From personalized rolling pins and homemade dog treats to wooden benches made from reclaimed telephone poles, online shoppers can find almost anything on e-commerce site Etsy.com.
And whether you want to showcase your hobby, supplement your salary or earn enough to quit your 9 to 5, the handmade marketplace is ripe with creative—and financial—opportunity for sellers as well. For many, Etsy has become ground zero for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Have you dreamt of hanging out your shingle on Etsy? Get inspired by these three shop owners who turned their passion projects into profits.
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Serena Fortenberry, 38, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Etsy Shop: Vintage Squalor, all things vintage—clothes, linens, fabrics, scarves, ties, decorations, pillows and more.
There is no such thing as “junk” to English professor Serena Fortenberry. There's treasure everywhere.
Finding stuff is in Fortenberry's forte, and it's in her blood. Her mother is an antiques dealer, and all of her brothers and sisters have had turns in the business—from selling their finds on eBay and Etsy or in booths at antique malls or festivals and crafts fairs.
Fortenberry grew up going to garage sales with her parents. And in her free time, she prowls estate and yard sales, thrift shops and antique auctions, and occasionally makes the rounds of local antique stores. “Sometimes, I even pull my car over to go through the junk someone has left for trash pickup. I have no shame!” she says.
But as you would imagine, after a while, her beloved finds translated into a bit of household clutter. "You would die if you opened my kitchen cabinets, or opened our closets!” she says.
Getting Started: In 2010, Fortenberry decided to share her treasures with the world (and shuffle them out of her own house) by opening Vintage Squalor, where you can buy her found vintage textiles like tablecloths, napkins, cloths, bedsheets, fabric and more.
Though she had sold her finds on eBay and in antique booths before with her family, the process of maintaining her Etsy store is much simpler. "Etsy has become a way to continue doing business in the midst of child-rearing and having my career. And I make more money now than I ever did with those earlier venues," she says.
Most of her traffic comes from Etsy shoppers’ searches. She also started a Facebook page where she posts listings, announcements and other tidbits of what she calls Vintage Squalor Life.
She also leverages the Etsy community for more business—and to support others too. “I try to help other seller friends out by 'favoriting' their items on Etsy, 'following' them and promoting their items. They do the same for me. It's a kind of glorious little networking community. I have friends that I know only through Etsy, and whom I have never met in person,” she says.
Reaping the Rewards: Fortenberry's items take more time than money to procure, so it cost precious little to start what she calls a “hobby” business—that brings in between $1,000 to $1,200 a month.
She earns most of her income teaching in the English department at the University of Alabama, and says she spends the proceeds from the business on paying down the mortgage as quickly as possible and retirement investing. The rest, she says, is “mad money.”
Leah Loudermilk, 34, Anna Maria, Fla.
Etsy Shop: Island Picnic, organic and allergy-free home accents.
Sometimes when you seek to save yourself, you save others in the process.
Leah Loudermilk's daughter Jillian was born with life-threatening food allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, and as a result, she spent a lot of time researching what caused them—and why so many children have not only allergies but other ailments like asthma and autism.
“The answer seemed to be all the chemicals we have in our homes and in our foods that we didn't have a couple of decades ago," Loudermilk says.
So she cleaned house. She stocked her pantry with as much organic food as possible and switched to organic cotton bedding. She and her boyfriend Tal began using products like vinegar and baking soda to clean the kitchens, bathrooms, floors and windows. They even make mixtures of soap and apple cider vinegar to catch fruit flies. "It's much better than spraying your house with toxins!" she says.
Getting Started: She had been making one of her products—reusable shopping bags—for a few months before a friend suggested selling them on Etsy. "It was a perfect fit," says Loudermilk. "We cleaned out our home environments and wanted to help others have nontoxic, pure choices for their lives too."
In 2008 she and her mom, Janis, opened her Etsy store, Island Picnic, where she sells her eco-chic line of allergy-free home accents, like organic napkins, organic cotton pillows, bedding, placemats and more, which are free of pesticides, chemicals, toxins, BPA, lead, vinyl, plastics and phthalates.
Both shop owners take part in designing, and Janis is the seamstress. "We have extremely similar design aesthetics and always agree on how things should look, colors to use, styling,” Loudermilk says.
