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C&T Q&A – Can I Have a Successful Online Handmade Business if I Make Mostly OOAK Items?

successful online handmade business

Today’s question is from Annaliese, who asked on the C&T Facebook page:

I’m struggling with how to manage multiple ways of selling (eg. own site, etsy, madeit, markets, consignments etc) when about 95% of my work is OOAK and can’t be listed in multiple places at once. How do you make sustainable business when the product is OOAK?!

I hate to say it, but my initial reaction to this question is: you can’t.

Let me explain why.

When you sell your handmade goods to stores or at markets, it doesn’t matter if all your goods are OOAK (one-of-a-kind). You send them to the shop, or you lay them out on the table, and people love them and buy them, or not.

Selling online, however, is a totally different ballgame.

Making the item is only a small part of the work that goes into listing a handmade item online. Whenever you decide to list an item in your online shop, you need to:

  • Photograph it
  • Edit the photos
  • Write a title
  • Write a description
  • Come up with tags
  • Upload the whole lot to your shop
  • + more!

This takes time. LOTS of time.

To run a successful online handmade business, you really need to be selling multiple items every single day. Depending on the price-point of your items, anywhere from 5-20 items a day.

Imagine if you had to go through the above process for every single item you add to your shop?

Major time suck.

Therefore, once you get busy, doing this is really not sustainable in the long-term.

However, I’m not saying not to make OOAK items – far from it!

What I AM saying, is that if you want to have a successful online handmade business, you really need to produce a range of reproducible designs that you can list once, and then sell over and over again without having to do any additional work.

This should be the core of your range – your ‘bread and butter’ items.

They should form a substantial proportion of your product line. You still have the freedom to make and list OOAK items, but you’re not spending a huge amount of time listing new things all the time.

This also eliminates the problem Annaliese is suffering from – not being able to list her items across different venues. You can list your reproducible designs in as many venues as you like, as they are pre-made or made-to-order, and it doesn’t matter how many times you sell them. Then, just list your OOAK designs in your main online venue – whether that be your own site or your Etsy shop.

{If you’d like to learn more about this, or just how to craft a successful handmade shop, make sure you check out Set Up Shop – our 30-day online course to take your shop from go to WHOA}

I’d love to hear from you – how do you balance reproducible designs and OOAK items in your online shop?

Jess

Van Den has written 350 posts in this blog.

Jess Van Den is the editor of Create & Thrive, and has been a full-time creative entrepreneur since 2010. She makes eco-conscious, contemporary, handmade sterling silver jewellery under the Epheriell label, and blogs about her jewellery and other beautiful things at Epheriell.com. You can catch her on twitter @JessVanDen.

Comments

Annaliese
Reply

Awesome! Thanks Jess for answering my question 🙂
I am now in the process of designing a range of reproducible pieces of jewellery and sourcing supplies that are easily obtained on a repeatable basis (unlike a lot of my vintage supplies for my OOAK work). I’ll let you know how it goes!

Jess
Reply

Hey Annaliese, you’re so welcome! Sounds like you’re on the right track, good luck 🙂

petrafanella
Reply

Wow, this is so relevant to me, Its something I struggle with and really need to look at in my own business. Thanks for addressing this,

Jess
Reply

So glad you found it helpful! x

Ruth
Reply

Totally feel the other commenters and enjoyed this post, Jess! I would love to hear a podcast on this: transitioning from OOAK items to reproducible products. For me, the design process has been really different. I think this may be especially challenging for those of us encumbered with a fine arts background because we were taught that every piece of art is a unique and beautiful snowflake like we are 🙂

As a knitter/crocheter/weaver I’m trying to shift into the mindset of reproducible items myself *before* I start my Etsy shop and launch my brand. I’m really focusing on incorporating fiber techniques into smaller, faster-to-make items. Instead of a handknit scarf, how about handknit cords for statement pendants? Or instead of an intarsia sweater, what about a chunky wool trivet or coasters using that kind of colorwork technique.

Anyway, really glad I found you before I put the million hours into handknitting OOAK items that wouldn’t sell online! Btw, thanks for responding to my email a while back 🙂

Kylie Wiffen
Reply

I am at the point where I need to make some changes to my business structure from primarily OOAK to a better balance of both. I have been able to sustain in my current structure for 3/12 years, but am at the point where I need to take the next step and find a way to produce and stock more ready made products. It’s difficult though as I only have two hands at last count, I find it hard to let go and I guess you could say I am not sure how to expand (or where to start). Any suggestions would be gratefully received! I’m a new reader and am so excited to have found you 🙂

Jess
Reply

Hi Kylie! Sounds like you’re hitting that ‘level of success’ I talked about – when your business starts to grow beyond what you can currently manage. I definitely thing taking out a day or so to brainstorm new reproducible product ideas will benefit you immensely – and putting together a range or a ‘collection’ of these products will be a great way to launch them to the world. Good luck!

