Made in St. Pete: Etsy helps local crafters learn entrepreneurial skills

Natalie Yoshida is a senior majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP). She’s also a clothing designer with a flair for refurbishing vintage clothing and accessories.  

Now, thanks to an innovative program co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Greenhouse and Etsy, a popular e-commerce site for crafters, artists and designers, Yoshida has gained the business savvy to turn her love of fashion into a small online business.   

This summer, she was one of 20 Tampa Bay area residents who enrolled in a free five-week Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Program, a sort-of business 101 boot camp designed to help talented crafters become more entrepreneurial. 

The program, which is being offered again this fall, covers the basics required for launching an Internet business, from product pricing and handling customer complaints to online marketing. 

Yoshida’s clothing line, which she calls Burnout Barbie, now has a website, a Facebook page and a following of fans.

In 2012, Etsy started working with the City of Rockford, IL, and the local Etsy group there on a new type of economic development project – a program that Etsy calls micro-enterprise training for creative individuals.  

In 2013, pilot programs were launched in Rockford and New York City, followed by cities in New Jersey, California and Texas. This past August, St. Petersburg was the sixth city to offer the course, which was also rolled out in Albuquerque, NM., and Oldham, UK.

“I was reading an article in Fast Company about a program that Etsy was developing on craft entrepreneurship and decided to give the company a call,” says Sean Kennedy, the economic development manager of the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, the city’s small business center that is focused on providing local entrepreneurs with the resources to launch a successful start-up business.

“I explained that the combination of entrepreneurship and the arts would be a perfect fit for our community,” says Kennedy. “Artists are a big part of our culture and we want to do everything we can to support them. If Etsy was interested in expanding its program for craft artisans, we wanted to partner with them.”

Etsy supplies the curriculum and a workbook for students. The company also reaches out to the local Etsy group of crafters to identify an instructor. “Our only cost was for the instructor, everything was provided for by the company,” says Kennedy.

Designing business

Christina Lembo, a member of the Tampa Bay Etsy group, was selected to teach the course, which includes four Monday evening classes and a Saturday photography workshop.

Lembo works full-time as a marketing manager for a technology company in Tampa. But in her spare time, she enjoys turning city, state and U.S. maps into unique graphic design art prints that she sells through her Etsy website, Franny and Franky’s Designs.

The first night of class, she wasn’t sure what to expect, and was both pleasantly surprised and inspired, she says.  

“Everyone was from different walks of life – college students, retirees and people who had been laid off from their jobs,” says Lembo. “But everyone had this natural passion for their talent and a good instinct for how their products belong in the marketplace, without even realizing it.” 

Christine Eckerfield enrolled in the class with the goal of selling more of her landscape paintings. A graphic designer by day for a Tampa engineering firm, Eckerfield is also an accomplished painter. She has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in fine art from Kent State University in Ohio. Her work is exhibited at galleries and museums throughout the U.S.  

But she wanted to be more proactive about selling her work, rather than simply wait for a gallery to sell it for her.

“I was just going to ahead and open an Etsy account, but I’m glad I waited and took the class first,” says Eckerfield. “I never thought of myself as good at business, but I’m learning a lot and it’s a great opportunity. Now I can say, ‘Wow’ I’m going to be an entrepreneur.” Her new Etsy shop is called The Open Air Studio.

Baking for life

Sonia Piatt took the Craft Entrepreneurship Program for a very different reason. She’s using money from sales of her creative, hand-made non-edible “cakes” to pay for a kidney transplant.  

In 2011, Piatt was diagnosed with both polycystic disease and type 1 diabetes. Since then, her medical condition has rapidly deteriorated and she’s now on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Although the surgery will be covered by her husband’s insurance, the transportation, lodging, meals and medications are out of pocket and can be many thousands of dollars, she says.

Initially Piatt had resisted when a friend suggested that she sell her custom, specialty cakes. She had thought of it as simply a hobby and enjoyed giving away her novelty gifts to friends at baby showers, christenings, birthdays and similar occasions. But her medical crisis changed her mind.

“I learned about the Etsy class about the same time I was placed on the transplant list,” says Piatt. “I figured it would be a good opportunity to promote my business, while raising funds to cover my medical costs.” She’s still in the process of designing her new Etsy website.

“A lot of talented people are interested in opening an online shop to sell their art, but there are so many excuses for not doing something,” says Lembo. “Etsy has a low barrier to entry. You simply pay an entry fee; there’s no bricks and mortar to worry about.” St. Petersburg’s new Craft Entrepreneurship Program now makes it even easier for them to get started.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about innovative businesses, communities and individuals that showcase the creativity, talent and diversity of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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