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#8: Thinking About Offering Custom Work?

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Welcome welcome WELCOME my friends and fellow busybees. I hope you’ve been having a fabulous and productive week. Lately I have been pretty busy, but good busy, since jumping in full force into my furniture refinishing business after leaving my 9-5 job and, just an update, I am fucking loving it, thanks for asking!

One thing that has kept me pretty consistently busy in this business lately is custom work, so I thought we could chat a bit about it today. There will definitely be more episodes to come that will discuss doing custom work because I’d like to share some tips for how I go about doing this, different tools I have implemented to keep me on track and to attempt to decrease the amount of administrative work involved and all that fun stuff, but for today I thought we could just talk at a more high level about the world of custom refinishing work. Because it’s not for everyone, and I know a lot of furniture refinishers that don’t offer this service for various reasons. I also know some refinishers who exclusively do custom work and never, or very rarely, work on their own projects. So it is totally a matter of personal preference and how you work best, and ultimately what your goals and priorities are for you, your lifestyle and your business, and that will vary greatly from person to person.

I’m not sure if this is the most effective way of going about this, but when I first started brainstorming this episode I basically made a Pros and Cons list. So half of this episode might just end up sounding really negative, but my intention is more to bring to light things that I have heard others discussing in why they don’t offer custom work, reasons they maybe did offer it but have stopped, or other things that I have noted during my journey that may be reasons that this approach might not be a great fit for some. On the other hand, I also have a long list of Pros that are reasons that I really enjoy it at this point in my business, benefits I have found from it, and things I have heard other people discussing in passing or on social media.

So I’m going to do my best to try and accurately capture both sides of the coin, but if there’s anything that I miss, I would LOVE to chat more about it so feel free to send me a DM on Instagram and we can dive into it because I am always so curious, and I love chatting with you guys about episodes you’ve been enjoying or discussing the topics from that week! So if you want to come on over and chat, I’m on Instagram at MelDidItHerself.

So for anyone listening that might not be aware what I’m referring to when I say custom work: Doing a custom project differs from your typical furniture refinishing project because you are working in conjunction with a client, either with a piece that they already have in their home or in their possession, OR you might work together to source something that they have in mind, and then collaborate on the design process to bring their ideas and vision to life. So you are teaming up from the beginning of the project and working together through until it is complete and then it ends up in the client’s home. This is different than your average piece that, as the refinisher, you are sourcing yourself, thinking up what design you’d like to do on it, then finishing it and photographing and staging it and posting it to be sold to whoever decides to buy it. So, I mean, you might already be doing custom work and just not be referring to it as such. And if so, all the better! I look forward to hearing how you’ve been enjoying it, and if anything I discuss here today resonates with you and your experience.

So let’s start off with some of those Cons, or reasons that someone may not want to choose to offer custom work services for their furniture upcycling business. Probably the reason I hear most frequently from those in the community is that they find that custom work has a lack of creative freedom and takes the creative outlet piece out of the work, which is typically the reason that people start getting into upcycling furniture in the first place. Now this may not be the case, depending on the kind of clients you’re getting, but generally speaking, a lot of the time people are coming to you and want their pieces done in a really neutral colour like black, white, grey, or something else very neutral and standard. Which is great, and always ends up looking great, especially once they get into the homes. But for those who are really creative or artistic and use furniture refinishing as their opportunity for a release of that energy, painting piece after piece after piece in white isn’t going to scratch that itch in quite the same way. And for those kinds of people, often doing that for a prolonged amount of time can take away the passion and spark they had for the work and start to make them feel depleted and burnt out.

Some folks also get bored of doing the same types of items over and over again as well, because for the most part people are typically getting items like bedroom sets, dining room sets, dressers or side tables done. So for those who really enjoy sourcing and working on unique pieces or have certain styles in mind that they like to work with, doing custom work can potentially be limiting, unless you’re super picky with which projects you take on, and it could end up feeling a little monotonous.

