Going to the Show

As our 2017 market season comes a close, we are left thinking about the year in retrospect and as is typical for any business, discussing the endless should haves, could haves, and might haves. The only similarity between selling on-line and selling at a venue is the importance of having products with demand, however once you step into that arena with the gladiators battling it out for attention from the Roman Emperor all things learned along the way go out the window. Our conservative approach of laying items out on the table and letting shoppers browse much like they would a website was quite a foreign concept in this arena where swift talking street smart vendors had honed their sales pitches to an art that actually transcended the quality of the products in many cases. By the close of the season, many of the artists had long since packed up and thrown in the towel, after being unable to compete against vendors selling charms, trinkets, or products sourced from overseas factories. Of course, some major talent from the most season veterans remained steadfast and busy throughout the entire season.

The highlighted venues were concentrated between January and April during the peak season when Phoenix is suddenly flooded with winter refugees who flee back north once the 90s return in early April. Our early venues were quite a success for us in terms of reaching customers and learning the ropes. Most people would associate Christmas with peak season, however the 4 quarter venues ended up being a tremendous effort for far too little return on investment. Much like real estate, the key to a successful venue is “location, location, location.” Often we found ourselves just down the street from the most happening venues in town with occasional customers shuffling through and window shopping. In 2018, we will be researching the organizers, speaking to attendees, and carefully choosing the shows with the largest audience rather than considering the entry price. Just like anywhere else in business, you “definitely pay for what you get.”

From the veterans, we learned the importance of displays, putting on a show, and how to invite customers into our tent. Unfortunately we found ourselves spread to thin between our on-line business and attending the live venues which resulted in a disappointing 1st quarter. Next year, Nici will be staying back at the ranch to manage the on-line business while I venture out to the wild frontier on my own. Our mix of low budget displays and poor organization will be replaced with rustic wooden displays handcrafted from old fences and horse corals. What sells at live venues and what sells on-line are also a bit different. We usually brought a basic engraving kit to sell personalized items, but customers were really looking for unique items that represented the local culture such as horse jewelry, turquoise, photos from rodeos, leather, and southwestern themed motifs. Some of our larger cuff bracelets did fit right in and left the show with happy customers. Trying to maintain an inventory also proved to be problematic. By early November, there were rather slim pickings at the NiciArt booth. With our new hire and Nici back in the shop instead of on the road, our early season in 2018 should be the strongest to date with plentiful inventory. Our overall plan will be to venture away from the Etsy type products and really focus on the higher end artisan products.

Up to 2015, we actually had 2 shops in Etsy: one for the higher end named Metalopia and then our regular NiciLaskin shop. As Etsy restructured, NiciLaskin became the catch all shop where a customer could pick up a $5.00 guitar pick or a $5000.00 gold bracelet. The strategy worked incredibly well, however this year, the dichotomy between shoppers looking for artistic higher end and those with tight budgets has become more pronounced, thereby demanding a strategy shifting as well as calculating what items will sell best at which markets.

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The First Version of the NiciArt Tent

As you can see, our tent was void of branding, representation, and more of an eclectic roadside attraction than a focused business with a definitive theme. Even so, the roadside attraction approach often gave us more business than many seasoned veterans with their fancy displays as customers wanted to visited the odd ball shop. Never once did we loose money on a show and most often doubled or tripled the rent. My favourite events are the weekly farmers markets where a fast paced afternoon could bring in some solid sales in a much shorter period of time than those long drawn out Friday, Saturday, and Sunday festival styled shows. Sitting in the tent and helping customers seems easy on paper until you are actually out there from 7am to 5pm without food and badly in need of a restroom.

NiciArt on the Road 2018

At this point, we still have thousands of Christmas orders to ship followed by Valentine’s Day, so by the time reality hits, February will be half over. One consideration in 2018 would be buying an RV with a trailer and actually going on the road after Father’s Day. Usually Father’s Day is one of our busiest holidays, then things quiet down in July, August, and September which could be the perfect time to travel the shows in Colorado. We are also considering returning to our home town of Las Cruces, NM to attend the Country Music festival in October. The RV idea has been in the works for 5 years, but something tells me, 2018 will be the year where we dive headlong into an adventure.

