Etsy leader, a Greenville native, celebrates the maker impulse

CorrespondentFebruary 16, 2013 

— If you’re the type of person who values embroidered pillow cases, hand-stamped stationery or Soviet-era ashtrays, Etsy.com is probably one of your bookmarked Web pages.

The popular online craft and vintage goods marketplace, where more than 850,000 vendors from 200 countries buy and sell handmade goods, was recently valued at more than $600 million. At the helm is CEO Chad Dickerson, 40, a Duke university alum whose resume reads like a roadmap to the information superhighway. Dickerson will be talking about his career as a distinguished speaker on Tuesday at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

“I was an English major at Duke,” Dickerson said. “So to come back as a distinguished business speaker is something I never dreamed.”

Dickerson says that his work with Etsy.com, which has 42 million visitors per month perusing more than 80 million items, is a way to harness the Web’s ability to meet humanity’s need to trade handcrafted goods. But more broadly it’s a way to help people define success on their own terms.

Dickerson knows something about that last thing.

Growing up in Greenville, he did not have any intention of becoming a tech pioneer. His mother, Sonia, was a stay-at-home mom while his dad, Philip Sr., was a Pitt County engineer. Dickerson was a news junkie, watching CNN’s “Crossfire” and reading “All the President’s Men.” He liked journalism, and journalists, and so he went to Duke University to study English and literature.

“When I came to Duke, it was the first time I met anyone from California,” Dickerson said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

Though eye-opening, Dickerson left Duke in 1993 with little idea of what he wanted to be, or do. He delivered pizzas for a Pizza Hut in Raleigh and answered a classified ad for a position at The News & Observer.

“When I first met Chad he was a ponytailed English major looking for a job,” said Dan Woods. Woods, now chief technology officer of Evolved Media in New York City, was the database editor at The N&O. He hired Dickerson to be a part-time news enhancer.

“My job was to read the paper and make sure articles we sent out to electronic news services matched the print edition,” Dickerson said. “I just wanted to be close to news, but luckily, The N&O was a pioneer in digital media.”

Dickerson learned how to code and to write software. He was on the editorial team that created a database of campaign finance reform in the state.

He soon left to be the first webmaster of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, then CNN and Salon.com. Eventually he landed at Yahoo!, where he led the Brickhouse and Advanced Products team, and the Yahoo! Developer Network; in both those positions Dickerson helped incubate new ideas for the company’s platform.

At Yahoo! he pioneered hack days, where engineers were allowed to work on any projects they wanted. The hack days model, allowing your engineers to work on their own projects for a given period, has been copied throughout the tech world.

‘The power to make things’

Dickerson said he was building a life for himself at Yahoo! and in California, when the opportunity to work at Etsy came his way.

“My wife and I were literally renovating the kitchen in Berkeley when we got the call about the interview,” said Dickerson, who now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Nancy, and their 14-month-old son Kangsan. The Dickersons adopted Kangsan from South Korea in December.

But on the plane ride back to California, Dickerson decided Etsy was the right place for him.

Etsy.com, which became profitable in 2009, one year after Dickerson arrived as chief technology officer, was not a bastion for Web design or interface that worked.

“Before Chad came, Etsy was a tech shantytown, a place held together with chewing gum,” said Woods. “He cleaned what he found, brought in a new team made out of the top stars in the world in each of their fields, and helped align the technology needs with the needs of the business.”

Most important, Woods said, Dickerson also moved from the role of CTO to CEO in July 2011, a pioneering transition that Woods said more companies are likely to follow.

In the five years since Dickerson made the move, he’s ushered in a profitable era at Etsy. In 2012, sales by the Etsy community were $895 million, compared with $525 million in 2011.

There also are more than 7,000 Etsy teams, groups of sellers who organize and meet with each other to help take advantage of the Etsy marketplace. The Raleigh group is called Acorn to Oak Handmade, and they hold monthly meetings and craft nights to help artists make a living on Etsy. But monetary success isn’t necessarily the endgame for everyone who sells their wares on the site.

“Etsy is giving people the power to make things,” said Dickerson. “It offers someone the flexibility to make one thing a week or one thing a month while taking care of their kids. It’s a creative outlet. The Internet allows for something really old, the maker impulse inside of us.”

‘A natural leader’

Dickerson said Etsy’s growing popularity is a testament to the company’s ability to fill a role in people’s lives. Sure, the sheer amount of appliquéd potholders for sale allows for some “Portlandia”-esque (the IFC comedy series that satirizes hipster lifestyle) jokes that portray the website as the ultimate indie craft fair, but Dickerson said the website is much more diverse than that.

“We have sellers of every age, ethnicity, gender,” Dickerson said. “It’s person-to-person commerce.”

And Dickerson has maintained that person-to-person vibe even as Etsy begins new endeavors. In 2012, the company announced Etsy for West Elm, partnering with some locations of the home goods store West Elm in cities such as Seattle and Vancouver, to sell goods made by local artisans.

“The sales tags on the items have the seller’s name,” said Dickerson. “When we enter retail environments we want the identity of the seller to come through. We’ll always emphasize the people more than any type of Etsy brand.”

This spring, the company will embark on Etsy Wholesale, which will feature sellers using boutiques and museum shops to showcase their goods.

Woods said that Dickerson’s gentle, inquisitive nature made him a natural leader for a company like Etsy.

“With technical skills, he went from being an amateur to a fully blown expert,” said Woods. “Now he writes and leads in a humble sort of way that is very effective in a lot of these organizations.”

What makes him effective may be his roots and education in North Carolina.

He still cheers for Duke, and relishes finding communities of North Carolinians in a city of 8 million when he wants to watch a Duke-Carolina game. He travels to Raleigh fairly often to see his brother, Philip Jr., and his parents. He even invited his childhood next-door neighbor to hear him talk at Duke on Tuesday.

“She was one of the first people to hire me,” said Dickerson. “She supported my brother and I’s lawn-mowing business.”

Dickerson said he strongly believes a liberal arts or humanities degree, the kind he obtained at Duke, is the best preparation for any type of career.

“You look at my resume, and it looks like I’m this tech guy,” said Dickerson. “But understanding the way people think, having people skills, that all comes from my English degree.”

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