How to succeed as a designer-maker

Even though the idea of earning a living through making and selling your own products might feel like a distant dream, it's not impossible. Whether it’s boosting your design portfolio by turning your illustrations into gift cards or learning how to make your own pin badges, the DIY approach to making and selling has long been a staple of savvy freelancers keen to diversify their practice, experiment with new ideas and make a little money on the side.

  • 8 business tips for selling design goods

And with the rise of platforms like Etsy and Not On The High Street, there’s never been a better time to turn your pixels into products. Creatives can now set up an online store with minimum overheads.

Sarah Meredith sells her wares on Etsy as RockCakes

With two million unique visitors per month, which doubles at Christmas, many sellers on Not On The High Street (NOTHS) say it’s worth the investment (£199 joining fee and 25% commission, plus VAT). The platform’s strict guidelines and tough application process mean that only the best of the best secure a spot on the site, assuring quality control and less competition as a result. 

By contrast, US-based website Etsy competes on scale, with 30 million registered shoppers. It’s open to anyone, which helps if you do not have a track record of selling or if your products don’t fit in with the style of other, more selective websites. Listing an item for four months, or until it sells, costs just $0.20 (roughly 13p), plus there’s a commission of 3.5% (plus VAT) on each purchase. 

Though competition is fierce and quality control is almost non-existent, with relatively low set-up costs and commission rates, it is still the number one choice among the creative community. 

Taking the leap

An early adopter of Etsy, illustrator Sarah Meredith set up her online store under the pseudonym RockCakes in 2008. After leaving her well-paid role as production manager at a leading London jewellery company, she relocated to Brighton to pursue a career making and selling her own products.

"I’d always had a burning desire to have my own business – to have creative freedom and work for myself," she says. "I wanted to make and sell the jewellery ideas that popped into my head. I love clothing as well as jewellery – patches bridge this gap and are also super-accessible."

Etsy changed my life! Although it’s 24/7, so it’s hard to switch off

Sarah Meredith, RockCakes

Allowing her to be a full-time mum and worker, Meredith only has praise for the flexibility Etsy has given her. "Etsy changed my life!" she grins. "Although it’s 24/7, so it’s hard to switch off."

Finest Imaginary founder Kim Lawler sells across multiple sites. "I try not to spread myself too thin with direct sales, so only sell directly via my own website, Etsy and Not On The High Street," she says. "I have quite a number of stores who stock my items – they place wholesale orders with me – including Hannah Zakari and Berylune, and I’m also super-lucky to be have been stocked at some major galleries."

Investing in her own production materials and equipment to produce laser cutting in-house, Lawler always has materials in mind when she starts designing, usually with pencil and paper. "I’ll then move to the computer where I vectorise the design and split its layers ready for the laser cutter. I have my own laser cutter, so it’s not unheard of for me to have an idea in the morning, and a finished product by the afternoon."

Kim Lawler has invested in her own laser cutter

Lawler usually starts off with small runs, around five of each product. "Back when I used to get my laser cutting done by another company, I’d go in at around 20-30 pieces for new designs and cross my fingers they didn’t bomb," she recalls.

With other products, such as pins and patches, Lawler says many manufacturers have MOQs (minimum order quantities), or tempting price breaks for higher quantities. "Buying in these larger amounts can be a bit risky, but if you’re prepared to hold on to the stock until it sells (or happy to have a clear out sale every now and again), then it can still work."

Lawler has also started making laser-cut acrylic jewellery, which she chose to create for the ease of production. "Perspex is such a versatile material to work with," she says. "I sometimes buy different colours, finishes and special types of perspex without an idea in mind, just because I just love how it looks."

Brighton-based designer and illustrator Abi Overland recognised the potential to create a sustainable income by applying her designs to ceramics, and launched her first fine bone china collection in 2015. "I loved the idea of creating works of art that were accessible to people in their everyday lives, and ceramics had always been an interest of mine," she says.  

It can be tough walking the line between being commercial with your designs but not so much so they go out of fashion quickly

Abi Overland

Taking a part-time job to secure a small loan for the business, she purchased her first load of stock, and to keep her carbon footprint low, opted to source a local manufacturer to bring her designs to life. "Each collection of fine bone china is produced, screenprinted and hand-decorated in Stoke-on-Trent – I wanted to produce high quality products and support the local economy," she explains. 

