When I started selling my handmade wooden utensils at local craft markets about a decade ago, I had to figure out much of it myself. Having run a successful sideline for years, I have now drawn it to a close, and I’d like to share my experience.
Perhaps you are considering selling what you make at markets near you. You may be wondering, though—can I actually make money by selling my handmade goods at local markets, or is it a waste of time and energy?
Yes, you can run a successful side-business selling your craft work locally. I don’t think it’s possible to make a living at it—unless you are extraordinarily frugal and enjoy living in abject poverty. But if you do it right, you can make your hobby self-sustaining, and with time and persistence, you can even make it a boon to your household economy.
If you are considering selling your work regularly as a side-business, here’s what you need to know about how it will change what you do:
1. It will make you focus on what other people want more than on what you want.
People won’t buy things just because you feel like making them. You have to think about the many kinds of things you can make and figure out where those overlap with the kinds of things that other people want to buy. If you already have people asking to buy your handmade goods, that’s a great sign. But if not, that’s okay. There are ways to connect with the people who might want to purchase what you like to make. Yet selling your work consistently means you need to think about it in terms of product lines and inventory—making things in fairly standard shapes and sizes, and maintaining a balance between standardization and variety in your work. When every item on the craft table is utterly unique, then most of the items are not going to sell. You must figure out what your customers are most likely to want and focus on making that.
2. It will change how you think about your products.
You will have to think about what you make as a product, and you will need to consider your products in terms of time and money. You will have to decide how to put a price on your work (See my post on pricing), and you will have to do some rough calculations to determine how many products you can reasonably expect to make given your time, skill, and materials. If math scares you a little, don’t worry. This isn’t calculus or anything. It’s not even tax prep (although that may come into it eventually). It’s just a matter of thinking about how many markets you can commit to given how long it takes you to prepare, as well as how much you need to charge for your work in order to make it worth your time to make and sell it.
3. It will change how you spend your time.
You need to realize that a lot of the work you will do won’t actually be craft work. It’s not as bad as running a full-scale business, but be prepared to spend time on communication, sourcing materials, traveling to and from markets, and even a little accounting. None of these is very time-consuming in itself, but it does all add up. You will definitely spend more time crafting, but you will also spend more time doing other things that support your crafting.
4. It will change how you use your space.
You will need to stockpile raw materials. You will need a place to store your inventory between markets. And you will also need to store your market gear: a canopy, a big folding table, your signage, and any other props for the table. All that stuff takes up space. The first time you load your car to go to a market, you will be shocked to see that the product you sell is only a small fraction of all the stuff you will haul to and from markets.
5. It will change how you think about people.
Selling to family and friends is a good start, but it only goes so far. You have to get your products in front of your ideal customers—people who appreciate handmade work and have the expendable income to buy it. So you have to figure out who those people are. What kind of people actually want what you make? Where they are likely to shop? This was one of the biggest ah-ha! moments of my little crafting career. I had been at a couple markets early on and sold almost nothing, but I was sure that there was a market for my work. I just hadn’t found it yet. When I did finally manage to set up at the right markets, I started selling my work more successfully. So scope out different venues as you figure out who your target market is.
6. It will change how you work.
It will encourage you to refine your workflow and make it as efficient as possible. When your craft is a hobby, you can be as inefficient with your time and materials as you like. But when you need to get X-number of items ready to sell by X-date, then you have to economize wherever you can. You will learn to use designs that are simple to execute given your skills and your tooling, and you will begin to embrace templates. You will learn to work within tolerances and do batch work. While some parts of the process can remain spontaneous, you will get to discipline yourself to work with both precision and speed. The result will be that you will learn to stay focused and work faster than you did before, and you will become more skilled because of it.
7. It won’t be fun anymore.
I don’t mean that you’ll never enjoy your work again. You will still have the satisfaction of a job well done, but now it will be a job. I have not been making spoons for fun all these years. It’s not relaxing. It’s work. If you start selling your work regularly, then your craft is going to become a job that needs to be done. When you have a big market coming up, you have to make your products whether you feel like it or not. So you have to be okay with not doing it for fun anymore.
I want to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.
It is good that we get up every day and go to work whether we feel like it or not. It is good that we learn to see our work from other people’s points of view. It is good that we provide our neighbors with high-quality goods that they will value for years to come. Doing good work and selling it for a fair price is how the world keeps going economically.
You just have to decide whether you want your craft to become a part of that economic system. A lot of people get into crafting because it’s not part of the daily grind, but an escape from it. If that’s you, then why would you want to turn your craft into yet another job?
For me, though, woodworking has always been a matter of economics in the most basic sense of meeting household needs. I enjoy the craft, but it has always been work—good work, productive work, rewarding work—but work nevertheless. Early on, I decided that I would not allow my hobby to be a drain on the household economy. My woodworking needed to be at least self-sustaining, and for many years it has helped support the household economically.
In sum, here are the main benefits of going commercial with your craft:
A. Money. If you find the right market and price your work reasonably, you can supplement your income.
B. Community. At markets you will enjoy the company of like-minded people, and you will make friends.
C. Skill. Making products to sell will motivate you to develop your abilities and your speed.
D. Respect. You will find out what it was like to be a professional craftsman in the pre-industrial age. Our crafting ancestors honed their skills in professional shops, cranking out high-quality work with remarkable speed. They knew how to speed up and get the job done, and they knew when to slow down and get things just right. You will never be closer to your ancestors in the craft than you are when doing production work by hand for a whole day, and your respect for them will grow.
So if you decide to go ahead and start selling your work, here’s a rundown on how to get started:
Read my blog post about everything you need to get ready for your very first market.
Read my blog post on how to price your work fairly.
Read my blog post on best practices for selling your wares successfully.
Read my blog post on how to be such a great vendor that everybody invites you back.