The first half of 2016 saw two major disruptions in Etsy’s payment processing system, Direct Checkout. One came just before Valentine’s Day and another at the beginning of July. Orders were delayed, customers asked for refunds that couldn’t be processed, and uncertainty filled the forums where Etsy sellers tried to figure out what was happening to their shops. These outages hold important lessons for anyone running an online store. Chiefly, they underscore the importance of backups, communication, and planning.

Etsy’s Direct Checkout payment processing system went down for the first time early on the morning of February 6th. WorldPay, the vendor that Direct Checkout uses to process credit cards, had a service interruption that made it impossible to process transactions.

To complicate matters further, Etsy had just changed their policies regarding PayPal accounts: new sellers and existing sellers already using Direct Checkout and wanting to accept PayPal payments could longer use their own PayPal accounts. Instead, they had to use Etsy’s PayPal account through Direct Checkout.

Etsy’s failure to communicate this change clearly stoked fears among sellers that they would click on a link in one of Etsy’s vaguely-worded emails and accidentally switch to Direct Checkout.

Sellers who chose to bypass this confusion and turn off PayPal altogether were now left with no alternative to WorldPay. Without a backup payment gateway, Etsy, their sellers, and their customers could only wait for WorldPay to get things back online.

The February outage was fixed in time to save sellers from missing out on too much of the Valentine’s Day holiday rush, but in July another outage hit that was much more severe.

On the afternoon of July 1st WorldPay again began experiencing problems. This time the outage stretched on for five days, with only vague assurances from Etsy that they were working to fix the issue and nothing but silence from WorldPay. Sellers were essentially on their own when it came to explaining to angry customers why their payments and orders weren’t going through.

The effects of the outage were still being felt weeks later. Cycles of refunds, re-charges, and re-re-funds rippled through buyers’ and sellers’ bank accounts as WorldPay’s system tried to catch up with millions of backlogged transactions.

So what lessons can we take from Etsy’s ongoing problems processing payments? The first one seems obvious:

Lesson 1: Always Have a Backup

WorldPay is only the credit card payment processing gateway that Etsy uses (aside from of PayPal’s Guest Checkout option, which can only be used a limited number of times before the require you to sign up for a PayPal account). So when WorldPay went down, they were stuck waiting right there along with their sellers and their sellers’ customers. When you have a mission-critical system (and for Etsy accepting payments is pretty darn mission-critical), you must always have a backup.

For a big business like Etsy the right move is to have contracts with multiple processors, and put systems in place to switch from one to another seamlessly in case of trouble. Implementing something like this for a small online store would be expensive overkill, but there are two things you can do to make sure you can respond to a problem quickly:

  1. Always make regular backups of your entire website, and store them somewhere else besides on your web server. The WordPress Plugin BackWPUp lets you back up your whole site every night to cloud storage systems like Dropbox, so if you wake up one morning and your web host’s datacenter has been swallowed by a giant sinkhole, you can get set up on a new host and back online right away.
  2. Offer Multiple Payment Methods. If you’re using Woocommerce, set up Simplify Commerce and PayPal. Or PayPal and Stripe. Or whatever your preferred combo is. None of these options charge you anything unless you use them, and customers often like the choice.

Ironically Etsy does have multiple payment methods (WorldPay-powered credit cards and PayPal), but the fear, uncertainty, and doubt they created among their sellers through their poor communication led sellers to choose either WorldPay or PayPal, and once the outage started it was too late for sellers to do anything.

Lesson 2: Communicate with Your Customers and Your Partners

A big part of the stress that Etsy Sellers felt during the outages was due to the fact that they had very little idea as to what was going on. Etsy could only relay what WorldPay was telling them, and WorldPay wasn’t saying much. This put Sellers on the hook for explaining the outage to their customers, which was a terrible position to be in.

Etsy probably felt that they were doing the right thing by posting updates on Twitter and in multiple locations in their forums. But because there were so many places where information was being posted by different sources within Etsy, people felt more confused, and worried that they were missing important updates being posted somewhere else.

The take-away here is that it’s not enough to simply communicate with your customers. Your communications need to be transparent and consistent, and they need to be honest about what is happening and whether you know when it will be fixed. You also need to give your customers an easy-to-access, central location to get the latest updates, and supplement that with emails.

Lesson 3: Have a Plan

I don’t know if Etsy had a plan in place for when the excrement hit the air circulation device, but you definitely should. What’s your game plan if your web server goes down? Or your payment gateway crashes?

Two things you should have ready are a checklist of the steps you would need to take to fix the problem, and pre-written emails to your customers.

A checklist will help you feel more calm and organized by giving you a job to do, one that will hopefully get things back on track quickly. And if you have pre-written email templates all you have to do is fill in the blanks and send them out quickly without having to start from scratch and try to maintain a calm, even tone in the middle of a crisis.

Final Lesson: Put Yourself in Control of Your Online Store

In the end, this story illustrates the trade-offs people make when they decide where to host their online store.

If you sell on Etsy, they’ve done a lot of work for you. The design, infrastructure, customer base, payment processing—that’s all already there when you open your store. You just concentrate on making your products and marketing.

But the downside is that you give up a lot of control. You don’t have any say in what Etsy decides to change about their payment policies, how they set up their internal systems, or whether they decide you aren’t following their guidelines and shut down your store. Ultimately it’s Etsy’s place, they’re just letting you use it for a while.

On the other hand, if you run your own online store using an open platform like WordPress + Woocommerce, you have a lot more responsibility. It’s up to you to pick a theme, design the look and feel of your site, and to select a payment gateway and a shipping service.

The benefit of the responsibility, and control, that you get to set up your store the way you want to set it up. You get to decide whether you’re going to make a change in how you accept payments, or what types of products you sell, or how you market your business.

With WordPress + Woocommerce you are building a store that you own, that you control, and that will grow along with your business. You’re owning, not renting, and you’re getting yourself and your business set up for a successful future.