Posts from Etsy

Please Don’t Use the S-word

I was interviewed by Sandi MacPherson the other day for Quibb, which is gradually growing into something really great. Here’s the post and here’s the repost:


What are you working on? What does your role entail?

Wanelo is a catalog of products organized by people. Members post products that they think are worth sharing, and those products get bought, saved, collected, tagged and sent to friends by other members. It’s growing very fast and is addictive to both build and use, and to read what members have to say about it.

I joined in May of this year and we immediately set out to rewrite, redesign, rebuild, rebrand and relaunch the service. That relaunch happened in late June, and since then we’ve managed to grow the value of the product and all the key numbers, and launch an iOS app that’s been climbing the charts (#8 in Lifestyle and #66 overall at the moment, not that I’m checking constantly or anything) [Ed.: #3 and #49 now, and version 2.0 just launched, but anyways]. We’re about to launch a version for Android.

My role entails a lot of prioritizing, analyzing, designing, writing, making, refining, guiding, testing, editing, synthesizing, hiring (world-class product designers wanted!) and engaging in heated debates with Deena, the founder.

What are your favorite tech/startup news sites and blogs?

I still find Hacker News to be the best filter for what’s going on out there, though it’s not as good as it used to be. A VC is an old standby. Chris Dixon’s blog is always worth your time. Platformed is a recent entrant I’ve been giving a chance. And I’m getting sucked into Quibb!

What is the most innovative company right now in the social commerce space?

A lot of the notable commerce startups that come to mind are working on making selling incredibly easy, like Gumroad, Ribbon and ShopLocket. They’re built to allow people to use existing networks (like Facebook and Twitter) to sell, which is great for some sellers. I like the simplicity they’re aiming for.

There are actually a lot of people doing interesting things around commerce, but I honestly look more toward non-commerce services for guidance right now. At Wanelo, we’ve learned more from Instagram and Tumblr than any commerce site.

Many commerce sites set out to “add a social layer” and the result is inauthentic and ineffective. But that “social part” — enabling real discovery and growing the kind of community where transactions can flourish — is a lot more challenging than facilitating transactions in some ways. At the same time, non-commerce networks often have a hard time when it comes time to make money. Maybe the ideal scenario is a commerce-oriented network that focuses on the social aspect first?

You spent a few years at Etsy — what did you learn there that you’ve been able to apply at Wanelo? What hasn’t been applicable?

I learned a ton about product design and development at Etsy, as well as community management, as well as Greek, beer-brewing, dog breeds and craft techniques :) Many of the things we try and do at Wanelo — designing in code, iterating quickly, experimenting continuously, pushing to production frequently, making use of feature flags, questioning assumptions, being open and communicative with members — are things that became ingrained in me at Etsy.

The main difference between the two experiences is that Etsy is a much larger company than Wanelo, and with large companies quite a lot of energy becomes focused internally rather than externally. When a company is small enough for everyone to fit comfortably in the same room, and you’re all racing in the same direction and staring at the same numbers, different dynamics apply. You “do” more than talk. Some of the things I learned at Etsy about getting things done at a large company are not applicable at Wanelo (yet).

Social products are built on networks — friends (Facebook), close friends (Path), professional colleagues (LinkedIn), etc. Do networks exist for social commerce? How are they different and/or similar?

Commerce-oriented social networks exist — I helped build one at Etsy — but I think they have a long way to go. Many of the existing ones are populated largely by sellers. Unlike the examples you mention, there are usually two distinct roles in commerce-oriented networks: sellers and buyers. Sellers are often much more motivated and engaged, because they’re making money and have more of themselves invested in the system. The buyer perspective gets drowned out, which is one of the core deficiencies I find in a lot of marketplaces today.

A good, robust network populated by buyers that enables commerce and is untainted by spamminess is not easy to build. (But it’s a lot of fun to try :)

What do you see as the key benefits of social shopping, from the perspectives of both shoppers and merchants?

I think the act of shopping for the kind of unique or unusual products that people feel are worth sharing is so inherently social that qualifying it with “social” feels weird. It’s like saying talking is social. People are the best path to these products, because they aren’t things you search for specifically. When people discover these products, they share them with other people. And the internet is enabling this at a grand scale.

A platform for this kind of shopping gets out of the way of the users, and doesn’t talk down to them with heavy-handed merchandising or intricate product taxonomies. It’s about helping people help each other out (whether they’re conscious of it or not), and letting the good things happen.

