Business Saturday: 25 Lessons Learned from Filling 2500 Custom Orders

In the past five years, I’ve filled thousands of custom orders, and I’ve learned a ton! It’s a whole different ball game to do custom or personalized work than it is to batch-produce something and ship it once it’s ordered (though that sort of work has a whole other set of challenges and nuances, I’m sure). Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from doing primarily custom work for the past five years:


1. People like options. The one color you don’t offer is the one they’re going to want.

2. But not too many options. So you’ll add a few new colors to your rotation (because if you’re going to add one, you may as well add three, right?), and then people will say they can’t decide which one they want.

3. They will likely defer to your opinion. Customers might ask what you think looks best, and you’ll suggest a few combinations or variations. They’ll likely pick from those options. It happens 9.9 out of 10 times for me.

4. Or choose a color palette or option you show as a sample. Because your customers trust you more than they trust themselves, and they can see what the end result will look like when they see your sample.

5. People will pay extra for custom or personalized items. Sometimes they’ll pay a lot extra. They expect to pay more and they expect to be taken care of for the additional expense. So be accommodating. You know how we hand makers are always saying, “I’m not Target,” when we can’t do things the way people are used to them being done in the regular retail world? Well step on up to your “Not Target” standard and deliver something exceptional. (Not that I don’t like Target because, amen, I do.)

6. Personalized is not the same as custom. Personalized means there is a base product and the color, motif, shape, or other elements can be chosen by the customer. Custom is the sort of thing that takes elements you work with and reconfigures them into a new project that you haven’t really tried before.

7. Personalized is made to order but made to order can be anything. Obviously, if something is personalized, you have to wait for the order to be finalized to know what you are making. The customer sees it, orders it, and tells you how they want it, and then you make it and ship it. But you can have standard made-to-order items as well. In that case, you have a sample, and people order it with an expected lead-time but no customization or change to the product. They see it, they order it, and then you make it and ship it.

custom orders

Image provided by Danielle Spurge

8. You’ll be handling a lot of e-mails. If you’re dealing with personalized or custom orders, you’ll likely be communicating with your buyers more often than if they ordered something ready to ship. So be prepared for that extra bit of time, and account for it in your pricing.

9. You need to have strict deadlines (but also some flexibility). Particularly in the case of Christmas, the period of time between when people start thinking about gift s and shopping for them versus when they need to be shipped in order to reasonably expect them to arrive on time is very short. Your lead times need to be definitive, but you want to try to stay flexible as well, add more work that you normally would prefer not to, because this is a time when you can make a lot of money if you go about it correctly.

10. Proofs are essential for custom orders. If someone wants something totally custom, send them a sketch to make sure you’re on the same page. It will save a lot of time and headache down the line.

11. But not for personalized orders. There’s no need to send a proof of something personalized. It’s a waste of time. Be sure your item descriptions are clear so people understand what they are buying and be up front about the options with images. Trust me.

12. If people want to work with you, it’s because of your style. Which is awesome! You’ve attracted people with the way you design, work, and present your product, and they got a good vibe from your style. They get a sense that you might be the person who can make a specific vision come to life.

13. So don’t ditch your style just because it’s custom. I repeat: do not change your style just because it’s a custom piece. No one will be happy with that.

14. You determine how much personalization is allowed, not them. This is your business. If you don’t do what they’re asking for, let them know. It’s okay to stand up for yourself if someone is milking you for all you’re worth.

custom orders

Image provided by Danielle Spurge

15. Seriously, you’re the boss. You need to be clear about what you do, how you do it, and what it costs. No one is going to advocate for you. You have to be realistic and please, please, don’t undercharge or sell yourself short.

16. You do know best what will work and what won’t. So don’t be shy in letting them know. If someone is asking for something that you can’t do, or don’t think will logistically work, let them know. They will appreciate that. You’re the designer. If they could DIY this (or wanted to), they would. They’ve involved you in this because of your expertise, whether you want to believe or recognize that or not (but you should).

17. You can turn down custom work. It’s okay to say no. Don’t feel bad about it. You can’t do everything, and you can’t help everyone. That’s why we have a lot of people in the world who do similar things with different flair.

18. You can refer work to other people. This is a really nice way to build some karma stock and release yourself from work you aren’t interested in. If you know someone else who you think would be a better fit for a proposed project that you aren’t all that interested in, by all means, refer and defer.

19. If you’re going to do shows, you need some on hand stuff. Custom is wonderful, and it’s really a moneymaker, but if you want to do shows or fairs, you’ll need to have some things on hand to sell. So leave time in your schedule to make these sorts of products if you’d like to apply or present at shows.

20. But custom items can generate new ideas. I love custom projects because they always tap into a little part of my creativity that I haven’t tapped before, and I get new ideas for other projects. Custom work is great for expanding your horizons and knowing what you’re capable of.

custom orders

Image provided by Danielle Spurge

21. So take on a few custom projects you aren’t quite sure about. Be realistic but also be daring.

22. But don’t agree to do things you really have no experience with. Yeah, that’s not a good idea.

23. Weddings are moneymakers, but they’re also a really big deal. You don’t want to be the person provoking the bride two weeks before a wedding, so get a firm outline for your lead time and stick with your policies. Get all the details in writing, up front, as soon as possible. Trust me.

24. And send that wedding order priority. Nothing is worse than waiting on a wedding order to arrive—on either end! Ship it with a little extra time, care, and insurance.

25. Just know you’re never going to be ahead. Custom work is rewarding and fun, but you’re always behind. There is no getting ahead of it, unless you’re a mind reader. You just have to wait for someone to order before you can work on it, so there’s no way to preschedule it. This is neither good nor bad. It’s just something to be aware of.

—Danielle Spurge

Danielle is a crafter and craft business consultant to handmade shop owners who want to up-level and leverage their work, and build better brands and businesses. On her blog, The Merriweather Council Blog, Danielle writes to inspire and support makers in business and share insights from her five years of experience selling handmade work online. Danielle believes that a creative life is a happy life and works to empower creatives to share their work with confidence.

Note: This article is an excerpt from Crafter’s Market 2016.

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