Crafts Turn Into Ca$h

College students create items to sell on Etsy for part-time income.

A single turquoise gemstone and bits and pieces of silver lay on the wooden top of a work desk in a small studio space in Towson University’s Center for the Arts. In the course of the next three hours, Sydney Waters will sand, hammer, solder and bend the metal into a ring that will sell for $50 on Etsy, an online marketplace that connects artists and consumers.

Waters, an interdisciplinary object and design major, rummages through the drawers looking for just the right tool. After forming a thin trim of silver — what she calls bezel wire — around the triangular stone, she cuts a piece to fit around the bottom, similar to a backboard. She fits the turquoise piece snugly into the metal and heads into the workshop to solder it together.

The entire workspace comprises two rooms — the classroom space and the workshop. Wooden work desks, old dilapidated chairs, a tool closet and a table that could fit all 14 members of the Kardashian clan fill the studio space. Milky Chance (a German folk duo, for those of you wondering) radio on iHeartRadio plays in the background, making the studio feel quaint and full of life. With the music playing, doodles on the walls and doors, and tools scattered about, the classroom space is more artsy than a typical desk-and-chairs setup, but doesn’t stand out as spectacular.

Walking in the workshop, however, is like walking into a different world. There’s a volcanizer, three soldering stations and metal cutters the size of a Prius. The jewelry-making process starts in the classroom, but this is where the metal hits the soldering gun.

Click, click, click. Waters clicks a flint three times before it catches, engulfing the gas torch in a yellow and blue flame. As she slowly and methodically moves the flame over the silver, she explains that soldering the pieces together is one of the first steps to creating the ring that she’ll later sell.

Waters is a fifth year senior and a studio monitor, which allows her unrestricted access to the studio. There, she creates jewelry, mostly sterling silver and gemstone rings for her Etsy shop, which provides additional income for her. In her first year of business, she brought in a little more than $500.

Waters opened her shop in February 2014 after taking a class that required students to create a series of jewelry.

“That class basically jump started my Etsy for me because I had to create six pieces and it just went from there,” she says as she begins to file down the metal edges around the turquoise. Her speech is slow and deliberate, pausing and starting again to match the pace of her sanding.

After she finishes filing down the metal triangle so it perfectly fits the gemstone, she heads back to the soldering station, where she lights the soldering gun again and runs the flame across the silver edges.

Waters solders the metal bezel at the workshops’ soldering studio

“I wanted to start selling the jewelry that I’d been making because a lot of my friends had Etsy shops,” she says. “That’s what I want to do. I want to get my name out there.”

Etsy’s official Facebook page describes the site as an online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, and says that their community “is made up of independent creative businesses from around the globe.”

Since its creation in 2005, Etsy has grown to include more than 1 million shops worldwide that sell more than 29 million items, according to the site. Its rapid growth is similar to sites like Airbnb and Uber, which have enabled users to make money through part-time jobs.

According to Etsy’s Economic Impact Report, online platforms have enabled people to conduct business with strangers, which creates unique opportunities for new income and enables personal connections.

Many college students don’t have to eat Ramen for six months in order to start a business on Etsy: It’s easy and accessible, which enables college students to sell their items in the marketplace as well.

Jessica Dove is a college student who turned her knitting hobby into an Etsy shop, where she sells hats, crop tops and other knit goods. Three years ago, she started selling on Etsy to organize her sales from Facebook and Instagram, and makes more selling her handmade goods than she does working a part-time retail job. Dove says every crafter should open a shop.

“There’s really no reason not to,” Dove says. “Setting up your shop is free, and the only thing you’re paying for is listings, and it only costs 20 cents to keep an item listing up. If you don’t like the shop, you can delete it, and you’re only out like 40 cents.”

When opening an Etsy shop, there’s typically no capital investment — only one percent of shop owners took out a bank loan to start their business and 56 percent drew money from their savings accounts, the Economic Impact Report explains.

“Everything I need for my shop is cheap,” Dove says. “A woman that makes leather purses full-time probably has a big investment, because stuff like that is expensive. The cost totally depends on what you’re selling.”

All data from the Etsy Economic Impact Report

Only 18 percent of sellers classify their Etsy shop as their full-time job, while the remaining 82 percent use their profits as supplemental income. In fact, 58 percent of Etsy sellers have another job in addition to their shop.

