For several years now, my Etsy shop Desert Talismans has been doing so well that it's become the sole outlet for my work. Rather than spreading my work out between galleries, museum shops, craft fairs and studio tours, I've found a venue that allows me to list and often sell new pieces as soon as they're made. This has been delightful, because as a middle-aged adult with mild ADD I need to keep my business as simple, contained and straightforward as possible.
But problems have been brewing at Etsy. As many of you already know, certain policy changes have angered and driven away formerly happy sellers in increasing numbers. And I'm sad to say that I may soon be among them. I'll explain more in a moment, but first, a bit of backstory to fill you in:
On March 24, 2008 I opened my shop on Etsy. Since then it's generated a modest living for me, enabled my work to reach countless others, and connected me with some truly wonderful people. Today, I have a large group of followers and the majority of my customers are repeat collectors who are fast becoming genuine friends.
There were a lot of things about Etsy that I found attractive. It was an open and egalitarian business environment with a level playing field, where a casual, part-time crafter had the same opportunities as a high-end artisan. The emphasis was on handmade items and running your own show, your way. The atmosphere was friendly and unpretentious. Both buyers and sellers were encouraged to support each other's work and create community, rather than competition. For someone who was very put off by the mainstream art scene and who wasn't interested in making a "name" for myself (I had already done that in another field and found it overrated), Etsy appeared to be deliberately fostering a new-paradigm business model.
So, I jumped in. I was thrilled to be able to design my shop and do business my way, rather than being told what to do by others. I could talk about my work the way I wanted to--just as I had been doing at craft fairs and studio tours--and engage with customers personally, one at a time. My business philosophy basically boiled down to "Keep it small and simple" and "Treat customers the way you would like to be treated". It worked beautifully.
Sounds great! It has been great, and for the most part it still is. So why would I ever think of leaving?
It's because I believe the people who are running Etsy have shifted their priorities away from supporting artisans to generating profits for Etsy itself. And I believe that the people who are currently running Etsy have lost sight of the heart and soul of what made Etsy special in the beginning: respect for individual creativity, and fostering community in a soulful, rather than profit-driven, way.
Whereas the policies in '08 were very accommodating and friendly, they have become much less so in recent years. I hear that Etsy did change hands a while back and things have been going downhill since then but I haven't looked into it. To tell the truth, I've ignored most of the Etsy "culture" because I've just had my hands full making jewelry and working in my own shop. I also have found the vast landscape of blogs, promotions, events, forums, town halls, teams, labs, etc., to be absolutely bewildering.
For the first few years I was very happy with Etsy; it seemed tailor-made for my needs. Trouble was a distant rumor and I chalked the rumors up to people who thrived on drama and crisis. The first serious trouble that I was aware of concerned a policy change which drove away a large number of sellers from Etsy, when Admin decided to allow non-handmade items to be listed as handmade. I heard about it several weeks after the fact, and I didn't pay much attention to it since it didn't affect me.
The first time I realized things were indeed changing for the worse was late last summer, when out of the blue I received a message from Etsy. In it, they said they were "reaching out" to me to let me know that they had deactivated one of my listings for a pair of earrings, which were made with fossil walrus ivory. Fossil ivory, they explained, was prohibited on Etsy. I was stunned. Surely there must be some mistake? I had sold dozens of pieces featuring fossil ivory. No, apparently they had abruptly, and without notifying sellers of the policy changes, decided to ban it simply because it was ivory. That it was ancient ivory coming from animals that had been killed for subsistence centuries or millennia ago, and was legally sold in the US, was immaterial to them.
My inquiry yielded no helpful insights into their reasoning. In fact, the reply I received bordered on arrogance. I was left with the impression that they felt I was misguided, perhaps naïve, and they were very graciously taking the time to set me straight. As I contemplated this in the weeks that followed, the only rational reason I could see for the policy change (apart from the political correctness bandwagon) was that Admin simply didn't want to have to bother with checking to see if a piece was made from fossil ivory as opposed to contemporary ivory taken from endangered species. If you know what fossil ivory looks like, there's no question as to which is which, even at a casual glance. It was pure laziness--they didn't want to have to take the time or spend the money to distinguish between the two.
