One way to make a living using your button machine is to take orders for custom buttons. It’s actually surprisingly easy for most people to get started in this business and has relatively low start up costs as well. Way back in my other life I ran a custom merchandise company – mostly producing screen printed t-shirts and buttons. So I have pretty good idea of what it takes to make that business work. This is a basic guide for getting started in the industry.
“Custom buttons” is what we call it when you are making buttons, customized with the clients design. This is different from Retail Buttons, where you are selling finished buttons with your designs. In the custom button business, the customer will usually provide you with a finished design. Though some times they’ll just have a vague idea and will come to you for help with the design too.
Here is a list of stuff you need to go into business making custom buttons:
1. Button Machine
2. Circle Cutter
3. Button Parts
6. A Website
7. Design Software
8. Printer (with paper and ink)
10. Delivery Services
11. Accept Credit Cards or Pay Pal
12. Business Licensing
13. Accounting Software
Items 1-3 can be purchased from ButtonMakers.net – so that part is pretty easy. Though you do need to decide what size you want to start with. In a perfect world, you would have multiple machines so you could offer several sizes to your customers. But it is perfectly easy to start off with just one size. That’s what I did. For a long time, I only had a 1 inch button machine. Most of my customers at the time were punk bands – or people promoting films or events catering to Seattle hipster teens and twenty-somethings. The next machine I got was a 2-1/4 inch so that I could broaden my customer base to political campaigns and community organizations. After that I purchased the 3-1/2 inch machine just to round out my offerings: 1 inch (small) 2-1/4 inch (medium) and 3-1/2 (large).
Item 4 – A computer. Don’t skimp on this. Get a good one. Your time is money and if you’re sitting there waiting for stuff to load, you’re wasting money. These days you can get pretty good computers for pretty cheap. In fact you might even be able to find a used one that already have Adobe Creative Suite loaded on it.
Item 5 – The Internets. I’m not sure I need to tell you this, but you need broadband. Good fast internet is essential for downloading those big design files you’re customers will be sending you.
Item 6 – A website. In this day and age, a website is just as essential as a business card- especially for a custom button business. Navigating your ordering instructions can be confusing for customers. Having a site with clear instructions is important. Also you may be able to set up an FTP site for people who can’t email you their 50 mb illustrator file. These days many people don’t even need to hire an expensive graphic designer for their site. You may even be better off just installing WordPress on your site and learning how to update it yourself. I recommend hosting your site with Dreamhost, because they have 1-click WordPress installations and automatic updates.
Item 7 - Design Software. My recommendation is to get Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. If you’re familiar with and already using some other graphics program that’s cool. Just make sure you can open PSD, and AI files. These are the most popular among designers. Though these designers should know how to send you other file types as well. So you can always ask that they send you flattened Tiff or Jpeg or PDF files or whatever you need.
The other reason you’ll want a program like Photoshop or Illustrator is because most people really aren’t designers. A lot of times they’ll have a logo that they’ve been using on their website or something that is entire too low resolution to print. You may need to take this logo and clean it up or recreate it entirely. This happens a lot. And when it does happen you should charge for it!!
You do need to be pretty proficient in whatever program you’re using, because once orders start rolling in, you’ll be under deadlines. Nearly all custom merch customers need their orders yesterday. Take a look at some of our other posts. We have video tutorials available. My advise would be to start making sample buttons. You’ll need something to show potential clients
Item 8 – A Printer. There are two basic types of printers to choose from: Inkjet and Laser. The paper and ink you need to buy depends on the printer you have. Read this post for in depth information on both.
Item 9 – Prices. The prices that you can charge are based on 2 things. 1) How much you want to make, and 2) What the market will bear. I would suggest googling “custom buttons” and checking out your competitions prices. Next phone around locally to see if you can a print shop doing custom buttons and compare. Don’t be afraid to charge what you need to make a living. If you’re doing good targeting advertising, you may not have to compete on price. Many people are not price shopping and want to do business with you because of who you are and the service you offer – not because you’re the lowest around. Here are some key pieces of advice:
- you don’t always have to compete on price (charge what you can, cover your materials + time + markup always, make sure your business is sustainable)
- establish a fee based on size and quantity (most people offer quantity discounts)
- establish a normal turnaround time and a rush fee
- establish a design fee ahead of time (be clear about the situations in which a design fee will occur (IE: ‘your graphic must be no smaller than 300ppi or a design fee with occur’)
Item 10 – Delivery Services When you’re first starting out you may not need to go all out with a UPS account and daily pickup. You might be fine going down to the local post office or UPS store. But if you’re planning on doing mail order business, you will be obligated to come up with shipping quotes before an order is placed. So having a shipping scale is helpful. I also recommend Endicia.com for postal shipments.
Item 11 – Payment Processing. You might be able to get away with just accepting Katrina over at NPC for the best service and lowest prices.
Item 12 – Business Licensing. You’ll probably need a business license to legally conduct business in your state. Every state is different so contact your local department of revenue or SBA for help.
Item 13 – Accounting Software. Quickbooks is the gold standard here and I won’t argue with that. You’ll want to think long-term here and start off on the right foot. Talk to an accountant. There is nothing worse than redoing an entire years worth of entries because you set something up wrong. Just take your time, and get things set up properly before you get your first customer.
Item 14 – Customers. All businesses need customers! Here are some strategies that I have found most successful:
1. Go Local, Go Niche
One thing I have noticed about good targeted niche advertising is that these customers aren’t price shopping. They’re not online comparing prices. They’re in the real world looking for reliable service, fast turnaround, and community involvement. They’re willing to pay whatever you’re charging! Some of them might not even know they need buttons, until you come up to them with some samples and say “Hey! I’ll make you these buttons for $.50 each and you can sell them for $2.00 at the fund-raiser you’re having next week.”
Local / Niche groups that often need buttons include:
- Political Campaigns
- Musical Groups
- Print shops
- Photo Labs / Photographers
Word-Of-Mouth marketing is not something that happens by accident. It’s not something that just magically occurs. It is something you can work on and for and is probably one of the most important forms of marketing around.
- Join your local Rotary Club
- Join a BNI Group
- Attend business networking socials
- Volunteer for charitable causes
- Ask for referrals
- Give out referrals to others (what goes around, comes around)
- Commit yourself to a standard of excellence and quality
- Cultivate long-standing relationships with other businesses and community leaders, whether they can help you in the short-term or not.
3. Online advertising.
- Get your website listed on search engines by having good, search-able content. You can read all about the stuff that Google loves on their webmaster page.
- Facebook and Twitter – use them regularly, add your customers as friends.
- Pay-Per-Click advertising on search engines