Compared to just working on pieces on your own and doing what you want with the furniture, custom work can also take up a lot more time going back and forth. For the onboarding process, you want to probably see photos and get measurements and get an idea of what the client has for a vision for the piece so that you can give them an informed estimate, and then once you decide on a price and secure the client to work with, there’s the communication about potentially getting a deposit and setting up a delivery date. Once you have the piece and start working on it, there might be back and forth during the process just to give the client updates, or to have to potentially pivot your plans if you run into something unexpected during the process. Then there’s sending them photos of the completed piece, getting payment, scheduling a pickup or delivery date, and then potentially a follow up for feedback, a testimonial or a photo of the piece once it’s in the client’s home.

So all of that communication, though all very important and needed during this kind of a process, can definitely add up in terms of time used up in a day when you could have otherwise just been plugging away at your own design. I do have some tips for how I have successfully cut out some of that back-and-forth and tried to maximize my time, but I know this episode is already going to be so long so I will save those for an upcoming episode!

Another thing that the custom work can potentially take up a lot of, again, depending on the project, is your work space. As an example, I recently was simultaneously working on two bedroom sets for clients at the same time and, for the record, I only have a little one car garage that already has ~a fair bit~ of other inventory and half finished pieces sitting in it so.. With the added 3 dressers and 4 nightstands, it’s safe to say I had to flex my Tetris skills in new ways. So it’s just something to consider, and I learned my lesson on that one to not book simultaneous custom projects of that side back-to-back in the future.

With custom work, you’re typically booking clients into your schedule or into slots as you connect with them and based on their needs of when they require the finished product, so these services are on more of a schedule. Especially for those who give a turnaround time, it can be a bit more limiting, or, I can’t think of another word for it, more scheduled compared to just working on pieces on your own to sell. Due to this, it does require a bit more navigation and rearranging and communication if unexpected life things pop up, because, you know, they do pop up every once in awhile.

Like all of these negatives or ‘cons’ about custom work, this can absolutely be mitigated if you go about doing custom work in a certain way. For example, do you have to give a guaranteed turnaround time or date, or do you just do it because you saw someone else do it? Things like that.

However, of course, even if you do give a certain date to a client that you anticipate will be enough time and something pops up like a family emergency, or you get an injury, or whatever else life throws at you, people are for the most part very understanding and considerate and assuming it wasn’t a client who you had done multiple pieces for and had had something pop up each time and so they’re starting to see a pattern, I’m sure most folks wouldn’t even think twice about allowing you some extra time to get the piece done. But, it’s definitely still something to consider, particularly so if you are someone that often feels guilty easily or like you’re letting people down, because there could be expectations you’re putting on yourself that you may potentially be unable to meet when things out of your control occur.

The only other thing that comes to mind as a caution when considering whether or not to offer custom work is the fact that there is a difference in terms of the product that is being produced. What I mean by this is, if I makeover a piece of furniture and then take photos of it and list it for sale, the piece is at a certain quality and finish and I am photographing that and the person who comes to buy that piece is assessing it and if they like it, are choosing to take it and buy it. But when working on custom projects, it is typically a piece that someone already owns and you are carrying out either a vision they had for it or something you work together to achieve. And then that piece is definitely going back to that client, and it better be done to their quality standards and expectations, or else they are going to be left feeling unsatisfied and maybe a bit regretful or even like they wasted their money, if it’s not done well.

So if you haven’t ever tackled a furniture makeover before, maybe it’s not the time to start offering custom work. Take the time to learn and perfect the steps a bit, figure out what tools and products work best for you and you prefer, and get to know the different challenges that can pop up and how to address or solve them. Everyone has to start from somewhere, but just know that when you offer these custom refinishing services, people are coming to you because they assume you know what you’re dong and they’re considering you an expert - at least more of an expert than they are, because chances are they won’t necessarily know everything that goes into a project like this, or maybe sometimes they do but they just don’t have the time to do it themselves.

But either way, keep in mind the fact that they are turning to you as an expert, so if something comes up during the process, they are expecting that you will know how to best deal with it. And there are a LOT of random things that can pop up, I run into things all the time that I’m still learning from, so don’t feel discouraged if that happens, but also, try to be intentional with your approach to solving the issue. If you don’t know how to fix it immediately, be okay with telling you’re client “I’m not quite sure, but let me do some research and I will get back to you with an action plan” and then spend some time looking it up and learning from others. And whatever approach you do take, make sure you are willing to deal with the potential repercussions of taking that approach - like maybe having to strip everything back and trying again if it doesn’t go to plan.

