One of the things I have noticed recently is that there are generations of adults who doubt whether my friends and I have actual jobs. I don’t blame them: “Freelance blogger and journalist” definitely has a uniquely millennial sound to it.
Similar confusion floats around responses like “I make artisan twine mason jars,” “I am working on a Kickstarter to fund my movie,” and “I create geometric wire jewelry on Etsy.” As the TV show Portlandia, in its hilarious critique of the hipster and artisan culture, flippantly posed the question: Should we all be “making jewelry now”? And given the low cost and Do-What-You-Love nature of online entrepreneurship, is this the elusive answer to "having it all"?
A few years ago Brit Castanos used Etsy to start her own wedding gown line, Daughters of Simone. As she told me, “I was joking around with my friends about what I should do with my life and someone suggested making wedding dresses. I kept thinking about how, even though I was far from being married at the time, there weren’t any dresses around that I would ever like. So I made a few reconstructed vintage gowns, posted them on Etsy, and they sold. That told me there might be something here.”
Three years later, she sells her own designs, has created her own store website, has created a line of bridesmaid dresses, and has released her second collection. Castanos’ story encapsulates everything it means to be a #girlboss in the world of online entrepreneurial craftsmanship. What started out as a hobby in fashion reconstruction has, thanks to platforms like Etsy, become a successful business doing what she loves. Is this the new American dream?
Women like Castanos are pursuing online entrepreneurship in record numbers. In fact, when Etsy surveyed 5,500 of their million-plus shop owners, they found that in contrast to the 29 percent of national enterprises owned by women, “88 percent of U.S. Etsy sellers are women.” Women surveyed pointed to “the flexible schedule, reduced stress, and sense of achievement that comes with being my own boss” and “help[ing] pay my bills” as reasons they started shops on Etsy. Meanwhile, a recent study on women and startup capital revealed that, when it comes to crowd funding platforms such as Kickstarter, “women outperform men and are more likely to succeed at crowdfunding campaigns, all other things being equal,” especially in the technology sector.
There are several reasons women find online entrepreneurship appealing. For many it appears to provide a tidy solution to “having it all.” Economist Steve Horwitz believes that these sorts of platforms instantly provide women with “the chance...to access a market that they could never have before.” In terms of economic equality and advancement, this is a great thing. Women who have the aptitude, talent, and drive to create a business can tap into a streamlined market.
For many stay-at-home moms, online entrepreneurship provides an answer to the question “What do you do?” Sociology professor Pamela Stone, in her study “Opting Out: Challenging Stereotypes and Creating Real Opportunities for Women in the Professions," notes that seeing worth as not intrinsically linked to career is a particular challenge for women coming from an ambitious career background. She quotes a former trader who told her: “I find it extremely hard on my self-esteem and my ego. People ask you, ‘What do you do?’” Another woman explained that when she decided to opt out, “It was like all of a sudden I didn’t exist. You know, six months ago I was working in the U.S. Attorney’s office and my name was in The New York Times. Now I’m nobody.”
“Our culture is such now that women who stay home feel guilty about staying home,” Beka Johnson, an integrated marketing strategist told me. “So, they do try to come up with ways to prove that they are working too.” Chrissy, a stay-at-home mother I spoke with, concurred explaining: “It’s not that you feel pressured to be the creative, home entrepreneurial type. It’s that, when you have a child who is wholly dependent on you all day long, something like an Etsy store becomes your only option.”
Still, there is a difference between using online entrepreneurship platforms for one’s hobby and using them for a strategic business endeavor. While 74 percent of shop owners consider their shop a business, 65 percent of sellers made less than $100 last year. Moreover, Etsy acknowledges that for many shop owners “personal reasons outweigh business and income considerations.” Kickstarter is no guarantee of success either as 55 percent of its projects fail. For a business to succeed, it not only takes creativity but also skills ranging from SEO optimization and social media promotion to identifying and targeting your market. If individuals embrace those challenges as part of the journey, Etsy and Kickstarter are fantastic platforms. But if you love making artsy baubles, find it enriches your life, but really don’t want to run a business, that’s fine too.
And that’s the thing. Brit Castanos (and other Etsy users) may be living the new American dream, but it’s not just because her online company has been a success. It’s also that through her company, she has found a way to use her skills to produce something that both enriches her and the world of those who purchase wedding dresses from her. Creating something that betters the lives of those around us, not our bottom line, is what infuses worth into our activities, whether at work or leisure.
In a world saturated with mass consumerism, a return to the small and specialized is most certainly welcome. But online platforms like Etsy are unique in that they make it possible for users to not only run a strategic business but also dabble as an amateur artist; both vendors enjoy the same low overhead costs, the consumers enjoy a more diverse range of treasures, and everybody wins.
After all, when we love to make something, be it music, typographic prints, or wedding dresses, rarely is our love a mere matter of finances. Rather, we love the craft, the experience. As thriving creative platforms like Etsy remind us, there are things worth loving because they are good to do in themselves, and because, when we do them, we become better in ourselves.