Custom Order Conundrum

Yes, yes… I know, the alliteration is killing you, but what can I say? I love when titles “sound” good. Anyway, I have been debating back and forth the whole idea and process that is a “custom order”. I thought beaders and buyers would both benefit from hearing what goes on in another artist’s mind on the topic. And hopefully, it will open the doors to comments on other’s thoughts and opinions about it.

How do I define a “custom order”? For me, it is anytime anyone asks me to make them something that isn’t already made and in a box ready to sell. I think it is a pretty straightforward way of thinking. A customer who requests a couple extra beads to match ones she just bought… that’s a custom order. A gallery that “really hopes you’ll make something to go along with such and such a piece”… that’s a custom order.

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When I first started making jewelry 2003, I would make anything anyone ever asked me to make. I thought, “Hey… I’ll do anything for $15… $15 means I can buy more beads.” Not only that, I was thrilled to think that someone liked my things enough to have me make something just for them. By 2005 (while just starting to learn to make glass beads), I started doing custom jewelry for weddings. I would make an appointment with the bride, bring samples of 6-8 custom designs to match her bridesmaids’ dresses and inevitably she would want to mix a bit of this with a bit of that, creating a 9th and 10th piece. Once she figured out which one she wanted, I would make enough for the whole bridal party. After 15 weddings, I was bitten enough by the glass bug and fed up enough with picky brides to say enough was enough to that.

As glass became an everyday part of my life, I adopted the same mentality as I did when I first started making jewelry. The “OMG, someone wants to pay for me to make them something!” mentality. Again, I was flattered… again, I would bend over backwards at my own expense to make buyers happy. And this time around I thought, “$15 will buy me more rods of glass”.

I don’t know when the switch flipped in my brain but at some point I started to say “NO” to custom orders. I think it was when I really started to define my own style and was starting to get slightly better prices for my beads. I started to feel that if people didn’t like what I made, they didn’t have to buy it. I wasn’t going to go out of my way to make people happy and stifle myself creatively anymore. Because that is really what custom orders started to do to me. And that is the stance I have had for about a year now. At art shows, I get asked repeatedly if I will make something custom. I tell people, nope, sorry.

That was until recently where I said yes to a few orders. Just a few. I think I have 5 sitting on my desk right now. But with these, they are a different kind of custom order… I am not letting the customer dictate the results. It is a hard thing to do and I think it takes a lot of artistic confidence (which is another completely different topic, don’t get me started.) Artistic confidence isn’t something I have a lot of, but I pretend I do and I am now enjoying saying, “yes, I’ll make you something… but I am going to make it ‘my’ way”.

I would love to know where others are at in their “custom order conundrum”. Will you do anything for a buck (and I never judge, it is okay to want to buy more beads!)? Do you refuse orders? Do you make one style of something and then make as many of those as people ask for? As business people as well as artists, do you think it is just bad business not to take orders? Do orders crowd your creativity? Do you think doing custom work make you less of an artist (and I don’t mean that in a bad way… Michelangelo took an order to paint the Sistine Chapel, right)?

Kerry Bogert is blogging about her glass art beads and jewelry from her home studio in Ontario NY. Check her work at www.kabsconcepts.com.

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9 Responses to “Custom Order Conundrum”

  1. tracybeads Says:

    Wow Kerri, great topic!
    I used to have a “build-a-geisha” page where people could order a certain hairstyle for the head and choose from about 12 body designs,etc. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time but took the fun out of making beads to *have* to do a specific look and design. Also, I get stressed when I feel like I have something hanging over my head, waiting to be done. So I stopped.
    Sometimes I get requests to try to make another particular geisha but I can’t always repeat the effects, especially when I forget to write down the colors I used.

    The other issue: How do you charge for special orders? When your customer wants a custom bead or set, do you charge more? I’m like you when it comes to just being thrilled and excited someone likes my work. I feel guilty asking for more just because it’s a special request/order, especially since I really like my customers and some feel more like friends than “business”. I’ve actually thought, “Ohh if I ever win the lottery I could just start giving my work away”

    I’m glad you brought this subject up.