Over the years they’ve invested a bit of money—in the thousands—to start and maintain the business. “Organic cotton fabric is not cheap!” she says.
But they’ve had enough sales to recoup their money and keep the business profitable. Their products range from $20 for a sandwich and snack bag set up to $200 for a pair of lined, organic cotton drapes. Most, however are in the $20 to $40 range.
Reaping the Rewards: Though she still works part time at her son's preschool, Loudermilk spends the rest of her time working on the business.
In addition to Etsy, she and her mom run IslandPicnic.com, which doesn't make near what the Etsy shop does, but, she says, the site has other benefits. "You can make it look how you want to. Your company looks more professional with your own web address on your business cards. You can add a blog, videos, a press page, whatever you want."
She plows most of their profits—between $5,000 and $7,000 a year—right back into the business for more fabric, marketing and promotional materials, trade shows, local farmers' markets, logo design and even a trip to Hollywood to give away products at a celebrity baby event.
She's also taking advantage of Etsy services to acquire more customers. “They offer a lot of tools. There are ads, community groups and forums. You can make it onto the front page, which we have done several times," she says.
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Brandi Arnold, 33, Boise, Idaho
Etsy Shop: PuurBody, natural and vegan bath and beauty products.
Brandi Arnold, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, James, were struggling to make ends meet when their fifth child was born in 2010. To stretch their one-income budget a little farther, Arnold began using cloth diapers and making as much as she could from scratch, from laundry detergent to yogurt and bread.
Not helping the family's finances, of course, was her two-year-old's favorite hobby of emptying full bottles of shampoo and baby wash down the drain. One day, as Arnold watched her money literally run down the tubes, again, it occurred to her that she might want to start making her own bath products too.
She did some online research and went to the library to check out Norma Coney's book, "The Complete Soapmaker," which she used as her guide. Then she collected her supplies and equipment—a bee soap mold, lye pitcher, wooden spoons, little tart pans used to make soap shapes, bowls and pots—from a thrift shop.
Arnold says her first soap-making experience was "something that just worked!" She blended essential oils, like orange and lavender, that she bought at the grocery store to create fun combinations, like avocado soap scented with orange. She learned to color the soap using natural ingredients like veggie purees, dried lemons and orange rinds.
Getting Started: When Arnold's first batch of soap yielded way more than her family could use, her sister suggested she sell the leftovers on Etsy, a site she'd never heard of at the time.
"It seemed like something that wasn't too intimidating. The fact that [many shops] were geared toward handmade [items] made it seem like it would be OK that my presentation and selling skills weren't polished yet," she says.
Arnold was also encouraged by the very low start-up costs. "With the financial situation we were in, even a $10/month fee would have been out of reach. With Etsy, you can pay as you go; that was important," she says.
In December of that year, Arnold opened her store, PuurBody, to sell natural and vegan bath and beauty products. “My sister-in-law gave me $60 to get started. I used that to buy a few extra bottles of olive oil for my soap formula, as well as my first few fragrance oils,” she says.
Reaping the Rewards: Although she had sales in her first month of business, it took a little while before she saw steady income. But as the sales rolled in, Arnold realized her Etsy shop had real potential to earn a meaningful amount of money to support her family—and she set her sights on making it a success.
Now her shop is a full-time job for Arnold, and her teenage son works for her part time too. What started as her hobby now involves wholesale and retail components: She expanded her retail operations to Amazon.com, and sells wholesale to regional grocery store chains, small boutiques and barber shops.
What’s more, Arnold recently surpassed the six-figure revenue mark after three and a half years on Etsy. “In total, including off-Etsy wholesale, my business brings in half our family’s yearly income,” she says. Her ultimate goal is to earn six figures annually.
Puurbody has been so successful, in fact, that her husband, James, is considering reducing his full-time sales position to part-time in order to help Arnold acquire and manage wholesale clients.
Perhaps best of all, Arnold credits her Etsy shop with enhancing her family's quality of life, allowing them to pay their bills more comfortably and even afford family vacations. “For many of us, especially mothers of young children, entrepreneurship is a necessity, something that keeps food on the table and our children in shoes. I couldn't afford not to have my own business!” says Arnold.