This August marks my fifth year selling on Etsy.* I found this old list of five lessons I'd written after my first year as an online shop owner, but I never shared it until now. I've added my current thoughts to this list (written in italics).
- Don't be afraid of custom orders. Some of my best experiences this past year have been doing custom orders. In fact, for this next year, I'm going to increase some of the personalization options I offer.
I still enjoy custom orders. There is something very satisfying about making items that mark special occasions or that have some special meaning to the customer. That said, custom orders are not for every shop. A lot of sellers hate custom orders. You need to be a great communicator and be willing to work with colors, themes, or styles that might not be personal favorites. Custom orders can take a substantial amount of time, so take that into consideration when accepting one.
The easiest way to start doing custom orders is to allow for minor modifications of an existing item (maybe a different color) and see how it goes. If you need examples of how to offer options to your customer, see How Many Choices Do Customers Need? I also wrote about my own experience with custom orders as a customer (Custom Jewelry: A Customer's Perspective).
- It's OK to say no. I get asked to make items that are completely out of my comfort zone—things I've never made before with materials and techniques I've never used. While I love experimenting, I don't necessarily want to do that on a customer's dime. When I turn orders away, I try to steer customers to others on Etsy who might be able to help them.
I still say no to some orders and guide shoppers in a general way to other sources. For example, a common request I get is for custom printed invitations. I don't make those, but I suggest that shoppers look for letterpress shops that do offer that service. Honestly, I see turning down orders as part of good customer service. While I understand that the customer may be disappointed that I can't help him or her, it's far better to turn down the order than to make something that isn't up to par. I try to respond as quickly as I can to those requests so that he or she has time to seek out an alternative.
Of course, if you're getting a lot of requests for a certain type of item, you might think about whether you want to add that to your selection. If someone's asking about it, chances are there's a market for that item.
- Don't emphasize a cohesive shop. I think shop owners worry about this too early. For your first year, it's OK to experiment.
Honestly, if I had never experimented with new directions, I'd never have added my cards, which turned out to be a major component of my first year.
There are lots of advantages to having a specialized shop. You might be able to get better deals on supplies since you'll be buying larger quantities. You'll be able to market your work more effectively. It's definitely an admirable goal, but don't stress out if you can't find your way there immediately. (See my post on 6 Reasons to Create a Jewelry Line for more thoughts on this topic.)
One caveat: I see a lot of new shop owners who take the idea of cohesion to an extreme, opening separate shops for earrings and bracelets, for example, rather than seeing that "jewelry" already is a cohesive shop. Cohesion can mean a technique (woodworking) or style (bohemian), not just a narrow type of item.
- Photos are the most important place to put your resources.
The overall quality of photos on Etsy has continued to rise. I see far fewer photos that look like they were taken on a rumpled bedspread or a dirty carpet strewn with animal hair. (Seriously!) My own photos have steadily improved over the years and I'm always experimenting with them.
Use great photos to catch a shopper's attention in a sea of search results. You don't need an expensive camera. Read my blog post The People in My Neighborhood if you're interested in learning more about how to view your own photos more objectively.
- SEO is the second most important.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) means the keywords that people will use to find your items. I'd probably rate this as the most important now. If you don't have good keywords (titles and tags in Etsy-speak), then shoppers will never even see your beautiful photos. (That said, if you're coming up in search, but still not getting sales, your photos might be one area where you need improvement.) Make sure you read and follow Etsy's suggestions since the way they use keywords is different than Google or other search engines. See You're Already an SEO Expert, Simple SEO for Your Jewelry Blog and SEO for Jewelry Shops for general information on this topic.
More "First Year on Etsy" Stories
While some advice is timeless, Etsy changes every week, so tips that worked for someone in their first year in 2010 might not be worthwhile today. Treasuries, for example, used to be featured on the Etsy home page, but aren't now, so tips about how to get featured are no longer relevant.
Most advice is well-meaning, but I have seen some blogs recommending practices like unsolicited email (spam!) to random site visitors (not customers) that are against Etsy's terms of service. Trust your own gut!
Here are selected blog posts from other shop owners on what they learned that first year:
- 14 Tips From My First Year on Etsy
Erin Heaton's 2014 blog post is one of the best I've read on this topic. (And many people agree, it's been pinned 40,000+ times!) Her solid, helpful advice is very specific and written in a friendly, easy-to-understand way.
- 1,000 Sales in My First Year of Business on Etsy
Subtitled "Low Cost Marketing Strategies," this post on the popular site Handmadeology recommends customer appreciation sales and thinking positively among the strategies.
- My First Year With Etsy
Read this post when you're feeling a little crazy about your shop; it will make you see that most shop owners go through a roller coaster of emotions that first year.
- The Dos and Don'ts of Selling Successfully on Etsy
An Australian shop owner describes how she found success with her second Etsy shop. (Lots of successful shops are actually second or third shops, a good reminder that you don't need to be perfect the first time out.)
- 12 Months and 1,200 Etsy Sales: Lessons Learned
This blog post offers a nice bulleted list of tips such as "Legendary service leads to loyal customers."
- My First Year as an Etsy Seller: Shop Policies
One of a series of blog posts by the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, this one covers an area that's often neglected by new shops until they run into a problem!
- 7 Steps to a Successful Start on Etsy
The official advice that Etsy offers to new sellers.
* I opened my account in 2010, but did not list anything for sale until late 2011. If I was going to add one more lesson to this list, it would be to not wait until everything is perfect before you open your shop! Nothing will ever be perfect. You can prepare as much as you like, but you're never going to feel absolutely, totally ready.
What lessons did you learn your first year selling on Etsy?