I Spent a Whole Year as an Etsy Mom So That You Don’t Have To
After a series of professional twists and turns and a graduate degree (because why not?), I loved my job as a college English instructor when I graduated in 2008, but as a contract employee with no real bargaining power I was being paid what amounted to literally half of minimum wage. Over the next five to seven years, I began to feel resentful, cheated, and lost.
Jumping on the crafty bandwagon, I started sewing at night as a creative outlet until I experienced my epiphany. WAIT A MINUTE, I thought. What is that saying that’s all over my Pinterest feed and thus must be true? “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? I LOVE sewing! I could enjoy total flexibility and be more available for my daughter! I would make things that other people would buy and be creative and find total fulfillment in my job!
So with my inventory of random baby accessories and a whole lot of wide-eyed optimism, I joined handmade marketplace Etsy.
I’d love to tell you that my life changed immediately, and I began happily alternating between whistling busily in my craft room like Cinderella’s rodent friends and counting all the money in my Paypal account while cackling away like some oil industry tycoon.
But that did not happen. Not even a little bit.
I sold a few small things, set up a business, and designed my branding. I researched SEO and filled out all the fields in my online profile. I wrote descriptive, keyword-rich product descriptions. And I sewed the same three patterns over and over again in every possible fabric permutation. I worked and worked and worked until I finally realized the truth I’d suspected in my gut all along: The Etsy game was rigged against me.
While fairy tales of wildly successful Etsy sellers abound and overall sellers report an average household income of $56,000 annually, up to 65 percent of those sellers earn less than $100 per year from their Etsy shops. I was definitely on the lower end of that spectrum from my Etsy shop, though thankfully—like many Etsy sellers—we had a second income from my spouse’s employment.
In order to stay competitive in the handmade market, I had to lower my prices to such an extent that I could only barely cover the cost of materials and supplies. I earned no profit, not even enough to pay my designer, seamstress, marketing director (me, me, and me) for my time. I was going up against other sellers who were willing to undercut prices just to increase their total sales, which would then position those sellers higher in search results.
Meanwhile, Etsy itself did nothing to help these challenges or dissuade unfair marketplace behaviors. In fact, they eventually opted to allow ostensibly “handmade” items to be manufactured by employees in factories, thereby opening the marketplace up to foreign and domestic sweatshops. They effectively killed the indie spirit that made Etsy attractive to artisans in the first place. At 1.9 million active sellers and 50 million items for sale in 2017, site inventory is oversaturated, and a website that once seemed to prize the special and unique is now just a slightly fancier version of eBay.
It was all, for me, a sunk investment. I would never get out what I put in, let alone the time I spent and let alone any dreams of actually turning a profit. And everyone else I met was in the same boat.
For the vast majority of people, making and selling handmade crafts is a hobby. If that’s you, great! But chances are it’s not a sustainable career choice. The handmade world is all too happy to undervalue your talent, and there are a LOT of reasons for this (craft is the redheaded stepchild of “fine art,” traditional women’s work like knitting and sewing and scrapbooking is worth less because sexism, people are accustomed to underpricing and devaluing their OWN work because it’s part of the culture, and many others I’d get into except that this is not actually a post about crafts—SURPRISE!).
Here’s what I’ve learned from being there versus being here, with you, on a blog dedicated to sustainable and lucrative tech careers: There are far better choices out there. Creativity and design aren’t limited to what you can hold in your hands—and in many cases, like the average visual designer making over $60,000 a year, a screen is worth a lot more. You can still feel driven by that good, old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit and take on clients that suit you best. And when you choose an industry like tech you also get the security, satisfaction, flexibility, and money that come with having skills that are in high demand.
Sure, doing what you love MAY help you feel like you’re never working… but on the flip side, you’re not a volunteer. Your time and talent have value! It’s a lot easier to love what you do when you’re getting fairly compensated for what you do. Otherwise—and I speak from experience—it starts to feel more and more like a crappy job.
So did my Etsy shop peter out and land me in a pit of overwhelming despair? Funny story: My foray into handmade entrepreneurship led me—in that twisting and turning way it always has—to where I am today.
After that failed Etsy attempt, I launched a sewing blog that established my voice in the industry, especially when it came to issues of feminism, fair pay, and social issues. From there, I ventured into freelance writing for the craft industry and discovered that my skills were needed, appreciated, and paid for. I highlighted my skills in writing for a female audience—such as the people reading my articles in quilting magazines and following my posts on sewing blogs—until one day I caught the attention of a company called Skillcrush.
Today, I help manage the creative content that you find on the Skillcrush website and in your inbox. It’s far from where I’d thought I’d be at the beginning of my career, and it’s far away from a college classroom or a sewing machine—but it’s also the creative life and the deep fulfillment I’d always searched for.
I strongly believe that there are no wasted experiences in life, but if I had it to do all over again I wouldn’t have chosen to open an Etsy shop.
Let’s be honest: I would have learned to code.