This former janitor is now a six-figure Etsy seller. How she does it

In this photo illustration the Etsy logo is displayed on a smartphone.
(Photo illustration by Rafael Henrique / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Share via

You can make a lot of money selling on Etsy. Just ask Helen Spallas.

Spallas, 64, has worn many hats. She was a private investigator, a janitor, a tax preparer, a paralegal. But she didn’t make six figures until she started selling on Etsy.

Even though her shop is just 4 years old, it’s been among the top 1% of Etsy’s 7.7 million worldwide sellers. And, this year, she started a personal coaching business to help newbies navigate the massive craft site to make their stores stand out.


Her path to selling success was circuitous. After spending the bulk of her life flipping from a variety of jobs to self-employment, Spallas went to work for a company that created custom T-shirt campaigns for celebrities, who gave the proceeds to charities.

This job allowed Spallas to pick up several tips pivotal to her success with Etsy. These tips can help anyone boost their chance of success with the online sales platform.

Inventory is unnecessary

The first important tip: Online retailers don’t need inventory anymore. You can sell products that have yet to be made through so-called print-on-demand operations, such as Printful and Society6.

These companies will create your product within days of an order and either send it directly to the consumer or send it to you so you can mail it to the customer. That reduces your company’s overhead, making it cheaper and easier to start your business.

Idea theft is rampant

Spallas also learned that if you create a successful design, people will copy it. Actively protecting unique designs is crucial if you want to maintain your sales. Left unfettered, design thieves multiply and become almost impossible to stomp out.

“It was like Whack-a-Mole,” Spallas said of her first experiences with design thieves. “I came up with five original designs and launched when those designs weren’t anywhere else. The designs took off. Pretty soon, people started copying the photograph and everything.”


In those early days, she didn’t know how quickly she needed to address copyright violations. By the time she sent out Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices, copycats were copying the copycats. She couldn’t keep up. So she wrote it off as a costly lesson and created new designs.

Now, she sends out DMCA notices immediately when she spots a copycat. And her vigilance has vastly cut the number of violations. That means you can’t buy her unique designs without buying from her.

Notably, designs don’t need to be sent to the U.S. Copyright Office to get copyright protection. They are automatically copyrighted at the first date of publishing.

A design doesn’t need to be elaborate

For the most part, Spallas’ designs are made up of a picture or graphic coupled with a saying in a custom font. For instance: “Always be the leading lady of your own life” and “A wise woman once said ‘I’m outa here.’ And she lived happily ever after.”

Her process? She uses a mock-up service called to put the words together with appropriate art. She’ll upload the final design to the print-on-demand sites she uses. And the print-on-demand sites transfer her designs onto products of her choosing, such as tote bags, pillows, coffee mugs and sweatshirts. From there, she takes photos of the various products she’s designed and lists them for sale in her Etsy store.

Find a niche

Another tip: Don’t try to be all things to all people. You’ll gain greater success if you find a niche and work it, Spallas said.


Spallas runs the AgapeShoppe on Etsy. She is half Greek. So some of her designs incorporate Greek words, such as Yia Yia, for grandmother. Or religious sayings: “Working for God doesn’t pay much, but the retirement plan is out of this world.” (Agape is a Greek word for love and is used in Christianity to describe the selfless love of God.)

She also consults on Etsy selling through her parent company, Eleni Enterprises. One of her most important bits of advice is to play to your strengths.

“There is a lady who works 60 hours a week as a licensed practical nurse. I said, take that LPN knowledge and put it on a mug,” Spallas said. “People in that industry will get it. They will understand the terms, and it will be unique.”

Use the right keywords

With so many sellers on Etsy, it can be tough to stand out in the crowd. However, with the right keywords and some research on what’s trending, you can draw visitors to your products — and that pulls them into your site, Spallas said.

The right keywords, of course, will depend on what you’re selling and the things that make your site unique. But always use words that accurately describe what you’re selling and what makes it unique. Greek gifts, for example.

Deliver what you promise

Etsy has a series of algorithms that determine whether your store is prominent or practically invisible. A lot of that has to do with how well you keep your promises to customers.


Specifically, the site’s “Star Seller” program boosts the visibility of your store. To win that star seller rating, the site expects you to respond to 95% of consumer messages within 24 hours. It also expects that 95% of your deliveries arrive on time and intact. And your shop’s customer ratings need to average 4.8 stars or higher.

This isn’t always easy to do. When Spallas started her store, she was unprepared for the flood of sales and delivered almost everything late. She had to make up for the error by providing refunds to hundreds of customers.

Before you start a store, figure out how you’re going to process orders, she advised.

With the print-on-demand options she uses now, Spallas said she has automated her sales and delivery process to such a degree that on-time deliveries are no longer a problem. And, unlike when she started and worked around the clock, she now works only about three hours a day.

Kristof is the editor of, an independent website that reviews moneymaking opportunities in the gig economy.