"A lot of early momentum comes from people writing about what you're doing. Make thing worth sharing and talking about."
- Robert Kalin
Trying to make a life that matches his values, an opportunity has made Robert Kalin to assemble a small community of artisans engaged in the same challenge.
Born out of his Brooklyn apartment, Etsy is known as the online marketplace for handmade crafts and goods, a venture capital darling with revenues that potentially go off the roof. Etsy was perfectly tailored to the movement at the time, and it offered its sellers skill- and community-building workshops and residencies.
While its community grew exponentially each year, Kalin is an eccentric executive difficult to work with. But nevertheless, he is soft-spoken and people admires his passion that puts sellers' needs in front of his own.
Robert Kalin was born on April 11th, 1980 and has been on his own since he was 16. He left home to work in a photo shop because he wanted to be a photographer. He lived in an artist’s squat with an uncle in Boston. His parents were divorcing, and he was bullied in school.
He returned to high school to eventually graduated.
Afterward, he spent a year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With his friends, Kalin frequently used fake ID cards to sneak into art and design courses at MIT. He attended 5 different colleges before graduating NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Studies with a BA in individualized study in 2004.
This was where Kalin met Chris Maguire.
He later moved to New York and worked at the Strand bookstore and for a construction company. He was also a woodworker and carpenter, among other jobs.
Creating Etsy To Value Crafters
The idea to create Etsy started when Robert Kalin, Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik took a freelance project for GetCrafty.com, an online bulletin board for crafters run by the wife of an NYU professor. While working on GetCrafty, Kalin noticed that there were a lot of crafters on the web, and many of them hated eBay.
Etsy was founded in June 2005. The initial Etsy website took two and a half months to build, and was launched in Kalin's Brooklyn, New York apartment where the three designed and coded it. The goal at that time was to fulfill the needs for an online marketplace where crafters and artists could make and do online purchase and sales.
Kalin said he named the website "Etsy" because he "wanted a nonsense word" because he "wanted to build the brand from scratch."
"In early April of 2005, I sat in an orange chair facing an open window. It was nighttime and the lights were off. I was back in Brooklyn after a brief residence in Paris, and I was about to sketch the initial ideas that would become Etsy. Working with three friends - Chris, Haim and Jared - Etsy went from these ideas to a site live on the web in about two months," said Kalin on the company's blog
Etsy's first investors were two local real estate developers that Kalin had done some carpentry work for, and a restaurateur who he had set up an internet café for. The company had the first $50,000 check before the founders even launched anything and another $100,000 within six months after the launch.
"I gained their trust by building things for them. Building up your personal relationships, especially in the beginning, is hugely important. In my experience, in the seed and angel round, people are going to invest in people and products, not the business plan. [Entrepreneurs] focus on the plan first, and they have it backwards in my opinion."
The founders saw an opportunity to build Etsy based on the knowledge that crafters needed a place to sell their products. Instantly, thousands and thousands of sellers registered for the site and started selling. They also told their friends at even larger crafting community forums about Etsy, which brought even more sellers. In Etsy's first year, it attracted attention for frequently adding new tools and functionality to the site to help sellers gain exposure and traffic.
By January of 2008, Etsy had 650,000 users in 127 different countries. It has established itself as the place to buy and sell items such as art, glass, jewelry and art supplies, surpassing eBay.
Etsy quickly gained traction as its business model rely on shared success. So when Etsy sellers make money in their shops, so does Etsy. With additional income coming from advertising and others, Etsy has a strong business model that benefits both the company and its users.
The company's early growth was also due the cultural and economic climate of the early 2000's. Etsy debuted at just the right time when Indie craft had just became popular around the U.S. but running an online store was a complicated task. Etsy's growth was also due to the budding social networks that enabled new connections among offline community groups. And with Etsy's ability to connect, empower and leverage the feminists, anti-capitalists and anti-consumerists movement of that time, it was able to get that early traction the company needed in order to grow.
As Etsy grew, Kalin frequently came up with new ideas every day. While his strategy worked when the company was still small, but in 2008, Etsy has grown too large that Kalin's creativity was straining his relationship with other co-founders and the rest of the company.
