Book binding

Should you take custom orders as a new small product business?

When you start a small business that sells a product, at some point you’ll run into customers who’ll ask you for something that you don’t have off the shelf. Instead, you’ll have to customize an existing product. For eg: Can I get this product in a different color? Can I get this product in a different size? Can I get this product using a different material? These kinds of requests are expected.

Since opening an Etsy shop for my journals, I’ve received a handful of custom order requests – requests for different types of leather covers, different types of paper, different sizes of the journal, etc. As a fledgling shop owner, it is very tempting to say yes to these requests. Each order counts at this stage. It feels like a missed opportunity to say no.

But custom orders come with a lot of hidden complexities that you might not realize upfront:

  1. Will the custom product work and look as good as your existing products? Usually a custom order will require you to change something about your existing products. This essentially means that you’re heading into uncharted territory – the materials might be unfamiliar, the aesthetic might be a bit different. You cannot be sure that the custom product will look or work as well as your existing product line. Unless you’re very experienced, this is worth thinking about.

For eg: Someone recently asked me for a leather journal, but with lined paper instead of blank paper (all my journals use acid free blank paper today, and I’m used to a certain size, that determines the overall aesthetic of my journals). This seemed like a simple enough ask and I said yes. But as I dug into it, I found it hard to find good quality lined paper and what I did find was much more expensive than blank paper. The size was also different from the typical journals I make, thus making the aesthetic quite different, and since journals are a physical product – the final look matters a lot!

2. You can typically charge more for custom orders but not that much more. But a custom order will typically require more work for you to fulfill, compared to a typical order. It’s going to be outside your typical workflow, taking much more time and energy than what you might initially estimate. Is the additional amount that you’re charging worth it? And in case you need new materials to fulfill that custom order, you need to consider the cost of those materials also.

3. Unlike your existing products, the customer can’t see what that custom product might look like. And while their intent might be good, they might not like the custom product, if it ends up differing from your current product significantly. That will then lead to more changes/discussions/work. Worst case – a refund or a return.

I think custom orders are good for getting a sense for what people are looking for, and maybe using this info as an additional data point for new products that you can consider offering your customers. However, I’m not sure if it’s worth it to accept any and all custom orders. One exception to this is offering a set of “fixed” customizations, ie, customizations that have been pre-defined and the customer can choose to get them if they like, for an extra charge. Eg: Inscribing initials or a company logo on a journal could be a “fixed” customization that you offer your customers. Both the customer and you know what to expect and there’s no risk in such cases.

But accepting any arbitrary request feels like a bad idea to me. It’s hard to anticipate what’s involved, you’ll need to work more for it, your customer often does not know all the work involved, and you don’t know whether they’ll like the final product or not.

There’s of course no one single right answer to a question like this. And if you’re an experienced business owner, you might have the wisdom to separate the “good” from the “bad” custom orders 🙂 But if you’re reading this and are in a situation as I’ve described above, go in with your eyes open! 🙂

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