My Etsy shop, I Love Life I Love You, has sat unused for almost a year now. And I’m okay with that.
The very first Etsy project I did was a joint shop with my friend Katherine. We opened I Love Life I Love You together in around 2008, when we were going to sell handmade and vintage goods, from Brooklyn and San Francisco with love. When we both got busy with work and life, we left it behind.
I picked it up again in late 2009, when I was living in Cincinnati and trying to earn extra money to pay down debt. I spent a lot of my free time knitting, so selling my knitwear on Etsy seemed like a good idea. During the second iteration of my Etsy tenure, I sold a few hats, and also did some craft fairs and sold on consignment through a couple of local shops in Cincinnati. I intended to continue after I moved to Chicago – after all, Chicago’s freezing! You need a hat every day from September through May!
But when I got busy with work, it fell by the wayside. And I’m kind of glad.
Would I do it again? Maybe.
But would I try to dissuade other people from doing it? Not at all. For the amount of time I put in and for the scale of the business I was running, I don’t consider it a failure. I learned a ton about the nuts and bolts of running a business, which are all valid lessons that I apply every day working as a freelance web developer.
- Your portfolio matters. I had a website, but I never did much with it, and I never promoted it a single time. The work that I put up for sale on Etsy was great, though, for showing people what I was capable of making. I tried to have a few examples of every kind of thing I could make, so that when people asked about whether I could make something they wanted, I could point to a link and say, “Sure. Here’s one like that I made already. So you want this in pink with a pompom on top?” Now that I’m focusing solely on development, I do my best to figure out new projects that I can do to show off my skills: “Oh, a form validator? Cool. I built one last week.”
- You get nothing you don’t ask for. I put up a ton of stuff on Etsy for sale, and I made maybe four sales total. Which is super-low.
But I had a lot better success working with local shop owners who carried my knitwear, making custom hats for people I knew, and selling at craft fairs than I EVER did selling directly to customers on Etsy – by a factor of several hundred percent. Each time I made a sale that wasn’t via Etsy, it was the result of me telling people what I had to offer, and asking if they needed any knitwear. I try to make a habit of doing that regularly as a developer too – asking for referrals and showing people the new things I’m working on.
- Scale matters, and so does pricing. I did the math on this, and every hat I made had a profit margin of like, $5 when I accounted for labor and materials costs [paying myself minimum wage]. If I’d been more successful, I would have hit a ceiling of how much I could actually produce. And of course, the maximum that people were willing to pay for a hat like I made was not very much higher than the price I was charging. A smarter businessperson than me would have figured out how to move into other areas with higher profit margins [my guesses would be babywear, themed stuffed plush toys like knitted Angry Birds, pet accessories, knitted wedding dresses] or at least into different product types that would allow for machine-based knitting [sweaters, home textiles like bedspreads or pillows], but I never really got there.
As a freelancer, I keep this in mind all the time. I have about seven hours each day that I can reasonably work without distraction, exhaustion, or burnout; so I have to be aware when I’m taking projects that will be particularly time-consuming or resource-intensive – and charge accordingly.
- Jumping in feet-first is awesome. I’m proud of the fact that I decided to do this, and then within a couple of weeks I had my storefront set up. Later on, I took better photos of my products and started thinking about promotion and new product development, but I started it up fairly quickly.
This is definitely relevant for a freelancer of any kind, but especially for designers and developers. I regularly admit that there’s a TON I don’t know about development – I can’t do much at all on the server side; Photoshop sometimes makes me want to throw things; and I struggle with looking at other people’s jQuery scripts that aren’t commented and tabbed and properly documented. [Side note: Seriously, if you write a plugin, I would love to help you write documentation on how to use it. Get in touch with me.] Web development is a rabbit hole, and it would have been easy for me to throw my hands up and go, “I can’t do this! I need to learn so much more stuff!” But most of the projects I’ve taken didn’t require anything I didn’t already know, so I’m glad I didn’t count myself out for those projects before I even got started on them.
- But researching the market before jumping in is crucial. I recently learned that out of everything sold on Etsy, knitwear is a relatively poor seller. Also, in general, a lot of people that try it don’t do so well, and even if they do, their scale is limited by the constraints Etsy imposes: namely, that everything sold on the platform has to be handmade by the seller.
So as a developer, I’m constantly coming up with cool ideas for projects to pitch to people – a mobile site for finding the nearest coffee shop, where the site actually looks like a cup of coffee! Or a collaborative website with nonprofits and medical centers where women can book a mammogram online! But as cool as these ideas are, I have to think about whether they’re going to be useful to anyone. [After all, Yelp and ZocDoc already exist, and they do a damn good job.]
- Figure out how to expand, and be smart about it. One thing that I never did, but probably should have, was to put together a series of knitting lessons. I could have put them on Youtube, and then charged an hourly rate for in-person or Skype lessons – maybe even put together a party package for crafty bachelorette parties or something, I don’t know. [True story: One of my craftier friends just got married, and I'm 99% sure she would have gone for this.] Or, instead of selling to people that needed hats, I could have written up my patterns into a pretty PDF and sold them as downloads for a couple bucks.
I haven’t gotten to the point in my web design that I’m developing products, but I know the option is there, and there are a lot of people who do really well with them – selling custom WordPress or Drupal themes via a theme marketplace, building apps to sell in the Play store, developing analytics/SEO packages. So it’s in the back of my mind as a “someday” project.
- Quit while you’re ahead. I could have kept going, but early last year I started actively pursuing more freelance clients in web design and development, which was more time-consuming, but also way more lucrative and fulfilling on a personal level. It wasn’t an active choice, per se. But I wasn’t into it anymore, even independent of my Etsy shop – knitting had become more of a chore than a recreational activity, and I started having problems with my elbows and my right shoulder from spending hours working on merchandise. So it seemed like a better choice to let it go and focus on where my web development and design career was going.
Have you guys ever sold on Etsy? What did you think?