and potential investors have no idea of the drama going on behind the scenes. Here’s my beef with Etsy.

    A Bigger Market Isn’t a Better Market

    There are more than 30 million items listed on Etsy right now. That popularity is, of course, great for Etsy. But new hobbyist sellers, desperate for clicks, often price their products so low as to make real profit an impossible dream.

    And that popularity isn’t good for shoppers, who have to wade through pages of crap to find what they’re looking for. Searching for “mermaid” in the wedding gown category of Etsy returns 1,299 results, ranging from a $6,882 gown made by Project Runway’s Leanne Marshall to dresses for less than $200, one purportedly handmade lace dress going for $65. (For those who aren’t up to date on their fabric prices, the materials to make a wedding dress alone would cost at least $65.) A friend and I recently discovered we both always sort results by highest price when we’re searching on Etsy to see only the serious sellers. What other e-commerce sites can say the same?

    Etsy needs casual crafters to keep paying the 20-cent listing fees and, if any of the items sell, the 3.5 percent transaction fees and any additional payment processing fees. (See “She’s Making Jewelry Now.”) Etsy doesn’t disclose its finances, but it facilitated $1.35 billion in sales in 2013, which adds up to more than $47 million in transaction fees, not counting listing or payment processing fees.

    Resellers Are Rampant

    That Etsy began allowing manufacturing partners in 2013 underscored the reseller issue that has plagued the site for years. The Marketplace Integrity, Trust & Safety team—which has the unenviable task of policing sellers for adherence to Etsy rules—is unable or unwilling to weed out sellers of mass-manufactured goods. And having sellers who are able to move nearly a million dollars of product a year is great for Etsy’s bottom line.

    Sellers have been dissatisfied with Etsy’s policing of mass-manufactured items posing as handmade for a long time, but the site hasn’t seemed receptive to their concerns. An Etsy staffer I met a few years ago dismissed sellers’ questions about Chinese resellers as “kind of racist.” The snark site Regretsy (RIP) was one of the few big gathering places where sellers and shoppers could voice their frustrations with the marketplace. Any kind of “calling out” of accused resellers or bad businesspeople on Etsy’s forums is usually acknowledged by an admin shutting down the thread with “I’m going to close this up now.”

    Etsy Has Homogenized Indie Craft

    From the beginning, Etsy has pushed the “quit your day job” storyline. The fact is, the majority of the people selling on Etsy aren’t running their businesses full-time, and the idea of quitting your day job is a manic pixie fever dream. If you want to make it big on Etsy, you don’t necessarily want to make things that fulfill your creative dreams; you just want it to get onto the front page and sell like hand-felted hotcakes.

    The Etsy effect on craft trends is striking. At the San Francisco edition of the Renegade Craft Fair in November, I was struck at how most things look like the homepage of Etsy, pinnable, pretty things. (See “Put A Bird On It.”) It’s so incredibly boring. How many pieces of geometric jewelry with a pop of color can the earth bear? Will we ever see hand-drawn logos without antlers and arrows? How much barn wood must we salvage to atone for our crafty sins?

    Successful Businesses Leave Etsy

    The biggest secret is this: Makers who have what it takes to succeed—good product, a good marketing plan, a pricing structure that compensates everyone in their supply chain fairly—don’t really need Etsy for long.

    Etsy is the fifth most-visited marketplace site in the U.S., after Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Best Buy. But for that visibility, sellers have little autonomy in the store’s design, and are subject to the site’s rules, fees and design. A customer complaint can freeze your payment account. An accusation of copyright violation can freeze your store or shut it down entirely.

    For a full-time crafter, that’s too much of a risk. Successful makers of a certain size eventually move to e-commerce platforms that give them much more flexibility and control for fewer fees. If you’re working in high volume or high price points, using a customizable ecommerce platform such as Big Cartel or Shopify massively reduces your fee obligation, as I outlined in a comparison chart.

    I see the recent policy changes Etsy has made—allowing third-party manufacturing partners, entering the wholesale space—as last-ditch efforts to keep super-successful sellers using the site. But successful handmade businesspeople weren’t waiting for permission from Etsy to hire help or get into wholesaling. They grew out of the site and took their wares elsewhere.

    The David Has Turned Into Goliath

    At its outset, Etsy was a powerful tool for makers, by makers. We were a bunch of Davids, fighting back against the big-box Goliaths with artisanal slingshots. Founder Rob Kalin came up through the same online craft forums that me and my crafty cohorts did, and we were making a revolution.

    In the past few years it’s become apparent that Etsy is the Goliath. Indie craft’s whole purpose from the outset was to meet your makers and consume conscientiously. Now, when you ask your friend where they got that cool “Weekend at Bernies” cross stitch sampler, they’ll tell you, “I bought it from Etsy”—the maker’s identity is secondary, if noted at all.

    I’m not pessimistic about handmade culture at large: Maker culture is thriving independently of Etsy, and it’s easier than ever for crafters to run independent online stores. I prefer to sell my wares (and buy my presents) at local indie craft markets and in curated bricks-and-mortar shops that reflect the flavor of their communities and encourage real relationships between makers and buyers.

    The bottom line is this: Etsy needs crafters more than crafters need Etsy.