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The Creative Entrepreneur: Easy, Flexible, Affordable Ways to Sell Handmade Products Online

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Hero Images/Getty Images,

by Frank Pietrucha

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After 25 years of chasing project deadlines, Mary Lavan decided it was time to leave her job at tech giant Intel. Her brother’s sudden death and a major reorganization at work made her realize life is short and she was ready for change. She wanted to pursue creative passions she’d never had time for, and that hatched a small business idea. Mary and her husband sold their house and moved to the mountain community of Pine, Arizona, settling next door to a couple of career potters. That’s when her life took yet another turn. 

With just a few pottery lessons, Lavan, who’s now 62, discovered she loves working with clay. Her house was soon overrun with so many pots her husband insisted she find new homes for her creations. Uncomfortable with pitching her crafts to brick and mortar galleries and uninterested in spending weekends hawking pots at local art fairs, she was stymied with what to do with her growing collection—until she found Etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage items. Lavan signed up and now runs a business selling her pottery online

The small scale of craft-based businesses means startup funding is often as simple as cost of equipment, materials and an Internet connection.

Lavan is not alone in turning a creative passion into a solid business. Millions of entrepreneurs now earn income selling their own wares and working out of their homes. The small scale of craft-based businesses means startup funding is often as simple as cost of equipment, materials and an Internet connection. 

“I can’t imagine being tied to a job with scheduled hours again,” Lavan says. Free to live however and wherever she wants, she adores the beauty and peacefulness of Pine, Arizona. And if life moves the Lavans again, that’s not a problem either. The business moves with them.

Crafting quality products is critical to this kind of business, “but it’s not enough to just create,” warns Lavan. “You have to delve in and understand the ins and outs of your selling platform.” Here are her top four pieces of hard-won advice.

1. Be prepared for hard work. Developing skills as a potter was only a part of the process, says Lavan.  Understand it’s a business. It’s up to you to make sure every operational detail is tended to, from product fulfilment and delivery, to financial reporting and business licenses. 

2. Get ready to inhabit a brave new world. Research how to market and sell in the ecommerce environment. Become comfortable with social media and seek out promotional opportunities.

3. Be patient. Don’t expect to put a few listings up and start selling. You need to know how to make the most of the tools provided by your retail partner to move product.

4. Keep up with technology. Ecommerce is quickly evolving; stay on top of new tools and trends.

Finding the Right Place To Sell

Founded in 2005 to provide an alternative to ebay for craftspeople and sellers of vintage goods, Etsy (www.etsy.com) is an e-tail platform for handmade goods. The site quickly grew to selling everything from tee shirts to tote bags, photography, art, silk flowers, soaps, clothing, jewelry and more. Despite the expanding field of online commerce platforms for homemade goods, Etsy has remained the 500-pound gorilla: in 2014 Etsy racked up sales totaling more than $1.93 billion. While Etsy remains larger than all of its competitors combined, other platforms offer different benefits. Consider these alternatives:

  • Aftcra. American handmade products only.
  • ArtFire. Supports local makers and indie businesses.
  • Bigcartel. Stresses ease of use and customization.
  • Bonanza. Focuses on higher-end fashion.
  • Craft Is Art. Handmade, art, vintage and supplies.
  • Icraft. Strictly handmade products subject to quality review.
  • Indiemade. Offers blog, image galleries, calendar and marketing tools.
  • Shopify. Promotes “a beautiful store front with mobile in mind.”
  • Zibbet. Favorable fee structure for small merchants.