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Case Study

What Works: Helping Underemployed Residents Turn Their Crafty Skills Into Supplemental Income

Written by Amanda Maher

Objective: This case study highlights how Etsy, one of the nation’s leading peer-to-peer e-commerce platforms, teamed up with the City of Rockford, IL to create a training program that teaches low-income and disadvantaged residents how to earn supplemental income by selling their craft goods and products online. The program is unique in that it promotes part-time entrepreneurship as a pathway out of poverty, and has since been replicated in cities across the U.S. and now, the world.

Main Topic: Entrepreneurship

Geography: Multiple U.S. cities, including Rockford, IL and New York City

Major Participants: Etsy, City of Rockford, Illinois; Rockford Housing Authority; New York City Department of Small Business Services (NYCSBS); Etsy sellers; U.S. Small Business Administration; small business development centers (SBDCs), public libraries; public schools; other local stakeholder groups

Background: Etsy worked closely with the City of Rockford to develop the initial Craft Entrepreneurship Curriculum. The curriculum consists of five courses that are typically taught once per week for five weeks straight. The five class subjects are: (1) Becoming an Entrepreneur (2) Branding and Marketing; (3) Product Photography; (4) Day-to-Day Business Strategy; and (5) Planning for Growth.

Participants begin by learning to start and set up their online business using the Etsy portal. During the course, participants will learn by doing business within their own online shop. The ultimate goal is to enable graduates to earn supplemental income with their craft.

To be eligible for the program, applicants must: Have at least one handmade craft item ready to sell; Commit to attending all five classes (about 12 hours total); Reside in the community where the program is being offered; Have never made any sales on etsy.com (it is possible to have an Etsy store without having made any sales); Have a credit card and checking account (necessary for sales transactions); and Have regular access to a computer with an Internet connection. And of course, applicants must have an interest in starting their own online business (even if only part-time!).

The courses are taught by an experienced instructor who is also a successful Etsy seller. Etsy helps to identify a local Etsy seller and trains them in the Craft Entrepreneurship curriculum. It’s easy for instructors to get up to speed, as the curriculum is posted online and accessible to them via a special Etsy portal where they’ll have access to lesson plans that have already been developed and can be used by the instructors.

The heaviest lift comes from the local partner(s)—in the Rockford case, for instance, the partners included the City and the Rockford Housing Authority; in NYC the partner is the Department of Small Business Services (NYCSBS). Other local partners have included Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) and public libraries, whose missions and audiences are often closely aligned with the Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship program, and their centers are well-suited to offer the classes. The local partner is responsible for recruiting students, providing the physical space for classes to be held, computers, funding the program and paying for the course instructor.

The program tends to be targeted to underserved, low-income and under-employed communities, so it is usually free to attend or offered at a very low cost to cover the basic supplies (program founders have also found that a small fee helps to decrease attrition). Classes range in size but never have more than 20 students at once, with the average class size somewhere between 8 and 12 people.

Results: The Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Curriculum was first piloted in Rockford and New York City in September 2013. Since then, the program has been deployed by 40 different partners in communities across the U.S., and courses are now being offered in Canada, Australia and the U.K. (with plans for even greater expansion in 2017 and beyond).

An estimated 1,300 people have gone through the program, and have opened over 1,000 Etsy shops online in the process.

Etsy does not measure the program’s success by the amount of revenue each person raises through their online shop after completing the program. Instead, the program emphasizes giving people the skills and confidence to become online entrepreneurs – with the added benefit of earning money in the process.

In addition to improved confidence, a study also finds that students learn to support one another, build social capital, develop relationships with other program participants, and cultivate new strategic networks of buyers and suppliers that may prove beneficial to their Etsy store’s long-term success.

Remaining Challenges: One of the ongoing challenges is that, when targeting a disadvantaged or underserved demographic, students come to the program with vastly different technological skills. Some are very savvy; some barely have an understanding of how to use a personal computer. Instructors have to keep this in mind, and the program tends to be most successful when local partners evaluate prospective students’ technology skills prior to enrollment to ensure they have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to use a computer and navigate the Internet. Related, if students do not have access to this technology upon program completion, it is unlikely that they will be able to practice and sustain the knowledge they’ve learned in the program.

Along the same lines, not all students have a bank account and credit card, which are necessary to process Etsy transactions. This is why local partners are so critical to the program’s success; offering students wraparound services, like financial literacy courses, promotes long-term economic security.

Finally, although the Craft Entrepreneurship program has proven wildly popular, there has been little data collection to ascertain the full breadth of its economic impact. Program graduates are not currently followed over time, so it is difficult to determine the increase in revenue or supplemental income generated through their online sales.

Lessons learned: There have been two very important lessons learned since the program has launched. First, the curriculum was initially too heavily focused on teaching students the nuts and bolts of business and financial planning. However, the course tends to attract people who just want to learn the basics of online selling so they can get a shop setup and start earning money. The heavy focus on business and financial planning turned out to be too overwhelming for the majority of program participants, so the curriculum has since been revised with great success.

A second lesson is the importance of local partners. Housing authorities, SBDCs, local schools and public libraries are just a few examples of the partners who have helped deliver the curriculum successfully. Local partners have a better understanding of the demographics most in need, how to tailor outreach to those residents, and which wraparound services might be necessary to help program participants succeed. Because these local partners are already entrenched in the community, they can more easily leverage their networks to reach interested parties; as a result, program enrollment has been consistently high across communities.

To learn more about the Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship program, visit:
https://www.etsy.com/craftentrepreneurship.

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