Earlier this month, Etsy hosted a two day conference on small business and sustainability in Berlin, Germany. The idea was to provide a place for small business owners to connect with their community, learn the skills to make those businesses successful, and to “be part of the movement to build human-scale economies.” The workshops and sessions were streamed and recorded so that anyone could take part in the learning. In addition to the summit in Berlin, Etsy co-hosted conferences in five US cities (including here in Portland) to focus on micro-economics and sustainability. So September 17th found me at the Pacific Northwest College of Art with several hundred other artists, makers, shop owners, small business people, bloggers and the like for a day of inspiration, focus and learning.

When I say inspired, I’m not kidding around. I walked away from the conference absolutely brimming with new ideas and a renewed sense of community. I have pages of notes and could easily write thousands of words about my experience that day. I would like share what I felt were some of the most impactful take-away messages.

Lesson #1: Look for strategic allies to reach more customers, increase bargaining power and share resources.

My first workshop session, Reframing Your Competition, with Rosalee Rester, encouraged us to switch from a competitive model to a cooperative one. Why? Because, as it turns out:

  • Competition means you are duplicating the efforts of your competitors (and therefore competitors become indistinguishable from each other) and it encourages imitation rather than innovation.

On the flip side:

  • Cooperation allows us to perform optimally because we are not focused on beating someone else, it fosters feelings of community, and it has been shown to reduce the stress and anxiety that results from competing.

Sounds good, right? Who wants to be indistinguishable and feel stressed out? Not me. Rosalee walked us through a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) so we could benchmark our businesses against our competitors, motivate us to make goals for growth and to look for opportunities for cooperation. This really got me thinking about new collaborative ideas for 2012.

Lesson #2: Understand what your business needs but be driven by what you want to achieve.

The keynote address, featuring Rebecca Percy (Queen Bee Creations) and Duane Sorenson (Stumptown Coffee), was moderated by Portland’s craft icon, Diane Gilleland. The topic was intentional growth and the hour was both humorous and enlightening. The two businesses have had very different approaches to growth, but the message was consistent: be driven by your creative spirit and position yourself to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and take advantage of opportunities. This could mean taking on a partner or investor to allow your business to grow in a new way or it could mean scaling back (actually getting smaller!) to focus on one particular aspect of what you do. In any event, make sure you have trusted advisors you can consult whenever you are at a crossroads.

Lesson #3: Name and then face the fears that are keeping you from taking your business to the next level.

After lunch was the workshop I was most looking forward to, Embracing the Ugly Side of Your Business with Kim Werker. Kim has an energy and enthusiasm that is contagious and she had no problem getting a room full of makers to come along for the ride. The session was powerful and emotional as participants shared deeply personal fears about their businesses.

It turns out (surprise, surprise) that all of us are afraid of something. Some of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, to call ourselves artists or photographers or jewelry makers, to take pride in the things we create. Others are afraid of the success that they are having. No matter where you fall on the fear spectrum, one thing is clear: you are going to be afraid whether you act or not, so you might as well follow your passion and take that next step.

Lesson #4: Start. Persist. Make mistakes. Be true to yourself.

In a talk given earlier that day in Berlin, Chad Dickerson (CEO of Etsy) spoke about courage and how to find it. He said that we learn courage by doing courageous things. That may mean something as simple as getting out of bed each day with a commitment to do things just a little bit better than the day before. I love this idea! You don’t have to make massive leaps forward every single day, you just need to take baby steps, focusing on doing one thing better at a time. Chad also encouraged us to get support from our community but stressed that each of us should be prepared to go our own way even if we don’t feel like we are going to get approval.

Lesson #5: We are all in this together.

Another pre-recorded session from Berlin had former fashion editor, Charty Durrant, speaking of turning our hyper-consumption into collaborate consumerism. She pleaded with us to have a connection with the goods we purchase and to know where they come from. It’s up to us to be the change and save the planet (and ourselves) by making the right choices. Shopping local and buying handmade not only feel good, but they are essential pieces of the new, more sustainable economy.

Lesson #6: Planning is a way of getting your head in the game, but it ISN’T the game.

For my last workshop session, I attended Bloom Where You Are Planted. Betsy Cross and her husband Will Cervarich (Betsy and Iya) spoke passionately and honestly about their business strategies and history. They were clear about needing enthusiasm for what you do and the importance of personal relationships in business. Their point was simple: planning is essential, but we need to be ready to scrap the plan if things aren’t working or if other opportunities arise. Think back to a time in somewhat recent history. Could you have envisioned that in September 2011 you would be doing exactly what it is you do, right here, right now? I loved this message and it really resonated with me because I am a HUGE planner, sometimes (in the past) to the point of inaction. Now, I have lists and goals, but I’m much more likely to go along for the ride, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit in with the plan.

There was so much amazing information at Hello Etsy PDX! I’m still trying to make sense of it all and to get a handle on the ideas I have forming. The day was opened with some wonderful remarks about gratitude, a word that I try to bring to mind every single day. I feel so lucky that I can call this community my own and I am grateful for the friends and colleagues that have supported me on my own journey. I’m especially thankful for the hard working council members of I Heart Art: Portland who pulled together such an amazing experience for all of the attendees.

If you attended a Hello Etsy summit or have watched any of the recordings, what message did you take away? Share your thoughts below or drop me a line to continue the conversation. And make a point to connect with other makers in your community for inspiration and support.

Bettie is a business lawyer and a self-taught photographer living in Portland, Oregon who just started selling her prints and notecards in her brand new Etsy shop. Bettie eats tomatoes like apples, hangs out in thrift stores, and collects knee socks and red shoes. You can find her blogging about life and DIY over at Little Paper Cities or hanging out with her two daughters and two ridiculous little dogs.


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6 comments on “Lessons Learned from Hello Etsy PDX”

  1. Bettie, you hit the nail on the head…I love so many of the concepts you touched on that I could go on and on with a response. Just this weekend at School House Craft up in Seattle I had so many conversations about what a phenomenal community this really is…I love getting the opportunity to surround myself by people who are positive, inspiring, encouraging, talented, and creative…and working with them in a collaborative manner gets me out of bed each morning. I wish I could have attended the summit in PDX, but I’m grateful that you recapped it so eloquently that even I felt like I took away something great from it! Thank you!

  2. Great takeaway…thank you for breaking down what you heard and experienced and sharing it with us. I do wish I could have attended one of these. I admit that I am struggling with my business and what I do due to lack of sales/interest. But I love what I do and plan to push on, reinvent myself if need be and keep trying. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Thank you!

  3. Great information, especially the topic on being afraid to fail. There is always a “what if” question in the back of my mind. Thank you for sharing.

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