Firstly, what is a custom order? I would define it as a one-off piece made specially for a customer at their request.
If you’re trying to put together a custom order for someone, you will probably need to provide them with two pieces of information. Firstly, details of what they are going to be getting. If this is something you are designing specially, then you will need to provide sketches and some kind of outline of the details of the design. If this is an existing product, then I wouldn’t really classify it as a custom order, it is simply an order, even if it does have a colour or size variation. The only instance in which it might possibly classify as a custom order is if the change in colour or size means you need to make a change in price. In which case, read on. If you are looking at charging for a normal order, then read my post on pricing.
Secondly you will need to provide a price. Now, all the normal rules on pricing apply here, but with the added difficulty that, being a custom order, you may not know the exact quantity of materials you will need, or exactly how long it will take you to make. Both of these will have to be educated guesses based on experience. If you are very experienced at beading then you will have a reasonable idea of how long it takes you to stitch, say, a 16″ beaded rope in herringbone. You will also have an idea of how many beads and how much thread that will take. If you’re less experienced you’re going to make mistakes. The important thing is not to worry about them, but learn from them. In fact, if you are thinking about doing a lot custom work, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself. Keep a record of the time you take and the materials you use to do certain basic kinds of design. Make a note of the materials cost and the time it takes you to make each of your beaded items, then keep a record that includes a photo of that item with the costs involved. The chances are, when you are planning a new design, you may be able to find something similar you have made in the past, which will give you a guide for pricing the new project.
Back to those mistakes: go into this with your eyes open and accept that on the first couple of orders you are probably going to underestimate how long they will take, but you have to stick by that estimate and accept that you’re not going to be paid as well as you would like. Just try and work out what went wrong – was it that you were using an unfamiliar technique so it took you longer than you expected? In this case, your estimate may not be wrong for the longer term – next time you use the technique you will probably be able to work as fast as you expected. In this case, don’t change your pricing structure in future. If there was some other reason for the length of time, something that is likely to occur frequently, then maybe factor that in to future quotes.
Secondly, you have the choice between providing someone with a quote or an estimate. A quote is a fixed price for the job, so no matter how much it actually costs you, that is the price the customer will pay. An estimate may be subject to change, so if it takes you a little longer than you thought, you can ask for a little more money. Having said that, it’s no good giving an estimate of £20 and then telling the customer that they actually owe you £100 because the project used twice as many beads as you thought and took an extra day to complete. Quite likely the customer will refuse to pay. Definitely they will never buy anything from you ever again, nor recommend you to any friends, ever!
I prefer to provide a quote, but with the caveat that this quote is for making the piece I have sketched. I send photos documenting my progress as I work, so if the customer doesn’t like the real product, they can ask for some changes and it’s easier to make those changes as I go along. However, I clearly state that if the customer wants to change from the agreed design, they will be paying for those changes at a rate of £x per hour plus any additional materials costs. Supposing a customer asks for a major change, I can then use those agreed figures to tell them how much the change will cost and allow them to agree to this or not.
Another issue: what if the customer changes their mind and doesn’t want the order? You have two choices here: you can get the full payment up front before you start doing any work, but check the law on this. I’m not sure if you will have to refund the money if the customer doesn’t receive the goods. I actually use the method of taking a deposit that will cover the cost of the materials, plus some of my time up front. I state clearly that this deposit is non-refundable if the customer changes their mind about the order. Obviously if I were unable to make the order for some reason, or if I made something that looked nothing at all like the agreed design, I would need to refund the deposit as I have not adhered to my side of the agreement. I also state that the customer is not obliged to buy the order if they don’t like it, but they will lose their deposit. I send photos as I work so that if it starts taking a turn that displeases them I can sort things out before I’ve finished the piece. That way, nobody gets a nasty surprise at the end of the day and I’ve never yet had a customer decline their custom-ordered piece!
The most important thing is to make sure that you put everything in writing. Just a basic hand-written or typed document stating the price, including the details of the design and clearly stating what deposit is payable and when, when the balance is due and don’t forget to say if there will be an additional shipping cost. Also include your terms, so cover some of the issues I’ve outlined above. That way, everybody knows what they are signing up to and if there is some dispute later on, you have an agreement in black and white to which you can refer.
Final piece of advice: make sure you find out about the laws surrounding selling in your country, and online. Take some proper legal advice if necessary. I am not a lawyer and the above just offers some of my personal thoughts and experience, so follow it, or not, at your own risk! You can see some of my own custom orders here.