 

 

 

New Guitar Wall Hangers

2017 was a year spent filling wholesale orders and not meeting our creative expectations for listing a new item at least once a week, blogging, or working on the websites. As the Christmas Markets are now behind us and the orders from the biggest buying days such as Cyber Monday are well on their way to good boys and girls everywhere, we are finally able to launch a few new guitar wall hangers.

 

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Our first new design is this howling coyote in cherry wood

For someone looking to keep the design a bit more traditional, we also decided to use a router to create a round disc version of the coyote howling at the moon

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Coyote Howling at the Moon Disc Guitar Wall Hanger

Our final new design is in keeping with our musical theme, An 8th Note Guitar Wall Hanger

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So far, the cut out hand-sawed Coyote Howling at the Moon Hanger has been the most popular. Coming from the metal-smithing background and the ability to cut extremely fine pieces with a number 1 blade, one might think the basic eye-saw coordinates would translate easily from metalworking to woodworking, however making the jump is far more difficult than we anticipated at the beginning of this project.

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Our Metal Fret Saw working double overtime this Christmas

Our goal is create at least 25 popular designs and then offer a custom order option for customers to request their own unique designs. Currently, these wall hangers are offered for sale on our NiciArt website, Etsy, and of course, Nici’s Picks.

Latest Wooden Guitar Wall Hangers for Father’s Day

With orders eclipsing previous years sales, Spring 2017 has left little time for creating and has been more an exercising in paddling a kayak upstream during during heavy snow melt, however as a last minute surprise, we are proud to release two more wall hanger designs just in time for Father’s Day.

Our first new design features a Paw Print routed into a Cherry Wood 8 inch disc using a wood router set to 3/8 inch depth. Following a basic template, we were able to create a Paw Design similar to our shadow box pendant.

Sterling Silver Paw Pendant with Shadow Box

Handmade Wooden Paw Guitar Wall Hanger with Swing String Padded Cradle and Tung Oil Finish

Although we are quite happy with this Wooden Paw Guitar Hanger, revisions and options may include other woods such as oak, pine, hickory, and even mahogany for subsequent models and releases as cherry wood requires intense sanding to remove the burn marks from the router producing heat in such a hardwood. Burning aside, cherry balances a rich reddish hue with a striking grain pattern while offering the top quality of a hardwood, which leaves cherry as our top contender for these wall hangers.

 

Our second new design also borrows inspiration for one of our best selling jewelry pieces, a sterling silver Yin Yang couples necklace:

Sterling Silver Yin Yang Couples Necklace

 

This Yin Yang Guitar Holder was planned out on Inkscape which is essentially an open source Adobe Illustrator clone, however when sending the template to the printer we ended up with an inverted mirror image, so our first Yin Yang Wall Hanger is actually a mirror images of pieces we will be shipping to customers.

Template Image for Yin Yang Guitar Holder

 

Not only did we produce a two tone colour scheme, but also routed out the Yin thereby leaving the Yang slightly elevated for additional geometrical contrast to emphasize our three dimensional design.

Currently we have few new designs in the works this week including a coyote howling, half moon, and cactus. Our previous peace sign holder that we revealed back in March struggled to gain traction in Pinterest and social media as politics dominated the discussion, however as April ushered in Spring Fever and social media audiences began to grow weary of the constant Trump debates, our Peace Sign Wall Hanger realized steady sales in the second half of April and throughout early May. Both the Yin Yang and Paw Holders are now listed on Nici’s Picks, NiciArt, and Etsy just in time for Father’s Day.