So when Maguire and Schoppik worked day and night trying to keep the website up and running, Kalin spent more of his time thinking of new features that he would pitch the next day. His colleagues didn't see things the way he did, and eventually Maguire and Schoppik left the company. Tarbell stayed until 2011.
Growing Etsy And Leaving Etsy
Robert Kalin demoted himself from CEO to CCO. The company's COO, Maria Thomas, replaced him and became its CEO. During this time, he started a non-profit called Parachute to help Etsy sellers run their businesses better by setting them up in Etsy's offices. This way, sellers that were exposed by Etsy to independent retailers and fashion writers, can invite them to their free workspace. However, at the end of the program, only one business stayed.
It was during Maria Thomas' leadership that the company has grown immensely and reached its profitability in late 2009. Etsy became the Goliath - a powerful tool for makers, by makers. During Kalin's depart from Etsy, gross merchandise sale doubles and users were multiplying.
While Etsy has made it possible for a lot of small businesses to get off the ground, it has also been criticized for having requirements that put burden to sellers. It failed to address many persistent complaints from sellers about customer support and the performance of the site.
Etsy was growing, but it was giving pressure to sellers.
Etsy that was still struggling, made Kalin to turn his attentions back to it. Kalin still was still a member of the board and was having a substantial equity stake, in 2009, urged the board to dismiss Thomas and reinstate him as CEO. He argued that Etsy had strayed from its core values in pursuit of growth and it needed to focus more on the success of its sellers, its customer service, and improvements to its website.
The company agreed, and Kalin returned to Etsy as its CEO in 2010.
Kalin's first strategy was to double Etsy's staff, adding more engineers and customer service representatives. The site was also adding more features quickly, like social networking feature similar to Facebook's that allow users to make friends with other Etsy members, and keep track of their friends' favorite shops and buys.
Kalin hoped that these new feature and improvements will make it easier for buyers to discover new products. He also saw the influence of social networking on the web, and widened Etsy's mission to go beyond buying and selling.
However, many of the features didn't work out.
Kalin again stepped down from the CEO position in the summer of 2011. He was replaced by Chad Dickerson who had served as Etsy's CTO for three years prior.
On March 3rd, 2015, without Kalin, Etsy announced that it had filed a $100 million IPO, and on April 16th, the company went public with a valuation of $1.8 billion. The community had grown to more than 54 million members which include 1.4 million active sellers and 20 million active buyers. That same year, the company earned $1.93 billion in sales, amounting to about $200 million in revenue.
Robert Kalin is an experienced painter, carpenter and photographer. He is seen as a difficult person to interact with. Just like typical Millenials and Generation Y that are widely characterized as impatient and narcissistic. Kalin isn't supremely confident person, and can be easily distracted by new ideas.
Kalin has a different way of thought that most other tech entrepreneurs. He sees Etsy as a company born on the web, "I see the company itself," he explained, "as a handmade project, and we'll continue to build it this way." While he spoke to people in the tech and business world, he admitted that he didn't admire them.
"I admire the makers of the world," said Kalin that makes his own furniture and his own underwear.
He also thinks that trying to maximize shareholder value is "ridiculous," adding, "I couldn't run a company where you had to use that as an excuse for why it was doing things."
Kalin sees Etsy's early success rooted to the handmade, anti-consumerist, anti-mass-production aesthetic. But it wasn’t just a marketing channel or gimmick.
Kalin has poached executives from tech companies likes Google, eBay and Yahoo!. He has also been honored as a "Technology Pioneer" at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos. He is regarded as an accidental businessperson. While he is a businessman, he sees himself as an artist.
Despite his radical thoughts, Kalin is seen as someone that is impossible to hate. He is soft-spoken and people admires his passion, and the way he is determined to put the needs of other people first.
Kalin owns a storefront of the mill buildings he bought after selling his stock at Etsy. He has named it the Catskill Mill. The modest storefront on Main Street is a 20,000-square-foot warehouse connected by a steel-truss bridge enclosed in glass to a 55,000-square-foot warehouse on the creek, makes refined wood furniture. Kalin also owns a fashion boutique in Hudson, New York.
Kalin was married to Delridge and the couple have twin daughters, Zia and Kora, born in 2012. The couple are now separated.