As Managing Director of the Australia and Asia arm of Etsy – the multi-vendor marketplace that enables conscious buyers and creative makers, designers and curators to connect across the world – Helen Souness firmly believes that digital shopping can be a truly human experience.
Here, Helen explains why Etsy’s business model is reimagining female business representation in Australia, empowering microbusiness, and restoring marketplaces founded on human connection.
I feel very lucky to say that over the last 10 years I’ve worked in very service-driven businesses with great communities. I’ve worked with incredible leaders who gave me opportunities to challenge myself within supportive cultures.
So when a head-hunter told me about the Etsy role, I had one of those ‘goosebumps’ moments. I knew Etsy was community-centric and, as a user of the site, I was already incredibly inspired (both personally and professionally) by its network of sellers, many of whom are women and mums.
Shifting the national figures
Etsy’s community in Australia is more than 90% women. That’s a significant skew, which is inspiring in the fact that it’s not reflective of most businesses. In Australia, only a third of small businesses are run by females. Etsy’s marketplace makes business ownership more accessible – acting as an on-ramp to entrepreneurship – by reducing many of the barriers traditionally associated with starting a new business.
Nearly half (49%) of all sellers had never sold their goods until they sold them on Etsy. We’re bringing a huge number of new people into e-commerce but, more than that, we’re doing it in a really different way: we’re supporting microbusinesses; we’re supporting working from home, as more than 90% of our sellers do just that; and we’re supporting working from a regional area.
That’s our mission: to reimagine commerce to build a more fulfilling and lasting world.
It’s a big mission but it’s been there since day one. Traditionally, commerce sites don’t let the buyer communicate with the seller before purchase. They’re often focused primarily on sales rather than community.
Etsy’s approach has been different from the outset. It was founded as an open marketplace that focused on more than a pure transaction; it focused on connection.
Think about an old market place – where people met the maker of the product and enjoyed a social and educational connection – instead of this terribly transactional retail into which we’ve evolved. I believe commerce should be about direct communication between the maker and the customer and, in support of that, more than 200 million messages were passed on our platform in 2014.
The power of connection in business (in action)
We invest a lot in the business education of our sellers – from how to take professional photos to how to export overseas – but it’s the human manifestation of community that never fails to capture my imagination.
Our sellers have access to a great deal of support through self-organised Teams, training programs and online forums that are there to provide mentorship, education, celebrations and assistance. I remember when one of our female sellers posted a message online. She said she was busy, she was tired, she wasn’t happy with the stuff she was making and she was about to give up.
She received more than 50 messages of support within hours. People who were technically her competitors were writing to her to say: I’ve been there; I know what it feels like; give yourself a break; try making something just for yourself to take the pressure off; your stuff is beautiful; put it out there and see what happens.
That made me sit back and say, “Wow”. There is an incredible sense of giving and mutual support in this community, and it genuinely helps people get through what has the potential to be a very isolating endeavour. When you consider that over 90% of our sellers operate their creative business from their home and many have children, it’s easy to see that a number of these people are at home full time.
It made me think of my mum. I grew up working in her shop and they had an incredibly supportive small-business community where you’d cover someone else’s shop in a flash. In its own way, I think this remote example of the same sense of support goes someway to showing what our reimagining of commerce has become.
How I view success
I have seen the amazing transformation that can occur in people’s lives from turning their passion into a business. I absolutely have business goals around continuing to grow our community of Australian and Asian makers and curators, but it’s a personal goal too, because I know what it can do for their families, for their lives.
So there’s an element of physical community growth as a measure of success, but there are aspects that deepen it too: that our sellers support each other; that our team continues to make decisions driven by, and for, the good of the community; that we connect to a very conscious consumer all around the world.
Those connecting values drive us all. Whether we work directly with the sellers or on the marketing side of the business, every single one of us feels inspired to be helping creative entrepreneurs grow their futures. That’s what inspires us. That’s why we’re here, doing what we do.
With almost 24 million active buyers and 1.6 million active sellers as of December 2015, and people buying or selling unique products in nearly every country in the world, the Etsy digital marketplace has evolved into a global e-commerce powerhouse with creativity at its heart. Launched in the United States in 2005, its mission is to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world.
Photo credits: Etsy, New Old Stock