Last year, sellers on the online peer-to-peer marketplace Etsy sold more than $1.35 billion worth of handcrafted goods. But despite the struggling economy, chief executive Chad Dickerson says he spends a lot of time convincing official Washington just to pay attention. Lawmakers and regulators, says Dickerson, have trouble imaging a type of work that might take place at someone's kitchen table in between life's other responsibilities and could involve everything from letterpress notecards to earrings made in the image of Zac Efron's head.
In a sit-down at The Washington Post offices last week, Dickerson, explained how he starts his pitch for the micro-manufacturing movement. The amiable CEO flashes the cufflinks on his tea-rose-pink shirt. One features a tiny map of Berkeley, Calif., Dickerson's former home town, and the other Brooklyn, where Etsy is based. The niche mismatched cufflinks are the perfect online product, where with low overhead a small manufacturer can profitably reach a scattered audience. But that bid at persuasion doesn't always work.
"In a really crude way, I think that policymakers still need to understand the Internet," says Dickerson. "It's surprising sometimes."
Etsy, founded in 2005, has a lot at stake in them figuring it out. The company has weighed in on the high-profile debate over so-called net neutrality, pushing for the Federal Communications Commission to aggressively regulate broadband Internet. That intense focus has surprised some. But, says Dickerson, who became CEO in 2011 after three years as the firm's chief technology officer, "we've heard from our sellers that they don't want Internet toll lanes because they depend on the Internet to run their businesses."
Each agency that regulates commerce, for example, should set up a "micro-advocate" responsible for helping people running smaller-than-small businesses. Job training should include the possibility of, say, hawking crocheted fingerless gloves online. Federal officials should maintain a database of manufacturers willing to produce a run of 200 units. Barriers should be lowered to allow for peer-to-peer trade across borders. And a social safety net should be specifically designed for when the individual crafter faces tough times.
Etsy, of course, isn't alone: More and more Americans are working for themselves as freelancers. That said, some of its problems are unique. The company has sometime struggled to compete with mass retailers, some of whom abuse the platform. Big sellers posing as purveyors of handcrafted items are an annoyance, Dickerson admits, but he says the site has figured out sophisticated ways to detect seller spam.
But the air of amateurism that has perfumed Etsy since its start is far less of a worry, Dickerson says. "When you look at what's happening on Etsy," he says, "it's not that much different than when you look at the early personal-computing movement," a la 1970s-era buddies Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cobbling together PCs in the Homebrew Computer Club. "That was a bunch of people building computers, and it looked like a hobby that would never really matter that much."
Jobs and Wozniak became Apple, and Apple changed how human beings engage with technology. Dickerson sees similar potential in Etsy for a human-centric yet massive commercial revolution.
"If you look at Walmart, Walmart didn't exist about 50 years ago," he says. (The first Walmart store opened in Rogers, Ark., in 1962.) "It took 50 years for Walmart, without the Internet, to become this dominant offline retail player. And so when I think about Etsy, it might sound a little crazy that you could replace an entire way of doing things with this new kind of economy, but the same way that you saw the rise of the Walmart economy, you see an Etsy economy in the next 20, 25 years."
In the meantime, Etsy likely doesn't have much choice about getting engaged in politics, because its sellers are getting political on their own. Take Milk and Honey Luxuries. Founded in 2012 by a Richmond crafter named Sarah Parker, the one-person shop offered silver-plated silverware hand-stamped with inspirational, touching, funny messages. As part of this fall's revival of the net neutrality debate, Milk and Honey started producing $18 spoons stamped with the message, "Protect the open Internet." They were a hit. In fact, Parker's shop has been such a hit that she has brought on her husband, Ryan, as a partner in the operation. They expanded their line to include cutting boards.
Ryan Parker quit his job in finance to help the growing business, says Dickerson. "That's really cool," he says, "that we're pulling people out of the finance industry." And then he laughs.