Handmade marketplace Etsy doesn’t employ a lobbyist. The company doesn’t have an office in Washington nor does it have a PAC to give money to candidates.
But the New York-based online retailing giant – which allowed sellers to make a reported $1.35 billion in sales last year – has begun focusing more on Washington in an effort to help its users, many of whom use the site as a way to sell handmade goods during their free time. The company makes a 3.5 percent commission on each sale made through its site.
Etsy’s director of public policy, Althea Erickson, recently stopped by Re/code’s D.C. offices to talk about what the company is focusing on in D.C. and why it doesn’t really like the FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal.
Re/Code: Why does Etsy need someone focused on public policy? What are the issues that you focus on?
Althea Erickson: At Etsy we really see public policy as one more tool to advance or mission. We work really hard to help anyone to grow a micro business. For those who don’t know, Etsy is an online platform where you can buy handmade and vintage goods from artists and designers and collectors around the world. Our sellers are mostly micro-business owners and almost all are women working out of their home. Our public policy issues are focused on how can we help them start and grow their businesses.
What would be some examples of that?
We are working on a number of issues. Certainly net neutrality is one that comes up quite a bit. And that’s one we’re working on a lot right now. Also issues around simplifying compliance for regulations that apply to their businesses. We’re working on expanding access to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship training and workforce development systems. We also do a good bit of work around international trade and simplifying the process of sending goods across borders.
You had a bit of a splash recently when you filed comments about the FCC’s net neutrality proposal, which you guys do not like. So, a.) why don’t you like them and b.) what would you want the government to do?
We were very concerned when Chairman Wheeler put out the proposal in May, mainly because his proposal would allow for some companies to pay for faster access to consumers and create a fast lane/slow lane Internet. We believe that there’s no way Etsy could have found the success that we have if net neutrality were undermined or paid prioritization were allowed.
We want to make sure that both Etsy and companies like us have the same chances to succeed. But also the next Etsy or the next company. That’s why we’re worried about that proposal. We would love to see the commission ban paid prioritization, ban blocking and ban unreasonable discrimination.
Let’s take a step back. How did you get involved in these issues? How did you come to be Etsy’s eyes and ears on Washington?
I have been working on issues about self-employment for a long time. Before I was at Etsy I led advocacy and policy at something called the Freelancers Union, which also dealt with self-employment issues. If you think about it, Etsy sellers are very similar. They are businesses of one and their needs are really quite different than a business of five or ten people.
There’s something you have called the “craft entrepreneurship” program. Wondered if you could explain what that is.
Craft entrepreneurship is a an entrepreneurship training program that we developed and we do it in partnership with cities, basically targeting unemployed or under-employed folks who already have artistic skills. Then giving them the tools they need to monetize those skills.
For example, participants learn about search engine optimization or product photography or pricing models. At the end of that class they actually have an Etsy shop they can use as an immediate source of supplemental income. So we see this as a really important piece basically as the Internet democratized access to entrepreneurship it’s creating all kinds of opportunities. We’re partnering with cities to help unemployed and under-employed folks realize those opportunities.
How many cities are you in right now and how many might you be expanding to?
We’ve committed to expand the program to ten cities this year. We’re rolling those out over time. It initially started in Rockford, Illinois, with a partnership with the mayor there. And then expanded to New York City and Newark. In Santa Cruz and Dallas, Texas. We plan to roll it out more broadly as cities are interested in partnering with us.