Etsy just hit the big 1-0 this month, and it kind of blows my mind. I can’t believe what started as a little handmade community is the same age as my feisty, moody-yet-adorable pre-teen. And, kind of like my pre-teen, Etsy has had many beautiful stages, some growing pains, quite a few tempter tantrums and attitude adjustments, and looks so much like the baby it once was while completely different all at the same time.
While The Vagabond Studio has only been open since 2011 (and only actively selling since October of 2013), I’ve had several other successful shops on Etsy, and have been both a buyer and a seller since the beginning. I remember the days of kiss-and-make-up instead of reviews, when the forums had more all-night chat sessions than they did questions and promotions, and when everyone stalked the treasuries waiting for a spot to open or had the ‘When will treasury spots open?’ calculations down to a science.
Like, I said…it’s grown, and changed, a lot over the last ten years, and I’m here to share the top 20 things I’ve learned in 10 years on Etsy.
1. Things will change. Most of the time, they’ll change right as you get comfortable and figure out how they work. Not only is this true for Etsy, but it’s true for most things in life. You’ll eventually have to change processes, suppliers, shipping methods, and who knows what else. It’s just a part of business.
2. Pricing is a huge key component to making it on Etsy. And by ‘pricing’, I do not mean being the lowest shop out there. Low prices = cheap. When you sell handmade, folks want quality handmade products not cheap products. If they wanted cheap, they’d head over to Ebay or Wal-Mart.
3. Bad Reviews Happen. While there are a lucky number of shops out there that haven’t experienced a negative review, just about all shops go through this from time to time. Some shops even go through a huge batch of these at a time. For instance, BottleBreacher received an insane number of bad reviews around the holidays because, after their product was on Shark Tank, they received an entire year’s worth of orders within a single 24-hour period. They simply couldn’t keep up with orders. A lot of shops also received negative reviews over the holidays because USPS lost entire crates of orders (true story – happened to me), or packages simply went MIA. If Target, Lulu Lemon, and Abercrombie can all get negative reviews, you better believe that a shop ran entirely by a single, very human person can get a negative review – sometimes justified (we all make mistakes), sometimes not.
4. Ask for reviews! Not all customers will leave reviews. If a customer sends you an email after their purchase, remind them to leave a review. Add a review reminder both to their package and to their invoice email. This can definitely be done without coming off too sales-y.
5. Fill out your profile. Yes, all of it. The more information the customer has about you, the more likely they are to trust you. Now, you don’t have to give them all the dirty details – just share your story on your About Page, put up a friendly ‘Welcome Message’, etc. Make your shop, or even your stand-alone website, inviting and personal.
6. Have solid policies. Not having solid policies (or having policies that counter Etsy or PayPal’s policies), can and will come back and bite you in the tush. Read the Terms of Service of whatever platform you’re using to sell, plus the terms of the payment processors you’re using. For most handcrafters, this is Etsy and PayPal. Then, base your own policies around those. Don’t want to accept returns? Then, don’t. You just have to make sure it’s in your policies, or Etsy and PayPal will not back you.
7. You really do get used to things and, sometimes, you can get a head start. When Etsy changed the ‘Kiss and Make-Up’ feedback system to the star-review system, I thought Etsy was going to implode. But, just like most things, people got used to it. Since then, they’ve changed the entire dashboard, the listing system and, most recently, the orders page. You may hate the changes at first, but you do, eventually, get used to them. Even better: if you join the beta teams and check in on them from time to time, you can actually join in on the changes, get a feel for them before they roll-out to everyone, and even give feedback on what works and what isn’t working for you. How cool is that?
8. More listings will almost always equal more sales. This happens for a variety of reasons – most importantly because every listing is an opportunity for you to show up in someone’s search. Second, more listings keep customers looking around your shop. If someone searches ‘Blue Baby Blanket’ and you make baby blankets, you want your listing to show up in their shop. What if they don’t like the one listed? What if they click over to your actual shop instead of back to the search page? Well, if you have a handful of listings, they’ll scan them and move on if they don’t like anything. If you have 4 pages of listings, the chances greatly increase that they will continue to shop and find something they do like. More listings also helps you to look more established and established = more trustworthy.
9. Do not, under any circumstances, knowingly violate a trademark! Check TESS often – often as in, every single time you create a new product with a new phrase, quote, or word. Check those same phrases, quotes, and words often. It takes months (or even years) for a trademark to go through the entire process, so there’s really no reason for you to ever use a trademarked phrase and not know it. You can, and will, receive a notice from Etsy Legal that your listings have been removed and, if that happens too many times, they will shut down your shop. Even worse, you could violate the trademark of someone who skips the Cease & Desist warning letter altogether and has a fancy lawyer serve you papers right to your front door. True story.
