Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Conversation with Etsy's Matt Stinchcomb

Tonight I attended a lecture with Etsy's Matt Stinchcomb as part of the new PNCA + CYAN PDX Cultural Residency Series. It offered a rare opportunity to gain a glimpse of the people and motives behind a site that has become a crucial part of many lives, including mine!

Etsy started out, as many genius ideas do, in a living room as a conversation between two roommates, Matt, and Etsy founder Rob Kalin, who Matt points out bears a striking resemblance to Mark Zuckerburg (founder of Facebook).

This was not the first business venture for the pair. Matt, who played in a rock band, would screen-print merchandise for shows. He would often screen-print things for friends as well. Rob, the entrepreneur, saw Matt's screen printing as a business opportunity and asked a restaurateur across the street from their apartment in Brooklyn to give them all the money they needed to buy a printing press and rent a space. He did. The same restaurateur became one of Etsy's first investors.

Being in the handmade trade, it was apparent to them that the online marketplace lacked a niche for artists. They came up with Etsy as a solution. A site for all things handmade, where the buyer is directly connected to the maker. When asked where the name "Etsy" came from, Matt responded, "Only Rob knows for sure and everything you read online is a lie." The general motive behind the name was to pick something that would not come with any preconceived notions.

Just like the products they sell, the site was entirely handmade using hand built computers, servers and code. After three months of sleepless nights, the first version of Etsy was launched in 2005. Since then Etsy has exploded. They now have a staff of 70 which they expect to reach 100 by the middle of next year. They have 200,000 active sellers and over 3 million members, a number which is exponentially growing every day.

Unlike other online marketplaces like Amazon or Ebay, Etsy has a broader social mission: "To empower people to change the world economy by bringing heart to commerce." They achieve this by giving people the tools they need to start their own business and to tell their story. It isn't only about the finished product, but about who made it and how. They really show the person behind the product and give the power of commerce back to the people.

They also provide tools for building craft communities. At Etsy's home base in Brooklyn they have the Etsy Lab which is open every Monday night to any and all crafters and provides all the tools for making you can dream of. They also hold lectures and workshops for improving business skills. These real life Labs are then incorporated into Virtual Labs on the site for the benefit of the entire Etsy community. There is the possibility of satellite real world Etsy Labs popping up in urban centers, but until then there are Esty Teams which function like artist guilds. They are a way for Etsy shop owners working in similar media or in the same location to combine forces and share expenses. Did you know there are even Etsy Grants? Yes, if you are part of an Etsy Team you can apply for a grant to pay that craft show booth fee!

So where is Etsy headed? They are growing rapidly and with that growth comes new responsibility, which means hiring experienced staff to make sure the site stays up and running, and to ensure buyers keep coming. They are trying to reach out to a broader range of buyers who may not be privy to the DIY community. They are doing this by partnering with mainstream media such as, Martha Stewart, and People Magazine. They are also working with SEO specialists to optimize the site so that Etsy listings will gain higher rankings in search engines. The goal is to make Etsy a household name, so that the next time the most suburban dweller needs a wooden bowl they will think to check Etsy before heading out to Pottery Barn.

Etsy also plans to make their categories more robust. One of the biggest problems for the site is that there are so many items it is often hard to find what you are looking for. They would like a buyer who is looking for high end art to be able to follow a simple path in that direction while likewise someone looking for cheap clip on earrings can also follow a simple path straight there.

While Matt admits the listing process could be a little less painstaking, their current priority is to make it as easy for buyers to buy as possible, so we may have to wait a little while longer for improvements there. I don't mind if it brings me more sales.

They've also been talking with schools and museums like PNCA and The Museum of Contemporary Craft about the possibility of having group Etsy communities and stores. This would allow these organizations to have stores that represent a number of makers in one place, a practice which as of now is not allowed through the site.

One idea Matt mentioned in jest that would be really exciting (possibly illegal) is creating an app through iphone that you can take with you to the GAP. The app will have a barcode scanner. If you see a sweater you kind of like, you can scan it with your iphone and it will link you to similar HANDMADE items on Etsy. Wouldn't that be something?!

1 comment:

  1. Great article Amaris. As always, you really bring the reader into your space, sharing all the artistic wonders of your world.