E-Commerce Offers Entrepreneurs Creative Outlet, Flexible Business Model

By Nicki Gorny
Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article takes a look at several entrepreneurs who use “Etsy” to sell their creative products. In addition to providing valuable web traffic through a customer base that is already browsing the site, Etsy’s online business model allows shop owners significant flexibility in how to run their businesses.

Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.

Lisa Bienko counted down the days to Friday, when she retired.

But, for Bienko, who has spent the past year and a half or so splitting every single day between her office and her studio, that retirement does not mean she is planning to put her feet up. She is the one-woman show behind an online shop, Muddy Me, that ships ceramic pots, planters, cookie jars and more to customers craving handmade goods around the world. And now, she plans to move into a new studio she is building beside her Ocala home and focus strictly on her molds, kilns and glazes.

Bienko started selling ceramics online in 2009, shortly after a local pottery class got her hooked on the craft. In turning to the e-commerce website Etsy to sell her wares, she joined a community of thousands of entrepreneurial crafters.

“I love it,” she said.

Launched in 2005, Etsy offers an e-commerce model that in some ways mirrors Amazon or eBay. Etsy, though, uniquely limits its scope to vintage or handmade items.

Crafters, like Bienko and Nikki Awuma, also of Ocala, set up online shops through Etsy that highlight their work. The website hooks them up with its international customer base and facilitates sales through their shops to far-reaching corners of the country and world.

Search “cookie jar” on Etsy, for example, and you might stumble onto a ceramic jar shaped like Cookie Monster that Bienko lists through Muddy Me for $55. Purchase that item and she will get to work pouring a mold, firing the clay and giving the Sesame Street classic his characteristic blue hue.

Try “teething necklace,” and you might find a string of fashionable and baby-safe silicone beads Awuma began making while on maternity leave from her full-time accounting job.

A search for “equestrian hair bows” might pull up a set of long-tailed ribbons that Mary Beth Gentry, of Reddick, pitches to the horse show crowd.

Marion County is home to numerous Etsy sellers, whose shops deal in laptop covers, succulents planters, personalized baby spoons, workout apparel and more. These sellers paint Etsy as a convenient outlet for creative businesses. In addition to providing valuable web traffic through a customer base that is already browsing the site, they said, Etsy’s online business model allows shop owners significant flexibility in how to run their businesses.

“If my husband and I want to go away for the day, I can make it up working Saturday night,” said Vicki Ray, who partners with her daughter, Corri Yelken, to sell sewn items like laptop cases or purses on Etsy. “It’s great to be able to create our own hours.”

Mandi Harrell, who sells personalized jewelry and baby items through Little Pretties Boutique, spoke similarly.

“I could not think of a better working situation,” Harrell said.

Harrell falls within the approximately 30 percent of Etsy sellers who focus on their shop as their sole occupation, according to a company report released last year. The Ocala mom of 2- and 5-year-old daughters said she is supporting her family on her online sales. She said she turned to Etsy seriously last year while looking for a way to work from home.

She estimates that she regularly spends more than 40 hours a week tending to her shop. And, as a major benefit of the flexible business model Etsy offers, she said she often spends those hours with her daughters beside her.

In the bedroom work space that her 5-year-old has dubbed “the boutique,” for example, the girls help her string the chunky beads on Harrell’s “bubblegum”-style necklaces and bracelets. And if they decide to take an afternoon trip to a park, Harrell added, it’s easy to catch up on her crafting later.

“It has worked out way better than I could have imagined,” Harrell said.

Jessica St. Hilaire is another local crafter who turned to Etsy as a full-time gig. She said her online shop, Rooted in Succulents, is proving more profitable than the secretarial job she left in 2012.

The shop, which pitches planters and succulent arrangements designed by St. Hilaire in a backyard studio, saw sales shoot up following publicity through Etsy, which highlighted it as a featured shop in 2013, and through magazine coverage. That includes major names like “Southern Living,” which featured one of St. Hilaire’s arrangements in a 2012 issue.

For Etsy sellers who do not count their businesses as their sole occupation, sales tend to supplement other forms of income. Etsy reports that its shops contribute an average 15 percent to its sellers’ total household income.

That category covers Gentry, for example, who uses her hair bow sales to keep her now-18-year-old daughter competing in equestrian circles.

Gentry has been making bows in general since her daughter was a baby, she said, and began fashioning the types of bows popular at horse shows since shortly after her daughter began riding at 6 years old. Gentry initially made her sales through Facebook beginning in 2007 or 2008, she said, and moved to Etsy, a far more convenient platform in her eyes, in 2013.

For Anita Hardy, Etsy allows her to turn a 24-year hobby into a business. She sells crocheted items, like dishcloths and purses, while balancing another job.

Laura Zmek, of Ocala, said she dedicates around 10 hours a week to a business that started as a way to incentivize herself to exercise more. She made a deal with herself, where she would make herself a new workout shirt whenever she met a goal for the week, she said. At a friend’s suggestion, she started selling the types of shirts she was making and wearing herself.

The scope of the shop, Forever Strong Apparel, and its slogans, have since broadened, including some Halloween-themed shirts that Zmek currently has online. But some of those original slogans are still popular on her shop, too, she said.

(Example: “My head says gym, but my heart says tacos.”)

St. Hilaire echoed other local crafters when she said she had not necessarily expected a crafty whim to turn into a thriving business.

“You never know where it can lead,” she said.

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