From the shopper’s perspective, the benefit of this kind of platform is in the thrill of discovery, and the sharing of those discoveries, which is addictive and life-enhancing.

From the merchant’s perspective, the benefit is sales, and the opportunity to engage with customers as peers. Many of the merchants behind these products really don’t have the time, budget or expertise to fully figure out marketing on this conversational medium we use called the internet. Their energy goes into making the cool things that they sell.

Luckily for everyone, it’s easier than ever to discover and sell these things.

Some comments over on Quibb.

Sharing vs. Selling

C.R.E.A.M. by esymai on Etsy

So if sharing online is about validation, what if the objects being shared are for sale, and you stand to benefit from their sale? Does money always ruin it?

There is a lot of sharing and curating going on of objects that are available for sale somewhere. See Svpply, Fancy, Pinterest, large swaths of Tumblr, Polyvore, Delicious, Wanelo. Users of services like these are gaining followers and influence, expressing and discovering themselves, and having fun, but they aren’t benefiting financially from their curation. Some would say it would be a conflict of interest for them to do so, or would result in less compelling content. Or take the fun out of it. Or feel spammy.

The discouragement of self-promotion is one reason why Pinterest works so well, and why it’s often more compelling to follow someone’s favorites on Etsy than it is to follow the items they’re selling. When someone other than the seller says a thing is good, people listen. If a lot of people say a thing is good, even better. Especially if those people have influence. This is also a really simple way to think about the basis of PageRank.

It makes sense when you think about it. An endorsement from someone with nothing material to gain from the endorsement is more compelling and trustworthy than one from the person doing the selling, particularly if you know or admire the endorser. Someone constantly pushing what they’re selling is like someone who talks about him or herself all the time: boring, and suspect. Big brands have gradually figured this out as they learn how to talk to people on the internet.

So what if the people you followed for their good taste made money when you bought something they shared? Would it change your perception of their curation? I wonder if such a system would ultimately ruin good curation or further motivate it.

The closest thing I know of to this currently is ShopSense from ShopStyle. Its users are proprietors of fashion blogs and editorial properties—people who, for me anyway, don’t have nearly the authority and influence as the people I follow on Etsy and elsewhere. There must also be some interesting Amazon Associates sites out there.

The experience I’m thinking of though is more like what you get when you keep up with a really well-curated vintage shop on Etsy (there are many; see my favorites). The shop owner obviously has a financial incentive for their work, but is also just genuinely excited to share the discoveries they’ve made.


Refavorited is a Tumblelog (do people still say that?) where my favorites from Etsy, SoundCloud, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Wikipedia go, automatically, via ifttt.

If This Then That

Etsy is not yet an official channel on ifttt (but is so ready), so I’m using my Etsy favorites RSS feed as a trigger. As for Wikipedia, for a long time now i’ve felt compelled to save articles I learn from and like in a Delicious account for lack of something better and the time to build it, as a sort of record of random learning, and Delicious is a channel available on ifttt.

Other channels I would love to see on ifttt: Simplenote (I broke up with the ifttt-supported Evernote for Simplenote earlier this year and have never looked back; they have a backroom API), Findings (API on GitHub), Pinterest and Quora (no official APIs yet) (what’s up, Palo Alto?).

This all arose from extended rumination on sharing, and what motivates people to share things they like online. There is a good Quora thread on why people share; every answer is worth reading. Deena Varshavskaya’s is the broadest and most succinct:

Sharing is a basic unit of socializing. Humans are social animals and socializing is at the foundation of who we are. When people approve, appreciate or relate to something we do or say, we feel good. This can be explained in evolutionary terms. Social validation means reduced risk and uncertainty. Life is all about managing risk and one way to reduce risk is to do things the same way as other people do it (i.e., a lot of people are statistically less likely to be wrong than a single person).

Sharing various aspects of ourselves gives us a chance to get validation (validation = reduced uncertainty) in our life choices.

Validation is really at the heart of it, and systems that facilitate validation—alerting you when someone out there likes something you posted—keep you motivated to continue sharing.

There’s also this slightly crazy presentation on discovery from a few years ago that I return to regularly and still find valuable. Basically, enabling discovery is about allowing people to:

  1. Discover new, valuable information
  2. Get discovered by others
  3. Discover more about themselves

Which is another way of saying discovery is about facilitating social validation.

The New Delicious tagline is “Discover Yourself!” Services that can get you hooked on doing that can help other people discover things that they never would have thought to search for—like everything I’ve ever favorited on Etsy, SoundCloud, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter.

