HOW TO: Pay The Rent By Running Your Own Etsy Shop, Even As You Wonder What You're Doing With Your Life

There are shit weeks with no sales at all. Then, you wake up and check your phone to see that some saint in the West Village ordered five gowns last night and paid your entire rent for the month.
Publish date:
December 31, 2012
money, etsy, jobs, business, vintage clothing

This time last year, I was fresh off an internship at a super-awesome fashion label in NYC.

“Fresh” might not really be the right term; my face was covered in cystic mounds of acne, my body was constantly exhausted from living in a 9th floor walk-up, and I was mentally spent after a mind-fucking interview process, culminating in a meeting with the head of HR and the label’s namesake himself, whose uncharacteristic stoicism during that 15-minute interview had me on the verge of pissing myself and confusing the words “discretion” and “discrepancy,” despite the hours of rehearsal. My vocal chords were shaking just as uncontrollably as my left foot, which was stuffed in a too-small brogue from the sample closet so that I could look like I truly belonged there.

I was burnt out. Working for free for six months in a high-stress environment while finishing up my last nine hours of classes online can do that. Obviously I was partying the entire time, too. What? WHATEVER.

I came back to Texas for Christmas, making it down to Austin as quickly as possible. I talk mad shit on Austin constantly, but there’s no denying that it’s easy living. You can drive right up to wherever you need to go, there are parties to be had every single night, there’s multiple juice bars, organic cafes, and Whole Foods, quaint little shops with taxidermy everywhere so you know they’re well-curated, and friends that’ll put you on the list for all the good shows. There’s hiking and shit, too, as if I ever did any of that.

A big also: rent is cheap. I’m embarrassed to divulge what my awesome parents shelled out for my loft apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. I’m not a trust-fund kiddo, and am super-sensitive to the media’s constant coverage of our busted economy. I’ve always had this unrealistic fear of winding up “poor,” and especially of draining my mom of her retirement fund because I can’t seem to make anything of my life.

Long story short, I turned down an opportunity in NYC to live in the cheap-rent safe haven of Austin. It wasn’t an easy decision. After “working in fashion” (gag me) since I was 18, finally getting a job offer -- at a prestigious brand nonetheless -- seemed like an obvious, “Fuck, yah!” But, like I said, I was burnt out.

I had graduated from school a year early so that I could get up to New York to do the internship in the first place. But it was in those few months before I left that I had really started to experience the fun side of Austin, rather than being stuck in a sorority house in West Campus surrounded by whiskey-breath frat dudes who made fun of me for riding a bike to class, “like a fuckin’ hipster.” Weighing my options, I decided to cozy up in Austin for a bit, go another round with SXSW and check out Psyche Fest, rather than hustle my ass off on that cold, concrete island.

I planned to take things real easy for a while. I called myself an artist (check my XO profile), and started amassing piles of vintage clothing to sell to rich Australian chicks online, because if I was going to live like a young retiree (Are Portland and Austin the same place?), I didn’t want it to be solely on my parents’ dime.

I did lots of research. My first big decision was whether to go with Etsy or Ebay. What I concluded was this: if you’re planning on doing this for the long haul, and you really plan on scouring the planet for a large collection of rare, one-of-a-kind, and designer pieces, Ebay might be the best option for you. The return can be exceptionally high, with unfathomably wealthy collectors around the world outbidding each other for a mange-y old monkey fur coat, or a Versace leather bondage dress, or platform boots worn by some Stones groupie in ’73.

Don’t get me wrong -- like any self-respecting vintage collector I’ve definitely come across these things over the years. And when I find them, I buy them. They live in my closet and will never, ever, appear on the Internet unless I look really hot in a photo while wearing them. But I will certainly never sell them.

Which leads me to the second point I want to make: You’re doing this to pay rent. Yes, you’ll spend hours most days shopping for inventory, but buy things that you’re actually willing to part with. You’re buying for the shop, not yourself, so even if you absolutely die over vintage and just fucking love it, if you’re the type that gets emotionally attached to lots of inanimate objects, this is not the rent-paying path for you. I also like Margiela and Miu Miu, and frivolous shit like food and electricity, and I remind my aching heart of this as I price that pristine copper gown from the 60s.

Back to the Ebay v. Etsy discussion, I ended up going with Etsy because, no, I’m not planning on doing this for the rest of my life, and I don’t have the time or energy to wake up before noon on a Saturday to hit up the estate sales and haggle. And I’m certainly not dropping mad dough on gas money to go on frequent buying trips to the fabled antique malls in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t think I’m shattering anybody’s perception of vintage shops to say that I get the bulk of my inventory from thrift stores, at prices mostly under $100. I said, “the bulk,” not all, because another cardinal rule of vintage peddling is not to blab your best sources. **winks**

Another Etsy plus is that I didn’t have to build awareness of my shop to start making lots of sales. Millions (?) of people visit Etsy ready and willing to buy from you if you’ve got what they came looking for, your shop looks nice and the price is right.

With Ebay, if you’re a freshly hatched shop, even with a great collection, chances are that bids will be rather low. I’ve kept my eye on many vintage Ebay sellers over the years and have determined that the big money doesn’t start rolling in until you’ve really made a name for yourself by building a large fan base.

These chicks do editorial-type promotional photography and have online presence outside of Ebay on Facebook and Instagram. I can barely keep my personal Facebook account updated with interesting content, let alone one for my shop. (I really need to get around to deleting its totally defunct Instagram account.)

