In continuing our series, every week I get tons of questions from my readers regarding blogging, business, and projects. Last month, my good friend John answered your questions about turning your passion into a career. This time, author and seasoned woodworker Chris Gleason is here talking about another one of the most popular questions I get – how to market yourself as a maker.
This post is geared toward woodworkers who are new to the business side of things, but there’s no expiration date on the basic concepts. To be clear, I’m not trying to position myself as the expert on the subject: I’m just somebody who’s been in the trenches for a while (almost 20 years), and I’m speaking honestly from my own experience. You can read my bio on my website to hear more about my woodworking journey.
It’s a sad-but-true fact that shop savvy doesn’t necessarily yield business success. Marketing is important, especially at first. Many, if not most, businesses eventually hit a point where the marketing can be put on cruise control, with lots of work coming in from referrals, word-of-mouth, and repeat customers, but even then, its nice to be able to do the work you want to do and not just the work the shows up. I recommend that you first consider your business model if you haven’t already.
In summary: how do you make your money? Do you have finished products that you make and then sell, online or in person, or are you doing custom work? This is a big “fork in the road” question for many of us, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
When I was starting out, I shared a shop with an incredible woodworker. He specialized in high end jewelry chests made from highly-figured domestic hardwoods. He charged a lot for them, and had a healthy waiting list. But it took him ten years of traveling around the northeast to high-end craft fairs trying to sell his wares, and it was a long, difficult road. He was broke. For years. It worked out in the end, but I wanted to to learn from his journey and didn’t want to be a starving artist like he had been. I decided to focus instead on custom work- it seemed like the path of least resistance, frankly. By taking a “what can I do for YOU?” kind of approach, I figured that I opened up my customer base considerably. When somebody called wanting a coffee table, I said “yes”. An armoire? “Yes.” As my skills grew, I was able to say “yes” to more and more things, including kitchens, built-ins, and more. I didn’t feel like an artist, per se, but I made a decent living doing good, honest work that I loved. Am I recommending this route to everyone? Nope. Different strokes for different folks. And things worked out great for me: I’m now really choosy about what I take on, and who I work with. I guess in hindsight I did a lot of custom work to pay the bills while amassing a portfolio of “passion projects”- that’s the direction I’m really going in now.
And since this post is designed to encourage “big picture” thinking, its worth noting that not all business models are created equal. While I like to make cutting boards, for example, it wouldn’t be worth it to me to get fixated on them for purposes of my own business model: I’d have to sell and awful lot to constitute a full-time income. Pedsonally, I’d rather sell one table for $2,000 instead than 40 cutting boards at $50 each. For me, it is more efficient and more interesting (I’m not picking on cutting boards as a product- they’re awesome and fun, and I’m sure that many people make a living with them- it was just important to think about the math and logistics behind my own particular business model). These are the types of things that can and should be weighed as you’re starting out as well.
The gist of this is that there are a lot of ways to structure your business, and luckily my big marketing tip applies to most of them: I recommend identifying the gatekeepers that can help along the way. Whether you’re creating original works of art or you’re trying to get booked for custom projects, there is probably a group of people or businesses that can ease the process of connecting you with potential clients. Unless you’re doing a ton of mass media advertising, you personally can only contact a small number of people in a given amount of time, and an even smaller number are actually good, qualified sales prospects. So, work with the folks who are already plugged into your future audience.
Who are the gatekeepers for woodworkers focusing on custom work? Interior designers, architects, real estate agents all come to mind. As a quid pro quo, in these instances, you may have to plan on paying referral fees or commissions.
If you’re more focused on selling finished products, you’ll face the same question. Maybe the gatekeepers are bloggers, wholesalers, or store owners in your area. And you’ll have other questions to deal with: will you have an online store? Which one? Will you sell from your own website or from marketplaces like Etsy? How about galleries or stores in your area? What are the pros and cons? Either way, networking with people who can help to review or recommend or display your products to their own audiences may help draw positive attention and traffic- and hopefully sales- to you. Who would those people be in your case?
Until Next Time!
For more project ideas and to pick up a fun book, make sure to visit Chris’ website!