Consider the Albatross: Foraging and Activity Feeds

A is for Albatross by Chick Family Ink on Etsy
I came across this post on Quora on “Lévy-flight personalization” and optimizing Quora’s activity feed for novelty-seeking users. Its inspiration is the albatross, a long-range ocean forager that’s larger than you think.

Lévy flights are seen in the behavior of many animals. It’s the pattern that emerges when an animal darts around randomly in one area foraging for food (exhibiting Brownian motion) then, once they feel they’ve used up all the likely food sources, heads off in a random direction to a brand new area, and forages there. In the case of the albatross, that leap to a new area can mean a flight in a straight line across an ocean. Lévy flights are “random movements that can maximize the efficiency of resource searches in uncertain environments.”

Lévy flight pattern
Seth Godin has applied Lévy flights to website usage patterns. Edwin Kite, the author of the post on Quora, notes that Lévy flights are optimal for locating resources when those resources are:

  • Randomly distributed
  • Sparse
  • Once visited, are not depleted, but remain targets for future searches

He argues that Brownian motion makes sense for activity feed usage on “campfire” social networks, like Facebook. But Quora thrives on novelty and new connections, the effects of which can be addictive. “The kind of people who could make Quora great are allergic to sameness and want intellectual challenge. They need Lévy flights.”

This is actually how I experience the Etsy activity feed.

By Katty Bouthier
Someone in my Etsy circle whose taste I like will favorite an item of interest, and I’ll head straight there and start foraging. I’ll check out the shop, then check out the admirers of the shop and their favorites, then check out the shop owner’s favorites, then check out admirers of the item and their favorites, then see which Treasury lists the item has been featured in, the admirers of a list, the list curator’s favorites and their other lists. Any one of these paths can lead across the ocean to a new area rich with resources. And I’ll leave favorites behind as clues for the people who have added me to their circles.

Etsy is a rich environment but also an uncertain one, in that you’ve never seen most of things you’re likely to encounter there in a given session. It can be a murky or overwhelming place with short sightlines, like Kite says Quora is, until you get plugged in and start receiving guidance from the right people implicitly. Etsy’s activity feed, and the clues it can provide from other foragers, can facilitate leaps to new areas and lead to transactions you weren’t planning on. This ends up being addictive.

This Lévy flight post is a good example of why I like Quora, and why I’ve been gradually getting pulled in deeper and deeper since Quora engineer Tracy Chou startled me out of lurker mode with a direct question—the site is populated with smart people offering interesting perspectives on fields outside their own, in addition to their own. In this case, a grad student studying astrophysics and working on the the early Mars climate problem has me thinking about applying bird flight patterns to activity feed design. That doesn’t happen on a lot of websites.

The Sun Rises in the East

Etsy’s Treasury is something I’ve been fascinated by for a while. It’s an ever-changing, member-curated shopping gallery with some unique constraints. Treasury lists only live for 48 hours. Each list has a limit of 42 comments. You can only create a list if the total number of lists falls below 333 (shorthand for <333, meaning 'MUCH LOVE', according to Wikipedia). And you can only have one list living at a time. These constraints create scarcity, which makes the opportunity to create a Treasury list more desirable. The constraints also help to give the Treasury a “live” feel—what you’re seeing in the Treasury and sharing with other visitors is ephemeral, and will soon go away. As we used to say, “Embrace the decay!” Plus there are some real-time aspects to the Treasury that are rare on the web: When you’re viewing a list, you can watch other people’s clicks as they happen—the items are highlighted in yellow for other visitors the moment they’re clicked. Each list is a temporary, shared space. You can see this in the Treasury list URLs, which contain a “room_id.” The lists are rooms, and you always know how many other people are in the room with you. In the early days, this was made explicit from the start, and you could watch other visitors fly into rooms from the main Treasury page.

In other words, everything that makes the old Treasury unique is related to the fact that it’s a Flash application: its constraints, and its real-time feel. These things are inseparable from its origins in Flash. But at Etsy an entirely new infrastructure for collections is being created, powered by MongoDB.

So we launched Treasury East as a testing ground for a new unlimited Treasury world, where anyone would be able to create a curated list of items, and that curation activity would be rewarded and harnessed as the important signal it is in a marketplace of one-of-a-kind items made by humans. Etsy is filled with things you never knew existed and never knew you wanted. People welcome guidance and clues from other people in this environment.

And the birth of Treasury East has been remarkable. It feels like the flowering of something new and great, as fascinating items and shops are surfaced by people with a talent for finding things.