 

Introducing Our Wooden Guitar Wall Hangers

Over the past 5 years, our jewelry has trended towards gift ideas in a process we call “giftification.” This concept of “giftification” is often responsible for the demise of online Etsy Shops, where the repetition of saturating social media specialized for particular occasions such as anniversaries and weddings combined with squeezing from competition, undermines the “everyday appeal” of handmade products just enough to shed impulse sales, while gift sales continue on an upward trend. The net results are deeper ebbs during non-holiday seasons and greater floods throughout peak seasons. Seeing a slump, sellers are often overwhelmed by panic that distracts from long-term goals like building up sufficient inventory to handle a holiday rush. Suddenly those same sellers experience a slump turned gold rush in a matter of days and are unable to handle peak demand. The year’s average slides as overall sales fall short of expectations.

Since 2015, NiciArt has seen some “giftification” of products as well as simply the desire to explore other mediums besides metal. With Nici’s Picks spinning off from NiciArt as a concentration in music related products, our discussions focused on wooden guitar picks and wall hangers as new product candidates in 2016. Ambition met reality on down escalator and none of our new ideas came to fruition as our schedule continued with unrelenting orders through wedding season and NAMM.

 

Nici’s Picks in Fountain Hills on a windy rainy day in March

Having recently purchased a baby blue Stratocaster with a small Orange Crush Amplifier as our demonstration and exhibition display, the idea of creating wooden guitar holders was reinvigorated just in time for show season this March. With several designs already produced and even more in the works, we are happy to spread the love and peace by officially releasing our Wooden Peace Sign Guitar Holder on our website.

Our first wooden guitar hanger features hard cherry, a US manufactured yoke by String Swing, mounting hardware, and a neutral tongue oil finish as a replacement for a varnish that could potential discolour the neck with off gassing. Production requires a drill, jig saw, and a router for smoothing and finishing.

Wooden Peach Sign Guitar Wall Hanger Handmade in Cherry

 

We are also experimenting with white background photography in order to list our guitar holders on Amazon and other large retail sites. Our NiciArt and Nici’s Picks sites will offer personalized options such as engraved copper plates, inlays, or create your own custom guitar holder. While these guitar holders do make fantastic gifts, we also hope the holders will serve as practical items for purchase throughout the year and will provide us with endless hours of creative inspiration in designing this new product line.

The Art of Exercise – Finding inspiration in 2017

Coming off the worst Christmas season to date with nearly a 30% drop in revenue on Etsy followed by endless wayward Pacific storms taking the scenic route through Cave Creek, AZ with uninterrupted drenching rains, January 2017 ushered in a period of zero inspiration and low grade depression, where the point of our business endeavours became awash in a mixed cocktail of anger, frustration, and extreme disappointment. The trouble mounted when our first show of 2017 sent us home short of making show rent, a bit wet, and chilled right to the bone.

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A January Day in 2017

The stigma of depression is perfectly captured in that Abilify commercial, where the middle aged lady is couch bound and locked in a white room of self pity, while sorrow strangles her pale, yet the reality of many mood disorders are highly functional individuals are chained to a routine that has grown stale and uninspiring with only nostalgia as a life-raft. By no means am I trying to trivialize the suffering of those with major depressive disorders, rather simply address the lesser form that drives us through mechanized motions without engaging those all important mesolimbic pathways to release a healthy dose of dopamine. Eventually devoid of reward, these sort of routines lead people into the trap of mindless repetition. Reckless consumerism aka the shopping spree or a night of drinking offers a cheap thrill for the moment, but you will always end up right back at the starting line.

In the days following the presidential inauguration, those of us who have long since abandon any reasonable hope for progress under the two party system and wish to see nothing more than an outright validation of individualism, self responsibility, and self determination, while embracing collectivism as a movement to advance science and technology for the greater good, found ourselves marginalized in a tug of war between a divide in political convictions and conventions that was light years removed from comprehension. Amidst the uproar and ranting and raving in social media, identifying yourself as human instead of Republican or Democratic was suddenly a crime of the first degree.

If there ever was a time to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” Jan 23rd, 2017 would certainly rank top on my list and became the accidental start of a new found journey into reviving the energy to ignite a creative spark. Those first few mountain bike rides of the season were rather uninspiring under grey skies, but soon a bit of that long lost adventurous spirit began igniting the curiosity to try taking a left at the fork instead of right. Swelling arroyos from the melting mountain snows brought a sudden burst of green to the brown mix of sand and rock. Most remarkable though is how forcing those 2-3 rides per week to preserve fitness which was once the bane of my week, suddenly transformed into a wonderland of almost daily inspiration.

