Countless crafters dream of quitting their day jobs to join the thousands of creative entrepreneurs at Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods. However, those who have dipped their toes in the Etsy waters can tell you that running a successful online store takes lots of time, sweat, business smarts and support. Here, three Etsy superstars, who now make a living selling their handmade items on the site, share their secrets on how to pull ahead of the artistic pack.
Name: Amber Glenn
Family: Live-in boyfriend
Etsy store: Cyanide Stiches, which sells quirky, colorful housewares, such as hand towels embroidered with the words “Put the seat down” and coffee mugs labeled “Dame” and “Fella.”
Most recent day job: Working seven days a week as a credit counselor and a sales clerk at Kmart.
Launched store: August 2009
When and why she quit her day job: August 2009. Glenn saved up enough money to live for a year before relocating from Spokane, Washington, to Denver, Colorado. “I had crappy jobs before I moved,” Glenn says, “and I didn’t want to go back to that. I told myself, ‘If I can just make it on Etsy, I don’t have to go back to Kmart.’”
How she pulled ahead of the pack: The first few months were very slow, so Glenn started to analyze her product descriptions and photos. “They looked awful, so I tweaked them, and business picked up,” she says. “Pictures can make or break your store.” Glenn continued to seek out critiques from friends, family and fellow Etsy retailers through the site’s forums to get feedback on her store.
Glenn is also ruthless about getting rid of products that aren’t selling well. “It can be really difficult if there is something you love, but no one is buying it,” she says. “If I want to be successful, I have to listen to other people. It takes a lot of work to balance what you really want to do and work that sells.”
Views on money: She’s now making more money than at her previous day jobs but admits that living without biweekly payments and health insurance “can be a little nerve-racking.” Still, Glenn plans to soldier on. “All the money I earn, I make for myself—not some company. Plus, there is no limit to it. If I work a little more, I will see income growth, and I don’t have to share that.”
The future: Glenn dreams of moving back to Spokane and opening a brick-and-mortar shop featuring handmade items. She also considers expanding her product line to include clothing and hiring a few employees.
Name: Melanie Howe
City: Portland, Oregon
Family: Three cats (“I’m a crazy cat lady.”)
Most recent day job: Manager at Netflix
Launched store: September 2005
When and why she quit her day job: December 2010. Howe graduated from art school, but she always worried about money and stayed stuck in corporate jobs that weren’t a good fit. So she ran her Etsy shop on the side as a creative outlet, and when one of her notebooks was featured on the Martha Stewart website, in December 2009, business boomed. “I realized I had to make a decision as to whether I really needed the corporate job for the money or if I should follow my dreams,” Howe says. “Plus, the stress from my day job was making it hard for me to concentrate on my creative work. That was really the tipping point to follow my gut.”
How she pulled ahead of the pack: Early on, Howe tried in vain to follow Etsy trends: “If soap making was big, I’d try to do that. At one point, I had 10 different product lines. I had my hand in too many pots, and it really slowed down my success. When I paired my products down to just sketchbooks—which is what I really loved making—that’s when sales really took off. If you stay true to what you really love, it shines through.”
Views on money: Even though she can support herself, money has been a struggle for Howe, who says her previous, comfortable salary afforded her luxuries, such as cable and frequent restaurant meals and shopping trips—all of which have been reduced or eliminated. “While I’m earning more each month, my income is less,” she says, “but I find that I’m a lot happier in my work now, and I don’t need those luxuries to make myself happy.”
The future: Howe recently launched a second Etsy store, Rad Cat, which sells cat accessories and plush cat toys. She hopes to create a business plan soon. “If I had a roadmap in place, it would help me be more successful.”
Name: Allison Faunce
City: Fall River, Massachusetts
Family: Married, with two sons ages 6 and 6 months
Etsy store: Discovery Denim, a purveyor of handmade superhero capes and masks for kids
Most recent day job: A cobbled-together mix of part-time jobs teaching art to teenagers and disabled adults, and working on public art programs, such as a children’s mural project
Launched store: December 2007
When and why she quit her day job: July 2008. “My oldest son was born when I was in college,” Faunce says, “so I spent the first few years of his life running in and out the door to school and work and taking care of my family. I tend to be a very balanced and practical person, so as my business began to bring in more and more money each month, it became clear that my Etsy store, and my own site, LittleHeroCapes.com, made more fiscal sense—so that was a no-brainer. Plus, running around was blocking my creative juices. It made sense not to renew my teaching contracts.”
How she pulled ahead of the pack: Faunce, whose mother owned a fabric store when she was growing up, always understood that as a creative entrepreneur, you wear two hats: the artist and the businesswoman. On the businesswoman front, she understands she can’t know everything and participates in Score, an organization pairing new business owners with veteran business owners who provide free advice. She also hired an accountant. “I realized that I can’t rely completely on my strengths alone to run this business,” she says. “That was hard. A part of me wants to be superwoman and have control over everything.”
Faunce also believes that passion for your product is the best business tool. “A lot of people want to start an Etsy store so they can quit their corporate job,” she says. “You need to be running toward your passion—not running away from something. It can’t be fear-based.”
She also advocates setting your prices in line with both the work and love involved in creating your product—not to undercut the competition. “So many people on Etsy see Walmart as the competition,” she says. “You don’t want to undercut the price so much that you become your own sweatshop. You also don’t want to attract the wrong types of customers to Etsy. You have to break down the cost of your materials and time and feel good about the time you do spend on your business. People will feel that love.”
Views on money: Faunce is earning far more than her previous collection of part-time jobs combined. “It’s the best feeling in the world that there is no ceiling on what I can make,” she says. “I’m only limited to my own talents and resources.”
The future: “Some of my shorter-term goals are financial goals for my family,” Faunce says. “I am also working closely with Discovery Arts, which brings art, music and drama to hospitalized kids with cancer and serious blood disorders. Right now, we donate 10 percent of all sales, and people can also buy capes that are donated to those children.”