Michelle Fields
Reply

So sad. While I had thought to price my work high enough to compensate for the fact that each piece is OOAK, this makes it sound as though I’m doomed to failure. Admittedly, not everything I hope to do (eventually) is necessarily OOAK, but I had hoped to make OOAK works of art the meat and potatoes of my business. Oh well, I guess it’s better that I re-think this early on than further down the road. Thanks for the reality check.

Jess
Reply

Michelle – if you have a high-end product (in the multiple hundreds) I think it IS possible to do mostly OOAK work. It’s simply a matter of balancing time and income. If it’s taking you so long to make and upload a product to your online shop that you can’t make enough product to turn a decent profit, that’s where it doesn’t become viable. For most craftspeople, their items sell for under $100 (or under $50) so the time/money equation just doesn’t add up in the long run.

Michelle Fields
Reply

I guess it won’t hurt to test the market while I’m re-thinking. 🙂 I plan on listing things, and seeing how well they sell at various price points. On the bright side, I read some great advice about pricing, so I don’t plan on letting my stuff go too cheaply – that is, for a rate that makes me less than a living wage. In all honesty, I’m hopeful I can buck the trend, and still have reasonable prices, because some of my smallest items only require a few minutes’ work to make. Most of the work comes, as you say, in the form of writing descriptions, taking photos, etc. The good thing is, no one else is making anything like what I’m making (‘m sure there’ll be copycats eventually, but…), so hopefully that will also help justify my pricing.

Allison Dey
Reply

Thanks for writing this. When you write, it sounds like someone who has been there is sitting at the table with me talking about my own business desires and realities, sharing real life experience and wisdom. I LOVE making my dolls and I won’t stop making them, but I have moved to creating and selling DIY doll sewing patterns and have also started teaching sweaterdoll making classes locally. There is so much more depth (and financial bread&butter) in my business now. The link below is still one of my favorite Create & Thrive posts because it is SO basic and if you honestly answer the questions, you can get such a great gauge of whether or not your current direction involves too many challenges or whether a sideways look at your business will solve those challenges and help you business move forward. http://www.createandthrive.com/10-things-you-must-do-to-have-a-successful-online-craft-business

Jess
Reply

Thank you, Allison! I love that you have expanded your business to include other income streams – and it sounds like it’s working really well for you – awesome 🙂

Tisha Nagel
Reply

This is something I struggle with and my Etsy shop. My products are made with fabric and I strive for a random layout and no two looking exactly the same. To combat that I try to do things in batches with photos and listings. I use a standard description and modify it to the fabric line I’ve been using. Once I’ve altered one it’s not too hard to copy for new listings.

In 2014 I hope to look at designing more patterns to sell and become a steady stream of income.

Jess
Reply

Batches definitely help – as does having a standard ‘proforma’ description + title etc. Good luck getting your patterns done and selling!

Sayra Adams
Reply

I completely disagree! This post seems a tad negative, which is odd since most of your posts are very upbeat and inspiring. This post does not apply to my Etsy shop one bit. Why? Because my business is *thriving* My price points are $16-$35 which really is my secret to success. People can justify buying items that are under $40! For example, I just did an update, sold 18 items and made $800. I would do one every week, if I had to. (Backstory: we downsized our house several years ago and paid everything off, including out wee shack, cars etc). It’s very freeing when you rid yourself of those money-sucking things.

My overall success is based in making an excellent product. Then repeating it. Taking amazing photos…and it trickles down into getting those mentions online and elsewhere. Be the expert! Get into those Facebook groups, and talk about your success! I had my work recently published in a book, and people are blogging about me! I wasn’t always into making indie fiber supplies-I made ladies hats for 20 years. Then had a baby. Making very intricate, time consuming accessories were complicated. What was harder was selling a niche item to a crowd that didn’t recognize hats the way they did in the 90’s! I took my love of wool, and into a new direction. It was heartbreaking, to leave the hat making behind 8 years ago. I took such pride in every stitch. I simply, just could not do it anymore. The crafts shows were drying up, the economy failing. I can attest 7 years ago, I would have agreed with this post. Not at all now. I freed myself. I can spend a week dyeing fibers, 3 days carding batts like a mad woman, and take pictures/edit/promote online/list the next day. My turnaround is very short! My overhead is low! Creating indie fiber supplies, fills my maker nature and really scratches that need for color! I use all the Etsy cheats (copy, draft, etc). I copy all listings and tweak a little to reflect the name/content/tags. I have it down to an art. I can list 24 items in under an hour! While I am thriving, I must mention many have left my medium behind. So many are washing out, which is sad! Brilliant spinning supply artists such as funkycarolina crashed and burned. On the other hand hobbledehoy is still going strong, and really is a role model for me! It truly takes a special person, with a good nights sleep to do it all. I am so happy! Selling online is really amazing. I never loved doing craft shows, they were so draining. Online is amazing, you just have to focus, create a system, and be extremely motivated. Not everyone has the magic making and ability to present and sell quotient. The amazing this is you can learn it. Just immerse yourself, learn. Take notes, watch the successful people in your field. Then turn it on it’s ear. Work every angle…and get 8 hours of sleep. Sleep is everything I’ve found 🙂 xo

