Why Building a Business Solely on Etsy is a Bad Idea (And What to Do Instead)

starting an etsy shop

$5,000.

That's how much I turned $0.12 into in the four months after I listed my first product on Etsy.

Sounds good, right?

If I can earn $5,000 with just a couple of Etsy listings and as a brand new seller, maybe Etsy is the secret sauce for making money online…right?

Well, not so fast.

Why Relying on Etsy Alone is Not The Answer to Building Your Dream Business

… At least not long term.

Many people read my article The Ultimate Guide to Selling on Etsy and mistakenly think that Etsy may just be the answer to the tugging on their entrepreneurial spirit. After all, it has all these things going for it:

  • It's super simple to set up
  • You don't need to have a techie bone in your body to get an Etsy shop running
  • Products remove the risk of putting yourself out there and offering a service
  • You only need a prototype at first
  • Etsy has built in traffic and fans
  • It's relatively cheap to get up and running.

But with all of those great things going for it, there are limiting factors as well. After you've started your Etsy shop, and begun to make sales on it, and maybe even grown it past $1,000/month, these limitations may begin to weigh on you.

But don't worry. I won't leave you hanging. I'll tell you how to fix them so you can sell on Etsy successfully… while also giving yourself the freedom and flexibility you crave from your 9-5 (or even just more creative license!).

Here are the common limitations of Etsy:

1. The Low Average Price-Point of Products

Etsy is a very competitive marketplace.

While this is good news (after all, Etsy also has an incredibly engaged fan-following, meaning that if you're first starting out with an online business, you won't have to spend so much time and effort marketing!) when you're first starting out, it can be limiting as you grow your shop.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of sellers competing with one another for each product, which drives the prices you're able to charge for your products down.

The average salary for an American full-time worker is $39,509 – $40,000 rounded. To earn $40,000 per year with Etsy selling a product around $25 (about the average price), you would have to sell 1,600 units of your product. Right?

Except there are costs associated with those physical products. In business school, we called these costs “COGS”, or “cost of goods sold”.

So say you were selling jewelry. You hand make the jewelry with stones from your local bead shop, and leather and metals, and maybe you have the leather and metal shipped in.

So each piece of jewelry you'd be able to sell for $25 costs you $6 to make. To hit that average salary of $40,000, you'd either have to raise your prices by $6, but then risk losing customers…

Or you would have to sell more units.

So since you'd earn only $19 per unit, that means you'd have to sell 2,105 units over a course of the year. That's a lot of units on Etsy to have to sell. Especially when considering…

2. The Insane Amount of Labour

This is not a concern for anybody selling vintage on Etsy, so if that's your case, please skip it 🙂

Etsy is a handmade market. You probably want to sell on Etsy because you want to be able to do what you love, and be creative, and earn a living from it.

So if you hand make your products using the example above, and were somehow able to land 2,105 sales over the course of a year on the uber-competitive Etsy market, you would have to hand make 2,105 units of the product.

That's 5.7 units per day – let's round up for the sake of covering fees to 6 units per day. If each unit took you one hour to make, that means you'd have to spend 6 hours per day working on making the jewelry.

And then there's the administrative tasks, like interacting with customers and getting sales together.

If you don't have systems in place for your Etsy shop, it can take more time than owning your own, independent platform.

3. You're Limited to Etsy Clients

Etsy is a great search engine…

Within the platform of Etsy itself.

So, if you're searching Etsy for handmade leather bags for your mom's birthday gift, you'll find the best listings on Etsy for handmade leather bags. However, if you're searching Google for handmade leather bags – which far more people would do – the listings on Etsy will come up at the bottom of the search results on Google (unless you have a very popular Etsy store).

It's much more difficult to rank in Google than it is on Etsy (just make sure you're tagging your items properly), which is why I recommend starting on Etsy.

But after you've mastered Etsy, remember that you don't have as much control over your keywords and store presence on Google, and people are less likely to click through to an Etsy store because….

4. Etsy Stores are “Less Professional”

I don't know about you, but when I Google something like handmade leather bag, I am interested in the listings that don't come from Amazon, eBay, and Etsy.

I'm far more likely to click on an actual store, with its own domain and shop rather than an Etsy listing. That's because the business seems more legitimate, and this is the case for almost all higher priced goods.

I don't think I'm the only one.

A shop with its own domain and website gives me peace of mind because I know they will be there if I ever want to return the product.