  2. lori g. Says:

    The way I custom orders is to tell people that if they see a style of mine that they like I can do it in a different shape that they see on my site. Or bigger or smaller. Or maybe substitute a color, if it works. I guess that’s semi-custom.

    I can’t do custom orders because what is in a customers head isn’t usually what comes out my fingers. There is so much room for interpretation.

  3. beadabundant Says:

    Thanks for writing about this issue of custom orders. It has been such a conundrum for me, too!
    Custom orders often do stifle my creativity. Part of the reason I don’t choose the 9-to-5 lifestyle is because I don’t like it when someone tells me what to do! With a custom order sometimes it feels like the customer is suddenly my “boss.” Also I get bored easily doing the same design over and over, so it can be a pain to have to make a certain design again when I’m not in the mood. Mostly I’ve been saying “No” to custom orders because I already have a ton of new ideas I want to work on.

    A few months ago I accepted a custom order for two spacer beads, which was a $6 order. She didn’t like the first two spacers I made her, so I went back and made two more that were closer to the color and size she wanted. That order was almost the last straw for me! I knew I had to re-define my boundaries for accepting custom orders.
    Now, it comes down to whether or not I feel like doing the order on the particular day the customer asks me. I only make beads in a style I’ve made before, not just any old bead design the customer dreams up. The tricky part is remembering what colors I used in the original set. If I can’t remember the colors or the wind is blowing differently and I just can’t make those beads again no matter how hard I try, then I have to say No. If it’s a high enough priced order, if I’m not too busy, or I’m uninspired by any new ideas at the moment, I’ll probably do the order. I’ve been considering a minimum dollar amount on custom orders, because they are time-consuming and they take me outside of my regular production routine.
    Long comment… I have so much to say on this issue! Thanks again for writing about it!

  4. Kerry Says:

    It is so awesome to read all these thoughtful comments!!

    First – Traci, (LOL, yeah I know it is ‘y’ not ‘i’, but I couldn’t resist! You did it to me 🙂 Charging people you know is always difficult. I hate doing it!! Another one of the reason’s I won’t take custom orders. On these rare occassions that I do, I charge them the same price as a similar piece has sold for in the past. It has been a few days now since writing this, and I realized since then that the only orders I have taken have been for jewelry!! I think it is because I can subtly change jewelry makign it unique each time. It keeps me interested.

    Lori, What a lot to keep track of!! I know exactly what you mean about your vision being different then your customers. If only we could be in each others heads… we would be millionaire bead makers with our fingers on teh pulses of what people want!

    Karolen, long comment away!! I thought and hoped people would have alot to say!! I just don’t know how some artists do it? I have seen sites where people come up with a “cute” set of beads and then take orders for them. Then I see a few days later a photo on their blog of a pile of 100 beads, all the same!! I would go NUTS!! But it does seem to be a very profitable way to bead. Which is why I go back and forth in my head about it.

    Keep the comments coming!

  5. Sheila Morley Says:

    I do not think taking an order makes anybody less of an artist; just a commited one. It helps us to see what people really want. When a customer can see your skills and see that you can make what they want. That is a really big compliment.

    I can see how it could get boring; doing what somebody else wants, instead of what your muse is telling you to do. And, the anxiety thought of, “what if they do not like it?”…I quietly have taken many custom orders. That is almost 50% of my sales. Commiting to it, in the public eye, will be new for me this holiday season.

    I am excited to share with everybody Here! Watch me create has encouraged me to really be objective about my art beads. I have realized how much I enjoy creating pieces that are meaningful to the owner. I am inspired to create custom family beads, friend beads, Love beads, Goddess beads; beads that are meaningful, and would make great gifts through the holiday season. With the glass beads I am making now…I have a new flow for my muse. And, I even came up with a new saying; “Say it with a soul gesture!”
    Great topic. This has been on my mind this week. So far, the quiet custom orders I take have gone well. I have taken anything over-my-head….this holiday might be a little challenging…I will have to let you know.
    Thanks for such a great post!