Any extra funds can bolster the morale of a poor college student, and Etsy profits are no exception. Waters likes the cushion Etsy profits put on her wallet in addition to support from her parents and a retail job.

The easy accessibility of the site makes it possible for Waters and other young adults to juggle multiple things like schoolwork and a part-time job (in Waters’ case at Bed, Bath and Beyond) in addition to their Etsy shop.

“It gives students the ability to be more independent,” Dove says. “You might not have enough time to have a job, but you can make jewelry or some kind of craft and sell it on Etsy and have some source of income. It’s a step towards becoming independent.”

While Etsy might be the cornerstone of Waters’ business, it’s also a big contributor to the modern economy.

“Etsy sellers personify larger shifts in the economy, most notably the recent dramatic increase in flexible forms of work, the rise of Internet-enabled peer-to-peer businesses, and declining economic security of the middle class,” the Economic Impact Report explains.

The report also says that while the government wants to focus on creating good-paying jobs, they’re looking right past a huge source of income. “By focusing only on traditional full-time employment, they are neglecting the steadily growing community of micro-business entrepreneurs — like Etsy sellers — right in their backyard.”

All data from the Etsy Economic Impact Report

The site, along with more than 1 million sellers and nearly 20 million buyers, pumps lots of money into the economy: in 2012, Etsy grossed more than $895 million. In 2014, that number grew to $1.93 billion.

Extra dollars in the pockets of people like Dove and Waters enables them to spend it on things they wouldn’t otherwise have money for. Dove goes out every weekend with a group of friends thanks to her Etsy profits. When I ask Waters if the money went into savings, like 20 percent of sellers, Waters laughs aloud.

“Definitely not,” she laughs. “That money is gone. That money is long gone.”

Where did it go? Back into her business. Waters says she spends the money on supplies almost immediately after she makes a profit — and she isn’t alone. Another 69 percent of sellers reinvest profits back into their businesses, according to the Economic Impact Report.

Another way the site is helping out the economy: enabling more women to break into the business world. Eighty-eight percent of Etsy sellers are women, which triples the number of female-owned businesses reported in the US Census of Business Owners (that number was reported at 28.7 percent).

The Economic Impact Report claims that “on Etsy, women can create flexible businesses that fit their lives, balancing creative passions [and] need for income.” Waters and Dove prove that statement true.

While it may seem that selling on Etsy has no negative elements, Dr. Stella Tomasi, an e-Business professor at Towson University, says that isn’t the case.

“The drawback is that you need to advertise,” she says. “You need to get people to your shop. It’s easy creating it, but the hard part is getting people to then buy your product.”

Tomasi explains that although sellers might have great goods in their shop, if no one knows about it or is able to find it, the shop can’t make any money.

“In the world we live in now, it is important to be able to search for companies — both small and large — and their products and contact information,” she says. “I also think that small businesses should use social media to promote their products.”

According to an article in AdWeek, Facebook drives 60 percent of traffic to retail websites, and 50 percent of all social media-driven purchasing happens within one week of sharing, tweeting or liking a product.

Social media has been proven to bring eyes to Etsy shops as well. Dove has directly seen these results— approximately 80 percent of her sales on Etsy come from customers that find her through Instagram and Facebook. To get more views on her items, Dove uses lots of hashtags and keywords.

The flexibility to work from home, school or even a dorm room opens opportunities to turn hobbies into quick and easy cash. Students who have crafty hobbies like jewelry making, knitting, or even painting and sketching can start their own shop. Adrienne Medley was one of those students.
One of Medley’s signs for sale on Etsy. Photo courtesy of Medley

As a graduate student at University of Florida, she painted signs to give as Christmas presents because she and her husband couldn’t afford to buy gifts. Eventually, that hobby turned into income.

“After I graduated, I worked two part-time jobs because I knew we would be moving after my husband finished medical school,” she says. “I really hated one of my jobs and quit, but knew I needed to supplement our income. That’s when I turned to Etsy.”

Medley started selling on Etsy in March 2014, knowing that when she and her husband moved, she would still have a part-time income regardless of her geographic location.

“Another motivation for selling on Etsy was that I could take it anywhere that we went, so I knew that if we moved to another city or state that I could have Etsy as a fall back if I couldn’t find a job,” Medley said.