I don’t even want to get into the fuckery I’ve been dealt from jerks who refer to themselves as “photographers,” which brings me to one of my most valuable points: Be extremely wary of collaborating with anyone you don’t already know and trust. Try doing everything that you possibly can yourself, because when money is involved, people can start acting like complete assholes. This is your business, don’t work with fuckheads.

Plus, it’s simply more cost-effective to keep collaboration to a minimum and not spread the profits too thin. If you’re not confident in your creative abilities (think graphic design, styling, copywriting, photography, photo editing, even minor alterations and repair work), don’t dive into a project like this. I honed most of these skills while interning, which is why this was a natural next step for me. Plus, I own a sewing machine.

Many people own a decent DSLR, and if you’re not one of them you probably have at least one good friend who is. Just take the photos yourself, rent a nice flash unit (about $30 a day), borrow one from your friend’s sweetheart professional photog boyfriend, Jimmy, or make sure to shoot with plenty of light.

The photos are by and far the most important thing when it comes to point of purchase, so if you can’t quite figure it out, try harder. The Internet has too much information on how to take decent photographs, I’ve somehow been able to almost figure it out without learning what the hell an aperture is, so you can do it too. Photos need to be high quality, true to color, and detailed.

Not only must the photographs themselves be decent, but the model and styling need to look great. I’m super lucky to be friends with Simo, this alien-babe life form with the longest legs ever, creamy complexion, and a gorgeous face to boot. Not every piece of clothing will look good on every person, which is why people have different tastes and needs when they shop, but it sure as hell makes it easy for me to photograph the clothes on someone who looks killer in everything. Ever. Period.

(She doesn’t even call herself a model! She’s an insanely talented graphic designer who went to college at, like, 16, and just launched her own culture website. She was nice enough to do a couple of shoots for trade, but I began ponying up some well-deserved money when I started seeing some cash from the store. DEFINTELY inve$t in a great model, even if they’re sweet enough to do it for free!)

Write detailed descriptions, include measurements and ABSOLUTELY list any defects or wear. It’s just good business to be honest and upfront about that kind of thing, and definitely price the pieces accordingly. This will be the most time-consuming part of creating a listing, because you want to do some research before pricing. Time and experience make the process a little easier.

I advise shipping internationally; most of my buyers are outside of the U.S. This can be tricky because tracking an international package is nearly impossible unless you charge for express service, which can be around $60 for a small package. Be detailed in your shop policies about how you ship and what you will take responsibility for in the event that something goes awry. (Hint: nothing. I’ve only had an issue with one international shipment out of 57 in the past six months.) Investing (about $20 on Amazon) in a small postal scale does wonders in calculating correct shipment costs.

Package the items nicely, even if you’re like me and use mostly recycled boxes. Etsy buyers are pretty cool with receiving their purchase in a 1-800-Pet-Meds box as long as you’ve put care into what’s inside. Include a thank you note -- and consider keeping branding in mind with custom stationary for your shop. I had a stamp made. Boom, done.

Finally, download the Etsy/Ebay app to your phone so that you’re constantly on top of what’s going on in your shop. It’s a great tool, but can be a curse in disguise if you’re trained in sarcasm and not customer service, like me. (Reused from a previous Tweet, but none of you jerks follow me on Twitter anyway. I’m sorry, you’re not jerks. It’s 7 am and the chick next to me on the plane is playing Bejeweled with sound, apparently unaware of my dagger-sharp side eyeing.)

You’re definitely going to get at least one or two emails a week asking for a price adjustment for a “poor college student that just really loves this dress!”

I have to suck it up and say, “Thank you for your interest, but my shop has a no-haggle pricing policy.” When what I really want to say is, “I’m a broke post-college grad that doesn’t fucking know what I’m doing with my future and constantly wonders what my life would be like if I took that fashion job in New York while I sit here tending my humble Etsy shop that I’m too embarrassed to tell my hot-shot fashion friends about. That $55 dollars that you so sweetly asked off of the original price covers my Internet and a quarter of my utility charges for a month. Stop browsing Etsy and get back to studying.”

And with that, I’d like to wish anybody with an Etsy shop, or that’s thinking about starting one good luck! AMA in the comments! It’s fun, almost like having a retail Tamagotchi.

My customers rule and obviously have great taste, I’m happy that my collection is going to good homes and love hearing feedback from people who absolutely adore what they’ve purchased. It makes the world seem a little smaller and my insides feel of hot gooey fudge sauce.

Yes, there are shit weeks with no sales at all. Then, you wake up and check your phone to see that some saint in the West Village ordered five gowns last night and paid your entire rent for the month, which makes it all worthwhile and keeps me from moving back in with my parents.

Unfortunately and fortunately, I’m currently in the process of moving out of Austin for probably ever. (But NOT back in with my folks. Jesus.) Life sometimes takes a hard left turn (or, like, launches your excited, but nervous little body directly into the stratosphere) and forces some good things, like your wee baby Etsy shop that you’ve incubated for almost a year -- and living in your hardwood apartment with your creepy new roommate-slash-shopsitter-slash-bff and her sweetie German Shepherd, and long drives up and down I-35 in your sickly little red Jetta you’ve had since you were 16 -- to come to an end.

I’m just glad I never sold my mange-y old fur, I hear that concrete island gets pretty fucking cold in January. (I also hear all of your eyeballs collectively rolling upwards and over in their squishy sockets, mine are doing the same thing right now. Cheesiest ending ever award: first place.)