By Cammie Bellamy Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
It's not uncommon for one of Sara Westermark's rings to end up on a finger in Canada, England or France.
Working out of a Wilmington studio, Westermark sells her jewelry in local and regional galleries. But getting her product onto hands outside of North Carolina means keeping a strong online presence.
In 2007, Westermark discovered Etsy.com.
Etsy is an online marketplace for crafters and artists; everything sold in the site's million-plus shops to its 40 million users must be handmade, a vintage item or a craft supply.
Creative entrepreneurs in Wilmington are using the site to introduce shoppers outside the Cape Fear to their work, generating a national -- and sometimes global -- market for local goods.
For some artists, such as John Golden, the exposure that Etsy allows has been career-making.
"I joined them in 2006," when Etsy was a year old, he said. "I think my membership number was in the low 60,000s...."
"At the time I was a freelance illustrator-slash-animator. I think within a day or so I sold my first piece."
In eight years, one sale grew to 16,000, today accounting for half of Golden's income.
For most users, sales are more modest but provide some nice bonus cash.
When Kristy Louden started her Etsy shop -- PaperWoodVintage -- in 2010, she was pregnant with her third child.
"I had just started working part time, and with all the kids we needed something I could do from home," she said.
It was inexpensive to get started; Etsy takes 3.5 percent of each sale and charges 20 cents per listing. But Louden's early days on the site came with a steep learning curve. Working with the site's algorithms to keep her products visible, perfecting photos to attract buyers, choosing the right price points.
"I was totally new to this," she said. Quickly, other Etsy shop owners reached out to help Louden learn the site's tricks. "Etsy is really cool because it's kind of like a community. Even though it is so big, there are lots of friendly people on there and groups that want to help you succeed."
Westermark also got some help in her early Etsy days. She joined Etsy Metal, a group of jewelry makers on the site. With the bump in visibility, she was chosen as an Etsy featured seller, making about $60,000 through the site in her first year.
But Westermark said big-scale successes are becoming fewer and farther between on Etsy.
"When I started, there wasn't so much competition. You could make a good income," she said.
Golden agreed that it takes more savvy than ever to do well on Etsy; among his products for sale on the site are two downloadable how-to guides on search engine optimization for Etsy.
"I think the days of something going up and becoming organically a huge, popular item are gone," he said. "You can have the best products, you can have great descriptions, you can take great photos; they'll all mean nothing if people can't find your work." Louden said even in slow months, her Etsy money is a welcome income supplement.
"I fill up my car each week, get more ink for the printer," she said. "It's been exactly what we needed for where we are right now."
She also noted that she buys almost all of her vintage items in Wilmington: "The goods leave, but the money stays here."
Despite the huge pool of competition, Louden, Golden and Westermark all said they would recommend Etsy to anyone willing to dedicate time to their shop.
"I've had some people try very hard on Etsy and not do well at all and some people who were like Cinderella stories," Westermark said. "If you have a really clever idea and get it out there, it can be a great thing."