2 October 2017

Some thoughts on making stuff and selling on the interweb....

The myth of the handmade… 

So you made something... now what? 

First thing to decide is whether you want to sell a few things or whether you want to start a business.

Most likely you do it in your spare time, it's a 'passion' that you want to share with the world & hopefully realise the dream of making a living out of it...or at least some financial reward so that you can continue to do it. 

If you're brutally honest with yourself, you'll do some maths ( You'll add up your materials, your time & all those pesky overheads )  and realise that actually you'd have to produce / sell hundreds of what you make a month to get an actual 'living' wage. 
That right there will hopefully help you make a choice between selling a few things or running an actual business.

BUT! that doesn't stop you...because like we said at the beginning it's a 'passion' - maybe you're not expecting or need to rely on it financially...& if all those other people can do it why can't I?

You look online to see where you can display and sell your handmade goods...you'll end up, after traveling the path of least resistance... at Etsy, Folksy, or NOTHS. ( there are many other platforms )

These sites are incredibly user friendly - you choose your name, upload your product photos, write a description and you're away ( there's slightly more to it than that )
The days roll into weeks, months go by and little to no sales.  

WHY?

Firstly lets agree to be frank....also we're going to have to generalise abit

Handmade isn't always better - we're talking product build/material quality here not necessarily ethics.

Manufacturers have been developing and perfecting the use of machines to create goods for a while now...they know what they are doing and they do it in quantity, with quality checks, with calculated unit costs and known profit margins.  The industrial revolution happened...it's a fact.

Selling As a business

When you make something handmade to sell, you have to ask yourself some hard truths - 

Is the fact that my goods are handmade actually relevant?
Is it really of sufficient quality and is that quality a selling point?
Is there a similar product out there already being mass produced that I have to compete with?

The other thing to consider is market saturation and appropriation

Etsy according to online figures currently has 1.7 million active sellers. There will be someone out there in all likelihood selling very similar products…and if there isn't there soon will be.

I sometimes think of selling on the internet as being similar to situations in early school life.  As a child in school you’d be set a project in class and there would always be one kid who comes up with a cool idea….slowly and not so subtly all the other children ‘appropriate’ that idea….it’s natural human behaviour to go with the most appealing idea. 

One classic example in recent years is Anthony Burrill’s ‘Work hard & be nice to people’ poster. Type the poster title into a search engine or at one of the online market places and you will get hundreds of versions of this by hundreds of sellers (with no credit included)….from what started out as a designed hand printed letterpress poster gets appropriated and turned into a mug printed on demand in a factory half way round the world. It’s not something that sits well with me & I hope people would try to find the source and end up at Anthony Burrill’s site to purchase an original.

Those 1.7 million sellers are also competing to get views - thats where the bottleneck is.

In order to get sales you need people to know about / view your products. If you read any guide to selling online it will tell you to use as many social media outlets as possible & to be consistently active in your self-promotion. Even if you have an amazing product, if you’re not getting any traffic to your shop you wont get sales….and you should never rely solely on the platform you choose to use to direct buyers to your shop.

So as a maker / seller starting a business - you’ve gone from wanting to proudly sell your handmade goods to spending hours on a computer / phone consistently updating and interacting with social media…you’ve gone from competing with people to sell things to now also competing with people to promote things…

I know what you’re thinking - that is part of modern life, that is part of running a business today….it’s just a good idea to properly realise this and plan for this before starting out….social media is now part of your business. 


Photography 

You need to be good at photography or out source it. (There are photographers who specialise in product photography for small online sellers)   Online retail markets wont ever choose your products to promote if the photography is bad, people are less inclined to click on them and you’re not doing the product you lovingly made any justice. There will be considerable costs involved in buying suitable camera equipment and the associated studio equipment….adjustable, consistent lighting being the most important factor. You can do it on a budget but it will involve extra time & possibly extra post production….and or waiting for our U.K sun to be out. Online guides always stress that ‘natural’ lighting is best …. and that you should have variable angles and settings that your products are displayed in.
Photography is now part of your business. (you’re starting to get the idea) 

Accepting that you’ll be competing with people selling goods that are marketed as sort of hand made or inspired by ‘handmade’ (seriously!) is another thing to comes to term with. 
I’ve see ‘hand drawn’ cards that are made with a pen plotting machine. I’ve seen ‘letterpress’ digitally printed cards and posters….and there are now companies that offer print on demand services… you set up your designs and when you make a sale the company prints, packages and posts them for you. There are monthly cases where bigger firms are ‘appropriating’ indie sellers ideas /designs - a lot of times too close for comfort - and copyright infringement laws sometimes seem to bend until social media saves the day through online protests at these ‘appropriations’.

Its tough - but it’s not all doom and gloom! As long as you know what you are getting yourself into ( be careful of the ‘quit your day job’ headline ) & accept the thin layer of bullshit over things… anything is possible…and you have good company.

You see despite all of the above (urgh!) ….there is an amazing community of makers / creators out there that support each other & are continually passionate and inspiring in their particular field. 
All the selling platforms have groups where people with similar issues can help each other out.  The social media that can become a chore can actually be uplifting and motivational….don’t just promote you and yours - share the love & appreciate what other people are doing.

The key is to focus on the positive aspect of the online community and maker / creator spirit - to make what you make because you enjoy it and because you want to do it well.

….and if you just want to sell a few things…just because you like making stuff ( like me )…. well the above is all probably waffle. (it most definitely probably is)

I wrote this because for a while now I’ve been thinking about trying to just produce and sell printed stationery / ephemera etc for a living…to open a fully fledged print shop. I came to the decision that I would have to invest in a Heidelberg Press (in order to cope with production numbers) and rent space which would mean a business loan….the rates in the South of England are barmy for even the most basic of business rental properties…it’s just not viable for me.

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