Small Business

Etsy-nomics lets sellers stitch together a new living

Martha C. White, NBC News
Source: Etsy

The creations are tiny—images painted on 3-by-5-inch discarded library catalog cards. But they're a big hit on Vickie Moore's Etsyshop, WingedWorld, allowing the 41-year-old mother of two to supplement her part-time job as a newspaper reporter.

"I thought I would have a few sales a month," she said. "When I introduced my library card product line, that's when things really took off."

Moore illustrates what the handmade- and vintage-goods marketplace detailed in a recent report: how a new class of micro-preneurs is balancing numerous jobs and income streams.

"We really wanted to quantify the impact of something that may have been overlooked as a hobby," said Althea Erickson, policy director at Etsy. About a quarter of the Americans who sell on Etsy also hold down full-time jobs somewhere else. Just under half are "independent, part time, or temporary workers," according to the report.

"We've seen a movement towards independent work and self-employment," Erickson said.

All those beaded earrings and knitted baby booties are adding up, with sellers on track to ring up more than $1 billion in sales this year, the company said.

That success, though, doesn't mean Etsy sellers are ditching their other jobs.

Moore, who figures she'll make about $8,500 on Etsy this year, said she plans to keep her newspaper job for the health insurance, since her husband's employer doesn't offer family coverage.

"This is the kind of job we're going to see more of in the economy, but it also underscores the importance of social protection of safety nets," said Arne L. Kalleberg—professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs. "These people …aren't going to get health insurance through their employer."

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The implementation of the Affordable Care Act could change this dynamic for creative types hanging onto their day jobs and encourage them to take the plunge into full-time entrepreneurship. Currently, only 18 percent say selling their creations is a full-time job.

Erika Kelly is one Etsy full-timer. The 28-year-old started the Portland Apron Company last year when she was looking for jobs in her field while working full time as a manager at a coffee shop.

"I enjoyed sewing, and I was spending a lot of time applying for jobs and I started to get pretty burnt out," she said. This July, Kelly decided to quit her full-time job to concentrate on the business she was spending up to 50 hours a week building. "I could no longer keep up with and do a good job at both," she said. It's a step she wouldn't have been able to take this year if her husband's job didn't provide health insurance for the two of them, she said.

The income Kelly makes is supplemented by renting out an apartment attached to their home on Airbnb, another example of what the Etsy's seller report says is an example of the "emerging peer economy, where people use technology to trade, sell, rent and share with each other."

These kinds of sites make it easier for small entrepreneurs of all types to find buyers, even for niche products.

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Inc.'s entrepreneur of the year

"I don't know many people that wear bow ties, but when you put the whole world together, I've sold to 48 of the 50 states," said Adam Speicher, a 25-year-old who now juggles a full-time job at an insurance company with Speicher Tie Company on Etsy, where he sells handmade bow ties in a bevy of quirky prints and patterns. "I thought I'd make a couple hundred bucks a month," he said. Instead, he expects to bring in about $25,000 in sales this year.

Speicher is a bit of an anomaly. Etsy sellers skew heavily female—only 12 percent are men—and 27 percent have kids living at home.

And most aren't getting rich in the process. The report finds that sales contribute an average of 7.6 percent to a seller's household income, a little over $3,400 based on the report's finding that the average household income of an Etsy seller is $44,900—a bit below the national average.

It's not just about the money, though. Being able to set their own hours, especially when it comes to childcare, is a big part of what motivates these entrepreneurs. While around two-thirds of sellers said the income was a big motivator, more than half said "greater flexibility" was a primary reason for starting an Etsy shop (respondents could choose more than one answer.)

"I started my shop to get through school, and as my shop took off, I realized I'd be able to stay home and raise my kids," said Megan Walsh, a registered nurse who sells scarves and crocheted accessories via her shop, MegansMenagerie.

Walsh, 30, said she plans to go back to nursing when her kids, ages 9 and 19 months, are older. "Right now I love being able tostay home with them," she said. "They're not going to be little forever."

Professor Kalleberg says the advantage to this type of work is that people are their own boss. "You're not making much money …but that's your choice. You have control over what you do, and that's an important source of satisfaction."

For some, investing in their professional autonomy can pay financial dividends. Lacey Bortvit started selling boxes and packaging supplies following the birth of her son five years ago, and has subsequently grown Le Box Boutique into a $100,000 business.

"As a single mother, I felt like I deserved the right to stay home with my son and be a full-time mom, even though there wasn't anybody else there supplementing my income," said Bortvit, who also has a photography business. "I was brainstorming for a way to stay home with my son and make a little money. I never expected it to take off this big."