Jess
Reply

Sayra, so awesome to hear you’re doing so well! I’m always open to being proven wrong 🙂 I’m also definitely a ‘think positive’ type of person… with a healthy dash of down-to-earth reality thrown in there, which is where this post comes in. I’m yet to personally know anyone who turns over the equivalent of a good full-time wage ($50,000+ a year) from selling OOAK handmade items online, but if they’re out there, I’d love to know about it! It would be fascinating to interview them and find out just how they make it happen… I suspect that those who do make this much sell higher-end items.

Of course, in this post I was equating ‘success’ with ‘full-time income’ which, of course, is only one definition of success, as you proved with your comment! 🙂

Sayra Adams
Reply

I know, it’s quite amazing! I have alot to be proud of. It honetly didn’t happen overnight, it was a slow burn that has really paid off. They’re out there, the ones that make $50k or more. Not sure if they’re on Etsy? There’s shops I have seen with 30,000 sales. I personally define success, by being busy…and happy customers with glowing feedback. Before I quit craft shows, I was making a combined income of about $25k. I do know very successful artists who pull down 6 figures. Many of them are computer phobic, like Maia. She paints amazing impressionist style paintings. http://www.maialeisz.com She sells paintings for $20k or so every so often. Big clients, movie stars. Amazing talent, her husband hits the road for most of the shows while she stays home to create and care for her two children under 5 years.

I would make alot more, although I put my family first-it’s truly my main priority. My carded batts are OOAK, although I admit to doing some repeats 🙂

Vicki Taggart
Reply

I have all one-off garments but have not sold ANY in 3 months. How do I get customers (my friends think its great and love the styles, but no-one has bought anything!

Nari Kim
Reply

Jess, this is like finding an oasis in a desert. I’ve had this question in my mind for so long, and I did think that I’d need to introduce more reproducible items but my heart was more towards OOAK. Valuable information that will get me thinking more of balancing time and effort, and costs too!

Hazel Gibbs
Reply

Feeling quite depressed now! Having spent a not every productive day at a craft fair yesterday and sold not a lot to be told that my OOAK Etsy shop is doomed to failure too is not what I needed to hear. Its set me thinking though so perhaps that is a good thing??!!

Jess
Reply

Hazel – it IS possible… it’s just much, much harder. Having had a peek at your shop, your designs definitely can be made reproducible! You could offer the same fabric over and over (which saves photographing) or have a ‘fabric bank’ for people to choose from, which means you can use the same pictures, too. Good luck!

Penny- Elizabeth Neil
Reply

I’m still on the fence about this. While I am genuinely happy for Sayra that she’s made it work, she is ‘cheating’ a little on the subject. She downsized and is living a simple life, which is lower in cost; I would be interested to hear if what she does earns a ‘real world’ income. I ‘made a living’ making OOAK jewelry for a few years, but I didn’t have a real world lifestyle; I shared a rented house, didn’t have a car, children, vacations or savings, didn’t eat out and only bought thrift store clothes… I earned what I needed to live comfortably in that reality, that was all. Second, Sayra sells supplies, which are easier to sell than finished product. Artists will always buy supplies even if no one buys what they make from it. Third; her colours and blends may be OOAK (and amazingly gorgeous, btw) but her product isn’t one of a kind. In her own words, ‘success is based in making an excellent product. Then repeating it.’ My personal success was based in creating original jewelry designs, then tweaking the design slightly; different chain, gemstone, etc. So I guess what I’m saying is I think you can have a successful online business making OOAK items providing you can make something that has an easily ‘mechanised’ production method (ie make components in bulk) or you take the road of her friends and create high-end product that attracts a higher-income audience. So yeah it’s possible, but it’s a lot harder work than non-ooak. For the record, I no longer make ooak jewelry, I sell vintage and antiques- which in a way is ooak, since i have to make a new listing for everything I sell. I don’t have to spend time making the product but I do have to spend time looking for it, both online and in the wide world, and then cleaning, restoring (sometimes) and researching. Luckily vintage as a trend is showing no signs at all of slowing, or even plateauing!