In the first six months after her shop opened, Medley made a total of $2,500. Now, six months later and a year into her Etsy shop, Medley has made approximately $25,000 and has transitioned into working on her products full-time.

All data from the Etsy Economic Impact Report

During the holidays, Medley worked 70 hours a week to create her signs, and admits that while the income isn’t necessary anymore, she continues selling because she loves what she does.

Tomasi says that Medley’s story is not uncommon.

“I see students selling jewelry and other stuff [on Etsy] and it’s a gateway to give them the confidence to conduct business in a professional organization or start an even bigger company,” she says. “Many times, these small businesses can grow to something bigger and students make it their career.”

Not all shops make $500 a year like Waters’, much less $25,000 like Medley’s, but 65 percent of sellers who earned less than $100 on Etsy over the course of a year still considered their shops “businesses.” (Those same people live by the Drake motto “started from the bottom, now we’re here.”)

The Economic Impact Report explains that because most Etsy sellers are selling for the fun of the trade, they don’t have formal workshops or offices. Like Medley, 95 percent of sellers set up workshops and studios in their homes, which is what Waters plans to do when she graduates and loses access to the college studio.

On our way to the studio, Waters and I climb a flight of steps, hang a left past the Japanese tattoo exhibit, walk through a set of double doors and weave through a relatively bare hallway. The beautiful building resembles the Liberal Arts building on Towson’s campus: tall ceilings, modern design and the echo of feet walking down the halls. Lockers line the hallways, reminiscent of high school.

There’s a small group of artists sprawled across the floor, sketching images on cardboard. As we pass by a woodworking shop and a pottery studio, she pauses briefly to peek in and say a quick hello to the occupants — she knows almost everyone — before continuing the tour.

Waters knows every inch of the place, and admits that she’s here more than most people. A self-titled perfectionist, Waters says that it can take anywhere from three to seven hours to make a ring — and if she doesn’t love it, she trashes it and starts again.

“You can come in the studio whenever the building is open,” she explains. “But I’ve gotten to know the people that can let me in after hours. I even snuck in once. I just talked one of the people into letting me in.” She shrugs and smiles.

Waters flips down a plastic face shield and turns on an electric sander. The ring is almost finished — she’s hand sanded it, sawed it, hammered it, sized it and soldered it again. Now, she’s polishing the silver with small, brightly colored star-shaped sandpapers that attach to the machine.

Each ring has to be perfect, Waters explains, and that includes 360 degree shine. As the blade swirls, her face is inches from it so she can check the quality.

Her attention to detail has drawn international customers to her shop — one of her first customers was a man from France who asked her to make the rings for his wedding.

“The rings I had listed were just a plain band of ebony wood,” Waters explains. “When he said he needed two for his wedding, I was so honored. He hasn’t been in contact since, but I guess he got it! Etsy said it shipped there.”

Etsy, Waters says, is just a starting point for her jewelry. The online shop has enabled her to brand herself and begin building a customer base as the cornerstone of her business.

As she powers the electric sander down and flips up the plastic face shield, Waters smiles and sighs. She softly sings along to the background music and turns the ring over in her hand, eying every angle. She’s visibly proud of the finished product, but still hesitates to express it.
Waters explains how she sized the rings. (While holding the sizer.)

“I could polish it more,” she says. “If I throw it in a tumbler for an hour or so, it might look better.”

She eventually decides, with a little reassurance, that the ring looks beautiful and doesn’t need any additional tumbling.

As the finishing touch, she sizes the band on a metal shaper that resembles a cotton candy holder.

After she ensures that the band bends into a perfect circle around the sizer and examines it for the millionth time in the past 3 hours, she’s done with the ring.

Since then, the ring has found a loving home, and Waters continues to create new pieces for her shop. Not only has she created some artistic pieces (the “separate passages” ring and “open spaces” ring) she’s added some more sparkle to the collection: gold geometric cuffs and bangles, as well as a few pendants and pairs of earrings.

Hopefully, she says, once she settles down with a job and apartment after graduation, she can expand her shop even more.

“I want to create a fun ’80s inspired line with neon and sterling silver,” she says. “I want to make jewelry for my shop that’s not traditional, everyday jewelry. I’m leaning toward one-of-a-kind, avant garde pieces.”