Abby Heissler was a photography student at Columbia College in Chicago when she decided to put her eye and sense of style to work and make some extra money by selling handmade jewelry on Etsy under the name, “oooabby.” Then, when she and her mother purchased four steamer trunks of Edwardian Era (1890 – 1914) clothing from a family friend and posted the mutton-sleeved pieces on her Etsy page, things truly took off.
There was just one problem: She had no idea how quickly the hours would stack up.
“It’s a lot to keep up with,” she said with a laugh. “The success came in waves: When I was tending to it more, I sold more, and when I was ignoring it, I sold less.
“It’s really a full-time job to run it smoothly; it’s a lot of work.”
Most of it, she said, is networking. A lot of time is devoted to returning messages regarding the specifics of clothing and reaching out to current and future customers on social media outlets such as Instagram and Facebook.
“You have to make sure you’re getting followers on all your social media and for someone like me, who works a lot of different jobs, it’s hard to keep up with,” she said.
And that’s before a single article of clothing is posted online.
“It’s quite the process: I have to wait for the right time of day, when the time is perfect, when I’m photographing outside because I don’t want harsh sunlight on my clothes,” she said. “Then I’d put it on the computer, crop it down, rotate it and edit it if I needed to.
“Then I have to measure every single thing I’m wanting to put online,” she said. “I have to measure the bust, the hips, the waist, the length and all those details and write it all down.”
Then the files need to be uploaded to Etsy’s server, which can be time consuming, Heissler said, if it’s done right.
“I want to upload large files so the customer can zoom in on the images,” she said.
Finally, as part of the effort to keep her web presence as active as possible, the posts are then scattered throughout a set time.
“I don’t want to post everything the same day or within the same week because then they all might get stuck ten pages back in the search engine,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of sellers post a ton of stuff all in the same day and, I’ll be searching for something and there’ll be three pages of just one seller’s thing.
“But you’ll notice they’re not making too many sales and that’s because all their stuff is on the same page.”
As Etsy has grown in popularity since its inception in June 2015, finding new ways to its shop from the competition is a constant challenge for the site’s retailers.
Especially when copycats begin to emerge.
That’s what happened to Katie Antonson when her shop, Lille Syster, started to gain momentum.
“I was so insanely successful on Etsy that I immediately had a ton of copycats, countless,” she said. “I’ve had to accept that and make sure that whatever I’m doing is current, fresh and new.”
It’s one way, she said, to engage her regular customer base and achieve that active online presence Heissler found so important.
“I have to make sure I keep my loyal customers happy, my go-to people who buy everything I make,” Antonson said. “I want to make new things for them because they find joy in it and I have to make sure I stay ahead of the curve.”
For Antonson, her “paper florist” business started when her family was planning her younger sister’s bridal shower. In a search for unique decorations she began to play around with paper because, well, it’s simply second nature for her.
“As a kid, my dad was a painter so he always had sample wallpaper books,” she said. “So, I was always playing with paper as a kid and making things because that was the scrap paper we had in the house.
Her sister loved the decorations and, when it came time to plan the wedding, there were particular considerations to address. Namely that the ceremony would be outdoors in Vermont in January.
Given the specific conditions of the wedding, the typical flower arrangements simply wouldn’t do and the family decided to carry over the theme from the bridal shower and decorate the ceremony with Antonson’s paper flowers.
“(My sister) decided she wanted to have the flowers at the wedding so I taught all of her bridesmaids how to do it and we made hundreds upon hundreds of feet of garland, flowers and other things,” she said. “We probably spent about six months making flowers and in hindsight, using my current pricing structure, it was probably about $25 thousand worth of flowers.
“It’s still the biggest wedding I’ve ever done.”
When her family returned from the wedding, there was an expectation that things would finally return to normal after months of preparation. By then, however, the project had taken on a life of its own.
“When we came home and it was all over, we were buried in paper, but I thought I’d like to sell them online,” she said. “So, I went on Etsy and decided to sell garland because I wanted to keep making flowers and it seemed pointless if I wasn’t going to something with them.”
With no business background, she sat at her computer and began to fill out her information.
“One of the first things you have to do on Etsy is come up with a name for your store, which is where Lille Syster came from because my family is Swedish,” she said. “Lille Syster is Swedish for ‘little sister.’
In five weeks, she was taking custom orders and, like Heissler, quickly realized that operating an Etsy store is a full-time position. Then, after two years, Antonson quit her job as a fourth grade teacher in the Easton school district.
Since then, Antonson has invested in, and grown out of, several brick and mortar locations, finally settling at 140 Northampton St. in Easton. Having the presence has helped her build a local customer base that wasn’t there when the store only existed online.
Then there’s also the benefit of getting the work out of the house and into its own self-contained location.
“I worked for one year from my house, but it was way too isolating,” she said. “It was weird for me to be home alone all day after being surrounded by 25 kids and noise, a teaching staff, which was super social.
“That was really hard for me and it started to feed this character trait that I didn’t even know that I had, this hermit,” she said. “I started to get social anxiety anytime I had to leave, which was bizarre because I was never that kind of person.”