In the short term, I lost money and peace of mind because I had invested quite a bit of money in fossil ivory for my pieces. Other Etsy sellers who featured fossil ivory pieces lost their shops entirely. We were not notified of this change beforehand, and were not given any chance to contribute to the decision making process. Etsy just did what it wanted no matter how it harmed its users. It was growing so large that it could easily afford to alienate and lose a few customers in order to further its interests.
So this adversely impacted my work, as many of you know. I did solicit e-mail addresses and formed the Fossil Ivory Tribe, but to date have only listed three pieces for the group. The reason is that--and I certainly mean no offense to you dear people!--it feels like the pieces are invisible to the world at large. So ever since then I've felt a bit cramped creatively, and one of the reasons I wish to open a second shop is to have a place to sell my fossil ivory pieces again, without Big Brother looking over my shoulder.
It's time for a break. Here's a nice picture of our blooming cholla cactus that I took today:
The second change that has really driven the point home for me has to do with the so-called "testing" Admin has been doing on the storefronts as they appear to buyers and sellers. You've all probably heard about this already, or experienced it firsthand, but here's what happened:
One afternoon this past winter I turned on the computer to check on my shop, and found that something had apparently gone wrong. My shop's banner was gone, as was the shop announcement. The few items I had for sale were floating adrift in a white void. After a few moments of complete disorientation, I wondered if it was a bug. Surely it had to be a bug, what else could it be? So I started looking for answers. Etsy has no real "front page" for users, with pertinent, time-sensitive announcements in one easy-to-find location. Instead, it has information scattered, and buried (some would even say carefully concealed) across the site. I decided to start with the Forums.
What I discovered was that Admin was running a "test". In this test, they were changing the appearance of certain shops to see if people liked the changes better than the original look. As far as I could tell, they were not telling people about the test beforehand, nor had they asked anyone prior to the test if they:
a) wanted to contribute ideas for possible changes,
b) wanted the changes Etsy had chosen for them in the first place, or
c) even wanted to take part in the test at all.
No. Apparently Etsy wanted an "authentic" response to the proposed changes and therefore all of this had to be a surprise. It was a surprise all right. As I read through the Forums , it was clear that people were absolutely furious.
I can go into tons of detail here about why a shop banner is an integral part of a storefront's appearance, and why being able to post an announcement is very helpful, even necessary, to the relationship between an artisan and customers, but it would take up a lot of space. The irony is that Admin had just a few weeks prior launched an extensive campaign to encourage seller "branding" and shop identity. Then they proceeded to remove the single most distinctive aspect of the shop's brand, the banner.
The bottom line here is that Etsy Admin has changed its behavior to such an extent that it seems to only be interested in perpetuating itself, rather than maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for the people who keep it in business. It is next to impossible to communicate with them in any meaningful way; if you do figure out how to circumvent the heinous "Contact" menu pages and actually write to them, it is very unlikely that you will receive a helpful response. What Admin usually sends you amounts to a form letter laying out company policy. That's it. And if you have a problem with that, too bad.
Etsy has become the company with two faces. On one hand, there is a ton, a TON of promotional material being generated by Admin, through e-mails ("Etsy Success") and various other means. The emphasis of these is invariably on the sellers promoting themselves and their shops, and on how to increase business and revenue. These things are good and necessary up to a point, but there are artists and artisans out there who place what they are actually creating, and why they are creating it, ahead of the business, and I believe Etsy has forgotten this. Sometimes I have come away with the feeling that Admin feels the creations themselves are beside the point. Now, it's all about shop stats, about trending, about the hustle. This has left me feeling cheapened and increasingly marginalized.
