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SURF THIS: 124 125 301 166At Etsy.com, buyers meet their creative makers

July 7, 2008

Ah, the idealism of youth. There's something truly refreshing (and yes, at times, frustrating) about the effervescent optimism on display by young people. They look at the world, see a problem (perceived or real) and set out to change things.

Of course, most of their efforts end up on the pile of broken dreams, but every once in a while, one breaks through. They achieve success, they realize their dreams, and they do it while actually making the world a better place.

Take Rob Kalin.

Rob's a young guy who found himself standing in an upstate New York Wal-Mart one day, looking down "an anonymous shelf of products" and thinking that the marketplace could be re-imagined as a community, with people across the globe talking with and helping each other-and ultimately buying and selling handmade goods.

A painter, carpenter, and photographer, Rob was increasingly frustrated with the inability to find a marketplace for his own creations. In his mind, the Internet had become inundated with overstock electronics and broken appliances being sold at the lowest possible prices. Why not harness that power, he thought, to create a global community-based marketplace like he'd seen on a local level in Europe?

Out of these imaginings, Etsy (www.etsy.com) was born.

Etsy is an online marketplace crafted to connect buyers with independent designers and creators of all things handmade, while providing these artists with the technology and information they need to make a living making things. "People want things that are unique, and one of the big challenges of buying gifts for other people is finding something that they're going to feel is special," says Kalin.

"Instead of buying something massproduced that they haven't found yet, you can actually go on Etsy and buy something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."

The Etsy store breaks the mold in so many creative ways that it's obvious to even casual observers that this is a labor of love, created by a group of very talented people. The store allows so many different ways to browse, it really feels like walking through a crowded marketplace waiting for something to catch your eye.

You can easily browse and buy in traditional ways: searching, by categories, by creator, etc. But for a real treat, consider one of the less traditional methods. Need something blue? Browse by color. Want something from Europe? Browse by geography. Want something absolutely unique and newly available? Use the Time Machine to watch new listings as they come online.

Still not enough? You can also look by connections. Or by items recently sold to someone else. Or stores that have added items but haven't yet sold anything. With all the choices available, you're bound to find one (or several) that suit your style.

If all of these choices don't help you find that perfect item, Etsy offers one more unique variant: Alchemy. With Alchemy, buyers can post requests for handmade items and sellers bid on the opportunity to make the goods. At any given time, there may be buyers trying to find someone to craft calendars, clothes, diaper bags, curtains... I've even noticed a buyer trying to find someone to make the "perfect wedding dress I have in my head."

The true "big idea" of Etsy-aside from the stunning technology and the ground-breaking shopping paths-is the ability for non-technical people to find buyers of their craft. "This human-tohuman relationship of the person who's making it with the person who's buying it is at the core of what Etsy is," Kalin explains. "The Web completely changes the way that world commerce works. Etsy provides a viable alternative to shopping at places like Wal-Mart."

"My favorite thing about Etsy," says Etsy community member Gabe Molnar, "is that I make a living at it." In the end, that's the key to Etsy's amazing success: More than 1 million members, 185,000 sellers, 1.7 million items currently listed, and year-to-date sales of almost $30 million.

Ah, the idealism of youth...



Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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