Why do we Under Sell Ourselves? Lessons in Pricing from Sarah Kay

The idea of pricing our work seems a daunting task, not helped by the ‘British’ taboo of discussing money. However, it is an important lesson to be learnt for any designer-maker hoping to start their own enterprise. Pricing your work, so as not to scare off possible buyers; to keep electricity in the workshop; to put food on the table; and to fund a passion for making. This topic for discussion came to mind, when I received an email enquiring about my work. What is a good price? I had no confidence and no idea. I decided to turn to someone with more experience to guide me through this costing maze.

Sarah Kay, alumni of Parnham College in Dorset, told me that the first piece she ever sold was at her graduation show. It was a console table, which she’d spent hours sculpting in isolation, in the woodshed at college- “because of the mess”, she added. It was a perfect way for her to exorcise her rage and grief after a relationship break-up. She called it Panacea, which it was, and sold it for £3000 to a lovely couple who wanted to gift themselves something for their golden wedding anniversary. At the time she couldn’t believe anyone would want to part with so much money and it was the greatest confidence boost and compliment. She says, “I wish I’d known it was to celebrate their long relationship before I told them about how cathartic making it was for the break-up of mine…”

Sarah subcontracts a lot of her work to other makers, so in a way she’s “passing the buck”. She estimates her time based on a day rate, including processes from design to delivery, organising to sourcing materials; and remembering to add a percentage for the maker’s price. If she’s making a piece herself, usually speculative to show at an exhibition, then there is no need to guess, as she is able to calculate her time, materials and overheads.

Sometimes, she says, “it seems outrageous and I don’t add all the hours that went into it, I don’t want to have stock hanging around if I can avoid it. My way of looking at it is that there is always more than one idea that will emerge from all the time spent thinking and sketching. Over the years I’ve accumulated a collection of things, some of which I’ve managed to palm off on family or friends. I envy jewellers who can put it in a little drawer or back in the melting pot”.

Pricing is THE most difficult thing and a strict formula will not do. We’re all taught how to calculate our overheads and estimate time for different processes and that’s the easy part. The more you can keep a record of how long processes take the sooner you’ll achieve more accurate estimates. The amount of time that goes into the idea before it even hits the workbench means that if you are going to make a piece as a strictly one-off, there should be a premium attached. Sarah advises that, “ideally, if your client wants a piece to be exclusive to them, I would try and keep the option to make variations of a theme so that you can capitalise on all that thinking time – unless of course they’re prepared to make it financially worthwhile”. Communicate very clearly with your client, to avoid different expectations; you can also number pieces as limited editions.

Another consideration is putting your piece into a gallery. If you are exhibiting a piece and know that if it does not sell, it is able to be exhibited, then you may be able to factor in the mark-up price of the gallery. When it comes to batch products, it is important to gather market research, and see how costings compare with similar quality and types of work in a gallery shop. There can be some justification to make a reduced (even just a little) profit on some items, in order to get a foot in the door when you’re starting out.

Sarah opened up about her ‘catalogue of mistakes’. She explained that the one’s that annoy her most are those when she has made a bad design decision and although it might be small it’s what screams at her every time she looks at the work or a photo of it. She tells of her most embarrassing mistake, when she delivered some shelves to a client and they got wedged in the front door; the lesson learnt being- NEVER assume and ALWAYS measure access. She admits to having underpriced plenty of work, but always managed to stay in business. If in doubt, talk it through with someone, you’ll probably find yourself justifying your price and even increasing it!

I touched upon gender issues within the area of discussion, and was interested by Sarah’s reply: “I can’t speak for how anyone else prices their work. Are women more diffident generally? I’d say probably. I think a lot of men are good at putting on a front even if inside they’re full of insecurity, I’m sure that could affect how they price their work. In the end, you have to be comfortable with what you’re charging – knowing that you have calculated it fairly and that it is right for both you and your client”.


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