So you want to sell custom products? (Part 1)

Albert Wenger of Union Ventures

Here at Treehouse Logic we talk to a lot of start-ups that are betting on the design-your-own business model.   We’re seeing some major shifts in shopping behavior, most of which are discussed in this blog.

Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures probably explains this phenomenon of mass customization the best: “We’re pretty convinced that mass-market consumer products are now so cheap and widely available that they’ve lost a lot of their appeal. We think people are looking for something unique and customizable. We’re interested in the social fabric — bringing people together that design things, and people who want to buy them.  Mass produced goods are dominated by a few large brands. But everywhere you look there are movements seeking to bypass those brands, whether it’s the locavore movement in food, or something such as NikeID, which has seen double-digit growth year over year.”

So how can new entrants to the customization market build businesses that focus on providing something unique and customizable, as well as tap into the power of the social fabric of designers and buyers?   Here are a few tips for up-and-coming custom product vendors:

Don’t repeat the mistakes of past customization businesses

Dell's product configurator

About 10-12 years ago we started seeing the first consumer-facing visual configurators.  Nike ID,, and Timbuk2 were pioneers of the design-your-own movement.  What worked for them?  What didn’t work?   Why did Levi’s drop their customization program?   Why did Dell give up on customization?  A lot has changed in both shopping behavior and web technology in the last decade, so be sure to learn from others mistakes, and don’t replicate them.   Do your homework and focus on creating a NEW spin on customization that is innovative, simple, and core to your business model.

Build the brand first

Your value proposition has to be much more than “have it your way.”  You need a brand story that resonates with your customer.  Instead of customization itself, focus on what your core product values are, for example; product quality, locally made, sustainable, fashionable, built-to-order within a week, etc.   Yes, design-it-yourself is a selling point, but your customers don’t buy from you because your products are custom, they buy from you because your products are what they want.

Consider avoiding the ‘custom’ term altogether.  The term ‘custom’ can imply difficult-to-make and expensive.    Eventually, all products will include some level of mass customization.

Focus on product quality

Custom Burberry trenchcoat

Users are taking a big leap of faith by buying your products online.  Don’t let customizability get in the way of product quality.  Highlight your product with high res photos.   If you’re going to differentiate from commodity products you need to stand out in quality and design.    Luxury brands like Burberry use customization as an engagement tool that helps build their luxury brand.    “Honestly it makes no difference at all” how many custom coats Burberry sells, Ms. Ahrendts says. “It’s customer engagement. You want them to engage with the brand.”

Launching a customization program is a lot more involved then just bolting a build-your-own feature onto a website that features mostly “standard” products.      How do you plan to stand out?

Look for more best practices in future posts…

Who are mass customization customers?

At TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing, finalist United Styles launched a new “user generated fashion” crowd-sourcing website.  The business model focuses on letting users design their own clothing, open their own stores, and sell their own designs online.  The goal is to democratize the design industry, effectively taking the power away from Madison Avenue and letting users “pull” their own fashion instead of it being “pushed” to them via conventional, predictive mass production business models that depend on the voodoo science of demand forecasting.

After the presentation, United Styles was asked by the panel of judges “who is your target user?”  Their answer was the “the fashion blogosphere.”   Huh?

A cardinal rule of social media

This is an important question for all companies offering custom products.  Who ARE mass customization customers?  Power shoppers?  Fashionistas? Tweens?  The oddly shaped?  Designers?  Hipsters individualists?  Luxury buyers?   Novelty gift buyers?

In his blog, VC Fred Wilson identifies one of the cardinal rules of social media:   “Out of 100 people, 1% will create the content, 10% will curate the content, and the other 90% will simply consume it.”   This customer segmentation framework applies to co-creation marketplaces as well.


United Styles

Bespokable, for example, provides a platform for a network of tailors to design shirts based on users specifications.  Users themselves don’t touch the visual product configurator.  Instead, customers describe their requirements via a web form.  The tailors review the requirements and self-reported body measurements, and then design a custom shirt via the online design tool.

Lookk and Fabricly also target “real designers.”  Up and coming designers are attracted to these new web platforms because they offer the chance to showcase their collection as an independent designer.   Instead of designing garments within a web browser, these designers use more conventional offline design tools like hand sketching on paper and Adobe Illustrator.  They then upload their designs and even photographs.

