How to make money on Etsy

Tracie Howarth, an Etsy success story. Photo by Patrick Fagan.

Brooklyn's Tracie Howarth, an Etsy success story. Photo by Patrick Fagan.

Maybe you knit or throw pottery. Or make jewelry out of Phillips screw heads. Or crochet hamster huts (that makes three of you). Maybe all you ever wanted was to sell your handiwork and never work for anyone else, ever.

You may have heard that all you have to do is open your own shop on Etsy.com, the online marketplace that aims to provide artists with the technology they need to “make a living, making things.” You simply upload product shots, tack on prices, write cute captions, then wait for those millions of members to start placing orders.

It sounds perfect. And easy. But it’s not. More than 250,000 shops sell roughly 3.7 million items (and counting), with untold numbers of merchants making only a handful of sales, if that many. Though Etsy provides would-be sellers with myriad tips and tools for success, it’s tough to stand out in the crowd.

Etsy’s Brooklyn roots go way back to 2005, when the site—conceived by artist and carpenter Rob Kalin and built by Kalin, Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik—got its start in Fort Greene. Currently headquartered downtown, it will soon move to Dumbo.

Today, it attracts members from all over the U.S. and 150 other countries, and according to Etsy’s Adam Brown, the top-selling categories tend to be jewelry, art, accessories, clothing and crafting supplies for DIY-ers.

One of Brooklyn’s most successful Etsians, Tracie Howarth, sells jewelry-making supplies to other artists. Since joining Etsy in 2006, she’s generated over 24,000 supply sales through epochbeads.etsy.com and over 7,600 through thatsmycharm.etsy.com, and markets her unique designs on athd.etsy.com.

She lists over 600 items across the three Etsy shops and employs three staff—two to help at her booth on weekends in the Artists & Fleas market in Williamsburg and one in her Williamsburg studio to help with Etsy inventory and fulfillment. When asked if she sells full time, Howarth says, “I sell overtime.” She estimates that she grosses about $130,000, mostly from selling supplies, though due to significant expenses, nets $35,000. It’s enough to keep her in business for herself, the other passion that drives her.

Tracie Howarth's jewelry parts. Photo by Patrick Fagan.

Tracie Howarth's jewelry parts. Photo by Patrick Fagan.

For those who are still at step one—figuring out what to sell—experts say a cohesive line will do better than a whole bunch of disparate items. Products with a trendy element will sooner get noticed by bloggers like Design*Sponge‘s Grace Bonney, who can sell out an entire Etsy store with a single post.

“In this economy, I’d focus on selling small things that look expensive,” says Bonney. “There’s a lot of the whole popsicle sticks and yarn on Etsy. You’ve got to separate yourself from those people.”

Bonney says it’s also important to keep your prices low, because there will always be someone selling a similar item for less. “I personally wouldn’t sell anything over $50 on Etsy unless it was a one-of-a-kind painting,” she says. “Paper goods and ceramics do really well right now because they’re affordable and people don’t have to change the look of their house to incorporate them.” (Bonney, by the way, is a big fan these days of JeanPelle.etsy.com.)

Jean Pelle's candleholders caught Design*Sponge's attention.

Jean Pelle's candleholders caught Design*Sponge's attention.

Etsy has a host of resources for would-be sellers, including The DO’s and DON’T’s of Etsy amd the Seller Handbook.

All of them will tell you that choosing a username is the single most important decision you can make—it becomes your shop name when you open a seller account. “The most common problem is that sellers choose a shop name and then want to change it later,” says Adam Brown, Etsy’s press rep. “You can create a new account, but your customer feedback, etc. can’t be moved to that account.”

Choose a name that’s short—one or two words are best—and easy to remember. Troy Mattison Hicks, who sells original designs through necklush.etsy.com, says, “We wanted to come up with something that identified the product, sort of the way people use Band-Aid to refer to a bandage. We wanted that when you see a necklush, you call it a necklush.”

In case you were wondering, this is a necklush.

In case you were wondering, this is a necklush.

As important as a strong name is good photography. Bright, crisp, clear photos help make your items feature-friendly. Go for natural lighting, close-ups, angles and cropping; place your items against uncluttered backgrounds and avoid graphics and text; use live models when appropriate.

Bonney suggests hiring a good product photographer: “That’s the biggest investment you’ll make, and it pays off ten-fold,” she says. “If you can’t take a good picture, it’s not going to sell. A lot of people put their stuff on a black background and send you a sad little photo.  I will write an email saying I like your work but these images are totally not up to snuff.”

When it comes to your listings, use them to tell a story. Be quirky, personal and descriptive. Bring your item to life by illustrating how it might become part of the buyer’s home or pondering what it might mean to someone receiving it as a gift. The connection to the seller is what Etsy buyers look for—otherwise, they’d go shopping at Target.

Once you launch your shop, it’s important to continually refine it. Brooklyn’s Alison Shanik, who sells embroidered keepsake cards and wall pieces through kingpopcorn.etsy.com, notes, “I opened up my Etsy shop right away, but took my time about fine-tuning cards and listing them. It takes a lot of time to plan out the general appearance of your shop.”

One of Allison Skanik's hand-sewn cards.

One of Allison Skanik's hand-sewn cards.

Shanik, who has grossed about $600 in Etsy sales so far this year, considers herself “a serious maker who is a half-serious seller,” too busy creating to worry right now about growing her business. “I’m not overwhelmed by orders, but they’re not non-existent either,” she says.

Even if you think you’ve chosen the best name, assembled an irresistible product line, photographed your items just so—you have to promote yourself, either by frequently re-listing items or purchasing a spot in one of Etsy’s fee-based showcases.

In addition to a 3.5 percent transaction fee per sale, Etsy makes money by charging sellers for listings—$0.20 per item for a four-month listing—and fees to gain exposure in Etsy’s online galleries.

Each time you list an item (post an item’s name, description, price, etc., and tag it for searchability) it could show up in the Recently Listed Items section on the home page. You can re-list them, and experienced sellers do. Necklush’s Troy Mattison Hicks gives himself a daily $2.00 budget, equivalent to relisting ten times. “Spread your listings out through the day so they can be seen whenever people pop on to look around,” he says.

There’s also a sellers-only advertising program called the Showcase. A one-day spot on the front-page homepage Showcase costs $15, and a spot on the Storque showcase is $7.

Another way to boost sales is by using social networking tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, and by increasing your Etsy profile by posting comments, ideas and questions in the Forums.

Most important of all is getting name-checked on someone else’s blog. Bonney receives 300 submissions daily at Design*Sponge, many of them from Etsy artists eager to be featured on her site. It’s understandable why. “A blog’s sales effect is pretty easy to track,” she says. “People write us and say, ‘Holy crap, I just sold out!’ ” Bonney also recommends ohjoy.com and poppytalk.blogspot.com, two other design blogs that frequently profile Etsy sellers. While you’re at it, why not use Etsy as a springboard to pitch yourself to the MoMA store? “They constantly troll Etsy for talent,” Bonney says.

Finally, don’t rule out the flea market circuit just because you’re on Etsy. Kristin Raphael, also from Brooklyn, opened her shop ttintin.etsy.com in January and has made one sale from her line of $39 baby and toddler dresses. “I joined Etsy because I knew I should have an online presence,” she says, “but I do better at street fairs and outdoor markets.”

Says Alison Shanik: “Etsy is wonderful because it’s affordable but you can easily disappear into its sea, whereas craft fairs are wonderful because of the direct exposure but require a bit of investment.” They do bring you face-to-face with your prospective buyer, who, if she doesn’t buy something at your booth, may come back and visit you online at Etsy.

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