birdandbeau
Reply

I’m happy to find this article! It’s something I have recently been implementing myself. I pride myself on making one of a kind items and love the idea of someone buying + loving a real original; however, after being approached to wholesale some of my work, I found that I needed to incorporate some easily reproducible pieces into my line. Creating original work that is still simple enough to replicate is something I am working on, but I haven’t given up on my OOAK pieces either. I would like to think that the people who like to support handmade, might also appreciate paying a little bit more for truly unique pieces.

My business is still relatively new, however, and I only recently left my full-time position, so I can’t really say I’m making a living at it yet. I’m finding it is all give and take and I believe that sooner or later I will definitely get back what I’m putting in. It’s great to hear others’ perspectives on this + to know I’m not in this boat alone!

Sarah Hudson
Reply

Oh no! I am just about to launch my website and everything I make is OOAK. You are so right about the amount of time all the photographing, editing, tagging, uploading, writing takes though – it drives me nuts when all I really want to do is make beautiful necklaces!
I have been selling on FB and at jewellery parties up until now but the income is very spasmodic which is why i thought an online shop would be better. I’m not really sure how to proceed with making multiples as I buy small quantities of beads and pendants and my customers all tell me the reason they love my jewellery so much is because they know it’s unique and no one else has it.
I am also still learning how to stop buying new stock – thats my biggest income killer! So many beautiful beads out there and so many suppliers sending me tantalising emails.
Any advice on how to balance my desire to only make OOAK and still make a living would be greatly appreciated as I don’t think the multiples idea is really for me.
Thank you so much for this post ( and all the others) – I am so grateful for all your advice and tips.

SallyAnn Rogers
Reply

I came to this realization myself so I am brainstorming and working on turning my shop around.

Lisa Press
Reply

Funny, you should bring this up. I just explained this to a potential Etsy customer, who thought I should re-photograph every doll I make even though most of them are repeats. I tried to explain to her how much time the photographing, listing and editing takes and that when I remake a doll, it is exactly the same for the very reason that I need to reuse all of this.

Allison Jordan
Reply

I am really curious as to how one would approach this subject in terms of selling up-cycled or repurposed Furniture. In my world, the niche I am TRYING to nab **is** OOAK — because the market seems to be glutted i.e., everyone seems to be revamping furniture, and I feel like I am being swallowed up by a tidal wave of “slap a bunch of paint on something and sell it on FB.” My challenge is – if you’re trying to offer something unique, how do you reproduce repeated uniqueness? Not only am I trying to stay away from what is overwhelmingly popular, I try very hard to only paint pieces which are unique even ^^ before ^^ I repurpose. Any suggestions?

Jess
Reply

Allison – that is a REALLY interesting question – I’ve actually added it to my list of ‘questions to answer on the blog’ so keep an eye out!

Allison Jordan
Reply

I will indeed! Thanks for getting back to me – I thought this thread was long “over” — 🙂

Sandy
Reply

Just want to say I appreciate your site and all your helpful information! Not all the topics apply to me, but I can always learn something from reading your emails. I do hope to have a thriving creative business one day, but still taking it one step at a time. Thanks again for all your useful info 🙂

deb
Reply

Thank you Jess! Why didn’t I find you 5 years ago?!!!
Deb

Mandy
Reply

So, I’m actually about to start working on stockpiling, but my items are basically OOAK in materials… If I have the same basic materials and shape (or shapes -for my masks and such) but HAVE to use a different array of bead and wire colors -ESPECIALLY more unique larger beads, is that what you’re talking about here? I feel as though I could use the model of one of the ladies above and have a basic description and just change the picture and a few words to describe the new colors and such.

Just curious, cause I think I am making something decently unique in the spectrum of art/craft stuff, but I can reproduce the shapes that I make.

Also, what about selling for “requests”?
For example, if someone requests a specific color, but it’s not made yet?
Or especially if someone requests a totally new “style” that I don’t have a “template” for?

I know I’ve already had requests from friends before, but how would I make that applicable on a site?

Vervain Helsdottir
Reply

This is what I needed to hear.
The one-of-a-kind pieces are my favorite to make, but I am working on building up a line of easily reproducible pieces that I can get the components for over and over again. I’m also starting to create a lot of limited runs, rather than OOAK or unlimited, so I can at least sell 4-10 pieces from one listing, even if I can’t add the item to my regular line.

What say you?