Case study: building out a product portfolio

Plenty of makers start with one product. But to grow, you may need to diversify your revenue streams by applying your skills across different items and price points. Here's how Indian artist Manuja Waldia has done it.
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Given the often precarious nature of earning a living as a maker, building out a product portfolio makes sense. After all, there aren't many people who grow a business by making and selling just one particular product. An increasing number of artists are turning their Instagram feeds into personal galleries – selling their art online while applying it to products that are cheaper to make and easier to sell in higher volumes. Anything from a T-shirt to a ceramic can be turned into a canvas, enabling more people, with varying degrees of purchasing power, to interact with the art.

Goa-based Manuja Waldia runs Waldia & Company – an online art shop that sells original oil paintings as well as prints, greeting cards, hand-painted T-shirts, knits and even old books. She started thinking about building out her product portfolio as a way of keeping the momentum of her business alive, while working on her large-scale oil paintings. ‘Those take time to produce, so I wanted to work on other things in the interim,’ she says. ‘It helps me stay focused on my painting practice, while making money on the side.’

Learning product idiosyncrasies

Of course, some items end up being more commercially successful than others, and there's a lot of trial and error involved. When building out Waldia & Company, Manuja discovered that the process of embroidering her illustrations on dresses, or paintings on T-shirts, could be as labor-intensive as creating an original artwork. ‘My wearables can take ridiculously long to make, but I can't charge the customer above a certain price – at the end of the day, it's a T-shirt,’ says Manuja. ‘So that's more of a passion project at this stage.’ Prints, on the other hand, are easy to produce and have high-volume potential, so profits are compounded over time. 

‘That's the product with the highest margins in my shop,’ says Manuja. ‘It's almost like licensing or crowdfunding your artwork.’

Deciding how to diversify 

When deciding how to branch out, Manuja began by thinking about the kind of products that she and her friends would want to use in their homes. That meant small- scale plaster paintings, prints and handmade fashion items – or ‘wearable art’, as she prefers to call it. She now sells all of the above on her online platform and reaches customers across India, the US and major European markets, including the UK and Germany. 

‘The more diverse your offering in terms of product and price, the broader your audience will be,’ she says. ‘I think about accessibility a lot. I don't feel good about reserving my art only for people who can afford the paintings. These other products are a good way for me to get my work into people's homes more quickly.’

Finding the right balance

There's no magic formula for creating the perfect product portfolio but, as far as Manuja is concerned, it's all about striving to find a balance and sticking to your values. ‘For me, art is a way of slowing down and making things intentionally, but at the same time I don't want to get left behind,’ she says. ‘I have to keep exploring the commercial aspects of my practice as well.’ 

Manuja's top tips

The artist shares her advice on how other creatives can build out their portfolios. 

1. ‘If you want to work on a product you don't know too much about, bring on a collaborator and build it together. I worked with an amazing textile artist from Delhi on my first dress. I did some illustrations and she worked on the silhouette and the production. That's when I realized that art doesn't have to live on a canvas or paper.’ 

2. ‘Having different projects on the go at once means you might struggle with attention deficiency. I try to see my week as one unit and then break it up, with different days dedicated to different types of products, as well as my freelance work. Clients' deadlines take priority and then everything else has to fit around that. It also helps if you have a long-term vision of everything you want to accomplish each month.’ 

3. ‘Use social media to communicate about how long something takes to get produced and how that's reflected in the price point. Everyone is so conditioned to having access to lower-priced, industrially made art, so it can be hard for people to understand why you are selling your work at a higher price. Talking to your audience about this goes a long way towards establishing that trust.’ 

4. ‘Start small and embrace it. For my wearables, I usually make one piece of every item. If I'm making multiples, I'll make five for each edition and, even then, they're never exact replicas. I make it known to my audience that my approach is anti-factory, and people tend to respond well to that. They know they are getting something that is truly personalized for them.’ 

5. ‘Use a plug-and-play online-shopping platform [with a ready-made template]. This way, you can easily update your catalog and add new products, without having to worry about the coding.’  

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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