Dave Bolotsky, founder and CEO, UncommonGoods

His e-commerce marketplace for arts and crafts is a company with a conscience

Said Bolotsky: "Making money is a byproduct of taking care of our team" (Photo courtesy of UncommonGoods)

Whether you’re looking for taco-themed baby booties, whiskey-chilling stones, or an avocado-tree starter kit, Brooklyn-based UncommonGoods has got you covered. The e-commerce company, headquartered in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, has a self-stated mission “to connect makers and their creations with individuals looking for truly special goods.” 

UncommonGoods has grown substantially since its start in 1999, with its payroll swelling to nearly 1,000 full- and part-time workers at its seasonal peak during the holidays. But UncommonGoods is notable in another way, which is founder Dave Bolotsky’s devotion to sustainability, concerning not just the environment, but also the careers and well-being of his employees. “Making money is a byproduct of taking care of our team, taking care of our customer and working fairly with our vendor,” he told us in our podcast.

Bolotsky grew up with retail in his lineage, on New York City’s Lower East Side. His grandfather owned a candy shop, and the younger Bolotsky’s desire to start a business took hold at an early age. “I thought about doing my own thing since I was kid, and I never stopped thinking about doing my own thing,” he recalled.

In 1999, as a managing director in retail-industry analysis at Goldman Sachs, he got an idea. Just as the internet was starting to take off as a marketplace, he happened to attend a Smithsonian Craft Show. What if he were to merge the two concepts, he thought, creating an online store for artisans? It proved to be an idea he couldn’t shake, so he quit his job at Goldman Sachs, not a move most people in that position would take lightly.  “I was very confident,” he said, “that the internet was going to take a huge share of the market.”

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Even so, making the leap was difficult. “The hardest thing for me was fear of failure,” he said. “I was doing very well on Wall Street and for me, less important than the money was the feeling of success, of winning, of being good at what I did. And the idea of walking away from that and starting something from scratch that I could completely fail at and take other people down with me was the scariest thing.”

Bolotsky did bring retail savvy to the task. “My background was understanding the customer, and how people choose to shop.” Yet online shopping was a phenomenon that was barely on its feet. UncommonGoods launched its online site in 2000 as one of the first e-commerce hubs to feature small-production gifts and handmade items. 

What he couldn’t have counted on was the dotcom crash that occurred less than a year after the company’s founding, dragging the economy down with it. “We barely survived,” said Bolotsky. “We went from 35 people down to five. It was brutal.” He took no salary for six years and attributes the company’s survival to “determination and a low break-even [point].”

Now that the company’s finances are healthy, Bolotsky aims to extend that sense of well-being to his workers and the community. “As far as the values that I believe and I live by, I like the idea that I don’t have to put them on the shelf at work–and I can actually live them. It has been liberating.”