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How A College Etsy Business Turned This Student Into A Serial Entrepreneur


When people drop out of college it’s often due to financial issues or personal reasons. When Olivia Crabtree, 21, quit her degree course it was because the little Etsy business she set up to boost her meager student finances led her to launch The Small Business Handbook which earned a six-figure sum within a year and put her on course for a new career as an entrepreneur.

In 2019 Crabtree began studying for a degree in environment, ecology and economics at the University of York. Like most full-time students, she was always short of cash, so with just enough money to make a single product, she set up an Etsy business selling handmade gifts, such as candles and silk flowers. Her goal was to earn enough money to pay for her weekly food shop, but within three months she had earned £16,400 ($22,000).

She says: “I’d never had any business training and was doing this purely for the extra income, but once I got into the rhythm of running the business and saw that sales were growing I wanted to learn more.”

Crabtree spent her evenings experimenting with SEO, which eventually became her main source of traffic, reading books and watching videos about marketing and branding. Sales were going so well that six months into her degree course she decided to quit university to run her Etsy store full time. However, it wasn’t long before she realized that her motivations for starting her business were purely financial and that she had no real passion for it. What she did have a passion for was helping other people.

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She says: “I’d been sharing advice and tips with other Etsy sellers, and the feedback was that my help had increased their sales. Someone suggested I produced an Etsy eBook, so I did. I wrote The Small Business Handbook in three days, launched it, and earned more in the first 24 hours than I ever had from any other job I’ve done.”

Crabtree’s marketing strategy initially focused on Instagram and TikTok, the best platforms for virality, uploading educational and relatable video content, which saw its first spike after 51 videos. She also took advantage of selling via Instagram Stories. “Many businesses don’t bother promoting on their stories as their reach is significantly lower, but they forget that those few viewers are their most engaged followers, and therefore convert far easier,” she says.

With her new business growing rapidly she decided to close her Etsy store and focus on expanding her new venture, producing a range of planners and journals, covering all aspects of business planning, from SEO to branding concepts.

Today Crabtree has a team of eight, including four packaging assistants, a virtual assistant and a Pinterest manager, while her business has turned over £234,000 ($307,000) in its first year to March 2022. Several new businesses, aimed specifically at helping coaches, service providers, and influencers, are in the pipeline, along with plans to launch a non-profit organization to help underprivileged people make money online.

Next year will see her pursue ambitious plans to open a department store, stocking products from independents and creatives only. She says: “My goal is to become the Selfridges of small businesses, with stores nationwide.”

Crabtree has enjoyed huge support from her family and credits Steve Jobs with being her biggest inspiration. She says: “I can relate to his story, and seeing how successful he became gives me a lot of hope. He was also the reason I stopped regretting things I’d done. I remember listening to his speech where he talks about ‘connecting the dots’, and that’s when I then realized that if I hadn’t dropped out of university or closed my first business I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The advice she offers to other young entrepreneurs is in a similar vein; ‘live the life you want; not the one someone is trying to create for you’. “I often think how different my life would be if I’d listened to the people who told me not to drop out of university,” she says. “Remember that while you’re burning with passion, the people giving you advice aren’t, and are therefore not qualified to make decisions for you? Get out of your comfort zone, find trust in yourself, and refuse to accept failure; it’s not an option.”

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