Okay, so I hope I haven’t scared you away from offering custom work yet!! Now that I’m done playing Devil’s Advocate, let me tell you the reasons why you might actually really want to start offering custom work. Like I said, it is something I currently offer in my business and I have been really enjoying it, for many reasons- so let’s hop into those.

First off, it is such a great opportunity to get to know the people who are interested in painted and refinished furniture as a whole, but also your work more specifically. It’s great to be able to get to know the clients, like as people, and develop that relationship with them and hopefully they will be repeat clients in the future. But from a business perspective, it’s also a great way to do market research and better understand your client avatar or “ideal client” and learn a bit more about them.

You can find out where they heard about you so that you can deep dive on that platform or form of advertising, you can better understand why they choose refinished over new and utilize that in your marketing strategies, and you can get to know more about them to also include that in your sales and marketing approaches. If you started to realize that most clients you were getting were 60 years and older who were looking for custom work and previously you were only advertising those services on TikTok, well, then maybe that would help you to pivot if you looked at your TikTok analytics and realized that the largest age demographic following you is between the ages of 18 and 24, right?

From a business standpoint, I will say that the biggest benefit from offering custom work is the consistency in revenue that it will bring you. While selling your own designs can be hot and cold depending on the market and you could potentially go months without selling a piece, with custom work, you set the cadence and schedule for how many pieces you want to whip out and you know that at the end of that transformation, there is guaranteed income waiting for you. This means that you can plan things out accordingly to ensure you have consistent income, and it also really helps for being able to plan out how much space you will have (or not have), depending on the size of your workspace. Like I mentioned, mine isn’t all that big and so I do need to be rather intentional with how many pieces I have at once, and what sizes of furniture, and having all of the project information ahead of time can help me to do that effectively, so THAT, along with the financial implications, are definitely benefits in my opinion of offering custom work.

In the same vein, I find that it just helps me to be more organized overall, because I am going into all, or at least most, custom projects knowing exactly what we are hoping to achieve with the piece before it even enters my workshop. This means that I can pre-plan and source all the products or hardware that I will need for the project ahead of time so that I have everything I will likely need in my possession before I begin the project, so there’s nothing (other than myself and drying times) holding me back from getting through the piece quickly.

Because for me personally, when I am taking on a piece I am designing on my own, I am often just winging in and not pre-planning my plan of attack beforehand so there are times where I get to the end of the prep stage and only then get inspired to go a certain route - but if I don’t have the colour I want to use in my stash or I find new hardware I want to use on the piece that I have to order in, that could mean that I am sitting at a standstill for a day or two at a minimum, and sometimes even a couple weeks if I’m ordering the hardware from somewhere international like China.

Another reason I was really drawn to offering more custom work was the time freedom it allowed me. Which sounds a bit backwards, right? But when I first started out offering this service, I was still working my 9-5 job and although I was working from home so I definitely had more time available in my day than I otherwise would if I were commuting to and from work, I found myself still spending a fair bit of time in the evenings and on weekends looking to source furniture pieces to makeover.

Whether that meant scanning Facebook Marketplace, oh, I don’t know, fourty-two times a day on average (kidding but not, there was a time when I instinctively would just pick up my phone and click on that blue icon and immediately hit the Marketplace tab before my brain even caught up and realized what I was doing… and I know there are people out there listening right now who do that too so listen up if that’s the case), and I would be going to different thrift stores looking for pieces that were the right price and that inspired me to do something to them, or, the bigger time waster but more economical approach of taking a look around on garbage day to see if there’s any curbside finds I could salvage. And all of that time added up in a big way!

So being able to do custom work gave me that time back because pieces are being delivered to me that are ready to rock, and especially when I was still working my full-time job, that meant that I had THAT much more time available to do other tings that I wanted to be able to fit into my life like seeing family or friends, spending time with my husband, doing things around the house or, oh I don’t know, try to relax for a little bit. So that was a VERY welcomed change in my life.

