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The Indie Sellers Guild launch on September 5th, 2022 was 3 months and 18 days after the Etsy Strike ended. It was difficult to come up with social media and blog posts during that time. The work of forming our guild was extremely important, but also incredibly boring, and thus not good fodder for content to share!
I had the idea to post articles on our blog with recommendations from our members about the various Etsy alternatives and online store-builders they were trying:
Nearly two thirds of the responses on the google form I created to handle the “interviews” were from a single marketplace. The first question on our form was “In comparison to Etsy, what’s your favorite feature or aspect?” The answers were glowing, and the common theme was that this was a marketplace that actually cared about its sellers.
All those glowing testimonials were for Goimagine, a marketplace which has been open to handmade sellers in the US since 2020. Goimagine donates all its profits to charity, and its strategy for growth in a space dominated by Etsy is attracting philanthropic investors who want to help artists/makers and children in need at the same time. So far, Goimagine has donated nearly $20,000 to charities that help children in need.
It turns out where I live is geographically close to Goimagine’s office. I met with Jon Lincoln, Goimagine’s founder, on September 2nd, 2022, the Friday before our launch. I pitched Marketplace Accreditation – which back then was only a general idea of some kind of contract we would offer to marketplaces, like unions offer contracts to employers, and he was very interested in Goimagine becoming our first accredited marketplace.
Jon is an absolute open book when it comes to Goimagine, so I got a fascinating look into how running a startup marketplace works. He showed me under the hood of their technology, talked about their funding and marketing strategy, and when I asked, showed me exactly how they handle their application process and verify new members, in case it would be helpful to us in seller verification.
Jon also shared with me the reason he believes Etsy went bad. He talked about how starting a tech company typically works. You have an idea, and when you pitch it to investors, they buy into your idea in return for a share of ownership. You sell off your idea piece by piece, until you don’t own your own company anymore. Once that process is complete, it doesn’t matter if your vision was rather benevolent in the beginning. Your company is owned by other people, who only care about profit.
That’s exactly what happened to Jon in his last tech startup. He was able to lead that company to success, but he didn’t truly own it anymore, so he couldn’t stop it from straying from his vision. He decided to do things differently the second time around, cashed out, and started Goimagine.
Goimagine was formed as a for-profit company that donates all its profits to charity. It is both simpler to form than a cooperative, and simpler to explain to investors – all you need to say is, “Like Newman’s Own!” But it’s always been part of the plan to offer sellers voting rights and representation on the board of directors. Goimagine announced their transition to a shared ownership model in January of 2023.
On our “Etsy Alternatives” interview form, we also asked, “In comparison to Etsy, what’s your least favorite feature or aspect?” Almost every single person reviewing Goimagine talked about lack of traffic, or too few sales, due to it being a new marketplace.
Jon told me that for every new signup to the platform today, they’re able to put 27% of those seller fees straight into advertising. He also told me that the bill to run Goimagine is around $40,000 every single month. That doesn’t include any wages for Jon. For the time being, he’s a full-time volunteer.
Between what Jon told me, and what Goimagine sellers told us, I started to see the picture really clearly. That high bill happens because Goimagine’s tech is custom-designed for makers, and built to be able to scale. It’s the right way to create an Etsy alternative marketplace. But it makes it really hard to offer something that’s worth it to sellers who join early-on. Too much of the money those sellers pay goes toward simply keeping the lights on!
Goimagine has a strategy for this problem too – a brilliant one, to be honest. They offer their sellers a custom-branded website at their own domain in addition to the marketplace, for $10 a month. From the standpoint of a seller, it’s like getting Shopify plus really early Etsy, but being able to manage them together.
Most sellers that join a marketplace do it for the marketplace, however – hoping to get sales from a built-in buyer following. They don’t realize that it’s simply not possible for a new marketplace to have that buyer following. So that means Goimagine has to figure out a strategy for explaining their strategy to their members.
Although handmade sellers in the US is our largest member demographic, Goimagine’s membership requirements leave many of our indie sellers out. But they have to. Any new business venture that tries to appeal to too broad of a niche is destined to fail. Jon believes Goimagine’s “handmade sellers in the US” niche is probably a little too big – and they could have done better sales-wise for each of their sellers had they narrowed it down a little more.
That look under the hood of a startup Etsy alternative was incredibly valuable to me, as president of the Indie Sellers Guild. I want to work towards building a world in which we don’t need Etsy to be successful. A world in which we have alternatives on which we can make enough sales to earn a living wage. That’s not the world we live in today. To build that world, we must understand all aspects of our situation, and have all the possible information we can to incorporate into our strategy.