Etsy and the Return of the Small Merchant

I grew up in a factory town, a community of craftsman.  At 15, my grandfather watched as they built the factory where he would work for fifty years.  On the day it opened he got a job working on the assembly line.  At its peak, it employed 10,000 people.

During that time, the town grew and merchants prospered.  But as production at the factories slowed and the work moved overseas, the merchants began to feel the impact, and when the big box retailers rolled in, it killed them.  By my teens, the new reality was high unemployment, vacant storefronts, and the once thriving downtown shopping area was now a ghost town.

Started in Brooklyn in 2005, Etsy was the idea of Robert Kalin, Chris Maguire, and Haim Schoppik, who modeled it after open craft fairs.  In an article in Wired magazine writer Rob Walker described Kalin’s vision as “a cultural movement that could revive the power and voice of the individual against the depersonalized landscape of big box retail.”

The site was originally designed to be an e-commerce platform for handmade items, on the belief that hand crafted items had “an intrinsic value” that should be given a forum outside of traditional retail.  Etsy has since modified its policies to include designers of goods, and curators of vintage goods (20 years or older).

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Example Vintage Shop – Forever Fashionable

It provides users (shop owners) a virtual storefront on the internet for a small fee of $0.20 per listed item.  Providing global scale for small shop owners who design, build, or curate items such as art, jewelry and other handcrafted items.

Unlike the Fancy or Ebay, Etsy puts the focus on their shop owners, which now number 800,000.  Visitors can read shop owner’s profiles, follow them, and see the items and shops they favor.  Perhaps most interesting is the video series Etsy has created to tell the stories of it craftsman and curators, celebrating their passions, interest and ambitions.

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Example Shop Owner Video

Etsy now enters an interesting time in its rapid rise.  In order to scale to the next level, it must wrestle with the challenge that handmade items also come with production limitations.   As the site tries to stay true to its founding vision of handcrafted items, it has loosened the rules to allowing for the option of “remote employees.”

It now acknowledges that not every designer actually has the desire and/or capability to build what he or she designs, permitting production to be outsourced to someone else.

Perhaps the most shocking change is that Etsy is piloting integrating into mainstream retail through an arrangement with West Elm (owned by Williams Sonoma) that would bring Etsy merchant’s products to the shelves of the nationwide chain.

For now, Etsy won’t put big box retailers out of business any time soon, but given the current state of retail it may be an evolution that is much needed.  With the evolution of ecommerce and the rise of big box retailers also came the coldness of impersonal transactions.

Etsy offers its 25 million members the opportunity to develop a relationship with shop owners, to become an admirer of their work and/or appreciate their eye for style.   A chance to do business on a personal level again, with someone they know, and/or share a similar interest or passion.

And as a result, it changes the buying experience from one of procuring an item because of the functionality or utility, to one of investing in the uniqueness of the idea that originated it, and in the skill of the craftsman that produced it.

Etsy offers all the things you loved about doing business with a small proprietor or craftsman in your local community without the geographic limitations.  It’s an opportunity to reconnect to humanity and to the small merchants that built the downtown you knew as a kid.

Why Do People Run?

Why do we do it?   No one is forcing us.  As Christopher McDougall points out in his brilliant book, Born to Run, we no longer need to chase down our food.  So why do we do something physically and mentally challenging, and occasionally painful, if we don’t have to. Why not just take it easy?


This was the conversation inside my head early this weekend before the Cherry Blossum 10 Mile run in the Nation’s Capital.  In fact, it’s the same conversation I have before any race.  Why would anyone in their right mind stress themselves out for a week and get out of bed at 5:30 am on a weekend to run.

I spent the first 2-3 miles of the race observing people trying to answer that question.   From what I saw, some folks run to challenge themselves, some run for others, like the a guy in a yellow kilt running for fallen combat soldiers, the woman with a picture of her deceased cat on her shirt, and of course, the group of sickos who do it because they actually enjoy it.

Me? Well, I’m another story.  It’s taken me many years, several races, and 10 miles this weekend to figure it out.   The truth is, I hate to run.  It’s a means to an end. I like to race, but I hate to run.  It’s a legacy of growing up playing sports, where running was a “have to” and not a “want to.”

Up until my 40th birthday, I had successfully avoided running, while slowly turning myself into a “fat and happy” sedimentary “couch” potato.  That was until a colleague of mine issued the challenge of doing a sprint triathlon as a way for us to celebrate our 40th birthday (thank you Patrick).

Since that time, I train regularly and do various types of endurance races.  Along the way, I dropped the 25 lb. bag of potatoes.   I’ve gotten into a routine of training, but I hadn’t totally figured out why I continue to do races until this weekend.  Alone with my thoughts for the next hour and half or so, I committed to figuring it out.

I know that I need to pick events that give purpose to my training routine.  But the epiphany came at mile 5 when I realized that I think I actually like to scare myself to remind me not to become complicit and/or too comfortable again.  My approach is to pick events I’ve never done, and to usually do them alone, because it heightens the fear factor.

The days and night before the race is spent stressing myself out about the course layout, logistics, and perhaps, most importantly, the locations of bathrooms.  But along with the fear and the stress, I know there is also the heightened sense of accomplishment.

By mile 9, I realized that this habit had spilled over to my work life.  I left a comfortable position three years ago to enter a new industry, and to start a new business with gyro.  I “had it good,” but I decided shake things up, I had become in a sense “fat and happy” in my career.

Like training, we can easily fall into the “habit” of just going to work everyday.  In fact, some probably dislike it as much as I dislike running.   And I wonder if that might be because our work life sometimes lacks that “event” to give it purpose.  It’s easy to fall into a routine and become comfortable.  Life itself can be complicated, so why make it more difficult?

Perhaps a big, fat scary goal is what is needed give greater meaning to our work, and to reenergize us.  With that fear of the unknown, and/or the unaccomplished, also comes the reminder of what it is to be alive.

Yes, it can be painful and uncomfortable, like how my lower back and calves feel as I write this, but you may also be pleasantly surprised.  A sense of accomplishment can fuel the need to set bigger, more challenging ways to push yourself, becoming a habit.  So, if you get a chance to be alone with your thoughts, ask yourself “why do you run?”