Alice Burdick Schweiger Special to the Jewish News
Ann Arbor-native — and Etsy CEO — Josh Silverman has a knack for success.
This past May marked the one-year anniversary of Josh Silverman becoming CEO of Etsy, the online marketplace that specializes in buying and selling vintage goods and handmade arts and crafts. Since Silverman, an Ann Arbor native, took over the helm, the company’s stock has risen and sales have increased.
“Etsy is a special company,” says Silverman, who now resides in New York City. “We live in a society where people are wearing and buying the same mass-produced products. Everything has become automated and industrialized, but Etsy is a refuge in that sea of sameness. The products are unique and the buyer and seller connect in a real human way.”
The premise of Etsy is simple. Entrepreneurs can sell their wares while paying low fees and are provided easy-access assistance as a seller with their own webpage within the Etsy community. It also allows sellers to interact personally with buyers — and allows buyers to be certain of what they’re getting. And it gives would-be entrepreneurs the chance to test their products before launching a full-fledged business. What might begin as an on-the-side hobby — printmaking, button collecting, personalized paper goods, jewelry design and so much more — can become an established business and source of income on Etsy.
“Etsy is a refuge in a sea of sameness. The products are unique and the buyer and seller connect in a real human way.”
— Josh Silverman
It wasn’t surprising that Etsy, first established in 2005, chose Silverman to be its new leader. Silverman, 49, graduated Ann Arbor’s Community High in 1987 and went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Brown University, and then an MBA at Stanford. After graduation, he co-founded Evite, which became the leading online social-event planning site.
“One of the investors in Evite was an employee of eBay when it was getting off the ground,” Silverman says. “He told me that eBay was exploding internationally and he needed help to run it overseas. So, I joined eBay with the understanding that they could send me anywhere in the world — and I ended up in the Netherlands. I launched eBay’s European online classified business.”
Silverman continued to run a succession of businesses that eBay had bought, including shopping.com, a market leader in comparison shopping. One of eBay’s products was Skype, and they asked Silverman to take charge — in 2008 he became CEO of Skype.
In 2011, Silverman became president of the U.S. Consumer Services business at American Express, the unit that provides the company’s consumer cards and travel services in the U.S. But when he left AmEx in 2015 he wanted to wait for another position where he could make a significant difference — and Etsy seemed like the perfect opportunity. He joined the board in November 2016 and was quickly catapulted into the company’s No. 1 position.
For Silverman, that position meant many changes. “I had to make a lot of decisions,” he says. “When I arrived, I asked to prioritize everything we were doing based on what would have an impact on driving accelerating sales growth. Based on that, we eliminated over half the activities happening in the company. Also, we streamlined the organization, which unfortunately caused us to make some painful choices. We had to lay off about 20 percent of the staff. We removed a lot of layers within the organization so we had clearer accountability and much less bureaucracy.
“As a result, we are shipping products about 2½ times faster and have had a fairly dramatic acceleration in growth.”
In bringing a new focus to the company, Silverman says they are concentrating on growing the sales on their core platform. “Over the last nine months we have seen a real acceleration in both our product velocities in the buying and selling and in sales growth,” he says. “In the third quarter, sales grew by 18 percent on Etsy — up from 13 percent the previous quarter.”
Etsy’s top three selling categories are home furnishings, clothing and jewelry, “and each of those categories brings in more than $500 million a year,” Silverman says. Art is among the top six sellers.
About 87 percent of sellers are women, according to Silverman, and buyers run the gamut. “We have 30 million buyers,” he notes. “About one-third of our sales are international, which is about the fastest-growing part of our business.”
Silverman doesn’t seem to have much downtime these days, but he most enjoys spending time with his wife, Shirin, and their two children, ages 10 and 13. His wife is Persian and they embrace both Jewish and Persian cultures. “It’s very important to me my kids have a sense of their Jewish identity,” says Silverman, who had a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, where his parents, Eugene and Alida, are still members. “I want my kids to appreciate Jewish traditions.”
Silverman’s desire for Etsy is to make it a place that stands for special. “When you’re looking for socks or batteries or all the commodities needed in daily life, there are plenty of places that can ship them to you quickly,” he says. “But there are many times in your life you want something to be special — something representing your personal sense of style or taste — for you or as a gift for a friend or relative. It’s those moments where I want people to think ‘There’s no place like Etsy.’”