10. Your business will change, for better or worse – sometimes both. Every business has it’s ups and downs and, if you keep growing and doing things right, your business will evolve. I started off making bracelets, and now I make bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, bookmarks, key-chains and a bunch of other awesome stuff. It’s all similar, but my shop has definitely grown and evolved. My friend Leah, at CrunchyFarmBaby, sold the same fabric letter magnets for years until she added fabric letter bunting and that shop has taken a whole new life of it’s own. As long as you don’t change things from top to bottom repeatedly, this is okay. It’s your business.
11. Personalized and custom items win. Now, there are a bazillion Etsy shops out there that don’t make personalized or custom items and do just fine. However, if you even remotely have the opportunity to offer options or something that could feel ‘custom made’, do it. Customers like to feel special. I have a make-up brush roll that I bought on Etsy and I feel like it was made ‘just for me’ even though I know all I did was pick the fabric from 12 fabrics she had as options. You don’t have to offer custom, made-to-order everything, but options are great and make your item more appealing.
12. Friendliness wins even more than customization. If you ever chat with me on Etsy, I am one of the most ridiculously bubbly, happy Etsy sellers you will ever encounter. I was also one of the happiest customer service folks at Barnes and Noble, when I worked there, as well. Why? Because customers like happy people, even when they’re responding to shitty situations. I don’t get snarky, despite what I may be thinking, and despite any urge to do so. Smile (literally, if you have to), and be as friendly as you can, even with the nastiest of customers.
13. Keep track of your sales and expenses. Yes, all of them. Taxes are a real thing, my friend. It’s better to have it all right there and ready than not have it at all. I use GoDaddy Bookkeeping (formerly Outright) to handle the majority of mine.
14. The more unique you are, the better off you do (most of the time). There are certainly trends out there, and it’s a smart idea to follow trends. However, if you sell the same thing 1,000 other sellers are selling, then you’ve simply made yourself 1,000 competitors. Do something different. Put some kind of a spin on it. Sell the same product, but to a different market than everyone else.
15. For the love of all things holy, brand yourself! Not with a hot poker, but in the same way that Target and Victoria Secret brand themselves. A logo, photos with a repeated aesthetic, and coordinating packaging can go far. So far, in fact, that you’ll actually come across as a legit, small handmade business instead of a mom with a crochet needle making hats in between baby naps. (I’ve been there, too, it’s okay.)
16. Have an off-Etsy website. Now, I don’t actually have one of these at the moment. It’s in the works. It’s in the works because, well, I’m finally doing something I should have done a long time ago. This blog post does say ‘things I’ve learned’ not necessarily ‘things I’ve done’, and this is something I’ve learned and put off. Don’t be me. There are a million reasons to have your own, stand-alone website. One major reason is because Etsy technically holds the backbone of your shop. If Etsy goes down, you accidentally violate the TOS, or some other crazy thing happens, there goes your shop. Having your own site can also save you in fees, and helps present your brand as a more professional, independent business.
17. Befriend your ‘competition’. And by friend I do not mean make frenemies with them – most of us are not in high school. I have a whole post dedicated to why you should support your competition, because I really feel that it is that important. There’s no need to look over your shoulder, stalk their Instagram, or ninja subscribe to updates from their Facebook Fan page. Just…become their friend. Help them. Compliment them. Talk to them. We’re all in this little world of small business together. (Sidenote: A very dear friend of mine is a stamper from a stamping group whom I randomly decided to compliment, and then order from, one day. It happens!)
18. If you’re running behind on orders, change your shipping time! Don’t make promises you don’t know for sure you can keep. Set realistic deadlines for major holidays. It’s better to change your shipping time and lose a few orders than it is to take those orders without knowing, 100% for sure, that you’ll get them out in plenty of time. I used to have a 2-3 day processing time. Then it moved to 3-5 days. Then, a week. I’m currently at 2 weeks and getting ready to move to 3. Obviously, after all this time, I’m not getting slower at making my products. I’m simply becoming much busier. (Hot tip: If changing your shipping time causes too big of a decrease in orders, change it back and raise your prices a bit – you’ll still lose a few orders, but those who do order will be making up the difference and will receive quality products because you can devote the time you need and not rush.)
19. Don’t give up. Even when you see brand new shops making 200 sales in their first 2 months and you’ve only made 10, don’t give up. Read and reread the Etsy Blog. Grab a copy of my book, Rock Your Shop: A Guide to Building Branding, and Rocking Etsy. Join some free small biz support groups (I have one of those, too). Ask for help. Every day, do something a little better, and a little different. If this is your dream, or your passion, don’t.give.up.
20. Remember that you are not your business. Sometimes, you need to step away from your business. Go on vacation. Take an actual weekend off. Turn in early one or two nights a week. Believe it or not, your business is not a living, breathing thing. You are. And you need some TLC, rest, and you-time or you’ll find yourself burning out and overwhelmed.
And there you have it! I wrote a whole book on Etsy (which you can check out here), but these are definitely the top 20 things I’ve learned in the last decade that every seller should know, right off the bat.
What have you learned in your time on Etsy?