If you’ve bought an artsy-crafty item on the web lately, or if you read Fred Wilson’s blog A VC, then you’ve probably run into Etsy. Since launching in June 2005, this Brooklyn-based company has managed to build an extremely enthusiastic fan base and become the eBay of handmade goods.
Etsy is all about community. There’s a blog (of course) and a forum and a wiki and something called Etsy Labs, an actual physical space in Brooklyn where they give classes about how to make things. Pretty brilliant–building community and training their own suppliers!
And what about the name Etsy? Where does it come from? Ah, that is the mystery. There’s been a thread about that question for more than a year and a half on the Etsy forum. Etsy developer Rokali/Rob has done nothing to clear the mystery up, and has even cranked up his own fog machine. First he hinted that the name is somehow related to Federico Fellini’s film 8½. In a brief television spot on the company, he suggested that the name is from Latin et si ‘and if’. Another Etsy developer, RevolvingDork, cryptically mentioned the sentence “IT’S A SECRET TO EVERYBODY!” on the forum, and pointed to a screen capture from a video game (which has since been removed). Someone picked up on the clue and conjectured that Etsy is based on that sentence: ignore the article a, make an acronym, reverse the letters, and replace the i with a y. Simple.
Contributors to the forum have also come up with their own theories. One is that Etsy is based on the Unix directory /etc, pronounced “et-C”. The Name Inspector came up with his own crazy theory: if you write eBay as Ebay, the orthographic similarity to Etsy is striking, because the t in Etsy looks like a b missing part of its curve, and the s looks like a backwards a missing a line. Simple. Turns out someone on the forum already thought of that.
Does it really matter where Etsy comes from or what it means? What’s really interesting is the strength of the community’s conviction that Etsy must mean something. People crave meaning, and will look for it if it doesn’t walk up and say “hey”. The desire to figure out the “secret” of the name Etsy might matter more than any true story about its origin.
Of course, whatever the founders may have had in mind when they came up with it, the name Etsy has its own special character. It rhymes with the name Betsy, which makes it vaguely personified and friendly. Mostly it’s tiny. It evokes the phrase itsy-bitsy, and has all the right sound symbolism to match. The -y ending is unmistakeably diminutive sounding. The short and high-ish first vowel and the voiceless alveolar consonants in the middle all add to the smallness evoked by the sound. Also, when you say this name, you make tiny little gestures with the tip of your tongue.
So, why would a company want its name to seem small? Well, it’s cute, and a lot of the stuff sold on Etsy is cute (plush toys that are “shy” and need “lots of hugs”, crocheted anthropomorphic ice cream cones, Big Eye kitty patches, etc.). The cuteness also contributes to the friendly vibe on the website and in the forum.
Cuteness aside, the concept of smallness fits the company. It conveys the idea that the merchandise on the site is made in small quantities on a small scale (usually by individuals rather than companies), and Etsy itself is a small company. Also, smallness suggests precision and attention to minute detail, which is perfect for handmade goods.
The name Etsy projects the image of a small grass-roots start-up. If the company continues to live up to this image, it could be really big.