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Caterina Fake Headshot

Humanity, Policy, Making Things and Etsy's Future

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Just last week I bought a red vintage slip on Etsy (think ruffles, think square dance). The slip came from a seller near Milwaukee, who wrapped it in tissue paper and folded it tidily like origami. Best of all, she tucked in a handwritten note about how the slip wrinkled easily, and how to make it last, and added some encouragement about wearing it.

I like to think of my work as making technology more human. This is why I became interested in Etsy. Etsy helps work be more human -- you can stay at home and work alongside your kids -- and it makes commerce more personal. On Etsy, unlike other marketplaces, you can see, for example, that the soap you're buying was made by a horse farmer in Quebec, or a Voluntaryist in Texas, or a SAHM in Japan -- not by Procter & Gamble.

Last week was a big week for Etsy because, in addition to me buying a red ruffled slip, Etsy radically simplified and amended their policies. Sellers of handmade goods can now hire as much help as they need to run their shops. They can apply to sell designs they produce with the help of outside businesses. Before if you brought on your cousin full-time to help you ship orders, or worked with a foundry to cast your jewelry designs, or collaborated with a studio to fire your pottery, you might have felt you were somehow breaking the rules. Now shopkeepers will be able to credit everyone involved in producing their handmade items.

Oddly, some observers have suggested that these changes, which will help sellers grow their businesses, signal the inevitable eBayification of Etsy. But becoming eBay is far from Etsy's strategic vision (and I am the Chairwoman of the board, so I have the inside scoop about that). Not to throw eBay under the bus! They're just different companies.

Etsy is fundamentally a creative community. On eBay, or Amazon for that matter, practically anyone can sell practically anything. On Etsy, you can only sell handmade goods, vintage goods over 20 years old, and craft supplies for making. If you come to Etsy to shop, you do it because there's often a handwritten note in the box. You want to find unique items that are naturally made, or ethically made, or locally made. You like wearing clothes or sitting on chairs that have a history behind them. Handmade sellers on Etsy take pride in telling you exactly how their items are made, who they are, what they stand for. On Etsy, you can't resell new goods you weren't involved in making, whereas on eBay and Amazon that is more than welcome -- everything from dishwashers to XBoxes, curling irons, espresso machines and metal detectors.

I think the confusion here stems from a fundamental failure of imagination about how marketplaces can grow. Etsy began by empowering creative people to build businesses and make a living making things. Now, it will grow by helping those people extend their success. Just one way is through its new wholesale program, where sellers connect with retail buyers like Nordstrom and West Elm who want to carry these kinds of limited-edition, local, handmade goods.

This does not mean opening the door to reselling and abandoning the small seller. But one of the most exciting things about Etsy's new policies are how Etsy sellers can help revitalize local manufacturing. Allison Faunce, who runs the Etsy shop Little Hero Capes, is a perfect example. When she was unable to keep up with the volume of orders for her superhero costumes, she turned to a local garment manufacturer to help with part of her production. Their area of Massachusetts was once the largest textile producing center in the United States in the 19th century. The factory foreman later told her that if they hadn't gotten her order, it's likely they would have gone under.

This is the kind of story I see in Etsy's future. It has to do with humans making technology more human, which means looking forward -- not backward -- to what any other marketplace has done.