These are the 1% – the power users that create the content.   Experts only.


Threadless and United Styles target the amateur quasi-designer.    The micro-entrepreneur.  The casual designer engages with browser based design tools and uploads their design to a virtual store.   No special design skills or tools are required.  This is true fashion co-creation:  come to a website site and start designing and selling garments.     The real opportunity here is to encourage an untapped market of untrained designers to start designing, creating a large pool of virtual inventory.

A built-in fashion police feature

The key to success in the co-creation market is balancing user creativity with content curation.  The quasi-designer is a curator of controlled content.  Like a Polyvore user who creates sets, the core fashion is defined and controlled within the constraints of the design tool.

These are the 10% that are curating the content.   Anyone may apply.

What’s important to realize is that these new services open up a larger market of creators / curators by making it increasingly easier to access creation and curation tools.


According the cardinal rule, the real opportunity is in serving the 90% of the market, ie the consumers of the (created and curated) content.   It is the mass-market appeal that fuels the business model.   The designers and the quasi-designers create content for a large audience of casual shoppers to purchase.

Who does mass customization serve?  Like social networks, the co-creation network serves a mix of audiences; the creator, the curator, and the consumer.

You, sir, are no Steve Jobs

Jobs' biography

With the recent passing of technology icon Steve Jobs, the Internet is abuzz with respectful articles about his vision, his methods, and his accomplishments.   Indeed, the effect his career had on the consumer electronics and entertainment industries is mind-boggling.   Google’s Eric Schmidt, for example, referred to him as a Michelangelo of our time.

Steve Jobs has been inspiring marketers, designers, product managers, and entrepreneurs for years.   With the release of his authorized biography, there is a renewed interest in learning from Jobs’ genius.   But, the more we learn about the private and public life of Steve Jobs, the more we realize how difficult it is to imitate his successes.

Prioritize design and the user experience

Believe it or not, saying “hey, the user experience should be top priority” in a strategy meeting used to be somewhat of a rarity.    I remember being in such a meeting in 2001.   The product team was brainstorming ways to increase adoption of a technology service.  My co-worker raised her hand and suggested that the main problem was not necessarily slow Internet connections or lack of the next “killer app.”  The main problem was that the hardware / software were challenging to navigate.    The room fell silent as we stewed on the reality of technology at the time; for the non-technical user, computers were a pain in the ass to use.


But, user experience is tough to design well, even if you can hold the market leader’s brilliant design right in your hand and experience it yourself.

Transcend the data

Steve Jobs famously said that no consumers were consulted in the design process of the iPad.  “It’s not the customers job to know what they want.” 

Does this mean that focus groups and market research are dead?   Not at all.  Certainly, there are savant designers that can lock themselves in a room and design a fantastic products based on their intuition and instincts.  But, most of us can’t design like Steve Jobs.  We need to build prototypes and test them with customers and see and hear the customer’s emotional response to our designs.      Launch, iterate, and learn.

Make it Apple-like

Hire the average software designer to design a desktop app and most likely the design will come back looking a lot like iTunes.  An ecommerce site?  Looks remarkably similar to  iPhone app?  Hm, just like native IOS apps.

Apple design

Yes, there are lessons to Apple’s design.  Nice fonts, rounded corners, minimalistic layout, removal of superfluous features, soft colors, etc.   The challenge is to create an intuitive interaction that uniquely represents your brand.   It’s not easy.

Edit and prioritize

Product Management is about evaluating trade-offs.  It’s really difficult to correctly prioritize features.  The iPhone famously launched without basic cut-and-paste functionality, for example.  Amazed, competitors doubted that Apple could compete without this critical functionality.  But, Apple customers have traditionally forgiven lack of functionality in favor of a great user experience.    So how do you prioritize features like Steve Jobs?  It’s not easy.

We are all students at the Steve Jobs’ school of marketing and product design.   As a result, Steve Jobs’ legacy has spawned a slew of imitators.  The irony, of course, is that Steve Job’s greatest quality may have been his originality.

Brands scramble to create more valuable Facebook Pages content

FB social reader

Facebook plans to disrupt the $12B search advertising market by changing the very landscape of the Internet.  Facebook’s advertising platform, still in its nascent form, encourages brands to let their fans promote their brands on their behalf.   The concept is that a product recommendation from a friend is inherently more valuable than a corporate display advertisement.

