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Online artisan creates a crafty niche

Karen Yi suffered through the Monday through Friday grind, living for the weekends, when she could work on craft projects. “I especially enjoyed Sundays, which was my day to cut and paste, and play with different papers and designs,” said Yi.

On one of those do-it-yourself days, Yi created a handmade butterfly mobile for her infant daughter, Molly, using bright graphics and symmetrical patterns. Visitors to Molly’s nursery would oh and ah over the colorful ribbons swaying gently in the breeze. One friend said to Yi, “You should sell these on Etsy.”

That was two years ago, and today Yi is amazed that she was actually able to peddle enough custom-made whimsical crafts to phase out of her dull job as a marketing director at an architecture firm. She set up a virtual store on Etsy.com, a global online bazaar for handmade or vintage items, a Web 2.0 version of yesterday’s craft fairs or art show. It’s the digital revamping of artisanal culture, where you can purchase anything from a pink crocheted iPhone cover to drinking glasses made from recycled 7-Up soda bottles. Etsy also has a social commerce element, with communities of crafters networking, sharing skills, and promoting their shops together. “Buying handmade goods makes you feel connected,” said Yi. “People want to know that a human has touched and made a product, rather than a machine or factory somewhere.”

Etsy charges 20 cents per listing and 3.5 percent of the final sale price; Yi makes about 10 or more mobiles a week, charging between $45-$52 a mobile. Customers can request color schemes or motifs, so Yi spends hours picking and choosing papers, cutting out shapes, and gluing and shaping wires and ornamentations. “I always knew I would be happiest working for myself, but I never thought that the doorway in would be by making baby mobiles,” said Yi. “If you love something, just keep doing it; you never know when something will open up.”

Q: What does it take to set up an Etsy site?
A:
When I signed up to be a seller, I registered for an account, filled out a profile, set shop policies, and set up my own online shop that I could customize with a banner. Shoppers pay me directly, and I ship the item directly to customers, so I’m always at the post office with armloads of boxes.

Q: What’s the downside of your own crafting portal?
A:
The online shop is always open, so the work never goes away, whether it’s tracking orders on a spreadsheet, checking the inventory to make sure I have enough paper, wire, and ribbons, or packaging the mobiles in boxes. I’m always e-mailing customers, answering questions and keeping in touch. Customer service is very important, because customers come back or tell their friends about your product.

Q: How can crafters come up with an idea for items to sell online?
A:
Make a unique, well-made product that you love yourself, then others will love it also. I made the first mobile with the intention of being something beautiful for my daughter, not because I wanted to make money. It came from a very authentic place.

Q: Individual crafters can have a problem of scale – how do you manage to keep up with production?
A:
The actual construction of the mobiles can definitely be tedious, but then I remember that think I could be sitting behind a desk somewhere, doing work I have no connection to.

Q: And does your baby, Molly, still like her mobile?
A:
It’s still hanging in her room, and she still loves it.

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