The Perils and Promise of Artisan Custom Orders

After spending a lot of time with many artisan groups, we’ve quickly learned that their businesses heavily revolve around custom orders. It is no surprise then that many artisans have asked if they could receive custom orders via Anou, rather than just posting the items they have already made.

We have considered custom orders since the beginning of Anou but we have proceeded cautiously. There are the readily apparent challenges such as communication barriers and amount of hours that goes into detailing how an item should be made. But there are also  subtler, more dangerous challenges, namely the fact that over specific custom orders can rob artisans of their culture and creativity.

To move forward, we knew we needed to determine two things. First, are custom orders a net-benefit for artisans in the long run? And second, is it possible to empower rural, even illiterate artisans to fulfill these orders independently?

Over the past several months we’ve immersed ourselves in the custom order process. We’ve talked with artisans whose businesses depend on custom orders and discussed with them their experiences, both good and bad, to learn more about the process. In addition to this, even though it hasn’t been publicized, we’ve been fulfilling custom orders via Etsy and our chat box on TheAnou.com. Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot.

The first thing we learned is that the vast majority of artisans fulfill custom orders based off products they already have. Meaning, someone will walk into an artisan shop and ask an artisan to make the same product, just in a different size or color. In fact, all the custom orders we have fulfilled on Anou follow this pattern. Nothing demonstrates the impact such sales can have on artisans more than the fact that approximately 50% of our revenue this month so far have come from this type of custom order.

The second thing we’ve learned is that a small fraction of custom orders take up most of an artisan’s time. This small fraction of orders are the dangerous orders. Customers write in or request incredibly specific designs. Tens of e-mails go back and forth detailing just how the customer wants it. By the time an artisan finishes a product, it may look Moroccan, but the artisan had little to no creative input in the process. Artisans may make money from these transactions, but at the cost that artisans stop making their own products and wait for others to tell them what to make. In essence, they become labor where the design, and ultimately the value, of the product stay in the hands of someone else.

If we’re truly serious about creating a thriving artisan community, rather than one that just gets by on the good will of others, we need to create a way that illiterate artisans can fulfill custom orders while fostering their innate creative talents.

We’re still manually testing custom orders, but we have consolidated how our platform will work based on the things we’ve learned. Soon, we’ll release a feature that will enable customers to request a custom order of a product an artisan has posted for sale, or one that they have sold before. From there, the customer will be able to request quantities more than one, modify the dimensions of the product, and select a color palette that artisan can draw from as they create the product. This information will be sent to the artisan in a language free format where they can accept the order (if they have the time and material available) and then reply with a price and estimated time to complete. If the customer accepts, they will then pay the price up front. From there, the artisan will be able to provide the customer with pictures of the product as it is being made in real-time. Excitingly, we’ll be able to create this process without the use of any language so even illiterate artisans can utilize it.

Image

Fatima Haddu of Cooperative Chorouk (http://www.theanou.com/store/3) takes a picture of a custom order at the halfway mark.

Such a system will not just preserve the artisans artistic creativity, but expand it by providing artisans with additional insights into what the current trends are in the global marketplace. And most importantly, artisans will be able to retain the value created by their designs and products.

We’re incredibly excited about this feature and we’ll be sure to announce here when it is ready to go.  In the meantime, please reach out if you have thoughts that you would like to contribute to Anou’s future custom order process. And if you would like something custom made, reach out to us at hello@theanou.com. We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

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