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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Crafting a market for custom wares

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Paula Garbarino, a Medford furniture maker, has been listed on CustomMade.com for two years. The listing has garnered her one commission, to build a small cabinet for about $4,000.

If Paul Revere were still around, cranking out church bells and silver teapots in his Boston shop, he might use the website CustomMade.com to find customers.

The Cambridge-based site, founded by a local woodworker, is trying to establish itself as the go-to destination online for consumers who might be in the market for a Bolivian rosewood nightstand or a $4,200 moose-antler chandelier.

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But as the company tries to grow from 22 employees and a roster of 2,500 artisans into an eBay-size colossus, it confronts a fascinating conundrum: In an IKEA world, where most consumers are content to assemble $100 bookshelves made of particle board, can you find success selling high-end, finely crafted, made-in-America products?

Mike Salguero and Seth Rosen bought the site from its founder in early 2009 - a “horrible time,’’ Salguero says, to be trying to find customers who might splurge on a $2,500 cigar humidor. But they kept at it, going to woodworking and craft fairs to find artisans willing to pay a $250 annual fee to showcase their work.

Most of the artisans on the site are woodworkers, but CustomMade has added glass artists, custom leather makers, jewelers, and ceramicists of late. Most have a few finished items for sale, but are willing to produce new pieces to a customer’s specifications. CustomMade doesn’t take a cut of the sales - yet. (More on that later.)

Salguero says the average transaction on CustomMade is in the neighborhood of $1,500 to $2,000. He likes to position the site’s merchandise as competing with Restoration Hardware or Pompanoosuc Mills. “You might be paying a small premium for custom,’’ he says, “but you’re also supporting something that’s handcrafted, and that may be made by someone in your community.’’

But in trying to connect with a broad swath of prospective customers, CustomMade runs into the challenge that most of the “makers’’ on its site prefer to emphasize the quality of their work, rather than affordable prices.

“A lot of people have the wrong idea, which is that maybe a maker would be less expensive than buying something in a furniture showroom,’’ says Paula Garbarino, a Medford furniture maker who has been listed on the site for two years. “I’d much rather have people identify something in the photos of my work and say, ‘I want Paula to make something like this for me.’ ’’

Garbarino, whose pieces often feature elaborate pictures done with wood veneer, acknowledges being “more expensive than the vast bulk of their makers.’’ She says she has gotten one commission through the site - a small cabinet that sold for about $4,000. “I’d like more.’’

Quentin Kelly of Milton shares the sentiment. “I’ve gotten very little work from it through the years, and everybody I’ve talked to lately has had the same experience,’’ he says. Most of Kelly’s business comes by way of word-of-mouth from former clients, and from architects and designers he knows.

Kelly remains a CustomMade subscriber, but John Cameron, a Gloucester woodworker, dropped his subscription after two years. “It just didn’t generate any business,’’ he says. “Maybe if the economy improved.’’

But others find that the site can connect them with projects that wouldn’t otherwise have come their way. Maine-based craftsman Howard Hatch, who specializes in Art Deco-inspired pool tables, says he sold two tables - at about $20,000 each - through the site.

Evan Court, a 19-year-old woodworker in Concord, N.H., says he joined the site this summer, and “it has one thousand times paid for itself. I have work lined up until after Christmas.’’ Court says he has primarily found projects on CustomMade’s recently introduced job board, where customers describe items they would like to have made, and the site’s makers can bid on them. Last week, Court sealed a deal to make a gateleg dining table for “close to $800,’’ he says.

Salguero says much of the site’s action is shifting to the job board, and the company expects to rely less on subscriptions as a source of revenue in the future. “Right now, someone could get $100,000 worth of work from the site and pay the same price as someone who gets no work,’’ he says. Soon, the company may start extracting a fee of about 10 percent from every project that a maker lands through the job board, but reduce the cost of subscriptions.

But as CustomMade grows, it will have to grapple with Etsy, a Brooklyn-based site that tends to feature lower-priced items, like lamp shades trimmed with beach glass and ceramic pie plates. CustomMade has raised about $5 million, but Etsy has raised ten times as much and gets one hundred times the monthly traffic to its site, according to Compete, a Web analysis service.

Court told me that he hasn’t had much luck selling items at $500 and above on Etsy. But that dynamic could change. The site does list items like a $6,900 dining table made from reclaimed cypress wood.

One intriguing possibility for CustomMade is to go global, inviting craftspeople from Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe. While shipping prices could prove steep, makers there could still undercut the Americans and Canadians who seek work through the site. Salguero calls it “an open question’’ whether that could happen in the future, but acknowledges that it would likely anger current subscribers.

The promise of CustomMade is appealing: enabling people to practice the crafts they love, and make a living doing it. And if the site - and its makers - can thrive by selling expensive, high-quality goods in an online milieu where the lowest price always seems to prevail, well, that would be revolutionary.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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