February 8, 2011

Yes, it's possible to start a business on Etsy: A guide to becoming a full time artist.

I began my handmade perfume brand, For Strange Women,  2 years ago. Since then I have had over 6000 Etsy orders. A lot of people have been asking me for advice about selling on Etsy and how to transition from a "real" job to doing what you love for a living. This is just a view into my own world, the way I think things should be- it works for me, and it might work for you. Please take anything useful from this that you can!
Photo Credit: M/E Photography

1- Allow your art to consume all aspects of your life. You should be conscious of what your style is, and if you are freely expressing yourself as you should be, then your entire house or studio should naturally make a perfect setting for photographing your products (although you only need one spot). 

Also, have you ever noticed when you go to one of those juried art fairs, the artists in the booths always seem to match their work! The lady who makes fuzzy textiles has frizzy hair, the ceramic artist wears same the earthy colors of their glazing, the stained glass guy is wearing nice glasses, the tall thin person creates tall thin sculptures.... these people are successful with their craft because they are intertwined with it. They do not make their art from 9-5 and come home and live a different life, as the corporate world does. They are expressing themselves (oftentimes unconsciously) through their work so much that it shows when they are standing next to it. If you do not "match" your work, it is possible you are not expressing what you want to with your work. (because you want to express yourself, right?)  

2- If you are not beginning your business with $10-20K in startup revenue (I didn't), the first 10-20K that you earn with your art/craftwork will need to be reinvested (in better tools, materials that may need to be bought in bulk, things that will make your production faster/more efficient, independent contractors to do easy but time consuming tasks, hiring a designer*, etc.) before you start making a profit and paying yourself. This is just an estimated price range, and maybe not necessary for everyone, but this is what I did for myself. Most people spend this much just to go to school to learn something. Think of it as an opportunity to learn that pays for itself! 

3- About hiring a designer- I spent about 3 years working as a graphic designer. If you do not have this kind of time to spend to learn how to create an original brand, packaging, etc. you should really invest in a good designer to make something for you. When people shop online, they are not able to experience your products in person. They only have your branding, your photos, and your description to experience. Your branding is extremely important and you should treat it this way.
And if you find a really good deal- $50 to design your logo, banner, business cards, and packaging, you are going to get what you pay for. Usually hiring a professional designer to do this kind of work will cost a minimum of $1,000, and even 2-10x this much. There is a huge range of talent and it would be wise for you to hire the best you possibly can. Always look at a designer's portfolio before you decide to use them.

4- Good design is most often measured in simplicity. Do not over embellish for the sake of it (that goes for your product photos too) or your work may begin to look like your mom's scrapbook. (although mom I think your scrapbooks are lovely)

5- I have mailed thousands of orders, and have never included a printed receipt. This means I have saved thousands of pieces of paper and no one has complained!  Unless it's a wholesale order, people probably will not want a receipt anyway, and if they do they can easily access it online.
I also never include more than one business card (unless requested). I find it excessive and impolite to do so- I always tell or write down names and web addresses if I recommend something to a friend, because I do not carry around copies of everyone's card with me, and I assume this goes for others as well.

6- Do not hoard materials- Its easy to fill your studio or house with everything you have ever found to potentially use as an art material but if after 3-5 years you have not done anything with it, find someone else to give it to. There are a lot of artists out there who may be able to make something wonderful with those materials right now but do not have the funds to purchase them or cannot find them. If you cannot think of anyone you know personally that can use something, post a big photo of it on craigslist or freecycle. Giving away unused materials to artists who could really use them is an extremely rewarding thing to do. I am always so happy every time I do this, and the benefit of my studio being organized and uncluttered puts me in a better state of mind to create.