Again, the built-in customer base that Etsy has is a huge sell for starting your shop on Etsy. But after you've built your shop to $1k/month in profit or more, you probably want to access the markets of other search engines and platforms.

5. Etsy Pockets a Portion of Your Profit

Imagine you were a shop owner in a mall.

You paid your rent each month to be in the mall, and you played along with the mall's rules and regulations, but at the end of the month, the owner of the mall came to you with his hand outstretched asking for 3.5% of your sales.

That's what Etsy does.

Not only do you pay to “rent” a space at Etsy with every listing you put up (the listing fee is $0.20) but you also have to pay 3.5% off of the top of every sale you make. Then, on top of that, you have to pay if you want to accept credit card payments, you pay currency conversion fees, and PayPal fees too, if you let people check out via PayPal.

The worst part is that you don't even own the “land” so to speak! These are not property taxes we're talking about.

If you were to own your own “shop” rather than rent one from Etsy, you'd lose out on the foot traffic of being in a populated mall, but you'd save yourself a lot of money with listing your items.

When you're first starting on Etsy, this is the price you pay for accessing Etsy's already strong customer base. But as your business grows, it's best to minimize that profit-sharing approach by also opening your shop on your own platform.

6. You Don't Own Your Land

I've compared free hosting (ie www.unsettle.wordpress.com) and paid hosting (www.unsettle.org) to renting vs. owning before, and this analogy fits in nicely here:

When you are on the Etsy platform, you're renting. You don’t have ultimate control over your website. Etsy can “evict” you at any time, and you have to pay a premium for rent.

You don't own your land . You can't do whatever you want with your property. You don't have freedom over your website looks like and functions.

You don't have ultimate control over your business. And isn't that why you want to start a business in the first place? To have control, flexibility, and freedom over your time, money, and life?

So as you grow your business, branching out to include your own self-hosted store will help mitigate this risk.

7. Etsy is a Press-Free Zone

In Episode 5 of the Unsettle Podcast, I sat down with Andreea Ayers to discuss just how to get press for your eCommerce products.

See, press can be a game-changer for any entrepreneur, and especially for eCommerce entrepreneurs, and Andreea confirmed what I was thinking about sites like Etsy, eBay and Amazon:

To get press, you need your own website. You could get press on Etsy. Theoretically. It's just much more difficult.

If you contact a magazine and they like your products, where would they refer readers to if they featured your products? They couldn't very well include a long URL that starts with Etsy.com. Magazine editors and product curators know this, so they don't feature Etsy products as often.

This is not usually a concern for those just starting out, but as you're going full-time with your shop, it can be.

7. You Lose Sales When Relying Only on Etsy

Let's go back to the analogy of Etsy as a mall.

When you walk into a mall to look for a pair of shoes, for example, you are bombarded with options. There are several shoe stores, not to mention the department stores which also sell shoes.

With Etsy, it's the same. Buyers land on the homepage of Etsy and they have hundreds of options other than your products. They can easily get distracted by the other options and if they do land in your Etsy shop, Etsy itself has so many options that they likely won't stay there.

There are a bunch of different sellers that sell the same thing, so the very website is competing with you. When I look up my product for instance, I typed in some keywords that I know a lot of people use, and there are twenty different products listed before mine.

It doesn't matter if my product is better than those products. It doesn't matter if the quality is higher or the shipping is faster or if I have better reviews. They still show up in front of my listing.

When you have your own website and somebody lands on your homepage, their only option is to look at your products.

The challenge is just getting people to just your website.

8. Difficulty Up-Selling

In retail, one of the best practices to increase revenue is to up sell, or suggest add-on products.

If somebody is buying one thing from you, they are easier to sell a second or third item to than somebody who isn't already purchasing. Retailers know this, which is why their websites usually have a section below an item called “You May Also Like”… the section suggests products the customer might also want to buy.

Etsy doesn't have this functionality. When a potential buyer is looking at your listing, there is no suggested products or add-on feature.

You'll want this to grow your business.

9. Etsy Makes You Turn Your Back on Marketing

Have you ever heard the term “Unique Selling Proposition”?

It's one of the very core principles of marketing. Your Unique Selling Proposition, or USP is what makes you unique and different: why should people buy from you rather than another company?

But the reason why the above point is problematic on Etsy is because it's very difficult to communicate your brand or USP through that platform.