It’s a feeling Stephanie Morris knows too well: The inevitable cabin fever that comes from working from home.
“Luckily for me, my best friend lives a few houses down and is also my designer,” she said. “So, at least once or twice a week, we try to go out for an hour because it’s easy to get kind of funky just sitting in the house.”
Like Antonson, Morris began her business, Geezees Custom Canvas, almost by accident.
“I didn’t plan on starting a business at all: My husband and I used to buy cheap canvass sheets from Michael’s and jam it into our inkjet printer at home to make stuff for ourselves,” she said. “My girlfriend, who was selling stuff on Etsy, came over one day and suggest I try it.
“This was seven years ago and I’d never even heard of it before.”
Within the first year the company took off and, as the holidays approached, Morris realized Geezees was about to become a full-time job and she left her position at a Chiropractic office to focus solely on her business. After the second year, she brought her sister into the business as a second employee and, in the third year, added a designer.
Morris also brings on additional designers throughout the year to coincide with the holidays and keep up with the company’s growth: In the first year, Geezees moved 79 units. Now, the company averages between 250 to 300 sales a month.
As business picked up, a new dynamic of the coveted home office began to emerge: Apart from the lingering sense of cabin fever that comes from working from home, Morris sometimes feels as though she can’t escape her work.
“The customers don’t realize sometimes that they’re calling the business but they’re really calling my home,” she said. “So, we’re always on because we might get a call at midnight one night.”
There’s one benefit to working from home that, for Morris, outweighs any of the considerable negative: the ability to be surrounded by her family, including her 12-year-old son Zach who has already started to commercialize his online presence.
“He’ll sit and work on flash animation all evening; he has a YouTube channel that he wants to make money off of and that’s how he wants to spend his Friday nights, which is great,” she said. “The last month, he’s decided to use half of his allowance to pay for views on YouTube.”
At age 42, Morris said she is amazed to see how naturally Zach has taken to the internet and the level his commitment to his projects on YouTube. They’ve even collaborated.
“He knows what I do and sees how I work,” she said. “And he’s great on Photoshop and he’s done stuff with me. Especially over the holiday season, I’ll put him on editing duty.”
Chris Fairchild, 45, has also noticed a difference between how he and his kids relate to technology.
“Their relationship to technology is completely different; their use of technology totally is like how we related to TV but instead of there being just one TV, they have five devices they can use,” he said. “It’s interesting how kids aren’t afraid of technology and can just use it like crazy.”
Though the kids don’t work with their father on his online store, working from home allowed Fairchild to collaborate with his sons on a chalkboard that was eventually posted to the store.
“They were real excited about it and they made it in a very creative way by using these old pieces of wood,” Fairchild said. “Then they got to be able to see it on the site, we put a little price tag on it and I think they were excited to see that their creation could be out there online.”
Much like Antonson and Morris, Fairchild finds a great deal of surprise in that fact he’s currently selling his hand-made organizers on an online marketplace such as Etsy.
“Did I think I’d be running an online business? Absolutely not,” he said. “I could’ve never envisioned doing this and, if you go back 15 years, I never thought I’d be doing any of this. And, with the online business, I would’ve never considered that my comfort zone, but I think it was a good opportunity.”
He joined Etsy in 2011, under the name In Order 2 Organize, to sell hand-made organizational shelving to expand his professional organization consulting business called In Order.
“My business was a serviced-based business helping people get organized and, during the slow times, I was looking for something to supplement that,” he said. “I wanted to come up with a product I could sell and the best idea I had was based on people’s excessive mail and decided to build the mail-organizer chalkboard.”
Wearing a few professional hats a balancing act Heissler has been struggling with since relocating from Chicago and the move has slowed down her online shop recently.
“I’ve been in Limbo with the places I’ve been living these past couple years and I haven’t had any place to photograph my inventory,” she said. “And if I’m photographing a lot of my inventory at random places, it just doesn’t look consecutive and I prefer all my stuff to be photographed in the same location.
“If I’m photographing stuff in all sorts of random spots, it just doesn’t look professional to me.”
But now that she’s more settled from her relocation, she’s hoping to devote more time to operating her online store.
“I have my new place with an office where I can photograph, immediately put it on the computer and then online,” she said. “It’ll all be in the same room so I’ll be able to function better because there’s so many steps involved in putting stuff on etsy.”
In the meantime, she’s partnered up with Homebase on Northampton Street in Easton to provide her shop with a brick and mortar location. It’s something she’s seen have an impact on her brand.
“I’ve built an audience, especially by having the shop here at Homebase where people can come, look at the stuff and try it on,” she said.
Even in that, though, there is a balancing act.
“What I sell in the store is very different from what I sell online,” she said. “Online, I have a whole world of vintage lovers who are willing to pay top dollar for my clothes, but I still find a lot of really cute things I can sell here for not a lot of money.”
There is always a certain element of learning as one goes when a business begins with the simple act of opening an account with a website.
One thing is for certain, with a good idea and a well honed craft, a consumer craftperson can become an online retailer, and perhaps even a sensation in the new Etsy economy.