On Etsy, Rob Kalin and Entitled Artists

While sipping my morning coffee and skimming through my RSS feeds over the weekend, I stopped dead in my tracks at an open letter from Etsy's Chief Technology Officer, Chad Dickerson, on their blog. As if overnight, founder Rob Kalin is stepping down as CEO [again] and letting Chad step into the handmade executive shoes.

I was surprised by the news, and immediately searched for a formal announcement or press release of the change in leadership. I came up empty-handed. Then I found a Wall Street Journal article that broke the news and cited some third-party consultants and analysts about the ongoing disenchantment of Etsy sellers.

First off, I've neither met Rob nor Chad in my dealings with Etsy and the I Heart Art: Portland program. I've only heard stories about the company's founder and his many eccentricities, so I don't have any personal knowledge of how he ran the company or how his business decisions have affected the marketplace that we all know and love (which begs the questions, do we all know and love it?).

The most thought-provoking part of the WSJ article for me was the [limited] research done around seller confidence, stating that as many as 80% of the biggest sellers have major complaints with the site and its services. First, if you have nine million members, surveying two dozen isn't a telling sample set. But statistics aside, I would have to agree that sellers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the site. However, my analysis of this will come here in a minute.

On Etsy

My own biggest beef with Etsy and their services is the inadequate search function. Veteran Etsy sellers have trained themselves to navigate the search results to find what they're looking for, but when my father called me a year or so ago and said he tried to search for me on Etsy and was unsuccessful, I knew something was wrong. There have been minor improvements over time, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

There are also legitimate concerns about abuse enforcement and site policing. With an enormous boom in membership and an inadequately disproportionate growth in staff, keeping track of resellers and imported mass-manufactured goods has been impossible, and despite submitting abuse complaints and self-policing by sellers, Etsy has not done much to make sure that their users are playing by the rules.

On Rob Kalin

This is the second time that Rob has stepped aside from his role as CEO to let someone else take the reigns. The first time, Etsy had not yet seen profit, so it seemed a natural fit to bring in a CEO with a better business sense and more experience in the corporate world to try and bring the revenue around. From what I understand, she took it too far, which is why Rob stepped back in and steered the company back onto its original philosophical track.

But for all his eccentricities (does it really matter that he makes his own underwear?), Rob is able to take a step back and do what's best for the company. This turn of events tells me that he knows that he can't do what the company needs him to do, and is passing the baton to someone that has proven himself over the past three years. And based on Chad's letter to the community, I think Rob's making the right decisions.

On Entitled Artists

The passion that stirred up this post, however, was generated from some of the WSJ's statements and a lot of the comments. I couldn't help but yell at my computer screen and angrily guzzle the rest of my coffee. Ultimately, artists have a tendency to develop this insane sense of entitlement about what they should be given for the piddly amount of money that put into something like Etsy.

"It's hard to make a lot of money off the marketplace."

In a sea of nine million sellers and 24 million items listed for sale, of course it's hard to make a lot of money off the marketplace. Artists and crafters and DIYers need to get it through their heads—selling art is business. Just because you have a gift and express your creative juices doesn't mean you can sit back and let the world's collectors and appreciators come to you and throw money in your face. You have to work for it. You have to market yourself. And it's hard.

"Concerns over privacy..."

There was a lot of hoopla in March over the Feedback system and its level of public accessibility, including tying accounts to specific purchases. While the matter was dealt with swiftly and professionally by the upper management, the blogosphere ran rampant with accusations of indexing all transaction data at the risk of exposing the privacy of Etsy members.

In the business of selling art, you are selling part of yourself, and in the handmade community, the barrier between maker and consumer has been completely broken down. There's no art dealer managing a relationship, there's no chain of supply from factory to warehouse to distributor to retailer like you would find for mass-produced goods. Art is personal, and artists need to feel comfortable putting their name out there. Your art is you, which means that you are selling yourself. And selling yourself means putting yourself out there in the public. (Now, you can control how much of your personal information is put out there, especially when it comes to physical location and family specifics, but at minimum your name should be Google-able.)

"The company is playing childish and removing the ability for some people to post their opinions in the main forums."

Since the Internet was born as a series of tubes, the anonymity of self-generated user names and free reign of forums have incubated "The Flame War", "Snark" and an "Open Platform for the Misdirected Expression of Anger." Forum moderation, as such, has become a nasty, nasty beast, consuming hours upon hours of work by administrators.

If you have a beef with a company, open a support ticket or send an email to someone who can actually address the issue. Don't post your frustration in a forum, where, fueled by false sympathy, disenchantment is bred like mold in a bag of week-old hamburger buns. The only people really paying attention to you are those who are looking for an excuse to bitch. You won't find any resolution, so don't give them the satisfaction. Use the forums on Etsy for what they are intended—building community and helping each other. I fully support their decision to lock down certain parts of the forums and focus on other means of resolving customer satisfaction issues.

It merits note that the 50+ comments on the WSJ article were almost entirely negative about Rob's leadership and the current state of the site. The 500+ comments on Chad's blog post over the weekend were overwhelmingly positive. Give people a place to bitch and they will let loose.

"All of us over at Etsy pay our fees with the same expectation of having our shops seen."

Excuse me? That 20 cents per listing and 3.5% transaction fee can only try to cover the immense infrastructure that supports the site and the staff who run it. Can you really expect that you are entitled to exposure on the site just because you pay your bill every month? If so, you are completely delusional and should reconsider your business goals. Have you looked at how much it would actually cost to run your own e-commerce site and work on its SEO to achieve Etsy's effectiveness?

It's not Etsy's responsibility to promote you. As I mentioned before, selling your creative works is hard. It takes work! If you want to get noticed, you need to be an active, social user who takes marketing into your own hands. It's your responsibility to get noticed.

"No one is getting rich off the platform."

I've never seen Etsy as a place where a seller can start a business, grow it, become prosperous and then watch the money roll in and live a fabulous life without want. Etsy, above anything else, is a tool—a launchpad. It's a venue where the everyday person can list their work and have an easy, feature-rich way of selling their art online. Aside from a small percentage of exceptions, the average Etsy user shouldn't expect that their business will be booming and self-sustaining within a given span of time.

I can list at least a dozen names off the top of my head of friends or community members who have seen enough success on Etsy to take the next step. Whether it's setting up a MyShopify account and embedding it in their website, joining an artist collective or seeking wholesale accounts, these are common and natural next steps to make. It all depends on how well you pursue your business growth model and how well you market your work.

Wrap it Up

When all is said and done, it's important to remember that Etsy is a corporation that happens to be founded upon good values, not some benevolent non-profit intent on spreading the handmade love. They have investors, they have bottom lines, they have staff limitations. And they're still considered a start-up. Give them a break.

I wish Chad the best of luck in his new role as CEO. I'm confident that he'll continue to use his powers for good and that all of Etsyland will benefit. And hey, if the search capabilities improve and the site enforcement beefs up, all the better.

Reblogged from Subjonctif. Originally posted on July 27, 2011.