The secret sauce behind 11 of Etsy’s top sellers


There are more than 1.5 million active Etsy sellers globally, but what does it take to be one of the online marketplace’s most successful sellers in Australia?

The appeal for many Etsy sellers, who commonly sell carefully crafted hand-made goods, is it provides a quick and affordable way of setting up a small business, with less risk involved than if they were to go out on their own.

While for many their Etsy shop remains a hobby, once established other sellers find it can turn into something bigger than anticipated: a thriving business.

SmartCompany has compiled a list of 11 of the most popular and successful sellers in this category, based on a list compiled by Etsy of some of the most popular or successful sellers in Australia. We also spoke to seller growth manager at Etsy, Jennie Smith, to find out what makes a successful small business on the platform.

A different type of small business

Smith’s role is to educate Etsy sellers about the platform and to help them find community and success.

“It’s interesting to note the way Etsy sellers define success, it’s different to traditional entrepreneurs,” Smith says.

“Many want to sell full-time, and we found about 26% do, but others are just looking to supplement income or do it for a creative outlet.”

Some sellers are interested in keeping their businesses at a scale they can manage, Smith says.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious,” he says.

As someone who is involved with Etsy’s annual seller census, Smith also knows a thing or two about who the country’s Etsy sellers tend to be. She says they’re predominantly female (about 94%), more than twice as likely to be under 35, a large percentage are parents with children at home and 27% have a household income of less than $800 a week.

When it comes to what makes them want to set up a shop in the first place, Smith says there appears to be “two schools”.

“Some go in with the intention of quitting their day job, and are highly motivated to go into business,” she says.

“The others find it almost accidentally; they might be great at making something and put it out there and it takes off.”

Then there are the women who find themselves with “Etsy husbands”, which Smith says is a reference to the women sellers who end up employing their partners to work for them.

Smith says in her experience, one of the most important things an Etsy seller can do is “nail the photography” on their site.

Secondly, it helps to have solid search engine optimisation and an understanding of how your customers are finding you, Smith says, and “great branding” is probably third.

“The best Etsy sellers are particularly good at telling their story and good at making connections with people who buy their goods,” she says.

Etsy success mapped out

One of Etsy’s most successful sellers in Australia is Cath Young, who sells cushions that feature old-world maps printed on organic cotton fabric on her Etsy site My Bearded Pigeon.

Young, who lives in Bellingen in NSW, told SmartCompany she has run her Etsy shop since 2010.

“I had the idea of putting vintage maps onto fabric; maps that were out of copyright, anything over 100 years old,” she says.

Because she couldn’t use any maps that were current, Young found a private collector willing to let her use theirs, then found a place that would print onto certified organic cotton.

She says the printing company also let her do short runs, which meant she could change designs easily.

Young doesn’t consider herself a photographer but attributes taking a good photo for her site as a contributing factor to the success that followed.

“I did a world map cushion and then took a great photo of my daughter on the cushion,” she says.

“As soon as I took the photo I knew it was really good. That photo changed everything.”

Soon after, Young’s shop was picked up and featured on popular US interior design blog Apartment Therapy.

“I just woke up one day, and traffic to my Etsy shop was crazy,” she says.

“I had heaps of sales in one night and a lot of correspondence from people asking for cushions with maps of particular places.”

The overnight success saw rapid growth continue into the following year, much of it from global shoppers.

Young, who still works part time as a social worker, has also had to take on two employees, including her husband Neil, to keep up with demand.

While she says things have plateaued in recent years “which is good, I actually like where it is now” Young is aware of the unique position she is in, especially as a mother of two who lives in regional Australia.

“Etsy has allowed me to work from home with really flexible hours and to access a global market which I could never access geographically,” she says.

“There’s not lots of shops I could wholesale to in my suburb.”

Young estimates My Bearded Pigeon probably now turns over about $80,000 a year, with most of the sales coming from buyers in the US (60%), about 30% from within Australia and 10% from the UK.

Young says it has been somewhat of a surprise to have found a thriving business in My Bearded Pigeon, with her previous Etsy venture, Chunky Chooky, just covering costs.

She says even the idea she has a small business has been one which has taken getting used to.

“My accountant said to me, ‘you’re running a small business’. It didn’t occur to me,” she says.

“To me, I was just making things and selling them, I didn’t see it as the same as a small business.”

Young’s success has also seen her become a mentor in the recent Etsy Creative Challenge, part of which she says is about getting others to understand “there’s not this huge risk”.

“Yes Etsy is huge and there is a lot of competition but I see new things all the time that blow my mind; sellers who are not just doing well, but doing great,” she says.

With its high percentage of women sellers, Young believes Etsy is a kind of platform for “feminist e-commerce”.

“It’s like this whole e-commerce movement that women are doing in the corner that is actually quite huge,” she says.

“And we are doing it really well, and in a real community space.”

Asked whether her success might lead her to consider setting up a business independently, Young says she is content where she is for now.

“I’ve tried other e-commerce sites, I just don’t have the time to promote them and get the traffic there. The thing with Etsy is people are already there,” she says.

Eleven of Australia’s most popular or successful sellers on Etsy

1. Cath Young: My Bearded Pigeon

Annual turnover: $80,000

Cath Young opened her shop in 2010 after waking in the middle of the night with the idea to put maps on cushion covers.

