The Cost of Custom

As makers of custom anythings, we often see surprise on our clients’ faces when our price quote is higher than what they were expecting. They just wanted a simple thingy custom made. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just look and feel and function like what they were expecting. Is there any way we can make it cheaper, like from a different material or something?? So, clients, this one is for you.

First of all, yes, it does have to be perfect. It may be true that you can settle for less, but if we start making a ton of quickie crappy projects and putting them out there then a potential client who wasn’t privy to your situation is going to pass us by because they’ll think we make sub-par work. We can’t build a business on wham bam crap. So we must make perfect things. Now that you understand that, let’s talk about why the cost might be higher than you hoped.

Imagine I’m your client and you have your own business where you make pizzas. I come to you and say, “Hey, I notice you’re super good at mixing ingredients and baking them. I don’t have a need for pizzas, but I’ve got a hundred relatives at a family reunion that love brownies. Can you make us 200 brownies by next week?” You agree. Now stop for a second and think about what you would charge. The brownie mix might cost $10 at Costco, chocolate chips are another $10, and you probably need a few brownie pans – let’s say another $45. Add some milk, eggs, whatever and you might be up to a total of $85. Now you factor in your time (let’s say $37.50 per hour) and the grand total might be somewhere around $150-$160. Your brownies cost about 80 cents a piece. Not a bad price!

Now imagine I come to you with a custom job. I want a single 4×4 inch sugar free, gluten free, white chocolate brownie that has no crust. I would do it myself but I don’t have a mixer or oven and I know you do so it should be easy and quick for you. You say you can do it for $10- because after all, a Starbucks brownie is $5 and this is a custom job. I say that’s pretty expensive for a single brownie but I agree to pay because I need the brownie by dinner time and I’ve got no other options. You get to work. But remember, you’re a pizza maker. You don’t have any brownie supplies and now you can’t use the gluten-riddled flour you have on hand. You’re not buying anything in a large quantity so you’re stuck with supermarket prices. Buying all the ingredients costs you $25 and you spend an hour researching recipes. Then you have to make a whole batch just to get a single crust-free piece, but you don’t have any one who wants the rest of the custom brownies so  they’re simply going to be waste. But you’re okay with that because you can snack on the leftovers. You’ve just burned up $100 in time and materials. You taste test your masterpiece and almost puke. The bottoms got burned because the gluten free recipe cooks differently. The almond flour you used was dry and chalky. So you buy supplies again and spend another hour tweaking the recipe yourself- shooting from the hip. This time you add some coconut oil and stevia. The total cost comes out to $200 and you only charged $10.

Good luck staying in business!

Another quick example just to drive it home. How much does a new minivan cost? Let’s call it $20,000. How about a used one? Maybe $5,000? Go to any car shop and ask them to build you a minivan from scratch. Tell them it doesn’t have to be new parts, it can be junkyard parts. Tell them you’ll supply the specs on a ten year old model. Is it going to cost $5k? You’re dreaming. Will they do it for $20k? No way. Now go to the factory that made the car a decade ago and ask them to build one more. They are no longer set up to build that model so even they wouldn’t do it for $20k.

The real cost of custom is not the cost of the thing. The real cost of custom is the research, the trial and error, the overhead on equipment and salaries, the material cost (including waste!), the limitations quantity, and enough profit margin to grow a business.

If you need something custom made, you need to understand the cost of custom and be respectful of the makers who are willing to work for you.

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