How did you get work when you were starting out?
January 12, 2014 1:05 PM   Subscribe

In November 2013 I started a metalworking shop. My background is specialty metalworking, so bending, fabrication, forming, fine welding, metal patina, etc etc. There is a niche in Vancouver for this kind of fabrication, the work is there, my question is how do I chase it down?

So far most of the jobs have come by word of mouth and through personal connections. This has been fine to start however I am now in a position where I would like to be taking on more work in order to expand my shop beyond the initial investment I've already made. This means getting bigger, and higher profile work, jobs that either pay well, photograph well, or (ideally!) both.

Some potentially useful background information:

1) I have a website but it's basically a nice looking landing page with a contact form. My reason for not expanding this at this time is that most of the high profile work I've done in the past has been when working for other people, so I'm not comfortable putting photos of work up what was not completely designed or overseen by me personally. Stepping out on my own means that my personal portfolio is lagging behind my professional abilities.

2) The main competitive difference between myself and other shops is fine finishing; the use of acid patinas, brushed and abraded metal finishes, and unusual metals (brass copper bronze) in the products that I create.

3) In a sense I am succeeding somebody who I worked for in the past. This former employer is no longer involved in metalworking due to personal issues (bizarrely his website is still active) however I am renting the same space he used to be in, and I can do all the work that he did when he was in business. I have personal relationships with some of the clients he had, however many of the bigger ones he kept close to his chest and I was therefore involved in fabricating the projects but had no personal connection to them. Obviously any artistic vocation is a personal thing, and I have no desire to crib his style, but I recognize this connection to somebody who was successful in the custom metalworking game as something I can potentially capitalize on.

4) As mentioned, this shop is in Vancouver BC.

Of course this question is mostly targeted at artisan trades and other creative businesses, however there are successful models everywhere and I would love to hear what you did that worked when you were young and just beginning, no matter what the vocation.

I am cognizant of the dreaded 'chatfilter' and strive to avoid it, however if you need more information on the business I'm happy to provide it. If it is a general clarification or question you think someone else might find useful then please ask in this thread, otherwise send me a PM and I will respond as soon as possible.
posted by seagull.apollo to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You should try to get yourself looped into your local Maker community, there's a high overlap with "People who are really into steampunk, have design skills and need metalwork."
posted by jamaro at 1:21 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

[Pulled the websites - you can put them in your profile, OP, but this post needs to not look even vaguely like an attempt to drive traffic. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 1:24 PM on January 12, 2014

Oh whoops, sorry about that, I'm not much of a web person so I didn't even think of that. I'm adding them to my MeFi profile (my own is pyramidmetalworks, my former boss' is fusionworksmetal in case anyone wants to have a look), hopefully that is satisfactory to the mods.
posted by seagull.apollo at 1:42 PM on January 12, 2014

Are you advertising on Craigslist? Do that. It's totally free.

Make up some nice fliers and put them on bulletin boards at libraries, co-op groceries, wherever cool folks hang out.
posted by Slinga at 2:05 PM on January 12, 2014

You can do some photogenic sample work without a client and post that on your website, plus it will give you some examples to show to customers in real life. Facebook is tough for businesses, but you can post some series of start to finish project progress posts (you don't have to do a tutorial and give away your secrets, but instead show a series of steps along the way). Same with youtube. I assume that canada has a something similar to the US where there's a website that lists all the goverment requests for quotes (if you want to do government work, but someone has to make the big metal letters that go on buildings). You can post on this forum on the Practical Machinist website (read the rules).
posted by 445supermag at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would suggest finding out who builds the high end custom homes and renovations in your area and build a relationship with that contractor (usually there are one or two design/architecture firms and contractors who build custom homes in each area) and build up that end of your business. Another potentially kinda lucrative area would be your local SCA (society for Creative Anachronism). You aren't going to get much money making from them directly, although you would be amazed what some of the better off members will pay for to spruce up armor or weapons but I have found there is a very large overlap with that group and skilled trades/engineers/contractors and just people who make things in general. And lastly would be the car customization shops/speed shops. they always need custom metal work done and fabrication.
posted by bartonlong at 2:37 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Let any local home magazines know about some of the cooler projects you've done; they usually cover artisans and craftspeople like yourself and are always looking for a good story. Send them a pitch email with your personal story and the story of a local project you've worked on that you can share, along with a few photos and your contact info. (Taking out an ad in such a publication is also an option.) One potential story angle: "Skilled artisan/craftsperson mentored by locally known longtime craftsperson recently struck out on his own." Work the timeliness angle—you're new, and magazines and blogs always need new stuff to cover (and they like to be first to cover someone promising). Another potential angle: craftsperson who has cool workspace (if you do!).

