How Etsy's Richest Seller Answers Her Critics. Yahoo! and Three Bird Nest Founder Discuss Critics.
It's a little laughable to read this title as the truth is we never broke any rules on Etsy, we handmade our products and followed their rules for production of items that we originally designed as the demand was needed. To this day...we still have a production team for sewing and leather making in our studio in Livermore, CA.
Alicia Shaffer is a DIY success story. The owner of Three Bird Nest, the hit “girly accessories” store on Etsy, went from a small California-based boutique owner with a penchant for handmade headbands to a thriving business that employs nearly two dozen people and sells $70,000 a month in “boot socks, lace, bohemian scarves, boho headbands & knit leg warmers for women.” The Daily Mail dubbed her “Etsy’s Biggest Seller.”
"I feel excited by the fact that we are a little tiny player that’s growing," Shaffer says during an interview with Yahoo Makers. And with Three Bird Nest in its fourth year, she’s eager to keep the growth going. "I’m not at the point where I feel like I can take a breath and be like, ‘Okay, we’ve made it now,’" Shaffer says. "I have a a vision for where I want the brand to go. I have a vision for where I want the business to go. And we’re definitely not there yet."
With great success comes great haters. Shaffer’s Three Bird Nest is drawing criticism from those who question its DIY cred. (Photo: Three Bird Nest)
But one thing that may not have been in Shaffer’s vision: critics. The phenomenal growth of Three Bird Nest has given rise to a small but vocal chorus of haters who’re attacking Shaffer’s DIY street cred. They question how much of her stuff is really handcrafted. They say she doesn’t belong on Etsy, which began as an online community where small artisans could make a few bucks selling their handmade labors of love.
And amateur DIY experts have started accusing Shaffer of a cardinal sin in the Etsy community: secretly making her goods in China. “Handmade?????? please, just how stupid does she think we are?” writes one of Shaffer’s online critics. “Granted maybe they make the headbands, but that is about it, everything else is imported from China from the sweat shops.”
Shaffer insists the products she sells via Etsy, like this headband, are always handmade in her California space. The products on her separate Three Bird Nest website, however, are another matter. (Photo: Etsy)
“For me it’s been very aggravating, very frustrating,” Shaffer says about the online bashing. “I would think people would be excited and want to support the fact that we’ve been able to grow this and create jobs,” she says. “It’s been quite the opposite where people are so quick to jump to conclusions and point fingers and want to tear somebody down. To me that’s been the most disappointing; why can’t you be happy for somebody?”
Shaffer’s online critics go to great, and sometimes questionable, lengths to prove a Chinese connection. Many of them, for instance, point to Chinese e-commerce sites that feature photos of Shaffer’s products — photos Shaffer says were copied, without her permission, directly from her standalone online store, ThreeBirdNest.com.
Some critics have even fixated on a Three Bird Nest employee of Asian descent whose picture appears on ThreeBirdNest.com. “People are like, 'You see? You buy stuff from China,’” Shaffer says. “I’m like, are you serious? You’re joking right?”
Part of the problem, Shaffer suspects, is people are confusing the items she sells on Three Bird Nest’s separate online store — which, Shaffer freely admits, sells items manufactured all over the world — with the items she still sells on Etsy, which she says are still made by her in adherence to Etsy’s strict guidelines for its handmade goods.
“Yes, we do source our products on our site, because we do have a couple of huge wholesalers that we do sell to,” Shaffer says. “But it’s not the stuff that goes on Etsy.”
But in a controversial move, Etsy is loosening its rules to allow sellers to outsource to external manufacturers on a limited basis. Shaffer plans to take advantage of that change.
“It’s something we’re looking at moving forward with,” she says. Before Etsy signs off on an outside manufacturer, Shafffer says she’ll have to send them info about the manufacturer, photos of raw materials, step-by-step descriptions of their manufacturing process, and the original designs of the products she’s having made (to confirm she’s not just manufacturing copies of something she bought elsewhere).
And even when Three Bird Nest starts using outside manufacturers for the stuff it sells on Etsy, Shaffer insists there will be no secrets. “We want our [Etsy] customers to know if they’re buying an item from us that’s one of our items that we make right here or if it’s one of the items we have manufactured,” she says. “We want to be transparent.”
Shaffer admits there’ll likely come a time when many of her products get too big to be manufactured and sold under the Etsy umbrella.
This tank, featured on ThreeBirdNest.com, is made in the USA. But Shaffer says products on that site are made all over the world. (Photo: Three Bird Nest)
“It’ll obviously make sense for us from a business perspective that there will be a point — and we’ve kinda reached that point — where we can only sell some of our products on the [ThreeBirdNest.com],” she says. “And that’s fine; that’s just the nature of the beast.”
Still, Shaffer plans to dance with the date that brought her, and keep at least some of her smaller handmade products on Etsy. “It seems like home because that’s where we started and that’s what really gave us a name,” she says. “[Not being on Etsy anymore] would be sad — like seeing your baby go off to college.”
But for now, Shaffer’s Three Bird Nest line continues to get bigger, and so do the cries from critics. “I just have to keep reminding myself that we’re not doing anything wrong,” she says. “We’re doing amazing things: We’re providing our customers with a wonderful product; we’re creating jobs; we’re doing what we love; and our whole team is a team of artists who are passionate about doing what we’re doing.”
Shaffer hopes she won’t be a lighting rod for the DIY movement, but an inspiration. “I genuinely want someone to succeed who’s read my story,” she says. “I really want that to be the story, versus the controversy over ‘handmade or not?’”
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