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Water in the Desert

 

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Dry creek bed turned “Alph the sacred river”

 

Greeting the blue skies and sun, meant meeting the day at the crossroads to embrace a profound appreciation of landscapes, scenes, and places no longer stylized in a flattened dimensionless day of endless Etsy forums or CNN headlines. The difference between my outlook before this adventure and today is a matter of seeing beyond the current stagnation to realize new opportunities are indeed undiscovered, yet without openly embracing today and future days, those opportunities will almost certainly remain elusive. 

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Flowers after the rains

As always though, the hardest part is the first mile. With new ideas in the works and Etsy sinking below the waterline, I hope this blog post mirrors that first ride of the 2017 season for sparking creativity and adventures in NiciArt

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Sunset in the Desert

What’s Changing in 2017 at NiciArt? We’re going Content Rich

Introduction

After Google saved Nici’s Picks and NiciArt from the curse of disappointing sales that are plaguing our Etsy Shop at the moment, this final week before Christmas has been a period to pause, rewind, and reflect on what may have gone awry. The most obvious mistake was being comfortably content on Etsy and letting the days pass with a complacent mindset buttressed by the old adage “too big to fail.” Such thinking is a bit ironic from a passionate trader who generally avoids large caps, blue chips, ETFs, and mutual funds in favour of small caps, emerging technologies, and companies shorted from their glories days all the way down to the bottom and preferably into the depths of the abyss. Putting aside the usual discussion of calculated risk vs. utter stupidity for discussion sake, my simple philosophical standpoint is today’s success is tomorrow’s failure.

Going Content Rich in 2017

Our Christmas miracle was essentially owed to just placing in Google Shopping, while organic traffic and social media performance could easily be rated “underperform.” The bulk of our website was essentially a product menu:

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Here we have a very typical Shopify site which falls into the category of a shopping cart site used to list items for order. Shortly before Christmas, we did integrate a blog at the bottom of the site as a small added bonus.

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Assuming the basics have long since been mastered and the about section, policies, contact us, and shipping information is complete, the next step would be focusing on going content rich. Looking at my site through Google’s eyes immediately revealed the weak link of having absolutely no meat on the bone. Looking to transform a pile of bones into a bountiful meal for the hungry coyotes with enough left-overs to attract an urban vulture to the scene, adding quality content in sections such as promoted items for the holidays, gift ideas, market schedule, twitter feed, and services would be essential. As usual, these ideas are easier said than done, since shop owners without coding experience are limited to the boundaries of their templates. Getting crafty with code and recycling where possible to save time in our busy schedule, we added a duplicate menu to create a service section.

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As with any remodel, the easiest of projects encounter their share of hiccups. In our case, we needed to add coding for additional banners and eventually set up menus inside the “customize template” section in the Shopify Admin to accommodate the features. A little coding, becomes a lot of coding or sometimes just applying a very simple fix. Another classic example of a simple fix:

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We only wanted one row to appear on the homepage as not to over-emphasize prints and paintings, thereby having them overshadow our jewelry focus. A little “…view more” with a dynamic code <h3><a href=”{{ collections[settings.frontpage_collection2].url }}”>…View More</a></h3> provides an incredibly simple fix for the navigation problem and lets the visitor see a teaser followed by an entry way into the entire collection. Sometimes we overthink basic problems by searching for the most complexed solution possible instead of working with what is already provided on scene. My example for not re-inventing the wheel is duplicating the blog coding and then changing just a few lines to provide the visitor with our tour schedule:

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Suddenly you have a Custom Website

Having been in e-commerce for quite a while, identifying the platform behind a website is often just a quick glance at the layout. Most Etsy shop owners opening a Shopify site in parallel to their Etsy Shops will download either a Shopify template such as “Simple” or shell out $150.00 for a partner template like “Responsive” from Out of the Sandbox. Both templates provide amazing layouts, aesthetics, and logical navigation without tweaking, however with so many Shopify sign-ups, venue refugees, and dreamers looking to strike gold online, avoiding tweaking and modifying equates to sacrificing the highly regarded uniqueness originally sought by those subscribers.

