What it is
Cambridge, Mass.-based CustomMade.com connects shoppers with artisans and craftspeople around the U.S. who can create custom items such as furniture and jewelry. Buyers post a photo of what they want, or supply a description, and the craftspeople (or, as the site calls them, "Makers") bid on the project. The site specializes in high-end goods with an average cost of $800 to $1,000.
How it started
A cabinetmaker started CustomMade.com as an online directory of more than 300 woodworkers scattered across North America. In 2008, Boston University students Mike Salguero and Seth Rosen stumbled across the site while Rosen was looking to purchase a coffee table. Sensing that the idea could be expanded, they bought the domain name for $10,000, then raised $400,000 to start turning CustomMade into what it is today. "We always loved the concept of being able to buy an item directly from the person who made it, and our goal was to make it as easy as possible," Salguero says.
Why it took off
Today, with more than 12,000 Makers and about 600,000 unique visitors each month, CustomMade has created a competitive marketplace for one-off items. Buyers love the ability to guide the fabrication process online and submit reviews of Makers. This has created a trustworthy community of fabricators, some of whom pull in about $200,000 per year from the site, according to Salguero.
The business case
Signing up for a purchase on CustomMade is free. Prospective buyers can reach out to Makers directly or post a job request and solicit bids. Once a buyer and Maker agree on a project and price, CustomMade collects and distributes the payment, taking 10 percent off the top.
Stephen Journov, a woodworker in Lebanon, Penn., completes about five CustomMade furniture orders per month and estimates that he makes more than 70 percent of his high-five-figure income via the site. "I've been surprised by how much work it's brought me," he says.
The company is not yet profitable, but a capital infusion of $18 million lined up earlier this year from Google Ventures and Atlas Venture will allow Salguero and Rosen to build an even more robust community of Makers. They hope the expansion will help CustomMade become a handcrafted alternative to the mass-produced wares found at Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.