And if you are someone who, when working on your own pieces, tends to get bogged down in either being too creative and not being able to settle on one design to tackle with a piece, or, if you’re like me and tend to be quite indecisive, I found that working this custom process into my business has helped me to work through more pieces, more quickly. Which of course ends up in more revenue, but more than that, it means that pieces aren’t sitting around for so long, and that I’m feeling more accomplished and productive, which then motivates me to continue on that path and keep doing more.

And again, I’m always going to bring it back to business reasons because even though we absolutely love what we do and are passionate about this work, it is a business at the end of the day (unless you’re just doing this as a hobby, which is totally fine too). But offering custom work is a great way to get testimonials and photos of the pieces that you makeover in more diverse spaces afterwards. These are great things to be able to use, with permission of course, on your social media platforms, on your website, or in email marketing and to build a portfolio of the beautiful work you’ve done. You can always request photos of the pieces you makeover and sell on Marketplace or Kijiji or whatever of course, but because you have more of that established relationship with the client when you’ve done a custom project for them, in my experience they are more likely to share a photo of it once it’s in their home. Which is great for all the reasons I mentioned, but to me that is like the ultimate compliment when a client is like “hey! I loved what you did so much that I wanted to share what it looks like where it’s going to live”. It’s like a big thank you in a different way, and I love it and get excited every single time one of those comes in. So cherish the relationship with the clients, and of course treat them well and give them a great experience and service offering, and they will likely be happy to provide that for you if you ask, or maybe even before you ask!

So like I said, in an effort to keep this from being too long of an episode I’m going to hang onto some of my tricks when offering custom work for next time, but that was, what I think was a pretty thorough, overview of some of the pros and cons of offering custom refinishing work in your furniture business.

But also - Consider the fact that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can work in a mix of both custom work and working on your own designs either simultaneously, or one after the other, as a way to offer the service but also help you satisfy the urge to use your creativity and avoid some of the negatives we discussed earlier. It doesn’t hurt to dip your toes in to see how you enjoy it, even if it’s just for friends or family at first so there’s less pressure but you can still see how you enjoy the process. You can always offer it and try it out and decide to discontinue the service if you find out it’s not something you enjoy as much as you thought you might - if you are just trying it out, maybe consider not booking a ton of people multiple months out because then you would need to either cancel on them (which would be unideal) or will feel obligated to stick to the projects because you promised, and then get resentful about it. Feel it out to see if you enjoy it, and then jump in with both feet once you decide if it will work for you!

I also highly recommend you finding a local community around you of furniture refinishers too – in general, because it’s awesome and this will be something we discuss in one of my upcoming episodes with some special guests so stay tuned for that - but also because it’s great in terms of referrals - if I am either too busy or someone comes to me with a project I wouldn’t have the space or capability to take on or it’s just something that we are not interested in, I’ll always ask the client if they are okay if I pass them along to someone else and if they say yes, I can take it to the group of my local furniture refinishing friends and see if anyone is interested in the project.

And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.

So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is: The only thing stopping me is me. And so if we're thinking about custom work, of course, you are the one making all of the decisions in your business. You can do whatever feels right for you. You can offer, or not offer, whatever service you enjoy. Don't ever feel like you're tied to something because you've offered it in the past or because you keep getting requests for it. Make sure that you ensure that you enjoy what you're doing everyday. That is the reason that we do this work, because it's something that we are passionate about and we don't want to let that spark dull out.

But in life in general, remember that the only thing stopping you is you. Of course there can be other limitations, there is always financial considerations and so many other things that can factor in. But remember that ultimately, if there is something that you have your mind set on, you can find a way around those other barriers that might exist if it's something that you really want to pursue. So remember that.

Again, I'm going to say it, you have agency and you can make the decisions for yourself to make the life that you want. The only thing stopping me is me. And that was a lesson that I recently had to learn when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to go into this full-time, and ultimately when I took a step back and I thought about it and I was like, "what's holding me back?" and the answer was nothing, other than fear, that was a good indicator that it was something to step into and lean into.

So step out of your comfort zones, and remember that the only thing keeping you in there is you. Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!

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