Thursday, January 05, 2012

cheap and easy never is

Here's some marketing advice for you, the artist who makes things to sell: dream up an item that is inexpensive and easy to make, then sit back and watch as the money rolls in.

The high-profit-margin-easy-to-make item is the holy grail of anyone who makes things, whether you do it for a living or for extra income.  But I have some sad news for you.  The successful items out there that hit the sweet spot of easy to make and inexpensive to produce typically comes from years of making stuff that is exactly the opposite. Working at cheap and easy as a marketing approach is a waste of time for artists. 

When I first started making a living off of my work back around 2000, I didn't have many pieces that were under $100.  My work was labor intensive and expensive.  So labor intensive and expensive that selling it wholesale was really not possible, though I tried to do it anyway, and quickly burned myself down to the ground try to re-create pieces that were really meant to be one-of-a-kinds.

Slowly, over a period of years, I worked on simplifying my approach to the pieces I made, both to fulfill wholesale goals and to scale back on my 60 hour week.  From design to production method, every item I made was scrutinized and modified to increase my efficiency.  Lots of pieces were dropped from my production line because there was no way to re-create them for a production market, which is about 80% of what I do.  And this brings me to the cupcake stand, which is one of my all-time bestselling items,  is easy to make, and under $50.

At the time I came up with it, around 2008, I was still wholesaling my cake stands, which were selling faster than I could make them.  This always sounds like a good problem to have, until you have it.  As a ceramic artist, it's very stressful.  To take some of the stress off, I had the stand part of the cake stand slipcast so I would only have to throw the plate instead of both the stand and the plate. The slip cast stand looks different from a wheel-thrown one because of the way the mold is made, the top is solid.  Somehow, it looked useful, but as what?

My pal,  Rae Dunn, who is a genius in coming up with hot sellers, says to me, "You should put a bird right in the center."  I was intrigued by her idea, but I couldn't quite figure out what function that item would serve .  After some fooling around I put the bird on the edge, like my larger cake stands, and it occurs to me that this is a cupcake stand, the perfect item for a bakery that I make cake stands for.  I threw a few up on the etsy,  and they sell like hotcakes. They still do.

The lesson is that I just didn't come up with the cupcake stand randomly.  It took about 3 years to get from cake stand to cupcake stand.  The cupcake stand is a distillation of a bigger idea.  So if I were to re-write the marketing advice I started out with--dream up an item that is inexpensive and easy to make, then sit back and watch as the money rolls in-- it would look something like this:

Dream up a lot of items you love to make.  Take your time making them and learn how to make them perfectly.  Sell them for as much money as you possibly can.  As you work on your pieces, think about how you can simplify the best pieces you make.  Maybe, someday, you will come up with something that resonates and lots of people can afford.  Then, watch the money roll in!


8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the advice Whitney! This is just one of the reasons I love reading your posts.

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  2. THis is awesome. Thanks for posting! A friend of mine told me she has a sign in her studio that says: fast cheap good Pick 2 !

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  3. Whitney, you're so cool. Thanks again for your transparency.

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  4. great post! i've found that it works about the same with sewing (for me). i only get to the really great and efficient ideas by trudging through lots of complicated and time consuming ones.

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  5. Oh, so that's how a brilliant idea is born!

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  6. I love this post - its so honest :) and just what I needed to read!

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  7. Interesting to get an insight into your development process. I think iteration really reveals if your making something right or wrong!

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