Last year while I did my Friday IG Lives I noticed every time I talked about any challenge working with clients one-on-one, some viewer would chime in and say “That’s why I don’t do custom work!” It usually happened only once or twice per video – but it always happened.
Despite the fact most people watching my Lives would very much like to have guaranteed income (my waitlist is up to 206 subscribers and keeps growing slowly and steadily), they’d like to get to cherry-pick their projects, they’d love to be paid to deepen their skillset in an accelerated way, and they’d be delighted to have plenty of room to raise their prices further (I just raised mine – again!) – they seem to want to hear that custom work is too annoying to bother with.
Well first, full disclosure: I’m a custom phreak.
Custom work is my bread-and-vegan-butter, my inspiration, my greatest joy – and provides a financial foundation that keeps me pretty unbothered about finding customers, about the capriciousness of social media, about my future income, about competitors or would-be-copiers, that kind of thing.
I love custom work!
There are huge benefits to stock production/inventory, mass manufacture, or (as is most likely in those following my writings) small-batch manufacture. So no, I don’t think custom is innately superior to manufacture, and there is a very important place in our culture for ethical manufacture. Ethical mass-manufacture, for instance, provides quality ethical works at a lower price point. Ethical mass-manufacture, for instance, provides people a very soothing product line for customers and fans: pieces, launches and drops are simultaneously delightful and predictable (even if there are new prints or options) – and the human mind loves to see things turned out in series. I think that’s pretty cool, because people LOVE predictability, beauty, and a little variety! It’s exciting and soothing at the same time!
But yeah: “I could never do custom” is a common refrain I hear. The truth is, Yep, you probably couldn’t. Or rather: it might stress you out a lot (or maybe it already has!) unless you learn some new tricks – probably with a mentor to help you through it! (Hi! Yes, I am that guy!)
Just a quick Pros and Cons of both models – in a general sense:
STOCK/SMALL BATCH/MASS MANUFACTURE
You can probably treat more expenses like COGS (project management not needed)
Simpler supply chain/acquisition
The creation process tends to be mentally and emotionally simpler than custom
You may enjoy operating in a focused and narrower range
You can grow a reputation/niche/following relatively quickly
Lots of people can do what you can do; or copy it
Customers are more likely to commoditize you/speak disrespectfully to you
You end up carrying inventory
You may get fatigued of making the same thing over and over
You may be nervous about changing/pivoting, or raising prices
Constant variety; literally never a dull moment
Accelerated skills acquisition (that the client pays for!)
You can command an artisan price point (instead of an order-taker one)
Your clients get one of a kind pieces (which they love!)
You can pivot, switch, quit, or change your plan with zero blowback
Your portfolio is off the fucking chain!
Mentally taxing! For the realsies! Even when you’re an expert at it!
You need a lot of confidence*
You may be overlooked/misunderstood for a little bit
Briefly: I want to talk about that final “con” on Custom – and the final “pro” on Mass Manufacture, because they are inter-related.
One of the funny things about being like, freakishly custom (that’s me!), is that the same Capitalist forces that commoditize Creatives but do a good job niching them, are the same forces that mean people can have a hard time getting their minds around a Custom artisan. So when people look at my work, they are often confused in a way they wouldn’t be if they looked at, say, an Instagram account that was pumping out a series of photographs of cute leggings. This aspect of Capitalist habituation has both pros and cons for BOTH models of business! The same forces that let the leggings-maker niche well and efficiently, are those that foment a demanding, rude, or less-than-loyal customer base! For the custom phreak like yours truly, you quickly grow ardent fans and followers – who may hang back, afraid to approach! Both models can persevere and thrive, but both have a share of hurdles.
Here’s an obvious question:
What about a business model where you roll out both stock and custom?
What a great idea! I will say, it takes time to build a customer base whatever you do. So often I see a Creative roll out a new product or service, then get upset when they don’t get immediate results. All I can say is: it often takes a minute for people to understand and conceptualize you, and it takes a lot of repetition! So whichever route you go – or if you do a li’l of both – stick with it, use an actual strategy, and find a mentor!
These questions of “custom vs. mass manufacture” are a bit immaterial for me personally, as the thought of making the same thing more than once makes me want to lie down and perish. But also: my business model isn’t better because of this, my business model is just a classic case of working to one’s strengths. For me, designing something new every time, and working with individual clients on more elaborate pieces, is something I enjoy immensely! Even the challenges of custom work – the occasional client who tries to take artistic control, a client who is late on their invoice, et cetera – are surmountable. These bumps in the road don’t put a real dent in my enthusiasm (nor my business earnings)!
I admit: my skills at building a custom artisan business are astonishing and I merit major props for how well I’m doing. But I also want to stress just as firmly, that a batch/mass-manufacture business is perfectly viable, as well.
Not to end this piece on a platitude but: your strategies really depend on your personal strengths, and your desire for your future. I am finding more freedom and more financial security in custom work, and I’ve figured out the formula to deal with the many hurdles that bedevil so many. I doubt you’ll see me revert to mass manufacture – ever – but I will always be here to help (through my course and through mentorship) the Creative who wants to go that route!
*ping me in my Discord if you want to join a book study on this!