Etsy, the sizzling online bazaar for handmade goods, makes its offline home six steep flights up, in an old printing plant in Brooklyn. It's a funky space ornamented with handicrafts of all species -- sock monkeys, button art, whiteboards emblazoned with multi-colored flow charts. The site (its name was inspired by Fellini's 8½) was launched in 2005 by three New York University students led by founder Rob Kalin; it now counts 1.8 million members in 150 countries, and 2 million listings.
Etsy tripled its gross sales in 2008, to $90 million, and attracted funding from such tech venture stars as Accel Partners and Union Square Ventures. And as it has grown, Etsy has become as much a community as an e-commerce site, with actual and virtual meetups organized by location (Singapore, Saskatchewan), medium (papier-mâché, mosaic), and interest area (Chainmailers Guild, Lizards and Lollipops). Last June, Maria Thomas, former head of digital media at NPR, came aboard as CEO.
FC: The tagline on the home page, "Your place to buy and sell all things handmade," seems to be about more than commerce. Is there a bigger idea behind Etsy?
To help people make a living by doing what they love and making things. Technology makes the first part happen because it gives people access to markets that were previously bounded by geography and other variables. But we also wanted to go back to a time when markets meant personal interaction -- when you knew who you were buying from.
Every seller has her own shop, with a little bio. How else do you encourage that personal connection?
In the section called This Handmade Life, you'll see profiles of Etsy sellers. People can upload a video just like on YouTube and give a tour of their studio, or talk about why they started quilting.
Where can buyers and sellers interact on the site?
Virtual Labs is a series of rooms -- like a town hall -- where live events take place. Your avatar can take a seat and watch. We've had editors from Lucky and Teen Vogue come and talk about merchandise they love, or special-interest groups like the Etsy Knitters Team will do a trunk show. Participants can engage in a live chat about what they're seeing. If you like something, you can throw a heart or a kiss. If you don't, throw a paper airplane.
In our Custom section, you can make a request for a personalized item, and artists can bid on doing it. One new mom wanted somebody to make a diaper bag out of a kite for her kite-surfing husband, who was being teased by his buddies for the pink one he was carrying.
Etsy has been called eBay's funky little sister, but it's not an auction site. How do you make money?
We have three revenue streams: We charge a 3.5% sales fee on every transaction; we have a listing fee of 20 cents for every item; and we allow sellers to buy advertising to promote their items within the site.
What is your own craft?
I make businesses work.