In a world ruled by clicks, statistics and virtual traffic, it’s not always fashionable to follow your bliss. Luckily, Robert Kalin doesn’t seem to have much time for trends. When the New York-based carpenter and photographer founded Etsy back in 2005, he couldn’t imagine that his online marketplace would give rise to a global community of designers and makers – overwhelming evidence that art and commerce could seamlessly coexist.
Etsy may lay claim to 24 million members and 42 million unique monthly visitors, but Nicole Vanderbilt subscribes to Kalin’s theory that numbers don’t stand a chance when instinct calls.
“I used to run a company called My Deco and that’s how I came across Etsy,” says Vanderbilt, who serves as Etsy’s country director for Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
“It was the next place I wanted to work – I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.”
Her appointment was the stuff of dreams, for both parties. Vanderbilt’s combination of business acumen and creative nous – skills honed during her time as CEO of high-growth interior design site My Deco – saw her ranked among the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine in 2011.
Vanderbilt believes that Etsy owes much of its success to its staunch community focus and the way its artists and makers erase boundaries – commercial, geographical or otherwise.
“Since the economic downturn, there’s been a bit of a backlash against big business – we’ve built this world together, it’s the way we want it to be. And it’s funny, you see some mass-market retailers attempt to style themselves in a way that attempts to appear handcrafted and artisanal, when it’s not even the case,” she says.
Although Etsy offers users everything from French teacups to arresting mixed-media illustrations, Vanderbilt says that the marketplace can serve as a cultural barometer that offers powerful insights into what makes us tick.
“The internet is a strong community and people respond to things very quickly. For instance, a grumpy cat meme will appear on Etsy straight away!”
But it’s dangerous to be fooled by Etsy’s eclectic product landscape – the site also maintains an impeccable sense of selectivity and a unity of purpose that’s relatively unmatched online.
“Etsy as a company has done a really great job of merchandising the site,” says Vanderbilt. “The company has committed the time to making sure the first windows to your experiences with Etsy are really beautiful. Whether it’s the homepage or the newsletter or our social media presence, there’s a real sense of curation to the website.”
Etsy also enlists the help of tastemakers such as designer Jonathan Adler and culinary icon Martha Stewart, a move that elevates its brand presence.
However, Vanderbilt maintains that Etsy’s focus is firmly fixed on the makers themselves, the community that gives the website its life. She says that the narrative behind the products help spark emotional connections between buyer and seller, deepening relationships and driving growth.
“We see a lot of growth coming from Eastern Europe,” she says. “We receive really great stories from Etsy sellers who used to travel an hour away from their families and now spend a day in their workshop. Today, they’re able to sell things all around the world from their own studios.
“Our focus…is to get out of the way and let our sellers tell their stories – for a buyer to see that this isn’t just a scarf, it’s a scarf with a person behind it.”