Having a home woodcraft business for more than 18 years, my husband and I have been noticing a trend lately: There are a lot of new craftspeople out there doing craft shows for the first time.
Additionally, because we’re primarily wholesale and have been so for nearly as long as we’ve been in business, we’re suddenly getting an increased number of people inquiring about carrying our products with the intention of hitting the road and selling them.
The answer, sadly, is easy. People need money.
“Mary,” as an example, is a woman who recently started vending her crafts at a recent show we attended. Because our booths were next to each other, our conversation eventually settled on her recent introduction to the local craft fair circuit. She makes a series of clever cloth dolls, custom-dressed in a variety of different outfits, designed to delight the heart of any little girl.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, admiring a ballerina. “What made you start selling them now?”
Mary was silent for a moment. “My husband lost his job,” she finally admitted. “I’m working full-time in hospital administration, but with our income more than cut in half, we need to make some extra money.”
Mary’s story is all too common.
So is “John’s” story. My husband met John at a recent weekend Renaissance festival when John asked about carrying our products at future shows. Although we were delighted to entertain the idea of adding John to our list of wholesalers, my husband asked him why he decided to start vending.
John was a big hearty man of few words. “Laid off,” he said. “Ran out of unemployment. Need work.”
John was looking for a way to replace his income. We didn’t have the heart to tell him it would take quite a while – a few years, at least – of hard work to approach the income he was making before.
Harsh Reality in a Hard Economy
The hard reality is that a lot of people are getting desperate for income. Unemployment is reaching crisis levels, and it’s natural for people to look all across the board when it comes to ways of making money – including selling arts and crafts.
I applaud the efforts of craftspeople turning their hobby into a business. However, a few words of advice are in order so that their endeavors will be as successful as possible.
The best way for a craft business to succeed is to find a niche and fill it with something people want. Yes, you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating. Competing with hundreds or thousands of people making similar or identical products is asking to fail. Try to make your product unique in some way.
“Unique” can mean a number of different things. Perhaps your product truly is different than anyone else’s. Or perhaps your product is similar, but of a much higher quality. Or a much better price. Or a unique fabric/color/construction. As long as you stand out in some way, you have an advantage.
The more common your craft, the thinner the market. Country crafts and jewelry, for instance, are popular items, but there are many people already making them – and many more will be trying, due to the
economy. Your product must be unique enough, cheap enough, or high-quality enough to compete.
On the other hand, there are lots and lots of people who enjoy country crafts and jewelry, so your market is broader to begin with. This gives you an advantage. Target your market according to how pricey your craft is. If you make one-of-a-kind elegant jewelry pieces that sell for hundreds of dollars, you are unlikely to do well at small craft fairs. If your jewelry is produced quickly and sells in the $5 to $50 range, you’ll do much better.
If you sell at events, make sure you match your product to the type of show. Booth fees and travel can be expensive, so there’s no sense wasting your time and money on a show that isn’t a match with your product.
How well would lace doilies sell at a motorcycle rally?
How well would leather bondage items sell at a family event? How well would meat kabobs sell at a vegan hippie festival? This type of marketing – matching your product to the potential customer – also applies to any sort of advertising or promotion. It staggers me how many people mismatch their marketing attempts.
So, look at how well your product fits the target market. Don’t attempt to sell cute country crafts to a sophisticated, Architectural Digest-reading audience. Don’t try to sell heavy metal stuff at a wine tasting. Don’t try to sell sleek modernistic products to farmers or ranchers. It’s not a match.
Remember the Fanaticism Rule
Remember this: People are fanatics about their hobbies and are willing to spend money on them. That’s why you’re making the craft item you’re passionate about, because you’re a fanatic, right? This is a good thing.
Sometimes, being able to change a small feature about your product can turn mediocre sales into great sales. For instance, if you were to laser-engrave or silkscreen a generic motorcycle onto the side of your hand-crafted mailboxes or lavender-velvet frammerjammits, you will probably sell them like gangbusters at a motorcycle rally.
