The UK’s microbusiness community is expanding rapidly. Since the turn of the century there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of firms with fewer than 10 employees, and a growth of over 600,000 since the economic downturn began in 2008. Yet one of the most interesting trends lies behind the headline figures – namely the growth in part-time selfemployment. The number of people working for themselves for less than 30 hours a week has grown by almost 65 percent since 2000, compared with a 20 percent growth in the number of full-time self-employed. Many of these are running hobby-like ‘ventures’ on just a few hours a week. According to one survey, around 20 percent of adults in the UK use their spare time to earn extra income from a hobby.
However, this still leaves the question of how online craft marketplaces impact upon the lives of those who use them. For the majority of sellers who work part-time on Etsy, their shops make a modest but meaningful contribution to their earnings. More than half have shops that add upwards of 5 percent to household income. Yet while the money people earn through platforms like Etsy is a welcome boost to their finances, it is clear from our conversations with shop owners that they derive equal if not greater satisfaction from the very act of selling. A number of the people we met spoke of a feeling of ‘validation’ whenever they sold an item, while others talked of how their shops gave them a sense of purpose that was absent in their day job. This speaks to a fundamental human trait: that the path to happiness and fulfilment comes from an active life rather than a passive one. It also helps to explain why many people choose to run part-time businesses when there may not always be a clear financial incentive.
Taken together, this report shows that those using online craft marketplaces appear to differ from conventional business owners in many ways – not just in terms of who they are and where they come from, but also how they run their businesses and interact with customers and other shop owners. Yet while these behaviours may currently be more prevalent on online craft marketplaces, it is not difficult to imagine them becoming more commonplace beyond the arts and crafts sphere. Indeed, the tendency of sellers on Etsy to start up for creative reasons, offer customised and niche products, have deep interactions with customers and provide subtle peer support may be indicative of what is to come in the wider world of business. Moreover, the fact that many sellers say their shops are as much a source of therapy as income may have implications for what we consider the very purpose of running a business to be.