Posted on September 3, 2015 at 6:00 am
After a two-day journey by train and bus, I was back in the Midwest where I attended college. Breakfast with friends the morning after I arrived included coffee out of an odd little mug I found in my friend’s cupboard. It was smaller than the standard mugs, curved like the bell of a flower, and stood on three square feet attached to its round bottom. “Well that’s a funny looking mug,” I thought to myself. Then I remembered that it was one of mine.
This particular mug was the first Hobbit mug that I made three years ago. Back then, I had no intention of selling my pottery, and I had never heard of Etsy. A friend inspired me to make a mug for each of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings during my last semester of college. That little idea has kept me artistically busy ever since. I love the challenge of making something that looks like it came out of a different world and belonged to one of these characters so many people love. Someone with a head for business heard what I was working on in the ceramics studio and said to me, “People would probably buy those.”
I’m an introvert and not much of a self-promoter. I believe in my art, but I’m not a salesperson. Paperwork and anything business related is very intimidating to me. But I heard a coworker talk about Etsy, and she said that they guided you through everything, step-by-step.
I waited for a long time. I kept thinking I was going to perfect my design first, come up with a few more ideas, or make sure I had ten or more mugs to sell before I signed up for Etsy. But anything worth doing takes a leap of faith at some point, and that is particularly true of creative projects. It’s like the Nike slogan; you have to “just do it.”
I started my shop with four mugs. I was worried about how to ship them, how to pack them, how to advertise, and what name to pick for my shop. The greatest challenge was making this crowd of questions form a line so that I could answer them one at a time. After that, Etsy and my own passion for art made it pretty easy.
I continue to find answers to each question in my line of worry through research and just doing it. I’ve been open on Etsy for three years. The Etsy community, blog, and the seller’s handbook are just a few of the resources that help me answer questions and problem solve in the day-to-day operations of a growing shop.
Etsy nicely prioritizes for you as you go through the process of starting your shop. Basically, you pick a name and then you list your items. The first set of decisions is cued up for you and covers product listings, descriptions, pricing, and shipping.
I looked around at other shops selling handmade ceramic mugs to get ideas about pricing, as well as shipping prices because I had no idea how much that was going to cost. I looked for where I fit among the wide variety of prices and quality on Etsy. Pricing is a struggle for everyone because you have to find a balance between what people are willing to pay and the value of something unique and priceless into which you have poured your experience, creative passion, and heart. I priced the pieces a little lower than other work I’d seen on Etsy that was comparable to mine. I knew that these first pieces weren’t perfect and that I was going to get better, so I gave myself room to grow. I have raised my prices bit by bit since then. I know that my mugs can sell now, and with that kind of experience, confidence in pricing grows.
The first priority is to answer the questions that I might have if I were a customer. For example, yes, it’s microwave safe and it holds 16 ounces of liquid. That’s the boring part. The fun lies in sharing something about the piece that makes it special. Even if I don’t like a piece, I am committed to writing positively about it. My self-critique blinds me to beauty that the customer often surprises me by seeing. I’ve had customers wax poetical about mugs I thought were ugly and useless. For your descriptions, include a little bit about the process and your inspiration behind the design, but most importantly, stay positive.
Etsy’s tools for calculating shipping costs keep getting better and easier to use each time they upgrade them. The Etsy community offers countless tips for safe and cost effective packing that I have adopted over time. Unbroken pottery is my first priority in shipping, but I also like to add a personal touch to each shipment via a handwritten note tucked in the box. Direct contact with the artist behind the art is one of the reasons people love Etsy.
Marketing has turned out to be a lot of fun for me. Because my work appeals to a very specific audience (the charming nerd culture), I have a leg up when it comes to helping people find my shop. I use tags to put my items forward when a Lord of the Rings fan is browsing the site. Etsy keeps track and shows me all the stats on what keywords led browsers to my shop or listings. Some of them are predictable. After the Hobbit movies opened, anything tagged “Thorin” got lots of views, but sometimes I’m surprised at what grabs people’s attention. These stats help guide me as I come up with more designs or decide what to make again.
Outside of Etsy, I got myself some business cards. I got comfortable talking to people about what I was doing. I posted a link to a new listing on my Facebook page one day, and I was humbled and warmed by the response. Many of my friends shared and passed on the link. I know other sellers who have a Facebook page, and other social media accounts specifically for their shops. That is a great tool because it allows for more kinds of interaction between an artist and potential customers; an artist can get feedback and gauge interest in different kinds of work that they do. For me, developing my shop’s social media presence is an idea that is still in line, waiting to be tried.
One of the things I love about Etsy is that it lets me grow at my own pace. I have control over how much of my energy it takes up. There is no pressure to list lots of things or market aggressively. Those tools are available when I need them. When I have time and energy to focus on my shop, it flourishes.
The design has changed a lot since I gave my first Hobbit mug away. Its successors have been sold and shipped all over the country and overseas. The biggest change has been in my confidence. I can feel validated as a potter because something I made is used and enjoyed in houses all over the country.
Etsy offers a chance for artists and craftsmen, no matter the size of their dreams, to delight and enrich people. All an artist needs is something to share and the courage to take the first steps.
Karen Mannino is a native of the Inland Northwest and currently resides in Spokane. Her bucket list includes writing a Catholic Mass setting for four unaccompanied voices, illustrating Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, and making herself a historical costume from the 1860’s. Visit her Etsy shop, TheFourFarthings, for Middle Earth mugs and more!
Want to sell your handmade goods and vintage items online, but don’t know where to start? Attend one of our How to sell on Etsy workshops this month.