Finding yourself in the Process

Chances are the creative processes behind going content rich will hopefully spark a reasonable exploration of that content and being swept away with the flow could amount to finding yourself in the process. Looking for a comprehensive list of Liquid Variables with references for customizing the Shopify Template soon became an adventure in scrolling along past pages of search hits for companies and individuals marketing template coding, tweaks, and fixes, hence the addition of e-commerce services to NiciArt with the introduction “getting crafty with code.” Just as Art transcends the associative boundaries of backyard pottery or painting to encompass the “art” of almost any activity as a creative process elevating even the most mundane tasks to explorations of both unique expression and mastery such as the “art” of Automotive Repair, we view “getting crafty with code,” marketing, and tools and supplies as a logical extensions of our current business. Being an old-school coder from the last days of VAX and Floppies, customizing a Liquid Template presents very little challenge and can almost be considered fun.

Introducing rich content and expanding the scope of products and services leads to countless new opportunities for promotion, professional networking, and back-linking in addition to the obvious goal of providing Google with some real indexing meat. The most common pitfalls of adding content are decreasing engagement through superfluous information, sacrificing ease of use and ease of navigation, and slowing loading speed.

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According to the SEO Doctor, we are right around 1 second loading speed using a balance of precisely scaling images to fit their defined template size and saving the images at 80% to balance compression with retaining aesthetic appeal.

Now the final challenge is leaving the site in peace for 6 months to evaluate the index ranking in Google. Some changes to the root domain can take immediate effect, while others appear 12 months later. Paying particular attention to H Tags, attributes, and introducing the sections with quality content can make all the difference between showing in Google with section links or just a URL with a description.

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Google leaves out the section links on NiciArt since their algorithms consider those links to be non-essential to the website due to content quality. Indeed Google is correct, since NiciArt previous to this week’s changes was just a simple cart site without carefully chosen attributes and introductions to the sections. Hopefully, this week’s effort will pay-off and we will earn our links as well as a solid Google Ranking.

 

 

 

 

 

Is it worth the time of putting together a website?

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Posted almost daily in the Etsy forums is the question whether it’s worth the time and effort to create your own website in addition to selling on Etsy. Most often this question is posed in connection to slow sales on Etsy and the website is being viewed as a logical alternative or addition that will help a seller realize their sales goals. The unfortunate answer to this question is far from a resounding yes or no and will require each seller to carefully consider their personal goals.

 

Bootstrapping

One of the first considerations should be analysing the budget before taking the plunge into a new website. On Etsy, anyone can list 100 items for $0.20 an item or $20.00 every quarter. Launching a business on less than $100.00 might have been once been impossible, but thanks to venues such as Etsy, Amazon, and Ebay, $100 and a little time on social media, could provide the magic that sets the gears in motion. This is not to say that starting on Shopify or creating a WordPress site will not lead to success, but for sure the start up costs will be much greater than $100.00. For the sake of bootstrapping on a minimal budget, venue based platforms offer extremely inexpensive entry points.

The venue based system brings the advantage of selling on commission into the equation where selling on a stand-alone website requires greater upfront costs thereby strangling the tight start-up budget to divert funds away from creating products to supporting a selling infrastructure.

Time

Perhaps the most limited and precious resource facing sellers is simply time. Success most often hinges on maximizing the return on time investments more than any other factor which is why I strongly recommend calculating profit and income on an hourly scale. In our first year, we looked at the gross numbers, uncorked the wine, and unleashed a furious celebration, however at the end of the year, we soon discovered our pay rate was flirting with just $20.00 an hour. Luckily, we had other incomes sources to balance out dismal performance in online marketing.

Two important considerations are:

  • Do your products sell themselves or do you have to market?
  • Are you getting paid for your marketing efforts in your hourly?