  6. Ellen Says:

    I’ve taken custom orders before and almost every single time I do it – I feel like someone has put a vacuum up to the creative center of my brain and sucked everything out! I end up making two or three items and letting the cutomer pick. The leftovers can easily go into my inventory but I’m just not keen on the whole idea unless I have a lot of “wiggle room.”
    Long ago I had a request for a black and white bracelet. I thought, surely, she didn’t mean to be so exact. Well, she did and not only that, she wanted tube beads. One with black ends and a white center, the next was to be white ends and a black center and on, and on. I thought I was going to lose my mind! Never again!!!

  7. tracybeads Says:

    I’m sorri, KerrY. Pretty bad when your name’s right up there above me huh? :p (People are always wanting to stick an “ey” on the end of mine).
    I understand what you’re saying Sheila. I’m always happy when a customer requests something, it *is* flattering. I appreciate extra business and I like to make people happy too. But my personality tends to be stressed out, anxious and a perfectionist so sometimes a very specific request is a stone around the neck. I still try do them.
    Like Kerry mentioned in her reply, custom orders are very profitable and once I switch to the Lynx I’ll probably start making bead sets and seriously consider an online catalog.
    **GOOD LUCK with yours Sheila!

  8. lydiamuell Says:

    I have been really busy over the past few weeks so I am just now catching up on my reading. . .This is a great topic of discussion.

    I do take orders from time to time for stuff that is in my online gallery, but I don’t do custom orders in the true sense of the term. I’ve done it before and it simply drove me mad because like Lori mentioned, it’s difficult to see what is in the customer’s head.

    Orders for beads out of my gallery can sometimes be a challenge too because many of them were made with reactive glasses. Getting the same result can be nearly impossible at times or it can create a heavy “scrap rate” due to the number of attempts that it takes to duplicate the bead(s).

  9. baglasslady Says:

    Having made glass beads for over a quarter century and having watched a hobby become a full-time business, which has taken over my life and continues to grow, I am finding this topic and people’s reaction to it fascinating!!!

    Custom Orders are a wonderful way to “grow” a business and the success of receiving/fulfilling a Custom Order comes down to an ability to “duplicate” verbally to the customer what the customer thinks they want and for you, as the artist, to have the technical proficiency to achieve the desired result.

    I have always approached Custom Orders as a collaborative effort between my client and myself as the artist. Over the years, it has tested my technical knowledge and has pushed the outer boundaries of my knowledge — for which I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to “figure it out”.

    I have been incredibly blessed to have clients who have recognized this “approach” and have taken great pride and pleasure in financially supporting me through purchases, while looking for situations and opportunities with which to challenge me (Custom Orders). They have personally invested in my artistic development over and over again — thank you, you wonderful people — you know who you are!

    Did I have BAD Custom Orders along the way? Oh yes!!! But I learned to trust my initial intuitive reaction to the individual placing the order and the situation so I could structure the Custom Order (spelling out the parameters under which I would accept an order) very clearly and in writing, prior to agreeing to the commission and writing everything onto an order form, which I have the client sign/initial. I have actually developed a Custom Order form that I take with me when I’m at an art show or meeting with clients and have always been pleased by my client’s reaction to the professionalism my Form communicates when I pull it out and start listing the criteria they want in the Custom Order. By writing the order down in front of them, itemizing EVERYTHING, I have avoided most of the major problems.

    As to whether this impinges on my “artistic creativity” — sorry, I’m old school. I learned and teach bead making through an Apprenticeship program (not the norm I know!!), where one learns to master the medium and is required to be able to master multiple reproductions of the same bead — time after time after time after time. My entire approach to bead making has always been that of a skilled Artisan! Anyone can make a single bead ONCE — the real skill and knowledge of your medium requires the ability to be consistent AND artistic at the same time!

    So exercise your creative muscle, master your medium, develop an artistic discipline, strengthen your duplication communication skills and Custom Orders will be a wonderful way to build a business! May you too be so fortunate to find clients willing to regularly invest in your growth as an Artist!!


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