The technology industry these days has taken on the veneer of a glam-rock festival — lots of venture capitalists, founders and executives taking center stage and enjoying the bright lights — or quips on social media and hamming it up on video shows. And perhaps that’s why someone like Chad Dickerson, chief executive officer of Etsy, a Brooklyn, New York-based global marketplace for arts and crafts goods, is a breath of fresh air. A quiet man who speaks very softly, Dickerson is an unlikely success story in the razzle-dazzle world of ecommerce.
Dickerson, who started his life in the media world (he worked for Salon), and spent time at Yahoo, ended up joining Etsy in 2008 as its chief technology officer. Etsy, which was started in 2005 by Jared Tarbell and Rob Kalin, had gone through a series of management upheavals and from the outside felt like a temperamental middle child of busy parents. About two years ago, when the company was in middle of one of those upheavals and was facing stalled growth, the board (which includes Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures) bet that Dickerson was the right man to lead the company into the future. It doesn’t matter who made that call — it was an inspired one.
Etsy has had its share of issues, but Dickerson has confronted them head on. He hasn’t hid behind a PR machine, and is open to talking to either Etsy buyers or sellers, anytime. He is unlikely to be every confused for a “internet CEO poster child.” He has shock of gray hair and is losing his battle with looming middle age. And he smiles a lot — using it as a way to put everyone at ease.
Two year turnaround
The company is on track to cross $1 billion in total annual transactions — twice as much in 2011 when Dickerson took over as CEO. It has 30 million registered users (versus 10 million when Dickerson stepped up) and by the end of 2013 will have a million sellers hocking their wares — bags, belts, hats, Siracha hot sauce and trinkets — on the Etsy platform. And if that is not enough, the company has built a global payment system to rival the likes of PayPal and has gone global through community-driven translations.
When I asked him why he has succeeded has as chief executive, he explained that “because I was the chief technology officer, I got to learn the entire business very intimately, from infrastructure to how we interacted with sellers and buyers.” It just so happens he completely loves the product — Dickerson does most of his shopping on Etsy — and believes in the higher purpose of Etsy.
Dickerson, who grew up in the tobacco growing part of North Carolina, was an English major in college interested in media and journalism. “I wanted to go to someplace else,” he quipped. While attending Duke University, he took math and science as minors and slowly fell in love with technology. “I am often surprised that I ended up in a tech career,” Dickerson told me a few months ago when we met for coffee in Manhattan. “I don’t think of myself as technologist but more as a student of human behavior who accidentally ended up in technology.”
Always be hustling
If anything, Dickerson is resourceful and makes the most of opportunities. As a 10-year-old kid, when he was trying to build a lawn mowing business, he tried to talk all the local realtors into giving him contracts to mow the lawns instead of trying to do one-off deals with homeowners. At one time he was helping mow 30 lawns a week — and a lot of money he made from that effort went towards his college fund. Upon leaving from college, Dickerson worked for the Raleigh News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C. and worked on its website in the early 1990s so he could hang around the newsroom.
When Dickerson speaks, he speaks softly. You have to strain hard to understand the meaning of his carefully chosen words. He truly believes in the manifest destiny of Etsy. Dickerson is unwavering in his belief that his 450-employee company can become an engine of global trade like none before.
“Etsy, technologically and culturally, is a platform that provides meaning to people, and an opportunity to validate their art, their craft,” Dickerson said
Dickerson believes that Etsy is at the forefront of the maker movement and a new way of commerce that is the polar opposite of the mass-produced industrial economic system. An increasing number of people are looking to connect with those who make their products and want to find the story behind the products. “Back in 2005 when I was at Yahoo, we would have hackathons and they would bring together people in a pretty meaningful manner,” he recalled. Etsy, is a way of hacking commerce and bringing people together.
People, not math, are the key to commerce
“Most e-commerce tries to reduce everything to math, but I refuse to think of it as a math problem,” said Dickerson. All it takes is spending time with Etsy buyers and sellers to learn that all commerce is about real human interaction. “I was talking to two Etsy sellers about my son and they sent me a book to read to my son,” he said. “You learn a lot from talking to people and not looking at data.” Dickerson, who often is the first person in company’s DUMBO office and the last one out, has a great way of describing Etsy: “At the end of every transaction, you get something real from a real person. There is an existential satisfaction to that.”
But that doesn’t mean Dickerson isn’t paying respect to the tenets of any modern internet business — cloud, mobile, social and data. A few years ago, Etsy embraced data and used it to build a more informed platform. The CTO-turned-CEO also pushed the company to a modern infrastructure that is good for Etsy’s recent growth.
And the focus for his team these days is to make mobile easier not only for buyers, but also for sellers. Etsy has embraced mobile completely, and things have picked up for the company because of it. “The reason we developed Direct Checkout (a payment system) is because we wanted to make it easy for people to not have to go to third-party websites and make payments,” Dickerson said. That is quite a painful experience. Mobile accounts for about 45 percent of company’s monthly visits and by next early next year, it will be the majority of Etsy’s traffic.
“The soul of our company is our marketplace and our community,” said Dickerson. “We succeed when we helps others succeed, and that is the core value of our company.” And that is why Etsy became a Certified B corporation (a kind of for-profit U.S. company that “considers society and the environment in addition to profit in their decision making process“) — much like Warby Parker and Patagonia. Etsy, which takes 3.5 percent of each sale on the platform, has been profitable for a few years.
The company raised $40 million in Series F funding last year(at a valuation exceeding $600 million) and is using those funds to become a global platform. (It has raised a total of $91.7 million in funds from Index Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Accel Partners, and others.)
“We are looking at international growth and hoping that in next four years, international sales will account for half of the total sales,” he said. At present, about 20 percent of Etsy’s sales volume is from international buyers and sellers.
Dickerson believes that the Etsy platform can play the role of a wholesale trade show and connect artisans to smaller/independent stores and help them growth their business. “When I started working in technology almost twenty years ago, it was about building something on the web,” he said. “It is now about building something with the web.”