Sharing Success in Etsy’s Community of Commerce

by cv harquail on March 30, 2012

The most promising feature of a community of commerce is the way that members in that community work to ensure each other’s success, even if helping others costs them something.

When members in a community help each other, we often don’t notice that there is a real cost in giving that help. Instead, because we are so trained to presume that any business-related action has a profit motive, we mis-interpret the cost of helping a customer and treat is as an “investment”.

It isn’t. It’s a give of support, with no expectation of return. This gifting is what distinguishes a human community from an impersonal marketplace. What these gifts from different members create, in aggregate, is a different experience and a different quality of participation in commerce.

Community of Commerce, in Action

Just today, I’ve been watching the Etsy Community of Commerce operating in real time, as Etsy Inc. delivers its springtime Etsy Success Symposium.

There are about 120+ Etsy merchants in person in the Etsy Inc lab/workshop space in Brooklyn. With them are perhaps 20 presenters leading the workshops. Some of the presenters are from Etsy Inc., some are Etsy merchants, and others are from the larger Etsy Community. A few are independent consultants there to teach a specific business skill, and some independent consultants have come just to help out.

Then, online, there are about 3000 Etsy merchants watching a LiveStream of the workshops, running a simultaneous chat, using the Etsy Success Symposium workbook they downloaded from the Etsy site, and offering each other suggestions and encouragements while the presentations unfold.

etsy symp image.jpg

Before I can describe the community dynamic, let me identify the different sets of participants:

Etsy Inc.: The legal entity, the site, and the people who create and run it

Etsy Merchants (also known as Sellers): Individuals and small business that have a store or shop in the Etsy site, where they display for sale items that they make and/or what they curate

Etsy B2B Partners: Businesses that don’t sell wares on Etsy to ‘retail’ customers, but instead who provide a third party service that helps Etsy Inc. serve the Merchants or that helps the Merchants run their business back offices more effectively

Etsy Customers: People like me who troll the site endlessly, looking at and buying all the beautiful things

The community also has members such as Etsy-related blogs that feature craft techniques, business building tactics, or tools that help merchants with their businesses, and software/digital development companies that are using Etsy’s API to create third-party applications that help sellers do extra things like manage their taxes more effectively. And this is without even discussing Etsy Inc.’s contributions to the software developer community and startup communities in NYC. Or the effect that all of this interactive commercial and community activity has on the ultimate experience of the end consumer.

What is actually going on here at the Etsy Success Symposium.?

It looks straightforward on the surface:

Etsy Inc. is running a training/outreach event for some nice PR, and ultimately to improve merchants’ performance on the site. Etsy Inc. is paying for the day, the speakers, the media accessibility. The merchants are there to build their skills so that they can grow their businesses. And, Etsy Inc. is going to benefit with increased revenues from listings and transactions.

But wait, there’s more…

Although the Merchants at this event irl and online will all improve their businesses as a result of the workshops, Etsy Inc. won’t necessarily get a piece of their increased business. Often, as merchants get better at what they do and how they sell it, they branch out beyond the Etsy site. They go off to craft shows, retail shops, and other online sites like and Refinery29, and sell their stuff elsewhere. Some even create online, stand-alone shops. They take some of their business away from Etsy Inc.

Going the other direction, Etsy merchants are participating not only to learn how to build their business but also to participate in the merchant community. Online and offline, merchants help each other out in ways that cost them time and energy and don’t increase their individual profits. For example, many merchants put together “Treasuries” — 16-image pages of items curated around a theme. These Treasuries get used on Etsy’s homepage as an advertisement of what’s available on the site. But the merchants who curate the Treasuries don’t (and can’t) use them to promote their own items. They create these to promote other merchants’ wares that they love.

There is a complex network of helping behaviors circulating within the community of commerce.

The complete list of

  • What Etsy Inc does for Merchants
  • What Merchants do for Etsy Inc.
  • What Etsy Partners do for Etsy Inc.
  • What Etsy Inc. does for Etsy Partners
  • What Etsy Partners do for Etsy Merchants
  • What Etsy Merchants do for Etsy Partners

is very long. I won’t do it justice here. But, let me point out what all these actions have in common.

Features of these Success Sharing actions

  • Actions are intended to help the other member do better.
  • There is no quid pro quo expected.
  • Members refrain from taking each other’s business even when they could.
  • Members put their own interests next to or behind, but never always in front of, the interests of the other members.

A cynical person could look at at the relationship between Etsy Inc., Etsy merchants, and Etsy- related businesses and say that what they are doing is merely “investing” in these other parties. That cynical person would find something that looked like pay-back, and negate the idea of a gift.

Economists could find a way to assign a ‘utility’ to a non-monetary element and connect that metric to a profit or cost. They’d find a way to create a balance of costs and benefits.  But just because economists find ways do that doesn’t mean that they are in fact adequately capturing what’s going on and how it all works.

There is something else going on in a Community of Commerce.

Listening to the conversation at the Etsy Success Symposium and watching the comments streaming online, you can feel any energy that is about the community, that emphasizes sharing, and that isn’t selfish. There’s a very different ethos, one where each member puts the community’s interests on par with her or his own interests.

I can’t begin to do it justice here— maybe you can capture it?



See also:

Communities of Commerce: Where the Marketplace is also the Meaning Place
Connecting to the Company Story: Coding is Crafting for Etsy’s Engineers


image: Etsy Symposium Logo from The Etsy Blog

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