Since that night she has sold her map cushions, and many other products, all over the world and now employs her husband and a local seamstress to help her keep up with the demand for her products.

2. Kirsten Devitt: Each To Own

Annual turnover: $80,000

Brisbane-based Kirsten Devitt’s jewellery-making business and Etsy shop started in 2010 when a friend asked her to make some pieces for a Mother’s Day stall and she sold 300 pieces very quickly.

An Etsy shop was a natural progression for Devitt, and less than two years after she started, she was able to leave her job to run Each To Own full time from home.

“I never really went back,” she says.

“It’s been worthwhile just to be able to do what I want to do in my life.”

3. Amy Ta: Seventh Tree Soaps

Annual turnover: $20,000

Amy Ta is a Sydney-based Etsy seller who came from a corporate background but quit her job to take a break from the rat race and try to make an income from something she’d always had a knack for: making soap.

Ta launched Seventh Tree Soap on Etsy in January 2013 and started receiving orders immediately. Today, she runs the business full time.

“Having Etsy as third of my earnings is amazing,” she says.

“Etsy is a big deal in terms of me being able to run my small business … it gives me the freedom to do work when I need to and work around my son.”

4. Grace Wood: Grace Wood Designs

Annual turnover: undisclosed

Designer and textile maker Grace Wood creates felt-based textiles and turns them into bed covers, throws, cushion covers, floor cushions, wall hangings and scarves, amongst other things.

After studying design and returning from a trip abroad to learn more about how to use felt as a textile, Wood launched her first range of cushion covers through Etsy in March 2014.

5. Andy and Jo Olive: Olive and The Volcano

Annual turnover: undisclosed

Jo and Andy Olive design, prints and assemble a range of handcrafted paper goods such as notebooks, gift cards, gift tags and prints.

Their studio Olive and the Volcano in northern NSW was the perfect solution to less commuting and more family time with their three children.

6. Brian McNamara: Rare Beasts

Annual turnover: $6000- $8000

Brian McNamara invents electronic musical instruments such as analogue and digital synthesisers for his Rare Beasts’ Etsy shop, all while looking after his two small children.

“It allows me to be with them before and after school, it’s a nice flexible thing I can do,” he says.

The enterprising stay-at-home dad also writes for magazines and makes music to sell online.

McNamara has been selling his work via Etsy for about six years and also creates music with his digital creations.

7. Hepzabeth Amelia: Cleanse With Benefits  

Annual turnover: $70,000

Taking up soap making as a hobby in 2011 after moving to Sydney from the UK, Hepzabeth Amelia discovered she had a passion for making artisanal skincare products from natural and plant-based products.

Working by day for a renowned upholstery company, Cleanse with Benefits is Amelia’s weekend outlet for creativity as well as a source of additional income.

Amelia says she turned over about $70,000 in the past year, which had progressed “quite a lot” on the year before that.

Amelia also has a full-time job, a website which she runs and sells a lot at the markets every weekend.

“I work full time for another company, so this is only in my spare time,” she says.

“It’s a labour of love.”

8. Kylie Jackson: Wallfry  

Annual turnover: Undisclosed

Melbourne-based artist, designer and maker Kylie Jackson started her Etsy shop in 2010 while pregnant with her first son.

Jackson struggled to find nursery art that would be appealing to children and adults alike and so Wallfry, Wall Art for the Small Fry, was born.

Jackson has had about 12,000 sales on Etsy and has sold to customers in over 40 different countries.

She says the earnings from WallFry now supplement her former full-time salary and allow her to fully walk away from her former career in HR.

“I am very happy to say that the business has been successful to the extent that I have been able to quit my day job,” she says.

9. Jacqueline van Heyst: Jac & Hugo

Annual turnover: undisclosed

Jacqueline van Heyst began designing and making silver jewellery for family and friends when she returned to Sydney after living and working overseas.

She chanced upon an Etsy conference in Sydney that inspired her to turn her passion into an online business and her designs are now sold across the world.

Van Heyst says sales have increased 20% each year since she started and allows her to have a great family life and stay fulfilled in her work.

She says more than half her sales are from the US, followed by Australia, Canada, UK France, Germany, Sweden, NZ, Singapore and Russia.

10. Belinda Marshall: Belinda Marshall Art

Annual turnover: $60,000

Marshall is a self-taught artist specialising in fine art abstract works who began painting when her first son was born.

She discovered Etsy in 2008 when her son was a baby, finding it a perfect way to put her work out into the world in a way that could be ‘try it and see’.

Her Etsy shop remains a way of sharing her artwork with the world while raising her two small children.

11. Kamma Spring: Lorgie  

Annual turnover: $200,000-$250,000

Lorgie is an Etsy business run by Kamma Springs, who makes handcrafted timber books for special occasions, including weddings, anniversaries, other celebrations and commemorations.

Spring runs her Etsy enterprise full-time, with demand for her creations all year round because of the wedding seasons in both hemispheres.

Spring says the name Lorgie (lor-gee) is inspired by her daughter Ruby, who passed away in 2010.

“She taught me the importance of living life on my own terms, and gave me the courage to make the leap into the sometimes turbulent waters of small business ownership,” she says.

This article was originally published on September 15, 2015.

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