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Seniors get crafty with internet

Rebecca S. Rivas

Ioni Dodson, who lives in Queens, N.Y., is “so happy” to be 72 and retired from her career in word processing because now she has time to do more crafty art, she said.

One of her most prized creations is a three-dimensional, African-themed quilt using bright colors. It is called “Celebration.”

“When I was in grammar school, I wore a uniform,” Dodson said, who worked in human resources administration in New York City for 36 years. “I thought this was the worst thing I could ever do. When I attended high school, I made and designed my clothes. I love to be different.”

In November 2009, some of her friends encouraged her to make her crafts more than just a hobby. They urged her to sell her quilts, knits and ceramic dolls on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods.

“They thought that I would do well financially,” she said.

So she decided to set up an online Etsy shop called “Ionis Creations.”

Etsy was created by a painter, carpenter, and photographer named Rob Kalin in early 2005. Like many artists, Kalin felt there wasn’t a viable marketplace to exhibit and sell his creations online. At that time, he felt as though other e-commerce sites were too inundated with overstock electronics and broken appliances.

So Kalin, along with Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik, launched Etsy on June 18, 2005. Now Etsy has more than 800,000 active shops and 14 million members.

Dodson is one of the few African American seniors who have braved online commerce. Although she has not made her fortune yet, she is up for the challenge. So far she has found her clients by word of mouth and Etsy, she said.

“Etsy has grown by leaps and bounds, therefore, you must work harder to get your things seen,” Dodson said.

Her motto is: “No matter what you do, sometimes nothing works. Do not despair. Keep working at it, and it will happen in God’s own time.”

Pat Brown-Dixon, an administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, is constantly talking with small business owners. In her experience, few senior business owners are familiar with online sales tools like Etsy.

However, she encourages small businesses to use all available internet sources to their advantage. Etsy can be a low-cost marketing aid, she said.

“As more seasoned Americans realize the value of using the internet, it can allow them to have more control of their time, and help them be home-based while gaining extra income,” she said.

Brown-Dixon cautioned seniors to be wise in terms of receiving payments. She recommends transferring money through reliable third-party sources, such as Pay-Pal. And she strongly encouraged sellers to keep up with orders and build strong relations.

“And when fulfilling orders, sellers of products must be diligent to deliver the products quickly in order to build their reputations as good suppliers,” she said.

Dabanga dos Santos, a senior originally from Mozambique, is a microbiologist who became a jewelry artisan. She creates ethnic fusion jewelry using metals. She started using Etsy in 2009 when her own website crashed and she needed a means to reach her retail clients.

“I maintained the site even after my website was rebuilt,” said dos Santos, who is also lives in New York. “Between the two, I am busier now than I ever was.”

The income from her Etsy shop, “Dabanga,” supplements her wholesale business, she said. Etsy leveled out the playing ground for its thousands of merchants when it introduced “search engine optimization” relevancy, which helps her shop pop up in search results more often. Etsy offers ways to share ideas and collaborate through the Etsy forums, Etsy teams or attend an online workshop on the site.

Although social media can be overwhelming, Dabanga said it is also a necessary component for online sales. And then of course, sellers have to make time to create the products.

“People often say there aren’t enough hours in the day,” she said. “Of course there are. Time management and meeting goals are essential parts of getting the job done, since social media is very time-consuming.”

With the prolonged downturn of the economy, many people who were not yet ready for retirement have been laid off, said Kevin Lockett, chief operating officer for the Urban Entrepreneur Partnership, a business-coaching program of the Kauffman Foundation. These people have begun to look for ways to leverage their knowledge.

“You saw an influx of seniors trying to start their own businesses,” Lockett said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they started to use products like Etsy. When seniors are in those dire situations, many of them will reach out and use everything available to them.”

Jill of the Etsy shop jill2day spent many years in corporate design departments until the downturn left her unemployed, she stated in the Etsy blog “Quit Your Day Job.” She took her career change as a motivating opportunity to start her Etsy shop, learn more about e-commerce and begin supporting herself through her artistic voice.

She’s now successfully making her living through her Etsy business and loves making her own schedule. And if she could go back in time, she said she would do it sooner.

“In losing my job I have found out that Richie Havens was right when he said, ‘Backwards is not necessarily a negative direction!’” she said.

Lockett said Etsy has given entrepreneurs of any size, in any location, the ability to market their products to a mass audience.

Dodson’s goal is to be able to at least send her grandchildren to college and pay for their expenses.

“You must give up a lot of time,” she said. “You must be professional. You must keep up with new products and must have fortitude – and, above all, patience.”

Rebecca Rivas wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.