The Open Graph – contextual sharing

According to Mashable’s analysis of the strategy, Facebook is not only making their advertising platform better, they are making advertising itself better.

“Facebook is putting pressure on advertisers to create better content for their brand Pages. If they do, those brands will have a better chance of winning over friends of fans either by advertising or by creating something viral. It’s a cycle that has the potential to redefine the way we interact with brands. From now on, brands will be friends or friends of friends rather than spammers trying to bombard your consciousness.”

More than just liking a product, the Open Graph expands brand interaction to any action of any object.

Early examples of Open Graph enabled shareable brand experiences and “frictionless sharing” include listening to music, reading news articles, playing games.

  • Dave is listening to Metallica on Spotify
  • Gabi read an article about Steve Jobs in the Washington Post
  • Jamie just beat BJ 437 to 207 in Words with Friends

Regionally contextual content

Another example of “better pages” is regionally contextual content.  Walmart, for example, just announced My Local Walmart, enabling the retailing giant to share local specials with targeted segments within their 9 million fans nationwide.  The brand content is more engaging and contextual, in this case, because it is regionally targeted.  Facebook knows the location of each of their 800 millions users based on their profile, enabling their servers to display regionally relevant announcements to each user’s news feed.

“A national message is sometimes not relevant,” Walmart’s CMO Stephen Quinn said. “We can now say we have sunscreen in the south and snow boots in the north.”

Encouraging creativity and participation

Brands are scrambling to create better, inspiring content that is an appropriate fit for their product or service. The next wave of ‘better content” will include digital experiences that allow fans to play, engage, create, compete, and participate.   Shareable content.  Social content.   Personalized content.  Viral content.

In the fashion industry, for example, potential engaging campaigns could include examples like:

  • Michael Fox virtually tried on some eyeglasses at Sneaking Duck
  • Jodie designed her own high heel shoes at Shoes of Prey
  • Anita personalized a Canadian Barbie on
  • Mary Lou created a set on

Design contests add a much needed increase in brand engagement via gamification and fun interaction.    Product design and personalization are much more compelling than old-fashioned upload-an-image-and-vote campaigns.

“Social design takes word of mouth marketing and puts a bullhorn to it,” said Katie Mitic Facebook’s technology executive at the X.innovate conference in San Francisco.

VP and General Manager of X.commerce Matthew Mengerink said  “What we’re encouraging developers to think about is to try out the more ‘pre-shopping’ social experience”, he said. Meaning that the process of joining friends at an online store, browsing, sharing, and chattering via enhanced social features is a way to encourage brand recognition, organic word-of-mouth familiarity with products — and is integral to making the online shopping experience more resemblant of offline shopping. And to grow online sales.”

Facebook ticker - music sharing

Mass customization is dead. Long live mass customization.

Mass customization is dead.   Why?  MC is not a quality, or a feature, or personality, or even a brand-defining differenatiator.    MC is a business acronym.  MC is an operations strategy.  Customers shouldn’t need to know about it or hear about it.  Customization will be transparent and embedded in the brand identity and experience.

What do customers want?

Customers want brands that they trust.  They want personality, they want reputation, and they want quality.  And, increasingly, they want made to order, they want locally made, they want hand crafted.    As Joe Pine put it “Customers don’t want customer products, they want what they want.”

Give your product a personality

In a must-read Giant Robot Dinosaur post on building a brand personality, Grimlock emphasizes that customers want to be friends with a brand.   Avoid mediocrity.  (In all-caps on purpose:)





Customization is a means to an end.  Interactive, visual customization is a brand engagement tool that exposes the customer to a brand’s personality and meaning.  Don’t just ask your customers to search for a shoe – let them BUILD and SHARE a shoe.  Creative engagement is an order of magnitude more valuable than simple search and buy.

Focus on consumer benefits

Mass customization is a market strategy.   Marketing is the art of engineering customer relationships.  MC products are built-to-order, they are “have it your way” products.   They can be locally made, sustainable, personalized products made by a craftsman.   They are the opposite of mass produced, soulless high volume products that come out of factories on the other side of the world.

