How Etsy Turned Into A Gadget Paradise

Popular online marketplace Etsy this month acquiredGrand St., a handmade technology marketplace that previously billed itself as the “Etsy for electronics.” 

The purchase could be seen as a branching out moment for the crafty commerce site, which is almost a decade old. But in many ways Etsy is already the “Etsy for electronics,” even before the move to buy Grand St.

Run a quick search on Etsy for “electronics,” for instance, and you’ll find more than 50,000 results—twice as many as an Etsy search for “Dr. Who”—that includes accessories for Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and other maker favorites, just like Grant St. offers. 

This acquisition isn’t about expanding merchandise types. It’s about solidifying a space in the electronics market that Etsy has been gradually commanding since its launch in 2005. 

“What unites Etsy and Grand St. is a shared vision of the way making is changing,” Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson said in a blog post

Etsy’s Evolving Identity

Etsy’s public image is still one dominated by handknit socks and letterpress cards. But if you look at CraftCount, a site that independently ranks Etsy shops by number of sales, the most bustling sites don’t sell arts and crafts; they sell tools and supplies.

In this sense, the purchase of Grand St, where makers sell electrical parts, doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you consider there are already people on Etsy selling capacitors

In the early days of Etsy, these top-selling stores would have actually violated the site’s Terms of Service, which only allowed people to sell items they’d made themselves. Soon, Etsy added a “Vintage” category, where people could sell items they’d curated. Later, the site relaxed another rule that said sellers must be the only people distributing their items; sellers are now free to hire help. 

Etsy has, over time, stopped referring to its users as “sellers of handmade goods” and started calling them “independent creative businesses.” The idea is to keep the best merchants using Etsy long after their businesses expand and succeed outside of their homes. As Rob Walker wrote in “Can Etsy Go Pro Without Losing Its Soul?”:

While the site wants to remain an accessible entry point for newbies, it doesn’t want the narrative arc for successful sellers to arrive at the inevitable point: “And then I started a real business.”

Etsy’s transition from homemade crafts to independent businesses, however, has not been seamless. In May 2013, electronics crafter Brendan Byrne was kicked off of Etsy when the company accused him of not making his electronic products by hand. Byrne’s departure was generally considered a loss for the maker community, and the artist has since opened an independent shop

According to an Etsy spokesperson, however, said electronic products that meet the site’s guidelines are currently allowed.

“Etsy has always had an indie electronics and hardware community, but we can learn a lot from Grand St.’s community,” the spokesperson said. “Products sold on Grand St. can be sold on Etsy as long as they meet our guidelines, just like any other products sold on Etsy.”

Crafters, Meet Makers

If “making is changing,” as Dickerson said, technology has played an enormous role and Etsy has enjoyed a front row seat. Etsy’s definition of “handmade” now includes 3D printing, outsourcing designs to a factory, and selling DIY blueprints for buyers to make. 

Etsy is fully aware of the maker shift its audience has taken. So it’s no coincidence that Etsy has been a huge advocate of expanding technology skills, especially for its women-majority audience, which is often underserved in tech. Etsy Hacker Grants is a $50,000 scholarship and effort to hire more women developers at Etsy. 

Etsy’s expanding marketplace shows how increasingly easy it is to get started in electronics and hardware projects. Today, it’s nearly as simple to start soldering microcontrollers as it is to learn to knit socks. Etsy realizes that makers are just the other side of the crafter coin; on Code As Craft, the Etsy developer blog, employees consider programming as just another handmade art form championed by the company. 

The Grand St acquisition solidifies Etsy’s position as an electronics marketplace—just as long as sellers attach a story to the product. 

“It’s becoming easier than ever for independent makers and designers to bring ideas to market and find a global audience,” Dickerson wrote. “Grand St. gets this—that’s why we’re such a good fit.”

Lead image by Jonathon Marcum on Etsy; other images by Symetricolour and digibling on Etsy

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