When you use the search function to find what you need in Etsy, all you see is a bunch of tiled photographs and listing descriptions.

You don't see the company's specific brand. You don't see how they are different. As a seller, you can't even include that information in the listing title, because you need to optimize that for search.

In Etsy, I can't make a choice based on what brand resonates with me. I don't have the ability to see what makes each of these options different, what makes them stand out. All I can go on is price and a picture.

Etsy makes it more difficult for your buyers to, as well.

10. You Can't Communicate With Buyers After The Sale

Have I stressed how important an email list is yet?

Ah yes, I believe I have

But unfortunately, Etsy does not allow you to ask buyers if you can add them to your email list. Meaning you can't communicate with buyers after they buy from you. It's far easier to sell to an existing customer than to a new one.

Meaning, since you've already sold something to your existing customers and assuming that you did an amazing job with their product and they loved it, they are far more likely to want to hear from you and buy again. However, Etsy doesn't allow you to connect with those buyers again through an email list.

The money is in the email list, so you're limiting your earnings drastically by relying on Etsy.

So since relying solely on Etsy to unsettle is such a bad idea, what's the alternative?

What You Can Do Instead

If you're serious about making it with an online store, just relying on starting an Etsy shop is not the answer. It's a GREAT place to start, but it shouldn't be the end-all-be-all.

Start your shop on Etsy. It has tons of great perks and takes a lot of the pressure of marketing your products and yourself off of your shoulders (especially if you don't even know where to start with marketing!).

But after you've grown your Etsy shop to the point where you feel limited by the factors I listed above, there's one thing you can do to help you fix most of these problems.

It's not rocket science. It's not even difficult. But it's something that many people are needlessly daunted by…

Build your own shop.

Create your own website to feature your products.

Sure, you can keep your Etsy shop open. In fact, you should. Etsy is a great search engine and you wouldn't want to lose out on the sales and exposure you get from it.

But host your own shop, too. With your own shop, you can:

  • Brand yourself however you want
  • Offer add-ons through a plugin
  • Get press for your products straight to your website
  • List as many products as you want without having to worry about listing and renewal fees
  • Market your shop far better than you can with Etsy
  • Maintain an email list to be in contact with your customers.

Buyers will take you more seriously, you will enjoy more freedom and flexibility (key for a lifestyle business) and perhaps best of all, you can actually build and maintain important relationships.

Don't worry. Setting up your own website isn't as daunting as it sounds. It takes 5 minutes to get set up with WordPress, and then all you have to do is find the perfect theme, upload an eCommerce plugin that will allow you to create listings and inventory (like Woocommerce) and start creating those listings.

You can't rely on rented space to build a lifestyle business you'll love.

If you want to turn that side business into your dream business, your perfect job, and break free into entrepreneurship, relying solely on Etsy is a bad idea.

So build your own website. Let your income from Etsy become just a happy bonus. And start seriously growing your business.

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11 Comments on “Why Building a Business Solely on Etsy is a Bad Idea (And What to Do Instead)”

  1. It’s weird how we’re on the same wavelength. I started on my Etsy shop right around the time you published your guide. It was just to get the creative juices going but between the demands of my regular job and the new Mom gig, I realized that Etsy simply doesn’t scale in the very limited time I have AND it’s set up to make Etsy the real money, not me. So I backed off and have been brainstorming along these lines instead: setting up the shop on my own site, refocusing the niche, using the existing Etsy shop to support the real shop. It simply doesn’t make sense to pour my valuable time into a rental that has a very real cap on profits!

  2. I currently work for a small business owner whose primary online presence is through Etsy, and this post is RIGHT ON TARGET. Etsy also constantly makes experimental changes to the site that force users to relearn aspects of the platform every few months (and other changes that sometimes hurt sales). The review system seems like a great idea, but it’s difficult to get customers to give a review (except for the super unreasonable angry customers who aim to take you down for not being able to get their order to them yesterday when they purchased a gift the day before their anniversary). I was hired for graphic design and my job has turned into customer service and dealing with order issues. Answering Etsy messages is a huge timesuck especially since most are basic questions that on a normal website, could be handled with extra product photos or custom layouts to better portray items. But Etsy shops are all so cookie-cutter, and customers won’t read the listing description because they assume they already know the info since they read it in another Etsy shop. Not to mention all the Etsy copycats out there that will copy your item and charge less to beat your price point. And even if you are able to grow your business on Etsy, Etsy won’t grow with you. Etsy is not prepared to hep you handle large volumes of sales. We had to jerry rig a CRM system to work with the company’s Etsy account just to keep up with orders- Etsy claims to be API friendly but there’s no system or app in place that can readily function for larger numbers of orders (not that I’ve seen anyways- if anyone knows of one, please let me know!). Don’t get me wrong, Etsy can be a fantastic platform for a niche hobby, but don’t expect to make a lot of money without pouring your blood, sweat, tears, and a chunk of your wallet into it. For me, the painful customer service side of things has greatly turned me off of this even for a side hustle. I second (and third, and fourth!) what Sarah’s said- Etsy’s not the platform you want to start a serious new business on.

