Katie Hunt-Morr and Etsy: Cultivating Values-Based Culture

via ArtandAroma.

Etsy is a retailer in an unusual position. Although it was founded in 2005, Etsy’s value proposition harkens back to the older, more egalitarian promise of the Internet. The wild popularity of its marketplace has raised the discourse and connection around craft to levels probably higher than ever, enabling a new sophistication of practice and thought as well as a merger of disparate subcultures into a greater, heterogenous community. In doing so, Etsy has evolved the act of window shopping from a passive event into a bigger, bolder, and more passionate multidimensional experience. That is no small feat.

But unlike the traditional approach of many retailers who may co-opt and subvert new ideas, Etsy’s model must rely on its sellers, help them to grow and to become resilient, which means building, promoting, and protecting a culture of value and creativity that stretches beyond Etsy’s own offices and spills out into the world. This requires a strong and institutional mixture of imagination, risk, and experimentation, which lead Etsy in 2012 to become a B Corporation, a rising entity that is a direct descendent of the 1980’s triple bottom line thinking.

Etsy’s mission is to “…reimagine commerce in ways that build a more lasting and fulfilling world.” That’s ambitious, at the very least. Many organizations borrow the aspirational language of progress, but few can really say they are trying “to push boundaries and challenge less effective “old” ways of thinking, doing, and making.” Etsy seems to understand the paradox in trying to put too much of an overt order on top of something that is personal, complex, and organic. Rather than plow over its community with its giant ship, it leaves an open, illuminated wake.

We spoke with Katie Hunt-Morr, Senior Manager, Values & Impact team at Etsy, to discuss what open looks like.

The sense I get is that your job is to make the world a better place. 
The team looks after the people and planet side of our business. Etsy as a company takes a holistic view to our stakeholders and tries to account for our employees, our online communities — the buyers and sellers on our website — the geographical locations where we have offices— and our peers in the business community as well. We have a concept here called Generosity of Spirit, which means that everyone at Etsy is tasked with giving back to industry as a whole. It might be things like giving an interview, speaking at a conference, or consulting with another company that wants to replicate something we’re doing.  Our team has an open source policy, so all of our work is free for anybody to use and we’ll typically take calls with folks and help them to walk them through the resources that we’ve put together.

And then, of course, there’s the ecological side. Not forgetting the planet, but that one’s usually a little bit easier to wrap people’s heads around.

Etsy's Brooklyn headquarters.

How big is your team? 
Right now, we are four. There’s no plan to grow. Our concept is that we don’t want to be siloed from the organization. We specifically want to be integrated with other teams. The way we approach our work is really to inspire employees to incorporate these concepts in all of the work that they do and then give them support wherever it’s needed. Eventually, if everyone is accounting for both people and planet in their work attaining profit for the business, then we’ve succeeded and there will be no need for the team.

How does it feel to know that the ultimate success would end your team? 
I think it’s a good thing. Etsy’s mission actually, is to reimagine commerce and build a lasting and fulfilling world. The idea behind that being that people and planet should not be an either/or with business. You have to consider all three in order to have sustainable success and when you do consider all three, the success you experience is infinitely richer. I think we’re reaching a point on the consumer side where this stuff is demanded,  When employees are able to infuse higher purpose in their work, then they will work a lot harder, their results will be better, they will work together more closely and be generally more dedicated to their jobs. We see Etsy as an incubator for the work the team is doing.  If it succeeds, we other businesses will adopt it, which will mean we are on the right path.


How did this thinking develop at Etsy? Was it there in the beginning or did it develop out of a need that you saw? 
It was always a part of Etsy. The original concept behind the platform grew from the founder Rob Kalin, who recognized that there wasn’t a really great place for artisans to sell their work online. The genesis was about communicating something that is more complex than a disposable good that you can buy from anywhere. the way Etsy was built has always really been about community. The site is open to anyone becoming an Etsy seller.

We do a lot of work with sellers to help them improve their businesses and be more successful in their sales, but it’s not restrictive. Etsy has evolved in a way that is closely linked to our community and we are indebted to them. We are committed to our sellers, and our success is intrinsically linked to theirs. A lot of care has been put into our relationships with sellers, We have several teams that specifically support the more than one million small businesses on our platform.

We’ve grown in that direction, being particularly focused on community, and then the internal culture has been one that grew from a group of artists and musicians. We  care for employees a great deal. Our employees meals are different than a lot of tech companies in that we invite a local chef to come and prepare food and all eat together on giant picnic tables . It’s not cafeteria-style where you’re just going down and putting things on the plate. The idea is that as we succeed, we’re able to take that success out into the community and help other small and growing businesses. We are very connected to the caterers and the chefs and know them by name and we get excited when they are coming in. It is a connected version of a food program. I use that example often because I think it’s easy to compare to other companies and really see how Etsy is different. There’s a myriad of other programs we have for employees that compare in similar ways

About a year and a half ago, my boss, Matt Stinchcomb, recognized there was a need to institutionalize this type of work, because relying what felt values-aligned wasn’t going to be scalable when you are growing as quickly as we are. We now have this tremendous opportunity. We’re not just going into the abyss of anonymous corporation but rather our size affords us leverage that we haven’t had in the past. We have the ability now to create real benefit for people and the planet and to inspire other businesses to do the same.


Etsy_Etsy Labs Brooklyn

It sounds like you recognized an amazing opportunity and, at the same time, are able take steps to capitalize on it. So then what do your days look in this role? Or is there such a thing as day to day?

It changes a lot. We do a lot of work with other teams. The ideal scenario, is that other teams look to us for consultation on specific aspects of what they are doing. A good example is a project I’m working on with the recruiting team on the specific touch points at which we can infuse values in the recruitment process so that we’re bringing in people who are good fit for Etsy as it is now, and who will help us evolve in the way that we want to.

The projects that I specifically look after are our Employee Happiness Survey  The basis of my work is collecting and processing the hard data, and then working with HR on how they can implement those findings. Have you had a chance to look at our Annual Report?

I think that’s a very good digest of the work that we do.- evaluating our delivery to our, employees, communities — which are all of the groups I mentioned — and planet. A typical day will be some representation of all three of those.

Are your friends at other tech companies envious of your work?
We’ve been able to cultivate a really inspiring community of peers. It’s been awesome is to make connections with people at either other tech companies or firms that do totally different things.

We do a lot to make our work replicable. A great example is our employee Happiness Survey, which we share openly. I work with other companies to show them what we’ve done, how’s it been important and how we’ve shared it with our employees and publicly.

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Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.