On Etsy, our guitar picks were selling themselves with a base level of about 15-20 units per day, meaning we could simply produce and move our product without marketing on Etsy, while our own stand-alone website saw about 1 sale a week. To increase our sales on our NiciArt website, we started marketing through social media, but failed to calculate the time spent marketing into our pricing which lowered our hourly earnings.

Bootstrapping a stand-alone website is indeed possible with Google’s Pay per Click Adwords and Google Shopping, however the learning curve is extremely steep and considerable time is required to master Adwords. Unfortunately, sellers aren’t getting paid for learning, so the level of expertise could be a deciding factor between choosing a venue or an e-commerce platform.

Audience

Shoppers visiting Etsy are generally familiar with the website and are either browsing or shopping for boutique-ish products, whereas creating a stand-alone website means investing time and effort to target a specific audience. Akin to opening a boutique directly adjacent to I-95 with the argument, “hey the traffic is great,” simply creating a website without an audience is a sure path to watching traffic jams or cars speeding by with few visitors. Why open a shop along I95? Either the merchant intends on servicing travellers with food and gas or is looking for easy access for clients already familiar with the business.

Complaints and negative publicity aside, Etsy is a well-known and established brand with a certain degree of trust. If I was browsing the internet and came across NiciArt, my first question would be “who the ‘f’ is Nici?” Should credit cards companies not offer buyer protection, I would be very hesitant to purchase from an unknown website vs. Etsy. Establishing trust requires time, reviews, joining professional groups such as the Chamber of Commerce or Artist Guild, offering free returns and exchanges, having telephone support, and working extra hard to convince shoppers that a site is safe.

Etsy limiting growth and the downside risk

As quickly as Etsy accelerates growth and can convert that $100.00 into a thriving business, this particular venue does not scale with your business and will eventually limit your growth potential with their de-clumping, links out of the shop, and “spread the wealth” strategy. The shift away from a commission based service to relying on more predictable seller services as their main revenue source marks a turning point away from marketing performance. In other words, Etsy is far less interested in earning a commission from sales and is instead focused on reselling their internal traffic through Promoted Listings. The net result is a quasi-cap or upper limit on potential sales. By limiting successful sellers from search domination and placing all shops on equal footing, stronger sellers with a strong social media presence and marketing expertise are either driven away from the venue entirely or become less motivated to promote their Etsy Shops and turn to e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, Square Space, or Volusion to serve outside marketing efforts. The downside risks become stagnation, mediocre products, and loss of interest or talent as de-motivation is a slippery slope to a brain-drain. Whether these downside risks will out weigh the upside potential in earnings, will most likely become clearer in Q1 and Q2 in 2017.  If the company meets earning’s expectations in Q1 and Q2, increased investing could generate revenue for advertising and site wide improvements, where the sellers might be indirect beneficiaries of Etsy’s success.

The Etsy Method has always been throw enough darts and you’ll eventually hit a bulls-eye, but now that markets host fierce competitions for a limited buyer pool, that sacred bulls-eye is a moving target, where one seller introduces a unique product and next week thousands of copy-cats are replicating the unicorn product, thus forcing innovative sellers into a never ending game of rolling out new products. Etsy administration also subscribe to the Etsy Method with Wholesale, Pattern, Promoted Listings, Manufacturing, and Google Advertising. My concern as an Etsy seller is marketplace performance with Etsy’s long-term sustainability a distant second, while Etsy’s primary concern is obviously their earnings yet somewhere down the list must be a strategy for seller retention. With overlapping interests, there should be a common ground where Etsy can shift back to marketplace performance in order to preserve seller loyalty and success in a healthier symbiosis between admin and sellers.

Is it worth the time of putting together a website? If a full-time Etsy seller has the time, budget, enough expertise, and would like a hedge against the downside risks of being purely an Etsy seller, then putting together a website could prove to be a smart business choice. Without the time, budget, and expertise, a website might be nothing more than a diversion of resources away from a fledging Etsy shop which could lead a seller to be on extremely rocky footing with two underperforming mediocre shops and no real business plan.