Also, getting involved in local charity home projects (for instance, providing some custom metalwork—a gate, a coatrack or wall rack, etc.—for a home built through Habitat for Humanity) can help get the word out about your services.

You might also start making some affordable smaller objects to sell through Etsy—that would give you a potential stream of income, as well as a way to showcase your talents.
posted by limeonaire at 3:35 PM on January 12, 2014

Also, pick up copies of any local home magazines for yourself, and/or peruse their blogs, and get in touch with designers mentioned who seem like they're doing work that could use custom metal fabrication services like yours. Another way to get in touch with people who could use your services: the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia.
posted by limeonaire at 3:46 PM on January 12, 2014

OK, more ideas: Get in touch with Free Spirit Spheres, a Vancouver company that makes custom spherical treehouses, and/or any other local treehouse company—custom metal stairs and fixtures make treehouses awesome. If there aren't other treehouse builders in your area, and you can handle the engineering end of things or know someone who can, you might also look into working that up as part of your business. People are always having kids, and treehouses for adults are also becoming increasingly popular, but there aren't a lot of craftspeople making them, so it's definitely a niche worth exploring.

Re: working with car shops, one potential collaboration that could work, too, would be working with a car painter on custom-enameled metal home and corporate cabinetry, such as refrigerator surrounds and paneling, cabinet facing, countertops, custom magnetic dry-erase boards or chalkboards, range hoods, wall sculpture/treatments/tiles... I remember writing up a house one time in my city that had a beautifully redone midcentury kitchen with custom car-painted metalwork.

Restaurants, too, are another great market for this, as new ones open every month, and they all want fixtures—from lights to tables, chairs, and countertops—that set them apart and help their branding. If there's a local food publication that covers upcoming openings (does Vancouver Magazine?), that would be a great place to look for prospective restaurant owners to cold-call about needs they might have for their spaces, as a lot of them will be trying to do it themselves with the help of small contractors such as yourself. The dining editors at that magazine might also have some sense of who has needs in this regard—it might not hurt to get in touch with them and just ask for their thoughts, as they might be able to make a connection.

Get in touch with local landscapers, too (and see if local garden shops have bulletin boards or "ask an expert" type services you could plug into)—custom garden furniture, benches, arbors, pool and patio furniture, and pool metalwork are all lucrative potential areas to expand your business. Try the British Columbia Society of Landscape Artists?

I work for a publication similar to Vancouver Magazine and have covered local real estate and artisans for quite some time, and those are just a few of the ways I've seen contractors network and score gigs to expand their businesses.
posted by limeonaire at 4:15 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

As for the website, people will use your website for the following things:
1. Finding out that you do [thing]
2. Contacting you or visiting you regarding [thing]
3. Seeing examples of [thing]

As long as your site fulfills those requirements, it's doing it's job. Make sure the above three features are obvious to people visiting your site for the first time. Put all useful location and contact information in HTML text that visitors can copy and paste into their address books, email messages, Google Maps, etc.

The next best thing you can do is continue feeding your site a steady stream of recent work; even if a given job was designed by somebody else, if you can prove that you can executes their design to spec and above the expected level of quality, you're proving yourself capable of doing what people want.
posted by ardgedee at 4:59 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also: see if you can contact stage, TV and movie prop and set designers. The people I know in Toronto who do this kind of custom work get most of their commissions from this source.
posted by jrochest at 2:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! I would mark everything as 'best answer', but that would kind of defeat the purpose... suffice to say these are great suggestions.

I'm also going to make some finish samples, little stamped brass pyramids with a nice finish on them, and take them to potential clients as a kind of calling card.

Exciting stuff!
posted by seagull.apollo at 9:08 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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