Manufacturing locally has not been without its downsides, however. "It means the cost of production is quite high. I’m an advocate of slow fashion, but it can be tough walking the line between being commercial with your designs but not so much so they go out of fashion quickly."

Where to sell

Selling her products on a variety of platforms, including NOTHS and CultureLabel, alongside Etsy and her own website, Overland also has stockists in The Netherlands and Geneva, and sells at events and markets. "I find online, you have to be selective with the places you sell in order to not be too available, but still create opportunities for people to discover your products in the environment you want them to be seen."

Abi Overland spotted a gap in the market for unique ceramics

This is a sentiment shared by Dutch graphic designers Felix van Dam and Winneke de Groot, who founded We are out of office in 2013 while both were working at different design studios. "We love screenprinting and started to print batches of postcards for fun. We just had this urge to make things our way and we figured if we made small products we could also design the packaging," says van Dam. 

Known for their bold, colourful graphics and geometric prints and quirky pin badges, the pair have become something of an Instagram sensation, amassing a following of 33,000 globally. "We produce quite a lot of products and almost everything in limited editions, so the stock moves fast," says van Dam. 

We quickly realised we wouldn’t be able to attract a fraction of the people Etsy had for us

Felix van Dam, We are out of Office

"Instagram makes it really easy to capture all this quickly, and is easier than listing items on a store. People can see directly what we do and how we illustrate. It also works well for us because we make small and not-too-expensive products. A lot is within the ‘I could give this as a present’ range. Our work is also visual, it doesn’t need a lot of explanation, which is perfect for an image-led platform like Instagram."

Selling exclusively through Etsy while their own website remains perpetually under construction, van Dam admits that the pressure of having a website vanished when their Etsy store quickly took off, enabling them to go full-time on their business within a year. 

"Etsy draws such a big audience, an audience we could never reach by ourselves. We quickly realised we wouldn’t be able to attract a fraction of the people Etsy had for us. We’ve built a much larger audience than we could have possibly hoped to reach through a website." 

Making a connection

Art markets have seen a resurgence in recent years, with the likes of East London Comic and Arts Festival (ELCAF) and London Illustration Fair providing a platform for independent makers to sell their wares to the masses.

With such a healthy online business, selling at art markets is secondary to We are out of office’s enterprise. "Fairs can be so much fun but they can also be terrible," laughs van Dam. "In Holland, they are mostly outdoor and you can be at the mercy of bad weather. We’ve done ELCAF twice now and that is so much fun! The audience really understand what we’re doing and it’s refreshing to talk to people face to face. An experience like this is definitely better than selling online, but it can be exhausting."

We are out of Office boosts its profile by selling at art fairs

Lawler has a similar approach to markets. "Markets and pop-ups are great cash injectors, but let’s face it, if we did them every weekend we’d have no life and we’d be completely burnt out," she says. "Having a steady stream of income online is way more manageable." 

Etsy is her preferred online marketplace. "Etsy was the first place I ever sold anything, so it makes for a great testing ground for your products. Once you’re established and with a large product range, you’ll probably turn a decent profit through Etsy. Right now, Etsy and my own website count for the majority of the profit in my brand."

Aardman senior designer Gavin Strange and his wife, local jewellery maker Jane Kenney, created their boutique online store shop STRANGE to champion craft and graft. Launching with a celebratory pop-up store in August 2016, their focus is on unique, hand-crafted artwork, furniture, homewares, prints and leatherwork, produced by them and 10 very select ‘Strange’ friends. 

"With Jane being a jewellery designer and me being a graphic designer, it naturally meant we had different interests and inspirations, so the work we make and stock reflects this," says Strange. "Quality was important – even though the artists themselves and the work they make is different, their craft and the quality of their work is on the same level."

The Strange pair planned the pop-up as "a bit of an experiment" – a way for people to see the products for real, before launching online. "We didn’t know if anyone would visit, we didn’t have any expectations," says Strange. 

STRANGE launched with a pop-up shop in 2016

"We had lots of visitors. Friends, family, people who had heard about the store online – but also total strangers who happened upon the space. It was a really nice experience to talk about what we were doing, explaining what the products were about and the story behind them."

Illustrator Sarah Meredith also loves meeting her customers: "I love selling at fairs, I’ve met some of my best friends at craft fairs, be they other stall holders or customers," she says. "People like to meet the maker, go home, ponder and order online. If somebody pauses at my stall for a second, chances are that I have greeted them and given them a business card – there’s still a potential sale there." 

