The “starving artist” archetype is nothing new. In fact, many of the world’s most celebrated artists fell victim to it. In his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting. When Johannes Vermeer died, he left his family in debt. Claude Monet lived much of his life in poverty.
Luckily for today’s “starving artists,” the Internet has made it easier than ever before for them to become entrepreneurs, develop a following and sell art without ever leaving their homes. Heading this online art-selling movement is a website called Etsy.
“Etsy has given a lot more people access to the Internet and social media for their small businesses,” Kerry Kennedy, owner of Fire Horse Pottery, said. “It has provided a great platform for so many, for better or worse, to get out there.”
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Etsy, an online marketplace based in Brooklyn, N.Y., combines the one-of-a-kind feel of craft fairs with the convenience of sites like eBay and Amazon. With the click of a button, users can open their own online shops to sell handmade goods, vintage items, craft supplies and –thanks to an October 2013 policy change –certain factory produced items.
Since its June 2005 launch, Etsy has grown to include about 1 million shops, and the site reaches an audience of more than 30 million members worldwide, according to the company’s blog. In 2013, the site sold $1.35 billion-worth of creative goods and received anywhere from 1 to 2 billion page views each month.
For Kennedy, Etsy is just one of many art-selling platforms; most of her art-selling experience has been offline in more traditional settings such as events, art fairs, farmers markets, galleries and her shop at the Kentuck Art Center in Northport, Ala. However, after noticing a friend and fellow potter’s success on Etsy, Kennedy said she decided to expand her business into the virtual world.
“We have not used Etsy for a primary income source but more of an additional chance to buy from us and learn about our work,” Kennedy said. “It has mostly been a small, vital part of the whole Fire Horse Pottery business plan. I like the way it works with Facebook to gain new exposure for us.”
By opening an Etsy shop, whether it’s a sole business venture or just one component of a larger business plan, an artist instantly gains millions of potential customers. But not only does having an online art-selling platform expand an artist’s audience, it expands their advertising and marketing opportunities as well.
Shop owners can create a business page on Facebook, and apps like OrangeTwig and Wishpond even let users sync their Etsy shops with their Facebook pages. Other apps, such as Promotesy, make it possible to integrate Etsy with a variety of social media sites, including Twitter, LinkedIn and more.
Jo Morrison, a sophomore majoring in operations management, said she originally found Etsy through another social media site: Pinterest. After six months of browsing other artists’ work, she opened her own shop CrimsonDixie, in which she sells acrylic paintings.
“[Having an Etsy shop] makes it easier to get my pieces out on the Internet, into categories on Etsy and other things like Pinterest,” Morrison said.
However, while Etsy can increase an artist’s exposure, it eliminates the intimacy of a one-on-one interaction between buyers and sellers. Morrison said she hopes to eventually be able to sell her paintings in craft fairs and art shows.
“The downside [of Etsy] is, because it’s over the Internet, the social aspect of business is small,” Morrison said. “There’s no actual personal interaction with customers outside of the computer.”
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Though Etsy has helped her business grow, Kennedy said she still prefers selling her artwork in person.
“I prefer in-person sales because of the connection [between artist and patron],” Kennedy said. “[Also], it’s much easier than packing and shipping pottery after the work of listing and managing the shop.”
While opening an Etsy shop is free, selling artwork isn’t. Etsy charges 20 cents for each item listed, and if an item hasn’t been sold after four months, it will be removed from the shop, and the artist has to pay another 20 cents to relist it. Etsy also claims 3.5 percent of each item’s sale price.
For Morgan Brown, a junior majoring in advertising, this small investment is well worth the benefits of managing an Etsy shop.
“I spent so much time crafting and making stuff for myself and my friends before I was on Etsy,” Brown said. “I bought stuff on Etsy all the time, but I didn’t even think about selling any of my stuff on there until a few of my friends convinced me, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.”
Brown’s shop BraceYourselfDesigns sells customizable canvases, with her most popular piece being a state outline canvas with a heart over the customer’s desired city. Because Etsy provides the option of creating custom orders, Brown said the site is much more practical for her business than it would be to sell her work in person.
“I think Etsy is really good for starting a business,” Brown said. “If mine ever does get big enough and successful enough, at some point I would try and do something on my own. But for people like me, who didn’t know much about business before, Etsy is a really good site. It really does a lot of the work for you but helps you learn how everything works along the way as well.”
While Brown, Kennedy and Morrison all said they consider Etsy to be a side project, it has the potential to be much more. According to a report released by Etsy in October 2013, 18 percent of Etsy users consider running an Etsy shop to be their full-time job and primary source of income.
“I hope my small business will grow and become something I can actually use as my basic income one day,” Morrison said. “I plan on using Etsy long-term. I can see myself making this my full-time career after school, so I can dedicate more time to it and make it more efficient and personal, so it can grow in the art community.”
By transporting the arts-and-crafts world to an online marketplace, Etsy diversifies the art buying and selling experience for both artists and patrons, Kennedy said.
“Etsy is fascinating because it has allowed so many to sell their own unique wares,” Kennedy said. “Whether they are handmade, hand-picked, good or bad, you can bet they are represented in one form or another. I love the possibility of that.”
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