Remember, you are not offering customization as THE attribute per se, you are offering fantastic products that are a sum or your brand’s attributes.  Custom is one of them.  Customers will love your product because it is a great product, and because it solves a problem.   Speak to that problem.

Mass customization is an operations strategy and a business model 

From a recent British posting on the mass customization revolution:

“While it’s true to say mass customised products are in their relative infancy, the years to come will certainly open the way for more interactive ordering services with tablet applications and 3D printing.

But as Will Findlater, the editor of Stuff Magazine adds, it seems the logical next step for the generations to come, who won’t be interested in ‘one-size-fits-all’ gizmos to fit their customised lives.

“It makes perfect sense,” he said. “Consumer tech has become hugely popular and design-conscious, so in the same way that consumers have a desire for individuality in the look of their clothes and homes, there’s a corresponding desire to have unique-looking gadgets that work with their personal palette or decor.

“Now it’s over to the manufacturers to deliver.””

From a MIT Sloan research piece on “Cracking the code of mass customization,” “The key is to view (mass customization) basically as a process for aligning an organization with its customers’ needs.”

What’s new and exciting is that customization does not have to correlate with specialty, expensive, and hard-to-get.   Customization will weave itself into the digital shopping experience (and fulfillment strategy) and will broaden its reach to mass market consumer behavior.

Mass customization is dead.  Long live mass customization.

5 steps to collaborative consumption

Canadian marketer Merril Mascarenhas recently posted a piece on the Canadian Marketing Association’s blog entitled “Taking mass customization to the next level.”  The piece identifies collaborative consumption as the next frontier of brand innovation.   Customization, effectively, provides customers with the tools to control and experience your brand.

“Empowering consumers to relate to a brand in their own personal way is the new horizon of innovation.  Creating imaginative product ideas that allow consumers to explore, create and share is a new extension of real time co-creation.  Brands can learn from these new co-creations and deploy new vectors of growth, based on new product ideas.  The opportunities are endless.”

Here are some comments on the 5 steps to collaborative consumption, as identified by Mascarenhas:

1. Explore surprising vectors of innovation of your products.

Consider non-traditional opportunities for innovation.  For example, some high profile brands have experimented with mobile apps that let users play with their brand.  Instead of typical product innovation, the goal is to leverage the power of new technologies and platforms to find new ways to delight consumers.

BMW Mini iPhone app

Example:  BMW Mini launched an iPhone app that provides new ways to experience the Mini brand.  The app compliments and enhances the experience of the car itself.

2. Define the relevance of these vectors. Which ones delight customers?

It’s tempting to assume that users want to simply find your products and “like” them.   And, 35M Facebook users have already liked products on Facebook.      Only 24% of product likes are motivated simply by the desire to tell friends about the product.  57% of likes, it turns out, are motivated by already owning the product.

The real question is what really delights customers when they are spending time with your brand?  Is it the ability to personalize, the playfulness of customization (ie gamification), the power to control and edit the brand to meet their needs, or the ability to tap into their own creativity in the context of your brand?

3. Create an experiential component to the brand. How will customers create unique experiences for themselves?

The next wave of marketing innovation is all about experiences.   Think beyond just publishing an online catalog.   Your business model must depend on offering a unique ability to experience your brand in a way that your competitors can’t offer.

Example:  Offer in-store iPad kiosks.

4. Create communication channels to allow customers to share ideas and innovations.

Beyond just “adding social” to your site by allowing sharing standard products via Twitter and Facebook, give your customers something fantastic to want to share.   Customers don’t want to just share products; they want to share new ideas and innovations.

Once they have something exciting to talk about, build a community.  Your customers are your storytellers.   Give them a voice and give them a place to talk to each other (and to you).

Example: Polyvore design contests generate a creative shopping environment that empowers shoppers to aspire and inspire.   Is Polyvore a shopping site?  Not at all.  Polyvore is a fashion community.

5. Stay true to the brand position. Look for innovations that reinforce the brand idea.

All innovation, both product and digital, should build on your pre-existing brand identity.  Start by building a great brand, then leverage evolving digital tools (like a visual product configurator and mobile apps) to extend and enforce your brand.

