Technology is an endlessly advancing juggernaut dropping bombs like robotic machines, CNC programs and 3D printing on human artisans. If you’re thinking it’s impossible to compete with the giants who wield these weapons, well, you’re kind of right. But this does not make you an obsolete model. It just means you have to divert some of your creativity into finding a way to compete without competing.
Art being art, and customers being the fickle creatures they are, there is no single answer to running a successful business selling hand crafted pieces of your soul. But you can carve out a niche for yourself, safe from the competition of the mass-production companies.
We spoke to boutique guitar maker, Remi Garcia, who is doing just that. Remi has been a woodworker for as long as he can remember.
“I spent much of my childhood, from the age of six, learning furniture restoration from my father in his workshop. From an early age, my father sat me on his work bench, and I would talk endlessly and watch as he worked. The smell of freshly sawn timber and wood shavings always filled the room. It became my haven, a world stage for the flamenco legends and classical music he so loved to work to.”
Remi found himself more and more inspired by the guitar. Especially the steel and nylon strings of acoustic. This love grew steadily throughout the journey of his life. Swimming about in the depths of his mind while he created antique furniture reproductions. Moving closer to the surface as he built buses, fire engines and ambulances. And then finally breaking through during his time as a boat builder. With a solid woodworking career behind him, and a passion for guitar, he established his business as a guitar builder.
There’s more to your product than craftsmanship
Remi’s story is more than just a nice tale to tell. It is part of the product he delivers to his customers.
“I build guitars but, when it comes down to it, what I’m selling isn’t the guitar. It’s the concept of a beautiful piece of playable art that does everything a guitar is supposed to do but also has a story and ethics people can get behind.”
There’s no way to compete with larger factories by quality and cost alone. So your product has to extend beyond the usual parameters of quality, timeliness and price. It needs a story.
Remi uses sustainable timber where possible and products from sources he believes to be ethical. His guitars are handmade in Australia, so his customers know their money is going back into the local community and they’re helping someone develop their art. To Remi’s target market, this is important.
Hand built furniture appeals to people who are conscientious about reducing waste in the environment. These customers also see that paying more for a well-built item is going to pay off in the long run. It will last them a lot longer and mean they’re not contributing to landfill or the overproduction of unnecessary new items. Rather, their piece of hand made art will be resilient enough to go with them wherever their lives may lead.
The art of not competing
Remi sees the desire to compete with large manufacturers as a trap (click here for his advice on establishing a boutique woodworking business). If you try to offer products of similar quality and value to what’s on the market, you will quickly find that, without the edge big companies gain from bulk supply purchases, cheap overseas labour, and dedicated marketing teams, you will fall behind. You have to provide a different kind of product.
Mass-produced products lack real soul, real quality. They’re given a perceived value through clever marketing. The big companies create desire for a concept, tack it on to their product and then all of a sudden, it has value, regardless of the actual work and quality behind it.
According to Remi, the concepts these companies market to people are not always accurate. The good news is, you can harness their tactics and apply them, in an honest and genuine way, to your own business; re-educating the public on what’s true and what you can provide for them.
Know your target market
Your product needs more than just a story. Your next step is to find customers who passionately believe in the type of story you’re telling. Their ethics and values need to be such that they’re drawn to these kinds of products.
“When you first see, touch or smell a product that’s handmade, you feel its soul right away. You can feel the quality.”
But you have to work out how to reach the right people. Who digs what you’re doing and where do they go when they’re in the market for it? Finding this out takes a bit of digging around. Generally speaking, you need to tailor your creations (and their stories) to your researched target market.
Marketing is not a dirty word
If the word “marketing” makes you cringe with thoughts of spam emails and pushy sales assistants, feel free to relax because this is not what we’re talking about. Marketing, for an artist, is all about social relationships and real-world networking. But you do need to see yourself as more than just a woodworker. You are a designer, creator and entrepreneur, capable of building unique pieces and then taking the vital next step of marketing them to the right collectors.
Remi is on the fence when it comes to online marketing.
“I do use Facebook but the value I see in it is more as a timeline. So people can see the creation process as it happens.”
Most woodworkers value the beautiful, old-school techniques when it comes to their craftsmanship. You will be pleased to know the old fashioned way works best with marketing as well. Social media has its place but it’s really dependent on you as an artist and entrepreneur and the skills you have. If online marketing is a strong point for you, it’s definitely something to pursue. If not, you don’t need to be too concerned. If you have the desire and motivation, it’s worth mastering, simply because every skill you can learn will benefit you. But Remi has found word of mouth to be the best way to get customers.
Word of mouth
Musicians who have played Remi’s instruments talk to other musicians and their glowing reviews prompt people to seek him out to commission their own custom guitars. This is how Remi has built his customer base: by repeatedly providing a quality product and making people happy.
“It’s not only the quality and the way the guitar sounds. It’s the fact that it’s a unique instrument. There will only ever be one of them. It’s been handmade, they’ve met, and feel a connection to, the person who made it and there’s a story they can tell their friends, family and audiences.”
Old-school social networking
As a live music lover, Remi goes to a lot of gigs and often ends up chatting to the musicians. Not with it in mind to push his business, just because he loves what they do and shares their passion for music. Inevitably, they ask what he does.
“I tell them I build guitars and usually end up exchanging numbers and business cards. I get a lot of repair work that way.”
Remi also invites friends into his home to teach them about what he does. With drinks, food and a relaxed atmosphere, he shows them how the instruments are created, from designing with the customer, through the build process, and then playing the finished product. He lets people bring their friends, family members and any musicians they know who would be interested in learning about guitar building.
Industry associations and exhibitions
Remi advocates being a part of any clubs or industry associations within your field. He is a longtime member of the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers (AAMIM),and spent a couple of years writing articles for and editing their journal. Through the association, he exchanged support and advice with the other instrument builders and was able to show his pieces in exhibitions, at woodworking shows and in other venues.
Asking for critique
Perhaps the most unexpected of Remi’s techniques is showing his work to musicians when he knows it is not yet perfect.
“I’ve actually found a lot of help from professional musicians who I brought my work to for critique. I’d take their feedback and improve my work. And when we’d see each other again, they’d see the improvements in what we spoke about and in other areas they didn’t even think of. I’ve built rapport with them, over years, and now they recommend me to other people. That’s often how I get repair work and new business.”
Remi is a big believer in having a presence in your industry and, no matter what stage your work is at, getting it out there, showing people and letting them critique your work. Evaluate any criticism you receive and, if it rings true (even if it stings a bit), take it on board, make improvements and build your skills.
As an artist, it’s easy to be highly critical of your own work and feel like you can’t show anyone until it’s perfect. But this cuts you off from valuable feedback. And, as we’ve learned from Remi, you won’t hurt your business by sharing your progress. Rather, you allow yourself to establish relationships with people. Allowing them to watch you grow adds to the story behind your creations, which adds value to your products for that person (and anyone they share the story with).
Another benefit to this approach is that quite often what you see as a mistake, others see as a beautiful feature. There’s obviously certain criteria you have to meet with any product you’re creating. But, in the end, it’s the customer who has to like it. Quite often a flaw can end up being the buyer’s favourite part. You, as the artist, know it didn’t turn out as intended. You see where it falls short of the concept you had in your mind. But, with their fresh eyes and lack of personal attachment and artistic angst, the customer can see how beautiful your “flaws” actually are.