By making a product that can be modified to fit an appropriate market, you gain an enormous amount of flexibility. You also gain the ability to cross-market (or cross-target) your product.
There are literally thousands of groups of fanatics out there who like to spend their money on their passion. If you can modify your product to cater to peoples’ hobbies, your business will increase.
If you take your selection of hand-crafted candles to a candle show, for instance, then you’re surrounded by nothing but other candle makers. However, if you take your specialty Elvis/tractor/airplane/cat/speedboat/whatever candles to events that cater to people who love Elvis, tractors, airplanes, cats, speedboats, or whatever, people will buy them.
Hate Elvis or tractors or airplanes or cats or speedboats? It doesn’t matter. Remember, if you can’t tap into your own passions, tap into someone else’s. That’s how to succeed in a home craft business, by tapping into what people like to spend money on.
Time and Money
One mistake new craftspeople sometimes make is assuming their business will be an instant success.
The fact is it takes time to get a craft business up and running. If you’re depending on your fledgling business to pay all your bills, cover the mortgage, keep your kid in college, and pay for all the goodies people like to buy in a sound economy, well, you’re in for a cruel surprise.
The best option (if you’re not already doing this) is to scale back your household expenses and live as frugally as possible while you get your business started. Be patient and study sound management tactics, and your chances of success will be increased. But, those sound management tactics should not include spending money on frivolous things.
When it comes to spending money on business expenses, make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. Utilize whatever free advertising options are available (blogs, free websites, Twitter, etc.), or consider trading advertising space in exchange for either product samples or other commodities (perhaps you could write an article!).
Consider what business-related expenses you can do without. Do you really need to rent an outside shop or studio, or can you make do with your garage, basement, or spare bedroom? Do you really need an industrial machine just now, or can you make do with the craftsman’s version? Although it might be fun to outfit your shop with Geppetto-like perfection, the fact is it’s probably not necessary in order to start producing your craft in industrial quantities.
Skip the Custom Work
Obviously, every craft is different, but in order to make and sell your products as quickly and efficiently as possible, you’re going to have to develop some sort of assembly- line technique to maximize your efficiency. For many craftspeople, this streamlining comes naturally as their craft evolves.
But things can come to a screeching halt the moment someone asks you to make them a custom piece. Someone will want to purchase your product if you can make it in oak instead of walnut, stain it mahogany instead of cherry, or use blue fabric instead of green. Oh, and he doesn’t want to pay more than $5 for the changes.
With the exception of crafts that must be made one at a time anyway, custom orders almost always require special materials, special skills, special knowledge, and even special tools. Customers often have the touchingly naïve belief that just because you work in a particular medium (say, glass), then it’s just as easy to make a truck windshield as it is to make a glass vase. And, to make it worse, the finished piece is never quiiiiite what the customer envisions, and often he decides he doesn’t want it after all.
Remember, your craft business is presumably in a stage where you’re trying to strongly supplement or even replace your income from a standard job. Taking on custom orders that go against the grain of your craft is asking for trouble.
But if you do choose to take on a custom order, be sure to think carefully through the process of making the piece, and charge the customer accordingly. Chances are high the customer will change his mind when you quote the price to him anyway. But, if he does place the order, at least you’ll be making money.
As a side recommendation, always ask for payment up front for custom orders. That should separate the buyers from the dreamers.
Sometimes, a home craft business is nothing but custom orders, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you make quilts or gun stocks or kitchen cabinets or anything else that’s specialized, then your production techniques are already geared toward custom work.
Also, if you are able to charge the customer a price that covers not only your time, materials cost, and possible aggravation factor, then custom work can be a profitable aspect of a home business.
In the end, the chances of success with a fledgling craft business improve dramatically if you approach the enterprise with business acumen and common sense. Keep a lid on the lofty and rose-colored dreams until you can demonstrate your business can be profitable.