Related: See Joe Pine’s HBR post on creating customer value on the digital frontier.

iPad kiosks enhance the in-store experience

Touchscreen kiosks

The iPad has proven to a smash-hit new device for a variety of consumer applications; web browsing, book reading, video watching, email checking, game playing…but what about shopping?

Retailer-specific apps

iPad apps are not generally focused on shopping experiences. Does shopping at home via an iPad app offer a significantly better experience that shopping via a web browser?  Do shopping apps drive higher sales?

Except for broadly adopted portals like Zappos, eBay, and Amazon, it’s unlikely that consumers will download retailer-specific shopping apps.  Would you download a JCrew app next time you want to buy some new socks?  Time will tell.

Aggregators and APIs

Shopping iPad apps that aggregate a variety of brands are showing potential.  Shopstyle has been successful in driving millions in sales for various well-known brands like Nordstrom, Pottery Barn and Sephora.

iPad Kiosks

For commerce, a viable real near-term opportunity for the iPad may be to empower consumers in the retail store itself.   Things Remembered, for example, is a personalized gift store that uses iPad kiosks in-store to allow customers to design a huge assortment of gifts.   Categories include weddings, housewarming, and even ‘new job’.


In the restaurant chain business, Ziosk from Tabletop Media has created convenient, dining-specific touchscreen kiosks that speed up the payment cycle.   Ziosk puts a tablet device on each table.  The self-ordering and self-check out experience increases overall convenience and frees up tables faster.

Ziosk-ready restaurants are reporting impressive numbers. Promoted menu item sales are up as much as 100% in some chains and up to a 50% increase on dessert sales because of the interactive menus and ability to custom-order your own dessert. The restaurant e-mail club has a 300% adoption increase when using the Ziosk system.

At the Delta Airlines terminal at JFK airport (soon to be La Guardia as well) the installed iPads for pre-flight entertainment to check e-mail, read the news and even to order food before their flight.

A higher level of in store convenience

What do all these examples have in common?  An in-store, touchscreen kiosk puts more power in the hands of the consumer.   These intuitive, fun, self-service systems give consumers new interactive tools that provide a higher level of customer satisfaction, which in turn leads to increased engagement and higher sales.

Customization parties

Another facet of the mass customization market is the in-house “Tupperware party.”  Some brands leverage a network of “hostess” sales partners who invite friends into their homes for a design party.   This design party is partially a social event, and partially a local brand experience.

Here are some examples:

Tupperware – This is the original template for the in-home shopping experience.  House parties were the Tupperware brand’s main sales channel before they expanded to retail channels in the 1950’s. The “tupperware party” sales model has been perfected and replicated by many other product categories.

Zyrra bra fitting

Zyrra Bra Party– These parties play a huge role in generating notoriety for this up and coming mass customization company.   The hostess is essentially a volunteer that is eligible to receive free merchandise and benefits that increase with the size of the party e.g. business provided. The fitting specialist that comes to the home requires 10 minutes per person, leaving a reasonable amount of time for socializing between friends.

Zyrra has set out to solve a long existing problem of fit and comfort in the women’s undergarment space.  And they have added a level of in-home socialization to attract local customers.

Stella and Dot Trunk Show-  Setup similar to the Zyrra bra party.  A hostess receives rewards for having the party and on average is rewarded with about $250 of free jewelry and 4 half off items. The jewelry stylist brings a trunk of her favorite jewelry.  Customers love this model because they can also bring their favorite outfits in anticipation for the trunk show and get expert feedback on which jewelry goes best with it. This generates interest for the Stella and Dot website because trunk show customers have only seen a sample size of the vast selection of jewelry that is showcased on the website.

Stella and Dot party

The Stella and Dot website also suggests themes for the event to make the experience more enjoyable for the customers. They can setup a ‘Style Makes Me Happy’ Hour for after work, an ‘Office Style Break’ or just any old Sunday afternoon party among others. These parties come at no cost to the host and interest spreads through word of mouth marketing.  These trunk shows really play up the idea of fun and making women look and feel more beautiful which is a market with limitless potential.

Bath and Body products specializes in hosting parties for customizing your own bath and body products.   Customers would be able to choose and mix any aromas as they please.

