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Etsy gets made in Berlin

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Etsy gets made in Berlin
Photo: Benedikta Karaisl von Karais and Matthew Stinchcomb
18:08 CEST+02:00
It's the virtual equivalent of a German flea market – without the hippies and stolen bikes. Etsy, the American social commerce website focused on handmade and vintage goods, is going international this week with a new headquarters in Berlin.

Weaving through construction debris and art supplies at the new Etsy office in Berlin's funky Kreuzberg district, 34-year-old Managing Director Matthew Stinchcomb quickly apologises for the presence of several Ikea boxes.

“Those are for our apartment, we won't have any mass-produced goods in this office,” he told The Local this week.

When it's finished, the converted old brick industrial space will serve as Etsy's international headquarters – plus a gallery, workshop and community centre to further develop the web company's "Do-it-Yourself" spirit, he said.

Stinchcomb calls the more than 170,000 people worldwide who sell their handmade goods at Etsy's customised online shops “makers.” Their products include jewellery, photography, original silkscreened t-shirts, stationery, vintage clothing and housewares. But more than being just the eBay of alternative crafters, the site also fosters a community of creative people through technology and business education, emphasising personal contact between buyers and sellers.

The Brooklyn, New York company was founded in 2005 by Stinchomb's roommate at the time, Robert Kalin. But it has since grown to include buyers and sellers in more than 150 countries with gross merchandise sales totalling $180.6 million in 2009. The fact that an estimated 30 percent of the company's business is taking place abroad encouraged Etsy to chose Berlin as a base from which to expand its international services.

“To be honest, we didn't really consider anywhere else,” Stinchcomb told The Local. “What was happening in Brooklyn five years ago is happening here now. The notion of a creative class is taking hold.”

Stinchcomb and his Munich-born wife, Benedikta Karaisl von Karais, also one of the company's three Berlin-based employees, both said they have been feverishly exploring and collaborating with Berlin's community of “makers” in preparation for their office launch party this Thursday.

Just outside in the office courtyard, standing in a pile of sawdust, is one of these people, Puerto Rican artist Luis Berríos-Negrón. He is building an impressive modular “mobile curatorial unit” for the Etsy office to display local crafts as part of a series of he calls “The Turtle,” which exhibited in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin in 2009.

“I fully believe in the Etsy project. It represents development and structure for a new labour society of artists,” he told The Local. “In the early 70s this idea of trans-disciplinary freelancers began, but no one stood up to represent that new economy before Etsy.”

Extending this representation to include global users is Etsy's goal for the Berlin office. While getting to know the European DIY community is part of this, tasks for 2010 include making purchases in euro and other currencies possible, offering support in languages besides English, and creating location software.

“We see Etsy working in these countries where we're doing nothing, but I really want people not to have to work to use the service,” Stinchcomb said. “English may be the global language, but I still think we need to make an effort.”

While Etsy hopes to see further growth through accommodating international infrastructure, Stinchcomb said the company is adamant about not forcing its US model on the new audience and allowing outside influences to have a hand in the company's evolution.

By the looks of the overwhelming response to the launch party invitation they sent to Berlin residents registered on the site, meeting creative people to make this happen won't be a problem.

Stinchcomb said they fielded more than double the expected RSVPs and had to close registration.

The Turtle's sawdust will be swept up and festivities will include tables for guests to craft small items, the presence of new Munich crafting magazine “Cut,” and an exhibition by a local photographer.

“From the response it looks like we'll have to pad our budget a bit, but really it's about getting to know the community,” he said. “I just hope we have enough beer.”

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