Let's Collaborate: The Rise of the Micro-Entrepreneurs

On Tuesday, June 18, 2013, OLC attended Let’s Collaborate’s event, The Rise of the Micro-Entrepreneurs held at Projective Space LES. The talk was hosted by Melissa O’Young, the founder of Let’s Collaborate, which is an event series created to inspire conversation on collaborative consumption. The moderator of the event was Christina Chaey, Assistant Editor of Fast Company. The panelists included Vipin Goyal, cofounder of SideTour; Rasanath Dasa, a banker-turned monk; Althea Erikson, Policy Director at Etsy; Nichole Robertson, seller on Etsy; Chris Muscarella, co-founder of KitchenSurfing; and Chef Jen Herrera of KitchenSurfing.
Christina Chaey interviewed Vipin Goyal and Rasanath Dasa first.
CC: Can you explain what SideTour actually does?
VG: SideTour is a marketplace for unique experiences. The idea came from seeking out experience while traveling and experiencing the locals’ shoes. We asked ourselves how it would be if we could step into their shoes on a daily basis—how much would that change our lives? The SideTour experiences are small, but they’re interactive.
CC: When I heard that Rasanath was joining us, I was very excited. Rasanath made some headlines in the national press a while back because of his unusual decision to go from financial banker to a Buddhist monk.
RD: It’s been quite a journey. Somehow in 1996, I had a spiritual calling and I made it out of Wall St. It seemed so obvious at the time.
CC: How did you two find each other?
VG: I met Rasanath because I saw him speak at a TED conference. I followed him to a monastery—this was long before SideTour. We started SideTour with people in our networks that we thought were remarkable people and would be great experiences.
CC: What does the tour entail?
RD: People get a tour of the monastery and a discussion follows. We sit and talk. People approach this part in many directions. Every single SideTour has been unique. It’s been mystical in a sense that you don’t know where it’s going to go.
VG: The elements are that people come, sit down and have a discussion, which turns into a conversation.
CC: You actually put the proceeds from SideTour to the monastery—
RD: Absolutely. SideTour has been very generous in doing that.
CC: When you guys are looking for hosts, how much of that is people coming to you versus stalking people?
VG: It’s about 2/3rds stalking—on a serious note, a third are applying on the site. It’s really important that the quality is high, so that people tell other people about the experience. It’s a highly curated process.
CC: Can you tell us about some crazy experiences?
VG: One that just happened was that a friend of mine hosted a card counting experience, which can be very valuable. The thing about SideTour is that we find experiences for you. You don’t have to spend time looking for something to do.
CC: With such diversity in experience that you offer, how do you ensure quality experiences?
VG: That’s part of our curation process. Vetting is based on people’s expertise, but the whole point is that the person that’s hosting is an expert at what they’re doing.
The next round of panelists took the stage at this point: Althea Erikson of Etsy and Nichole Robertson.
CC: How did you find a living out of what you love?
NR: I spent the last 10 years as a freelance copywriter. In 2001, I moved to Paris and started a blog to stay in touch with family and friends. The blog—which had pictures of Paris—attracted a lot of attention and people started to ask me to sell them. For a long time, I resisted. I was a long-time user of Etsy and I just started to sell my photographs on it.
CC: Etsy isn’t the only place you experimented with selling, is it?
NR: I thought we came to a place where we could move to our own ecommerce site. I assumed that with a large blog readership and Twitter followers, sales would follow, but I couldn’t compete with Etsy because of their built-in features and easily accessible platform.
CC: What sorts of built-in mechanisms make sure first-time sellers interact with the community?
AE: Many people start selling on Etsy not as entrepreneurs, so we have a seller education team to help their business go to the next level. We also have features that identify trending tags and the part that is the most powerful is the community element.
CC: How much of that cross promotion affect your business?
NR: It’s incredibly helpful. I realized that I dropped that ball and entrenched myself on my activity level. It’s really just going on Etsy and liking things and it really works. 
CC: Within the seller community, can you share how many people pursue it as a full-time job?
AE: There are people who use Etsy as a full-time gig, but many others use it as supplemental income. As folks move into independent careers, it can be a more fulfilling benefit.
CC: Can you tell me what the seller landscape is like?
AE: There’s over 9,000 Etsy sellers all over the world. Most are women and their average age is 41.
CC: Do you think that the inability to scale quickly preseves the voice of Etsy?
NR: When it was clear to me that when our store took off, I had this moment that I needed to brand my store and myself, but it was a mistake. 
AE: It’s not the inability to grow, but the choice to scale.
The final panelists at this point took the stage: Chris Muscarella and Jen Herrera of KitchenSurfing.
CC: Can you tell us about how you get chefs on KitchenSurfing?
CM: When we first started, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We handpicked a couple of chefs and begged people to sign up. We didn’t have to really have a vetting process at the beginning. We have a test kitchen to see their quality. It’s also creating a sense of community.
CC: Where do you find people that have skills that would be applicable to KitchenSurfing?
CM: We tried a bunch of things—flyering, for example. We also tried Craigslist. Those things work a little bit, but word of mouth is the biggest out of all of them. It has the biggest impact. For us, it’s also about what city to plant ourselves in.
CC: How did KitchenSurfing find you?
JH: They found me and had me produce a recipe for my profile. It was very Top Chefeqsue. Every chef is allowed to have their own profile and it’s a great opportunity for chefs to aspiring chefs.
CC: Was New York the first? How did you know to move into the private sector?
CM: Yes, New York was the first. So I’m a partner at a couple of restaurants. I’ve been doing tech for a while and sometimes I want to do something else. There’s something missing and with the restaurant experience, you can’t have fun with bringing eight people to a restaurant, so we wanted to make something where people can get together easily, over food.
CC: What is the post experience review like?
CM: It’s hard—creating a review system is tough. At KichenSurfing, the review system goes both ways: chefs can review customers and customers can review chefs. We think it keeps the playing field level. There’s a lot of humanism on KitchenSurfing.