Lindt Chocolates. “Now you have the opportunity to discover the finest premium chocolate in a new and exciting way. Let a Lindt Chocolate R.S.V.P. Consultant introduce you to the exceptional quality of our superior products and experience the exquisite taste of premium Lindt chocolate with your family and friends. ”

The key here is that in-person, offline, tangible shopping experiences are still paramount.  As we develop online shopping experiences, we must consider the roots of shopping and emulate the brick-and-mortar environment as much as possible.  The Tupperware party is another great example that retailers often need to incorporate many sales channels into the mix in order to reach customers wherever they are most comfortable.

Offline vs online product customization

LILL bags store

In the mass customization space we talk a lot about the broad reach of the Internet.  It’s tempting to spend all our energy focusing on the online customization experience; ie product configurator design, product visualization, site performance, and website sales conversion rates.

But, it’s important not to lose sight of the offline customization experience that has laid the foundation of the customization business model.   Your product, its customizable options, and its presentation often start with a physical, in-store presence.

How does a brick-and-mortar retail presence help drive a customization business?

Despite all the advances in interactive web technologies, there is no replacement for and in-store shopping experience.  For example, when buying a custom dress shirt, many people feel most comfortable meeting with an experienced tailor in person, rather than risking measuring themselves at home.

Laudi Vidni store

Although the online product customization space is growing, customers do not flock to online customization overnight.  To help transition customers from the offline to online shopping experience, companies like BlueWardrobe offer a multi-channel approach, ie “employ both an online and offline strategy to help customers “bridge the gap”. Customers can order a shirt online or have the unique experience of meeting one of our professional tailors in person.”

Custom bag vendor LaudiVendi (“Individual” spelled backwards) began with a brick and mortar store in Chicago. But, in order to cater to their growing online community they have a customer service line to help customers decide what kind of design selections they would like. “Prior to purchasing a bag, you can order swatches of our materials.  This allows you to see and feel the leather before committing to placement on your bag.”  This approach gives a physical presence, ie the ability to touch and feel fabrics, to the online customization experience.


eCreamery store

eCreamery has one store in Omaha Nebraska but developed a loyal fan base locally and sought to expand through the online market. They created the site in 2002 with the goal of giving complete creativity to the flavors their customers desired.  OmahaSteaks started in a similar way but now has stores all over the country and has a very reputable online service.

For your business, customization can be part of a larger marketing strategy that involves converting customers in store, on the phone, and via social media / the Internet.   Customers will engage with your brand at whatever channel best fits them, or maybe a few of them.  Successful customizers have focused on creating a customization experience in at least one in-store location.  Once your core physical experience is defined you can set about expanding it to the Internet.

Case study: product configurator – cross-selling

One of the benefits of a customization product strategy is the increased average cart size.   Custom products tend to command a premium price, making the average cart size higher than products purchased via standard shopping catalogs.

Product configurators are also effective cross-selling tools.  The configurator guides the shopper through the customization flow: choose a product type, select functional attributes, pick style options.   The product configurator can then queue up related products as a last step in the shopping flow.  Accessories, for example, can be presented as a final stage before the add-to-cart stage.  These accessories and related products are specifically defined as matches by the product configurator’s rules engine.  The configurator then passes multiple SKUs to cart.  (Make sure your product configurator platform includes a rules engine for guided cross-selling).

Without product configurator based cross-selling, accessories and related products can only be shown at the cart level, or by a “continue shopping” prompt which forces the user to hunt around your site for matching products to add to their cart.   Asking your customer to do the extra work of finding their own accessories can cause frustration and decrease the average size of the cart.

Additionally, accessories and related products are often higher margin products.  The core custom product can be the “loss leader” that leads to the bundling of more profitable add-on products.   Visual product configurators inherently allow shoppers to bundle products themselves.   Bundling is a very profitable marketing strategy.

So how much does a product configurator add to the bottom line?  In this case study example, a Treehouse Logic configurator doubled sales of high margin accessory products.  On average, accessory sales are well above 200% of sales before a key cross-selling stage was added to the shopping flow.

Be careful of over cross-selling.  Shoppers have very little patience for too many nags to buy more related products.   And too many steps can be exhausting.  Position the cross-selling step as a useful last step that only shows a small number of targeted solutions.  Users appreciate guidance and will be more satisfied with your service if you can help them find just the right accessory to compliment their custom product.