  3. Hey Sarah, I’m curious what your thoughts are on using platforms such as Virb or Craftlaunch that allows you to import your Etsy products into your own online shop.

    Also, what are your thoughts on Squarespace? They also charge monthly fees ($18 – $26 a month, depending on your plan), along with a 2.9% + $0.30 transaction fee from their payment processor, Stripe. However, they definitely have a lot to offer for a professional e-commerce store.

    I’m not a huge WordPress fan, personally, so I’m trying to explore all my options. This was a great article, by the way!

  4. Hey Scott,

    I’ve never used either Virb or Craftlaunch, so I don’t have much of an opinion on it, but if it’s easier than creating your own site from scratch that’s awesome. The only thing I’d make sure is that they have all the functionality that Etsy doesn’t – for instance, the ability to start an email list, the ability to brand yourself and optimize for search, etc.

    Squarespace is a good platform, I think. It has it’s limitations, but so does WordPress. I’d probably go with Shopify before SquareSpace for an eCommerce store though. =)

  5. Hey Nicole

    So glad you agree, though I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with the Etsy platform. I so agree with you – it can be an awesome platform for a side hustle, or a side business or a hobby site. Or even to supplement your main website. But it’s not the way to go if you want to be serious about starting a business.

    Thank you SO Much for contributing to the conversation in such a meaningful way 🙂

  6. Hey Revanche,

    Yup, Etsy is a business, that’s for sure. So they are definitely in it to make Etsy money rather than you. But I love that you’re already thinking about this sort of thing. Etsy’s a great learning ground, though.

  7. Hi Sarah,

    Although I’m not in the hand making (beautiful) products business. The first time I saw Etsy I saw right through it.

    I believe places like Esty do serve a purpose. It’s a good starting point, it’s a good place to find your feet, it’s a good place to have a sneak-a-peak at the competition and it’s a fantastic place to make a little side income. But that’s it.

    Once you have more knowledge behind you, I’m guessing most people move upwards and onwards. I can’t see many people permanently staying at Etsy and they must have a fast conveyor belt of enthusiastic new sellers, so Etsy profits likely don’t fall.

    I agree with what you say… get your own shop asap (online or offline). It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Etsy, especially if they choose to stay stagnate.

    Naomi

  8. This is really interesting Sarah,
    I’ve been hearing lots of awesome stuffs about this Etsy and was even considering checking it out in the future but this post of you has just blown me away.

    That means that Etsy has lots of disadvantages more than its advantages if any.

    Most ecommerce businesses relies very well on search traffic and for the fact that Etsy is not good in search traffic, that makes it a no go area for me.

    Now, if you’re to sell such number of your products a year, where will they come from? Paid traffic?

    Anyway, I’m happy to have read this.

    Thanks for sharing Sarah

  9. You just said everything I am currently feeling! I have had a shop on Etsy for a little over 18 months and while it has done well I have quickly realized that in order to be competitive I priced most of my handmade items too low and I am covering cost of materials but not my time, which is a sacred thing for anyone much less a mom with two little ones running around! I am currently looking at other online options and hope to make the transition soon where I will also be raising my prices to reflect how much time actually goes into making them. Thanks for this article, it completely validates the way I’ve been feeling lately!

  10. Thank you soon much for this, Sarah! I actually was just about to open an account for my line of jewelry noeliag.com since I’m fairly new and I wanted to begin selling and I said to myself… let me do a little research. Thank you, Thank you!

  11. thanks sarah very interesting read. Ive been with etsy four months now, have not made one cent yet. My products are unique but too much competition. Any tips on how to get some traffic to your website with out spending crazy money

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