First Impressions at Etsy

It’s been about two months since I started at Etsy as a product manager on the Seller Experience team. I strongly believe that first impressions fade quickly so it’s important to try to capture them in the moment. I won’t be talking about product management at Etsy but more broadly how the company culture has felt for a new employee like me.

Staff = Admin. We often use the term admin to refer to the people who work at Etsy. This terminology comes from the fact that Etsy started as a community website for crafters which had (and still has) a strong forum presence.

Many people who worked at Etsy were also Etsy users, and to be transparent about who worked there, their avatars had a badge that said “admin” on it. While the term “admin” is typically reserved for specific people in a forum that have special powers to manage the conversation, the users of Etsy took to calling anyone who worked there an “admin”, and that nomenclature continues on. You see references to “Etsy admin” as in: “Let’s make sure the new nav bar feature is admin only” or the Hack Day game where you try to learn people’s names called Guess that Admin.

Say Cheese. I’m not sure how long they’ve had the photo booth, but it’s become a very standard look for admin to use their photo booth photo(s) as their avatar. With a black background, a strong flash, and a slightly washed out color palette, it’s pretty distinct. You can see mine up top.

jshen-etsy-code-push

Deeply technical. Because Etsy is all about being crafty and celebrating homemade things, it’s understandable that you might think their team is not super technical. That’d be a mistake. Inside the tech industry, Etsy is well respected for their engineering chops, including the things they share at talks and on Code as Craft. Designers and PM’s can deploy directly to production — I’ve had a chance to push code, not just a my mug shot as depicted in the pull request there, but also more substantial updates. Beyond just being full stack, many web developers have gone through a six week full-time training to learn iOS or Android app development. That’s pretty hardcore.

three-armed-sweater-etsy

The three armed sweater. Etsy’s culture is really about embracing mistakes and learning from them, rather than shunning or blaming the person involved. At some point, we commissioned an Etsy seller to knit a three armed sweater, which hangs in the office and on the 404, to commemorate this idea. The three-armed sweater award is given each year to the individual or team who breaks the site in the most spectacular fashion.

It’s not your fault. Getting into the philosophy behind the three armed sweater, Etsy CTO John Allspaw wrote a blog post in 2012 about how shaming people who make mistakes basically guarantees that the mistake will happen again, either by that person or someone else in a similar role. Successful organizations operating in complex situations must create an open environment where mistakes studied, explored, understood, and addressed at a structural/systematic level. In just a month. I’ve already witnessed two product post mortems go down in different parts of the company, always with a eye to understanding, not blaming, and seeking to improve things in the future. After an incident at lunch (aka Eatsy), the team involved announced that they’d be holding a post-mortem of their own.

Posters at Etsy

Posters. It’s like you’ve returned to dorm life. Posters everywhere. Some jokes. Some announcements. Some well-designed. Some ludicrously absurd.

Punsy. People love making puns out of our name. Eatsy, the twice-weekly catered lunch. Sweatsy, the group of admin who would do crossfit workouts every week. Stalesy, the warning that appears on the top of wiki pages that are more than a year old. Etski, the (retired) company retreat that would presumably happen at a ski lodge each year. Netsy, the casual basketball league / team. The Etsytorium, the large room where we hold big meetings. Etsyversairies – where we celebrate admin tenure milestones.

irc-example

Slack’s Great Grandpa. I love that we go old school with IRC over Hipchat or Slack. There’s a bot called irccat that does all kinds of things, from JIRA push notifications, to relaying the results (success/fail) of a test push on a virtual machine, to remembering quotes or GIF’s of staff members. Our team has a pretty chatty channel, with pull requests and product conversations getting interspersed between jokes, videos, and emoji.

Roll Your Own Everything. We’re really into building our own tools at Etsy with cool names. From our dashboard (Balderdash) to our data querying system (Superbit) to our internal tools platform (Atlas) to our own IRC client (Ftrain). We also own our own metal (aka servers), and you can visit the Etsy data warehouse. There are of course pros and cons to taking on all of this work internally, but I think what matters for this post is understanding that building it ourselves is very much the Etsy way.
four-types-of-trahs-at-etsy

Sustainability is Serious Business. We have four different types of trash: metal/plastic, paper, landfill, and compost. We bike our own compost to Red Hook farm. We tear up the paper bowls we get from Eatsy into quarters because it makes the composting more efficient. There are probably a dozen different teams that work on issues like carbon neutral commuting, sustainable manufacturing, work-life balance, and more, which together from Etsy’s Sustainability Commission.

A Reply-All Culture. I first saw this on a pack of stickers but it’s pretty true. We err on the side of including more people in the conversation rather than less. The point isn’t to annoy people with unnecessary information, but to genuinely show that we aren’t looking to cut anyone out, and to ensure that knowledge is shared more broadly across the organization (more redundancies == lower chance of things falling through cracks)

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of silly email. There’s a “chatter” email thread that anyone can post to about basically anything, and one time a guy posted a video with the subject line “Cone me”, which was just a GIF of a cat throwing cones at a person. 4 days and 63 reply-alls later, you’ve got a ridiculous thread of every possible interpretation of “cone”. From the Coneheads to pine cones to snow cones to my own contribution, a Zen koan, it was clear that people were having a lot of fun with the thread.

I see you. Transparency is a big deal at Etsy. When I go to Etsy.com on my work laptop, there’s an admin toolbar where I can get stats on what page type I’m looking at and how many people hit that page per day. I see what experiments are running on the site. I can watch the videos from the past “Y’all Hands” (ie company wide meetings). The company’s wiki is chock full of documents, plans, schedules, and ideas across different teams within the comapny. It’s an amazing amount of transparency and trust that the people here will do the right thing with the data and use it to make the product and community better.

Hands on. Working here has made me want to do more things with my hands. Lots of admin are Etsy sellers, or have interesting hobbies that don’t necessarily involve computers. Also, as a PM working to build products for sellers who typically make physical goods to sell on Etsy, I’m finding myself drawn toward creative pursuits that are material in nature. I’ve done some painting, and have been trying my hand at hollow books.

That’s a quick look at some of the interesting cultural elements and vibes I’ve gotten in the eight weeks I’ve been at Etsy. It really reminds me of grown-up version of Columbae, the co-op house I would hang out at as a grad student at Stanford. In general, the people are friendly, quirky, laid-back, optimistic, helpful, silly, and really good at what they do.

Bonus: a set of stickers you get on your first day. Interesting mix of metaphors and descriptions for Etsy. My favorites include: Etys is relationship material. Etsy gives you the last stick of gum. Etsy takes composting very seriously.

Etsy stickers

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. JasonShen Etsy congratulations for joining such a wonderful team. Will wait for your tips selling on Etsy

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