From crocheted baby booties to original pieces of artwork, Etsy has long been known as the hipster site to find unusual and one-of-a-kind handmade goods. But over the past year and a half, Etsy’s support for artisanal products has shifted to business growth, leaving the true “maker” in the lurch.
I should know. I was first drawn to Etsy’s business model while searching for a market for witches. My crafty mother made them — spectacular, meticulously appointed sorceresses as Halloween decor — and I wanted to help her sell them. First stop? Etsy. I was a fan of the site, and believed that my mother’s made-in-Milwaukee witches would fit right in. What I found instead was a marketplace so crowded with artisans from all over the world that there was virtually no way for her to stand out.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think then — and don’t think now — that Etsy’s growth is a bad thing. In fact, Etsy’s new model, which now resembles Amazon far more than an online craft bazaar, makes total sense, given its growth trajectory.
Rather, today’s Etsy IPO is a sign of a maturing industry — an industry that Etsy started. Etsy first recognized and fulfilled what was clearly an enormous untapped yearning in a world of cheap, mass-produced products for original items — not only made by hand but easy to find and buy.
But Etsy was never going to be all things to all craft enthusiasts, especially once it opened the floodgates to manufactured products and knockoffs, as well as to resellers. And it wasn’t going to avoid charges from its core constituency that it sold out. Now others are seeing and taking advantage of the opportunity to improve upon and refine the original Etsy model, and so a robust online craft industry is taking shape.
As Etsy begins to morph into the eBay or Amazon of crafts, its competitors are taking advantage of the opportunity to put the spotlight back on “handmade.” If Etsy is the big-box retailer, its competitors are the farmers’ markets — places where quality and community take precedence over price and volume.
The smaller players in this new industry support a very committed group of buyers and sellers seeking a connection. Those shoppers purposefully reject major retailers in order to connect with the people behind the shops. They want to know the person they are buying from, what the maker’s background is, what kind of materials are used in their goods and where the artisan is located. The feeling of connectedness and of helping a talented person make a living is what is driving purchases.
Which brings me back to my mother’s witches. I first explored selling them on Etsy in 2013, well before talk of the company going public, and before it abandoned its exclusively handmade mission in order to allow for the manufactured goods that would fuel its exponential growth. But even back when Etsy was still Etsy, I discovered a very low percentage of American artisans.
So I founded Aftcra, which is a marketplace of American makers of hand-crafted goods. We welcome buyers and browsers from across the virtual universe to enjoy the artistry and ingenuity that has emerged from the American melting pot. Since January, when Etsy officially expanded its marketplace, our sales and traffic have tripled, proving that, just as there are buyers looking for a site that’s reminiscent of what Etsy once was, sellers are looking for a platform where they don’t have to compete with products that look identical — but are far cheaper because they are manufactured in China versus made by hand.
With more than 35,000 handmade goods uploaded, we likely will never catch up to Etsy. But we don’t want to. That’s the beauty of a vibrant, open marketplace replete with choices.
And so, all you American crafters out there — all you sellers of everything from handmade watches to witches — call me. I’ve got a virtual booth for you. And I promise it will be easy to find.
Erica Riegelman is co-founder and president of Aftcra, a family-owned handmade marketplace for American goods. She and all of the members of her team live in Milwaukee, Wis. Reach her @eriegel.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.