1. Be brutally honest with yourself:
Before starting commissions, you absolutely need to ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I willing to do? Are you good with wigs? What about foam? Or resin? Or leather? The idea here is to ask yourself what type of work you excel at and emphasize it. For example, I can do some wig styling, but I don’t consider myself an expert on it, so I don’t offer it in my commission services.
- Is my work good enough for commissions? I ask myself this ALL THE TIME. The reality is that there’s a certain expectation of quality with commission work, and if you can’t meet that quality, then you don’t need to sell. My commissions are the same if not higher quality work than my personal costumes, because each piece is a representation of me and my brand.
- Are you good at customer service? Being able to communicate with people is one of the most essential tasks of commissions. Many potential commissionees approach the commission process thinking they can get costumes cheaper than eBay or Amazon, or that different tasks are simple when in reality they’re quite time consuming. Being able to clearly and calmly discuss these issues with potential clients is an absolute necessity.
- Do I have the time? This is one of my big personal hold-ups with commissions. Working full-time puts a big damper in the number of commissions I’m able to take on at any given time, and it also impacts which costumes I can make for myself. If I have a deadline for a commission coming up around the same time as a con, then I’ll likely have to re-wear a costume, because client work comes first.
2. Pay yourself FAIRLY
Again, this is something I struggle with, but I’ve gotten better at over the years. Due to the rise in fast fashion, many people misinterpret the skill involved in sewing (and any form of custom work, honestly). The reality is that creating a custom piece will ALWAYS cost more than something you can find in an online costume shop.
Much like car or home repair, labor is often one of the largest expenses involved. I used to barely pay myself minimum wage when I first started, and I was miserable. I felt like I sacrificed all my time to creating things for other people, and when all was said and done, I’d barely made enough profit to make it worth my while. Pay yourself an amount that’s commiserate with your experience and skills to prevent this issue. I pay myself $12-15/hour these days, much to the dismay of my friends and SO. I feel like this is a fair price FOR ME since commissions are my extra play money and allow me to get crazy with my personal builds. Keep in mind: this is a low-ball charge compared to some folks who do commissions as their main source of income, so don’t be surprised if you see higher charges as you do research.
To come up with a quote, I use the following formula: Cost of materials + Labor (Est. Hours x $12-15) = Final Quote charge (normally rounded down in favor of the client). When I get a quote request, my pricing process looks something like this:
3. Talk to your clients
This is often one of the biggest frustrations I see with potential commissionees. They get everything set up and send off their money, only to never hear back from the commissioner or have minimal contact. Their deadlines roll around, and they’re in a panic, wondering if their costume will arrive in time. I’ve been in this situation before, and it SUCKS.
A quick message or post to let clients know what’s happening is so, so, so useful. Be honest and open about time frames and when you expect to work and ship so that clients have an idea of when to expect their items. For example, if someone’s at the bottom of my commission queue, I’ll let them know that I won’t be in touch/won’t have progress to show for at least so many weeks, or I’ll let clients know that if I have to order materials online, that they shouldn’t expect to get updates until at least a week or two after said materials have arrived.
4. …but don’t let them walk all over you
On the opposite end of the spectrum, clients messaging every single day is only a situation that should occur if the commissioner fails to deliver or ghosts. If a client harasses you for photos/progress, reiterate that you need time to work.
Likewise, stand your ground on your policies and pricing. People will always ask to bend things here or there. Every case is different, but at the end of the day, you have to stand up for yourself in order to make commissions an enjoyable (and profitable) experience.
5. Remember: Your name is attached to EVERYTHING YOU SAY/DO
Social media is both a blessing and a curse for commissions. If you do it well, it’s an easy way to market yourself and gain clients and followers. But at the same time, you have to be conscientious of your online presence. Insulting another cosplayer’s work, shaming (of any kind), or bullying are obviously huge no-nos (and key indicators that you’re a crap human being, let’s be honest). But there’s more to it than avoiding the obvious. You have to evaluate what your brand represents and how much information you’re willing to share. For example, I’m not comfortable sharing much of my personal life online, partially because I feel odd letting the whole world know what’s going on in my day-today, but also I don’t want to impact mine or my fiance’s day job (or future job hunting).
Think about what works for you and for the brand you’re trying to create. Individuals have a bit more flexibility than companies, but branding still requires conscientious curation.
6. Promote yourself
Again, this is another task I’ve struggled with in the past, but it’s a necessity to generate business. A lot of my promotion work happens at cons. I often wear nerd-inspired outfits on Fridays or Sundays (a.k.a. lazy con days), so any time someone comments on one of my outfits, I try to plug my name and distribute a business card. Most of my friends and family will do the same thing!
In addition to in-person marketing, online marketing is a must! There are lots of Facebook groups that put clients and commissionees in touch with one another in addition to standard social media marketing practices.
Here are a few groups to keep an eye out for:
- Heroes for Hire? No, Costumes for Sale!
- Cosplay for Sale
- Plus Size Cosplay for Sale
- Geographically based groups or specific cosplay genres (e.g., Disney Cosplay for Sale)
7. Keep track of EVERYTHING
One of the most challenging components of commission work for me isn’t the creation of costumes. It’s the juggling work of keeping track of commission inquiries, where they’re coming from, and staying up to date with all the orders you need to make (not to mention deadlines). I get commission inquiries through all my social media platforms, as well as through e-mail and in-person chats. To keep myself organized, I keep track of all this information through Google Sheets and Trello.
Likewise, HOLD ON TO YOUR RECEIPTS, both digital and physical. Anytime I purchase anything related to my commissions or business, I put it in a bin just for tax related purposes. I also keep track of money via PayPal and Etsy’s shop setup. I definitely prefer spreadsheets as a way to keep track of money, so I make sure to go through all my receipts as meticulously as possible so that my headache isn’t so severe when tax season rolls around.
My workflow looks something like this:
- Client reaches out to me for quote, and I make a note of the client, along with where they asked and other relevant information in a Google Sheet.
- Once the client has agreed to terms, payment, and details, I send them a commission agreement form with fields for measurements and shipping information.
- After the client has sent me their down payment, I begin ordering materials and starting on their piece.
I use Trello to organize out individual tasks for each commission, since it’s easy to drag and drop checklist items when they’re completed.
8. Even if you’re not organized, GET ORGANIZED
This ties back in with point number 7. Again, I’m awful at this, but commissions have forced me to get better. There’s nothing worse than needing to work on a commission, only to realize that you’ve misplaced supplies. It’s an obnoxious hold-up and can cut into your profits.
I’m in the process of setting up a new storage unit in my craft room that doubles as a quick pressing station. It is only for commissions and business related purposes, so I won’t have to rummage through my other bins and storage units to find what I need. Knowing where everything is supposed to go will save you time and stress!
9. Have fail safes in place
Shit happens. Your sewing machine breaks. The fabric that’s perfect for a commission is out of stock. You (or a loved one) have serious health issues. Having back-ups will help you keep your sanity as you work on projects when shit hits the fan. I build extra time into my commission quotes for this reason so that clients are pleasantly surprised when their items get to them early, rather than infuriated when items are shipped to them months late.
10. Take time for yourself
Burnout is a real thing with commissions. It’s easy to take commission after commission, and then realize you haven’t made something for yourself in six months. It’s okay to close up shop for a while and take time to work on things for you. In fact, you should do this every now and then to recharge your creative batteries. Your work will be better for it!
Have you commissioned costume pieces before? What was your experience like?