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Matthew Stinchcomb on Going Public with Etsy.com and the Future of Business

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
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Founded 11 years ago, Etsy, the online craft marketplace, is now a household name. But just prior to its launch, Matthew Stinchcomb, Etsy’s soon-to-be vice president of values and impact, was successfully engaged with his rock band, the French Kicks.


Stinchcomb was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, at the time. The band had just broken up. His roommate Robert Kalin had decided to found Etsy as an artisanal answer to eBay, where artists could sell their wares. Kalin was also new to the world of online businesses, getting his start when he offered to make a website for a restaurant that his landlord owned, in order to make rent. He didn’t mention to his landlord that he’d never made a website before.


When Etsy was still in its infancy, Kalin asked Stinchcomb to essentially be the company’s marketing department.


“And I said, ‘I don’t know anything about marketing,’ ” Stinchcomb recalls recently in an interview in Crown Heights, not far from where Etsy was started. “And Rob said, ‘Perfect.’ ”


There was nothing immediate in Stinchcomb’s background to suggest that he’d be suited to the job. Originally a ninth-generation native of the Washington, D.C. area (his eighth-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Stinchcomb came to Maryland in 1660) Stinchcomb attended the Potomac School before graduating in 1997 from Oberlin College. (He has one brother, Josh Stinchcomb, who has also triumphed in the digital marketplace. He oversees all branded content at Condé Nast.)


After school, Stinchcomb was living out the great American dream of being young and in a rock band. Once described by the New York Times as, “Meticulously rumpled, compulsively flirtatious with man, woman and beast alike, he sings lead on the classic rock and soul numbers and plays rhythm guitar with sloppy panache.” His natural charisma seems to have served him well in his new role, and while the other founders eventually left Etsy.com, Stinchcomb stuck it out, helping turn the company into the world’s only publicly traded benefit corporation (b-corp) and guiding its philanthropic endeavors, holding the title of Etsy’s Vice President of Values and Impact.


In early 2015, while still at Etsy.com, Stinchcomb founded the independent nonprofit Etsy.org. He left Etsy.com six months later to run Etsy.org, which he renamed the Good Work Institute in August 2016 to avoid confusion with Etsy.com. “It sounds a little bit Bible-y, but that’s not how I mean it,” Stinchcomb says. The Good Work Institute is a kind of quasi business school that works with companies throughout New York State on developing socially responsible goals, and holds them accountable for following through. A lot of major companies take a cynical view of their social impact, with the mentality being “we’ll do good, so long as we can keep making money.” Stinchcomb’s main charitable contribution has been to call their bluff.


“In general,” he said, “my belief is that the business world is stuck in that space of ‘doing well by doing good.’ You can still make a ton of money and you can do it in a way that’s good. But if you have less packaging on a bottle of water, is that really good? I don’t think business people are really asking the question ‘Does the world need what I’m making?’ ‘Is the world better than it would be if I weren’t here?’ These are the questions I think we need to be asking ourselves.”


Beginning in 2011, Stinchcomb started thinking about how businesses could work differently. At the time, he was overseeing Etsy’s values and impact department, which he described as an internal consulting firm. He decided to write a new, and very long, company mission statement, which he can still recite from memory. (Stinchcomb, after doing so, described it as “really wonky.”) He eventually shortened the mission to: “reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world.”


Most corporations have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) department. Stinchcomb thought of them as an empty marketing tool. (“BP became ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ but they’re still awful,” he said.)


Stinchcomb wanted to rehink business as an important component of local economies, rather than a place that simply sells stuff. With this in mind, Etsy has recently committed to transitioning to using 100 percent renewable electricity by 2020 at its Brooklyn headquarters. The company has also announced a six-month paternity leave policy. Since the very beginning, Etsy has prided itself on transparency, making earnings reports readily available to the public.


Now, Stinchcomb is able to continue to instill those values into the community as the executive director of the Good Work Institute. When initially founded as Etsy.org, the company received start-up capital in the form of company stock, but it remained independent from Etsy.


The goal of the Good Work Institute is to take some of the progress that had been made at Etsy and transplant it to businesses across the greater New York region. He sees the business world as existing on a scale going from “degenerative” (“the pharmaceutical guy who jacks up prices”) to “compliance” (“How do I get my company in compliance with government standards, but not at the expense of profits?”) to “less bad” (“we’re not going to change what we do but we’re going to do it in the least bad way we can”) to “sustainable” (“neither bad nor good”) to “regenerative.” Most companies are “less bad,” Stinchcomb said. His mission is to push business further toward the positive end of the spectrum.


The Good Work Institute runs a six-month fellowship program in two regions along the Hudson River, with an expansion to a third region planned for next year. Each firm proposes a goal, and makes a commitment to achieving that goal in the six-month timeframe. “We are reimagining traditional business education by prioritizing compassion, wisdom and ethical integrity, over growth, competitiveness or profit maximization,” says Stinchcomb. “We aim to develop the whole person behind each enterprise, and help them make decisions that honor all the people and places they impact.” Ultimately, the Good Work Institute seeks to make all of its educational resources and techniques freely available online so that similar initiatives can be proposed and implemented around the world.


As one example, Stinchcomb cited a participant called Ovenly, a Brooklyn bakery that also has a second location in Manhattan. The business made a commitment to hiring formerly incarcerated people, and developing job training programs for them. The company’s founder wants to connect with other local businesses to commit to hiring ex-convicts and help develop the training programs, both as a way of cutting costs and as a corrective to business practices that largely shy away from employing from this particular demographic.


“That to me is the right kind of thinking,” Stinchcomb said. “Changing not just how you do business, but also changing the potential for the whole community to do business in a different way.”


photographs by Ben Fink Shapiro
groomed by Michael Moreno




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