Because as any collector knows, it’s fun and satisfying to find things, and can be an outlet for self-expression. Here’s a list I made this morning while on a vintage mid-century modern housewares binge (it happens):

The Modern Home by sean11 on Etsy

Already we’re seeing games emerge organically, some reminiscent of the Etsy Sneak Attack and PIF (Pay It Forward) phenomena, like Treasury East BnR (Buy and Replace), started by Grace of Homespun Handmaiden. BnRs are bemoaned in the old Treasury world but in this new environment they start to feel like a primitive social-commerce life form that might evolve into something more interesting.

OK I’ve started a treasury east that’s a BnR (buy and replace). Basically you can buy any of the items in the treasury and post the transaction link in the comments. I then go to YOUR shop and replace the item you bought with one of your items! It’s a win-win for all involved. This is a great way to promote your shop and support fellow etsians at the same time!

Keeping an eye on the constant stream of Treasury East blog mentions and Twitter mentions for more.

Playing Favorites

By pleasebestill on Etsy

There are many strategies people use to make discoveries on Etsy. This is my favorite.

Find a shop you like? Check out the shop owner’s favorites. Find an item in their favorites that you like? Check out that shop owner’s favorites. Repeat until you realize three hours have gone by and you have 26 browser tabs open to Etsy pages.

I never stop at the shop level on Etsy. If I find an item of interest, I go past the shop to the shop owner’s favorites, and enter an affinity feedback loop. Below are some favoriters I’ve been digging lately, and here’s a Yahoo Pipes-generated meta-feed consolidating all their favoriting activity which you can subscribe to if they strike your fancy.

Protip: If you find yourself past page 3 of someone’s favorites, subscribe to their favorites feed add them to your Etsy circle follow them!

corduroy's favoritescorduroy‘s items populate most of my favorite sellers’ favorites, so being pulled into her favorites was inevitable. She’s led me down some fruitful paths.

groundwork's favoritesEtsy all-star hearter TeenAngster hipped me to the favorites of groundwork (among many others), who happens to be corduroy‘s sister. Their mother, pogoshop, is also an active hearter. They share a great eye.

siiso's favoritesJust now after following a thread from groundwork’s favorites I was led to siiso (hearted this painting of hers). Her favorites led to half-dozen other eye-openers so she joins this list as well.

Icebear's favoritesIcebear, aka Sofia Arnold, is in India right now but she left behind lots of quality favorites leads. I was taken with this free bird and French hermit crab.

Domestikate's favoritesDomestikate favors the witty. She likes “color, humor, good design, wood and skies of blue.” She also finds and sells parrot staplers.

yaelfran's favoritesyaelfran is one of Etsy’s heavy hearters, with a massive number of favorites. They’re a bottomless source of unusual illustrations and prints.

Virginia Kraljevic's favoritesI’m a fan of Virginia Kraljevic‘s intricate line drawings and her favorites have led me to some interesting places, like Hillarie Tasche’s graffiti train drawings and Betsy Walton’s world.

More found daily.

Finding Yourself Through Your Favorites

Japanese Tumblr users are “addicted to reblogging,” ffffolks on FFFFOUND are defining themselves by the images they find, and Etsians are hearting more items than ever. I’m discovering more about myself as I build up my Etsy Favorites, namely that I’m fond of hand-drawn pattern and complexity:

We just need better ways of sharing, organizing, displaying and discovering these things (working on it!).

Data Hunt: Entrepreneurship Around the Planet

Bubble chart of nations sized according to new business density
Bubble chart of nations sized according to new business density. Source: 2008 World Bank Group Entrepreneurship Survey.

Good data on micro-enterprises and entrepreneurship around the world is hard to come by. There’s the World Bank’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Database, but it has more caveats than a prescription drug commercial. Different governments operating in different economies at different stages of development have different definitions for these things. The 2008 World Bank Group Entrepreneurship Survey comes close, “striving to define a unit of measurement, source of information, and concept of entrepreneurship applicable and available among the diverse countries surveyed.” This limits it to the “formal sector”—small companies registered with their governments—as opposed to the informal sector, like most sellers on Etsy. Still, it’s of some interest. Above, a screenshot of the Many Eyes bubble chart version of some of the data, with nations sized according to “new business density,” or the density of new registered companies per 1,000 citizens. New Zealand, Iceland, Hong Kong, the UK and the Netherlands round out the top five. See the same data on a map here.

See also: Etsy and the World Economic Forum.