7- Use deadlines for everything you do. I follow moon cycles, and try to always have current projects wrapped up before the new moon arrives, so that I have a clean slate to begin something new. When you are not in the "real world", time can get kinda floaty and days can slip away so following moon cycles (or another repetitive cycle of your choice) can really ground you if you are always aware of the approaching deadline. I think a lot of creative "blocks" actually come from the lack of pressure of a deadline, and this pressure will actually stimulate your mind to work to meet it.

8- I've said it before, stop using plastic. Also, minimize your materials that come from China. That includes just about everything at Hobby Lobby and Michaels. I swear I could write an entire book about this topic so I hardly know where to start... here is just one of my thoughts on each point though-

Most Chinese products are hugely mass-produced, so it would be difficult for you to have a unique, original, one-of-a-kind product if anyone in any city could go out to a corporate chain craft store and make it themselves. This very concept de-values your product in the eyes of your customers.

And plastic is a petroleum bi-product that is polluting the earth, not degrading, and creating continents of trash in the oceans, obviously. But what you may not have thought about is that the cheapness and convenience of it can cause you to be less innovative in your designs and products. When I began to challenge myself to use as little plastic as possible (because I believe the material to be soulless and unpleasing to the senses), I was forced to be more creative in my product and packaging design. 

9- Keep a journal of your ideas and go with the ones that still seem good a couple weeks or months after you first came up with them. It's pretty easy to get excited over trendy stuff, but time will allow you to see if something that sparked your imagination is unique to you or if everyone else was thinking the same thing. Time will also give you the ability to know which ideas you love the most (those are always your best ones.)

10- The best way to separate yourself and stand out from others who do the same craft as you is to give yourself time to really think about, write about, and understand your craft on a personal level, as well as yourself. Always take opportunities to discover things about your medium that no one else has. Think about the history of your medium, the reasons for current trends, what kind of society and culture your work reflects, what you love about the materials and what challenges you, what inspires you, what makes your materials interesting and what drives you to assemble them the way that you do, what in your past and present has led you to choose your craft... where did your materials originate and does this mean something to you? How does your personality or parts of your life reflect onto your work? What issues are close to your heart and how can you address them through your work?  How do you want your work to be viewed or experienced by others and how can you better communicate this through cultural and psychological visual/sensory language? ... just think critically, and give it a lot of time. If you don't know where to start, just start reading philosophy and you will naturally begin to think deeper into what you do as an artist. Make conscious decisions beyond "it looks pretty" when you are choosing a color palate, a typeface, a pattern.... 


  1. This is a great post! I've purchased from you before, and besides the fab. fragrances, your packaging and the overall 'feel' of your products is great. The whole image fits together so nicely! Congrats on your success!

  2. I totally agree with you :)
    For the last several months I've been thinking about my own creations and compromises that I am doing with myself and my work... always questioning if I am doing something because I want it or because I think it could work best for sale (not that I have sold anything so far hahah).

  3. hi,
    found your blog through a team mate who recommended this post. thanks for sharing your thoughts on success here. so many valuable points ~ especially about allowing time to think things through and for things to settle/resonate :)

  4. Excellent points. I would include at least 2 or 3 business cards (ok since printed on recycled paper and safe ink or hand stamped on preused paper stock) so a satisfied customer can spread the word easily. I do not think that is being pushy or impolite at all. Many people will remember a company name, or part of a name, but actual contact info (web address, email or phone no.) often slips through the memory cracks. A card simplifies it and is not an imposition.
    A beautiful card, memorable logo, even gets posted on board or wall.

  5. When I read this post in the forums it got me so inspired I couldn't sleep that night- thanks for this conversation- I loved it ...

  6. Wonderful post, normally I just skim but your post was so well written and informative, I will be following your blog for more wonderful tips !

  7. Lovely and informative article. Thank you for taking the time to help people find their voices. I never really thought about how people look like their craft, until you mentioned it. That's hysterical and 'yes' - I look like my craft, as do my kids and house.

  8. Feel like I have just crammed a whole creative philosophy course in half an hour.......let's just say I have written many notes. Xx