One of the first blog posts by Dr. Jeff Cornwall at Belmont that I read has been on my mind since I read it. In his November 21st entry he said, "In a finding that sends chills down my spine, the [latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report] found that the size of the ventures entrepreneurs are thinking about is changing. From 2007 to 2008, the number of jobs entrepreneurs expected to create from their startups decreased among the smaller firms. Not a good sign of long-term employment growth."
I asked Dr. Cornwall later if he is familiar with the web site Etsy, which he is not, and I told him he should look into it. Etsy is a little like eBay in that individuals can set up online shops in one location, except that the things people sell must either be handmade, supplies to make handmade things, or vintage articles. Currently there are more than 3.7 million handmade items for sale on the site and just under 500,000 vintage items. This isn't like the crafts shows where my uncle from Nebraska took his woodwork and belt buckles. People sell everything from rubber stamps to marshmallows to hypnosis cds to comic books. Many Etsy sellers have no other sales front, although some showcase their products in a separate web site. Many need no other source of income after their shops grow a strong sales base. The Etsy entrepreneur simply has a product to sell, usually made in small quantities by hand, and needs a way to find potential buyers.
The site offers help for sellers in setting up shop, suggesting store policies, designing packaging, dealing with overseas shipping, catering to customers, pricing, preparing for holidays, and self-promotion. They have a blog archive of useful topics, articles, and forums. The site's creative search options allow people to find items by color, by location (to shop locally), by sellers' birthdays, by editor's picks, and even by looking at shops who have never had a sale. One group of sellers likes to coordinate a "pounce" on other sellers who have never had a sale. The sellers are simultaneously competing against one another while boosting each other up as a community. It's a beautiful thing.
Few of these sellers will ever enter their products into the mass market; few will ever hire a staff. These entrepreneurs do not add to community job growth, but they do add to the economy in their small ways. They represent a growing base of individuals utilizing the internet to go into business from their homes. On one hand, it's like watching a reverse of industrialization as people gain an appreciation for artisanal work while striving to find a way out of the daily grind for themselves. On the other hand, perhaps it's the sort of small business revolution that can protect towns like Wilmington, Ohio, where more than 9,500 people were left jobless when shipping company DHL abandoned the town. If more people had supplemental income available through their handmade goods, perhaps whole towns would not be devastated by the shuttering of massive factories; perhaps they would not be so dependent on massive factories. Perhaps growth actually damages a town when that growth relies on one industry, while a return to more independent small business owners could possibly steady a shaky economy.
Yes, Dr. Cornwall, small businesses keep millions of people employed, and their growth or demise reflects on the overall economy, but tiny ventures, like Etsy entrepreneurs, might be helping to balance the scales. Perhaps the kind of globalization offered by the internet--the elimination of borders to even the smallest sellers in both industrialized nations and villages with only one computer--will turn out to be the most sustainable way for people to sustain themselves.