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Etsy gets crafty with big data

Ann Bednarz | Feb. 26, 2013
Handmade marketplace Etsy has grown to 800,000 sellers and 40+ million monthly visitors. All that activity generates enormous quantities of data, which Etsy uses to drive site improvements.

At Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade crafts and vintage items, the benefits of big data analytics come in small packages - for example, something as simple as tweaking a "favorite" button, which lets visitors bookmark products they like.

"Someone was digging through data and noticed that relatively few people click on that button, but of those who do click on it, a pretty high percentage wind up signing up for the site," recalls Dan McKinley, principal engineer and five-year Etsy veteran. "So we tried making it more prominent for people who hadn't signed up yet. That was worth a few percentage points of people signing up, which in our world is a pretty huge increase."

Sifting through data, adjusting page elements, and improving site engagement is standard operating procedure at Etsy, which uses an approach known as continuous deployment. Any of Etsy's 150+ engineers can deploy code to the live site at any time -- and that happens 20 to 30 times a day. (Newly hired engineers are encouraged to deploy on their first day on the job.)

"With continuous deployment, we're able to push lots of small, incremental changes," says Steve Mardenfeld, senior software engineer at Etsy. "It's the perfect vehicle for experiments."

Data provides the rationale for these engineering experiments -- and Etsy has gobs of it.

The Etsy way

More than 14 million shoppers have made purchases and 100 million items have been sold since Etsy was founded in 2005 in an apartment in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Founder Rob Kalin came up with the idea because he couldn't find a viable marketplace to sell his photos, paintings and carpentry products. He teamed with Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik to design, build and launch the site.

Today Etsy occupies a former cardboard-box factory in an area of the borough known as DUMBO (which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). It's a laid-back environment where dogs roam, conference rooms are decorated with handcrafted pieces commissioned from Etsy artists, and employees are given a decorating budget to trick out their workspaces. A staff lunch program, known as "Eatsy," serves up free lunch for employees three times a week.

Creativity is rampant. "No matter what job you have here, people are encouraged to think creatively about how to get things done," says Nell Thomas, group manager, data analysts, at Etsy.

At the helm is Etsy's onetime CTO Chad Dickerson, who took on the CEO role in mid-2011. The company has nearly 400 employees, and last year it raised $40 million in Series F venture financing. There are 800,000 active sellers and 40+ million monthly visitors to the site. In 2012, sales jumped 70% to $895.1 million, and page views climbed 28% to 16.7 billion.


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