Why Etsy’s Rob Kalin Is Like Steve Jobs



You might think that Etsy founder Rob Kalin doesn’t have much in common with Apple’s rock star CEO, Steve Jobs. Inc. magazine’s Max Chafkin describes Kalin as “socially awkward, reticent, and given to eccentricities that can seem downright crazy.” Chafkin goes on to quote Kalin:

“I speak to people in the business world and the technology world, but I don’t admire them,” he says, pointing an 8-inch combat knife at me for emphasis. “I admire the makers of the world.” This is not empty rhetoric: Kalin makes his own furniture and his own underwear. [From Can Rob Kalin Scale Etsy?]

Although I doubt if we’ll see Steve Jobs waving a combat knife at reporters, Etsy’s Kalin has clearly copied one of Jobs’s key strategies: portray oneself as an outsider, an underdog, and a rebel even as one becomes a powerful corporation. In Revealed: How Steve Jobs Turns Customers into Fanatics, I described how for decades Apple has fostered an “us vs. them” mentality with their advertising, even as Apple turned itself into a company worth more than behemoths like Microsoft. Psychologist Henri Tajfel showed how easily humans can be manipulated into artificial groups, and show animosity to the group they are not part of.

The “Anti-business” Business?

Etsy started off small, and provided a means for artists to sell one-of-a-kind work. But, like Apple in its early days, it has grown to become a substantial company with $40 million in revenue and 165 employees. Etsy has raised $50 million in venture capital, and is considered a likely IPO candidate.

All this sounds rather, ummm, corporate and business-like. One might think that Etsy could become a victim of its own success: if revenue growth and flush coffers turn it into just another online retail success story, the creative community might desert it. To maintain solidarity with that creative community, Kalin has adopted inflammatory anti-business rhetoric. Dubbing himself “Crafter in Chief,” he calls maximizing shareholder value “ridiculous” and says he couldn’t run a company that did things for that reason. And, in the ultimate “us vs. them” pitch, he even enlists a children’s book:

In January 2008, two and a half years after founding Etsy, Kalin posted a video on the company’s blog of himself reading a children’s book. The book, Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, which Kalin read with the careful intonation of an elementary school teacher, is about a small fish that bands together with other fish to scare away a hungry tuna. “We do not want Etsy itself to be a big tuna fish,” he wrote. “Those tuna are the big companies that all us small businesses are teaming up against.” [Emphasis added.]

Here’s the video of that reading:

The “us vs. them” appeal can’t get much more direct than “teaming up against” big businesses. Of course, at the same time Kalin was taking a $27 million investment led by VC Jim Breyer. Among Breyer’s board memberships one finds companies like Facebook, Dell, and, of all things, Walmart.

Can Kalin keep the anti-business rhetoric going as Etsy becomes a bigger business, and even a public company (with shareholders who hope someone is worried about their investment)? We’ll see. Like Jobs, Kalin could shift the emphasis and morph the message into a softer, “we’re innovative, cool, and better” pitch. Big companies can still adopt atypical, un-businesslike philosophies (like Google’s “do no evil”). What do you think?

  1. Naomi Niles says

    Interesting. I’m curious about how long Etsy will be around. I think the values-based approach has a lot of merits. But, it’s heavily focused on its product.

    So, it’d probably have to expand out into other offerings in the future as trends change.

    Maybe crafts will always be trendy though. What do I know? 🙂

  2. Jennifer (Verilliance) says

    There’s something else Kalin seems to have borrowed from Steve Job’s playbook, and that’s human-centric design. Businesses tend to underestimate the power of human-centered design.

    Kalin’s model, even though it is growing into a big-business, can retain the anti-big-biz stance because the space he has created for artists and crafters is one where they can inexpensively have an attractive and functioning online presence. Gathering them all into one place like a virtual open-air market of local artisans gives them visibility power.

    And I think that model can sustain itself for a good long time with that same mantra.

  3. Metrofax says

    I think crafts will always be trendy Naomi, even as the trends and popularity for different crafts change. I think etsy will be around for a long time. I know my wife loves the site!

  4. Meri Kuusi-Shields says

    Have you heard of the Etsy Bitch blog? I just found it. I had been thinking of Etsy branding-wise as a more wholesome alternative to selling in Ebay for instance but (after finding her blog and some other discussion threads) I might’ve been wrong. Looks like that small business sellers are likely to develop some resentment how they are treated regardless of the online forum. Here is the link to her blog in case you want to check it out: http://networkedblogs.com/fpwd9

  5. […] live. Last year Etsy sold $895M worth of goods and is rumored to be considering an IPO. Check out this blog post that likens Rob to Steve […]

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