The other face, which Etsy presents to the sellers, is distinctly unhelpful. Behind a veneer of forced friendliness--all those bright young faces!--it has become very clear that Etsy exists only to serve itself. In other words, it's become just another soulless corporation.
Anyway, after a few weeks, the "test" and its fallout gradually died down to a dull roar. My shop and others were restored to their original appearance and all was well again, at least for the moment. I wanted to think that Admin had gotten the message, but I knew better. And sure enough, a couple of weeks ago, I received a message from a long-time customer: What had happened to my shop? She couldn't see my banner. And where was my shop announcement?
Here we go again. Apparently another "test" was in progress, this time on the customers. While my shop appeared normal to me, a number of my customers were seeing it sans banner and announcement...and I had about five items listed, so to them it must have looked sorry indeed. I checked in on the Forums, and they had lit up again.
I'm sure many people out there are wondering what my problem is. This isn't such a big deal. Why should I be so out of sorts when Etsy clearly is trying hard to ensure it is a competitive platform that has a clean, easy to use look...which is so important to most buyers (who apparently do all their shopping on their mobile devices and average 30 seconds per transaction)?
Here is the clearest way I can describe the "testing" situation:
Let's say you have hired a company for its services which support your business, which is your livelihood. Both you as a seller and your customers use, and pay for, these services. One day, the company decides to run a test on you--its sellers and customers--ostensibly to improve business. Only they do not tell you they are running a test, or why. The test comes as an unpleasant surprise, upsets and confuses you and your customers, and disrupts your business. The resulting confusion costs you time and money, in some cases a substantial amount. You only discover the reason for the test after the fact, and only because you went looking for answers. The company did not choose to inform you itself. After expressing your concerns to the company, you are essentially told that they will do whatever they please, and you can take it or leave it.
Would you continue doing business with this company?
Well, that is exactly what Etsy is doing right now.
Time for another flower.
That one's a prickly pear.
One more note about that "test": there are a number of shops on Etsy that specialize in creating banners for others. I can only imagine how this must have made them feel.
The bottom line is that Etsy has become the kind of service provider that acts as if we are working for them, and not the other way around. Ultimately, this is an issue of respect. Etsy is no longer treating its customers with the respect they deserve, and the climate has been gradually growing less hospitable for serious artists...people who may not be making money hand over fist or be great businesspeople, but who are nevertheless wholly invested heart and soul in what they do.
My concern is in being able to find another venue that will accommodate my needs as an artist first and business owner second. I know there are many alternatives out there, some which look very slick and professional, but I need a place that also has a soul, not just a pretty face. I'm in the slow process of looking, and don't expect to make any quick decisions soon, but ideally I would like to have a professional webpage, shop and blog all in the same place. So we'll see.
Meanwhile, Desert Talismans will remain open on Etsy for the time being. There are, for all of my ranting, a lot of very, very good things about Etsy. The ease of use, the unlimited space for product descriptions, the emphasis on sharing and networking, and the shop's
"About" page are some, and there are many more features I appreciate. It's been a great home, which is why I'm so disappointed in the recent changes, I suppose. No, it's not all bad, it's just that the general focus and climate are moving away from my own priorities.
And what are those? Well, first and foremost, my work has to come from the heart and soul. It has to be more than just a piece of jewelry. I need my business, creative life and spiritual path to be a part of one another: spirit-driven, rather than market-driven. It's not exactly the capitalist model, but I think it can be done. I want to be able to set up a place to sell my work that directly shows who I am, where I and the work come from, and what it's about. I want to be able to give my customers an authentic, consistent and trustworthy atmosphere, and connect with them person to person.
In the beginning Etsy was a great support for those priorities...now, it seems to be changing. That's sad, really. They had a great thing going and they're blowing it. There's still time for them to turn things around, but we will see. In the meantime I, like many others before me, will be looking elsewhere for a new home.