Her biggest challenge? Impatient customers. "The Amazon culture has definitely made people want things, like, yesterday. I was once threatened with legal action because a $7 pin badge had not made it across the Atlantic in 48 hours – it was ridiculous, but still got to me – complaints can be hard to shake off."

Pricing it right

Figuring out your prices is the hardest part of it all, admits van Dam, who advises against calculating prices based on hours spent: "The prices won’t make sense and things would become way too expensive to produce." Instead he recommends researching the market to determine a fair price for your customers. "In the beginning we looked at other illustrators, how much they charged and talked to shop owners. After a while you’ll learn how to price your products fairly, but it takes practice."

Lawler has an equation you can use to work out her wholesale and retail rates. "Your cost should be the price of all your materials, overheads and your time. Wholesale price is normally around two times your cost, and recommended retail price is between two and two-a-half times your wholesale price," she says.

Interesting products that might not sell loads are usually the ones that bring the customers to your store

Kim Lawler, Finest Imaginary

"However, you might also want to look at market rates for similar items. Even if your cost price of a pin makes it work out that your RRP should be £9, when other sellers are selling theirs at £7, you’re unlikely to sell as many. Conversely, if you’ve got a product which you know could be retailing at way more than the equation comes out at, then don’t undercut yourself. Remember, if you’re selling on an online marketplace, you need to factor in all your fees, postage and packaging too."

Unsurprisingly, the products that make the best profit are the ones that have a healthy margin, are simple to produce, and sell regularly, as Lawler reveals. "That’s not to say you shouldn’t produce products that don’t fit into these brackets, though. Interesting products that might not sell loads, or might not have the highest profit margin, are usually the ones that bring the customers to your store." 

Meredith agrees, adding that these types of products often lead customers to the more commercial pieces. "I label my weird and interesting products ‘hook products’ as they catch your attention and reel you in but they aren’t necessarily what you’re going to end up buying." 

For Meredith, who sells exclusively on Etsy, there are some disadvantages to using the site. "Platform changes and growth can be hard to keep up with. You’ve got to be all in to win on Etsy I think as it takes time, work and commitment to keep up with changes and with the competition."

Relying too heavily on trends can also make or break a business, and it’s essential to have more than one income stream to protect yourself. Take the recent wave of pins, for instance. 

Consider market value when pricing your goods

"When that started out, pin sales were booming," says Lawler, "but now the market’s saturated, the sales have started flattening out a bit. It’s been fun and profitable to ride that wave, but it’s a great example of why diversification and making sure your business is nimble enough to move on quickly is super-important. I’ve seen a lot of my peers shut up shop, lose money and have to go back to a nine-to-five. That kinda thing can be really scary, it makes you wonder if you’ll be next."

Lawler has also learnt from experience that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one website. "I tend to sell the same stock on all websites, but I often have exclusives available on different ones. I like to make sure I’m turning profit in all my selling spots, and concentrate on the one I have ownership of – my website."

Finding balance

It’s vital to manage your own expectations when it comes to making a profit, at the beginning especially, and this is one of the main reasons why Overland continues to freelance. "Building up a reputation, client base and a following takes time," she says. "There’s peaks and troughs and it’s a process of learning – in time it starts to become more stable. All my profits go straight back into the business in order to help it grow – you have to be prepared for that."

Conversely, Strange says that anyone embarking on making their own products for the first time should try to forget about the pressure of making money altogether. "We’re creatives first and foremost, and learning to be a business second," he says. "We didn’t get into this to make money, we got into it because we wanted to see our little thing out in the universe. Don’t do it to make money – do it to learn something new and have fun in the process, and then hopefully the money will come after that."

STRANGE's Gavin Strange suggests getting in it for the love first – the money will follow

"It is hard to change the way of thinking of the general public to support more small and local businesses if it means paying a little more," says Lawler. "Slowly there’s a shift in people wanting to stop shopping on the high street and look to small businesses for products that are a bit more special, unique and high-quality in terms of design and manufacture."

As Strange stresses, you are your USP. "Don’t get caught up with what anyone else is doing. Even if you are making identical things, the end result will be different because it’s your vision, your execution, your skills. Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others, use that time to move forwards!"

As sustainability becomes increasingly prevalent as a talking point, and shoppers wise up to the provenance of the products they buy, the craft community can work together to encourage people to shop locally and support small businesses creating more and more opportunities for small designers to flourish.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts magazine #274. Subscribe here.

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