When you’re just starting out with a small maker business, it’s tempting to do everything yourself, and for good reason. Unless you have money saved up and allocated specifically for your business, or you have investors (in which case, you’re in a bit of a different league than my advice and I am), you don’t really have a choice. You either do it on your own, or it doesn’t get done because you can’t afford the expense.
This was totally me when I started out; I did pretty much everything myself using free tools and free trials. Even now, a few years in, I still do most things on my own. The cost to outsource many things just isn’t worth the benefit yet. That said, there are some things that I do outsource that I find are 100% worth it, even in earlier stages of growing a business. Read on to find out what they are!
Branding. I love me a good color scheme and typeface combination, but I’ve long come to terms with the fact that branding is A. much more than colors and fonts, and B. outside of my wheelhouse. I have the utmost respect for graphic designers and brand strategists; creating a visual representation of a brand identity is literally its own set of expertise, and it’s not something I have the time, resources, or training to do well. On the practical side, I’m not proficient in Adobe Illustrator, a must for creating scalable assets. Thus, outsourcing it is! I worked with a great marketing and branding professional who did all the heavy lifting, while including me throughout the process. (You may notice that my calligraphy is incorporated into my logo!) While I of course want to have some input, I’m happy to leave the actual design and creation to the experts.
Promotional material printing. I hate printers. They’re confusing, they’re hella expensive, they never work the way you need them to, and don’t get me started on the scam that is ink. Seriously – the QR codes on the cartridges, and the fact that your printer will literally not let you print anything if you’re low on one color are criminal offenses. Just put “low on cyan” on my tombstone. Now, I do own a printer, which I use for printing shipping labels since I’m not on the thermal train yet. I got it on a Black Friday deal years and years ago, so it was super cheap and nothing fancy. It does its job of printing out my labels (so I hope it’s not reading this printer rant over my shoulder). It’s also able to handle small jobs like quick-and-dirty price tags and market signage. But when it comes to anything I want to look remotely nice, like my thank-you inserts, business cards, and envelope labels, I call on the pros.
Sticker manufacturing. There are two factions to the sticker shop community: the self-producers and the outsourcers. I fall squarely in the latter camp. For some context for the uninitiated, it is possible to make your own stickers at home with a printer, a cutter (think Cricut or Silhouette), and special sticker paper. The quality of made-at-home stickers depends on the quality of all 3 of those supplies, and I’ve seen stickers that range from complete garbage to complete perfection. I think a good chunk of people who manufacture their own stickers already owned a cutting machine (and likely a decent printer as well) and figured they’d try their hand at making stickers, in addition to the other things they make with their cutter. In those situations, where you already have some or all of the supplies and know how to use them, creating your own stickers is more cost-effective than outsourcing the manufacturing.
When I decided to make stickers, I didn’t own a cutter, and my cheapo Black Friday printer was still in its box. Thus, I could either invest in a cutting machine, a better printer, and a ton of sticker paper and invest the time to master the cutting machine, learn how to use the printer, and test out sticker paper … or I could focus strictly on the sticker designs and pay somebody else (with the supplies, materials, and expertise) to produce them. You already know how I feel about printers, so guess which route I chose.
The idea of investing in inventory can be intimidating, and there’s a level of risk involved: What if it doesn’t sell? What if the manufacturer totally botches my order? To get ahead of that as much as possible, I did a ton of research on sticker manufacturers and signed up for as many discounts and offers as I could before placing an order. I also tried out a variety of manufacturers to figure out the best quality and the best deal. It was a risk, but one I was willing to take over the risk of investing in all the tools to make them myself.
Preparing tax returns. I proudly prepared my own tax filings for years. Granted, I had a relatively simple tax situation – and I used H&R Block’s online preparation services, but still, doing your own taxes can feel daunting, and I got a real sense of accomplishment working through them each year. In the last couple of years, though, especially with this business picking up steam, our situation has gotten complex enough that working with a CPA makes most sense. We work with a CPA firm that has small business expertise, so I can also reach out to them with related questions about mine year-round. Another bonus is that a tax professional knows the ins and outs of available deductions, so you can be confident that they’re accounting (ha!) for everything they can and not claiming deductions that you don’t qualify for. Handing our taxes off to the pros is another layer of peace of mind each year.
When determining what to outsource, think about what you like doing, what would be the best versus worst uses of your time (as opposed to someone else’s who may have expertise in that area), and what your budget will allow. Outsourcing versus DIY is going to look a little different for everyone, and if you feel strongly about doing something yourself or explicitly not doing something yourself, then follow that instinct! Honestly, like with everything else small maker business, it’s all about trial and error, pivoting, and figuring it out along the way.