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Artistic expression is at the heart of a quiet business boom taking place in Missoula, but you would never know it by driving through the city’s commercial corridors.

These new entrepreneurs – 87 and growing – don’t have storefronts, but they can all be found at the same place: www.etsy.com.

This virtual marketplace opened in 2005 and operates 24/7 selling tangible, beautiful, sometimes quirky and always unique handcrafted items from artists around the globe.

Think of it this way: It’s an international arts and crafts fair that is always open for business.

Among the 400,000 sellers and artists who have more than 5.7 million items listed for sale, 750 are from Montana, of which 87 live and work in Missoula.

Andrea Leggitt is one of those Missoula artists; she creates provocative mobiles on her weekends and when she’s not working at her graphic design job with the Biomimicry Institute.

Etsy has not only linked her to a world where people seek handmade things, but also has given her a low-cost place to operate her cottage industry at www.etsy.com/shop/ SaltyandSweet.

“It is amazing that somebody like me – a one-person show with limited funds – can have the appearance of being a legitimate business,” Leggitt said. “I mean, I am a legitimate business, and I’m proud of the work I do, but I make my mobiles in my house – in my kitchen.

“The first one I put on Etsy sold within 24 hours, which blew my mind,” she said. “And it’s grown from there.

“Now I sell on average between 15 and 30 a month, and during the last holiday season I sold over 300.”

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Etsy is an Internet business phenomenon with a magical formula for success: It uses 21st century social networking technology to promote Old World commerce.

There’s no cost to “open” an Etsy shop, but it costs 20 cents to list an item for sale, and the website takes a small percentage of each sale. In Leggitt’s case, etsy gets a little less than $2 for each $36 mobile she sells.

“For me, it’s an incredibly inexpensive way to show and sell my work,” Leggitt said.

Aside from the low cost and zero rent, Etsy is a place where like minds meet and where community takes place, said Adam Brown, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn-based company.

“What makes it unique is that when you buy or sell on Etsy, it is a personal interaction,” Brown said. “When you buy something, you get to know the seller or artist – you have conversations, you get the background on the item and the person, which lends an intrinsic value to the objects because you have a story to tell about it.”

The whole thing came about when Rob Kalin, a New York painter, carpenter and photographer, found there was no viable marketplace to exhibit and sell his creations online, Brown said. Other e-commerce sites had become too inundated with overstock electronics and broken appliances.

So with the help of two friends, the trio designed the site, wrote the code, assembled the servers, spliced the cables and launched Etsy on June 18, 2005, three months from the time of conception.

Since then, the handmade marketplace has exploded. It currently has 400,000 sellers,

4.6 million members in over 150 countries, and averages 724 million page views each month, Brown said.

Even more astonishing are the gross merchandise sales generated for artists on the website: In 2005; $166,000; 2006, $3.8 million; 2007, $26 million; 2008, $87.5 million; 2009, $180.6 million; and in 2010, $85.1 million (through April).

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Leggitt’s sale numbers echo the site’s growth, and it’s given her “financial wiggle room” to live beyond her work salary. In fact, it was a significant funding source while she worked in an unpaid internship with the Biomimicry Institute before being promoted to her current paid position.

Her modest financial flexibility, she said, wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Etsy.

“Etsy has grown for a number of reasons,” Brown said. “There’s really cool stuff there that people are intrigued by, but still, a lot of it has to do with the people you find there and making connections with them.

“The whole reason we exist is to bring people together on a one-to-one level – we are anti-mass production.”

To ensure its original mission, Etsy employees regularly police the site – and buyers and sellers have a forum to report any misuse or false advertising.

Aside from selling handmade items, etsy allows the sale of vintage items – things that are 20 years or older – and small quantities of commercially made stuff, Brown said. The commercial items are intended to help artists and craftspeople, he said, giving the example that if someone ordered 1,000 beads to make something and had 200 left that weren’t needed, he or she could sell the beads so another person could use them.

“We don’t let people resell things made by other people on the site,” Brown said. “We actively police that and our community polices that. We also just developed a new tool to shut down the resellers and spam from manufacturers so that we can ensure the integrity of the marketplace.”

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Although he hasn’t sold much on his Etsy shop site, endlesssunset, Missoula woodworker Aaron Thomas said it has produced numerous referrals and inquiries.

For him, his presence on the website serves as a permanent calling card for his furniture – and for his most unusual products: handcrafted surfboard-inspired longboard skateboards.

“The kinds of things I make are the kinds of things people want to see and touch before they buy,” Thomas said. “But Etsy has gotten me noticed, that’s for sure.”

Word of mouth, referrals, Facebook and Etsy all play an important role in helping to advertise his work, which allows him to pay the bills, make a living and work for himself.

A former contractor and finish carpenter, Thomas branched into making distinctive tables, chairs, bed frames – and skateboards (one of his favorite hobbies) – last year when the housing market stalled.

So far, he’s more than landed on his feet; he’s living a life that fulfills his creative passion and allows him to negotiate with the boss.

His success, Thomas said, is due to hard work and getting out to meet his clients – in whatever format makes the most sense.

“Everything progresses through networking,” he said, “no matter how you do it.”

Leggitt’s thoughts on being an entrepreneur? Amazement.

“I’m an entrepreneur by accident. I never set out to own my own company,” she said. “But here I am with a company, selling things on the Internet.”

“It’s exciting,” she said, “and I am curious about what is going to happen with it all.”

Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or by e-mail at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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