Are you thinking about becoming a Maker of something? There’s a revolution of Makers going on right now! Here’s a little of my story and some things to consider. I hope this can help you on your journey.
Is your work fulfilling?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to clients who “wished” they made something like Vintage does. Their professions range from CEOs to Housewives. Everybody has made something before, whether it was in art class or in the garage. There’s just something magical about the creative process, getting the materials, assembling them, then seeing your creation unfold. I myself was working in the family investment banking business before this. We put together investments for client. My Father wanted me to take over the business, but I declined as it wasn’t my cup of tea. At the time, I knew I didn’t care for it. But I later realized that is was more along the lines of unfulfilling. There’s no way of knowing ahead of time if your new job will be fulfilling. But pouring your heart and soul into something will help! This means there will be UPS and downs, lots of them. In fact, it may be a daily occurrence for years, was for me!
The American Dream
One of the main reasons to become a Maker is the American dream of being self-employed. Most people seem to think that working for yourself affords you more time and money. You can get others to work for you while the money rolls in. My couple years in business I worked 80-100 hour weeks with no vacation. Weekends were work time. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds because I loved what I was doing, but I did eventually get BURNED out. Within the second month, I had some decent income. Part of that has to do with my marketing background. I had a strong web presence already so I had lots of people looking at my work. Another part had to do with timing. I fell into the Vintage Industrial trend which was in it’s infancy in Manhattan. Everything I sold was to the wealthy and space conscious living there. The other lucky part had to do with my wife. She has exquisite design taste which is something I lacked. She was able to guide my designs into what they are today. I’ve been told by several bankers, CEOs, COOs, etc., that we are in the 1% of companies that grow this quickly with no debt. Consider this to be next to impossible. What makes this possible is an unwavering determination to succeed and better yourself and product. But you must fail over and over and over and learn to be ok with that. In fact, you must see that as a stepping stone to success. The Master has failed more times than You have tried.
I already had a small income from investments. So I didn’t jump into the deep end with this venture. Many people try investing all they have into something new and untested. Most of them will fail. Had my stuff not sold, I would have stopped soon and did something else, or changed the design. I had a $450 welder and $50 grinder with some hand tools. That is all I needed to get going. Once it picked up, I spent another $500 here and there which was from profit. We didn’t know at the time, but it was growing organically. Demand rises, you make money, invest some in better equipment, make more stuff quicker and better, rinse & repeat. The Phoenix summer was coming so I upgraded our 200sf shed and added air conditioning, insulation, lighting and power.
We did that until the backyard couldn’t contain us anymore. The freight companies were sending semis for pickup and dropoff all week long which blocked the road. Orders came in and overwhelmed me. Sim (my wife) found our first employee. That helped but we needed a bigger space. So we moved to Buchanan and hired more people.
Small or Medium Company?
I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights Sim and I had because of this company! It must be over 500. My mind tends to go over problems of the day or future ones. With this business, at least for the first 4 years, everyday presented new problems. We ran around putting fires out. Being led by problems is no way to live, or run a business, because the business is running you (into the ground). Many a times I pondered the fact that I was making more money, with less headache, when it was just me in the backyard making my stuff. I didn’t have CPAs or lawyer meetings. I didn’t have multiple departments to deal with and personnel issues. Any problem that arose was accountable by one person, me! But there are some thresholds that we broke through. Once you have good certain people in place, they can take over the things you don’t want to deal with, or don’t have time for. It took us over 4 years to get there. So yes, at times I wish it was just me farting around in the backyard. But I truly treasure the relationships and business we’ve built with our own blood, sweat and tears.
Some pros and cons of having a Small or Medium company:
- You are responsible for everything (accounting, billing, customer service, building, shipping, marketing, design, etc)
- Few people to oversee
- Life is simple!
- Income is capped at your man hours
- You can’t handle big jobs
- Lead times can get long for delivery
- Employees can handle tasks for you
- You have to let go of control of almost everything and let employees work
- You must supervise employees and become a great manager
- You’ll need to learn to hire the right people
- More potential income with more people
- Potential loss of everything when personally guaranteeing loans, leases, etc.
- The business gets much more complicated
- You can handle bigger jobs
- You can grow to shorten lead times / increased demand
- You’re overhead increases and so does your cost to produce
- You need to hit a certain dollar amount to meet payroll
- You have to run payroll which is costly and time consuming
- You must create regular new product to keep clients buying
Do You Have A Great Idea?
Many people dream of making something tangible for a living. I know there is a small rebellion going on giving pushback to the tech-age we’re in. What better way than to make something with your own two hands right? Well what is your idea? Do you have a gameplan on how to finance it, where to make it, etc? Are there lots of others making the same or a similar thing? Do searches on the web to find out. If you find 3 million search results for leather handbags, maybe you need to make it more specialized. If you can find a niche nobody else is pursuing, you might be starting something that takes off like the pet rock. Our niche is luxury level vintage industrial furniture. Thousands of people are doing Vintage Industrial either in their garage, or importing it from Asia. There is nobody doing what we’re doing on this scale, or with our track record. This makes things easier for us in terms of finding buyers. And fortunately, there is a decent market for it. But it didn’t exist when we started. If we decided to import crap from Asia and pass it off as Vintage Industrial, we’d be competing with the likes of Walmart to Pottery Barn. I highly recommend making something unique, and more important, something you believe in. If you’re selling leather handbags and are a vegan, you’ll be conflicted. And if you’re doing this to get rich, you’re not a Maker, not in my eyes. Profit is the side effect of this, albeit a nice and necessary one you’ll need to continue.
Do you know how to build things and run a business?
Ya we didn’t either. I have some experience working for my Father which helped, but I didn’t know Jack Shit about being a furniture manufacturer. I didn’t even know how to weld really, or work with wood. But I had the yearning to learn. I asked questions, researched, and figured it out. I am probably the worst welder at our shop, but I can get in there and make just about anything. I don’t have any fancy certifications. I don’t care if our employees have fancy certifications, I just care if they can do the work, are willing to learn, and put their heart and soul into it. Attitude is everything, yet rarely touched on in school. Hmmm…
How do you handle StReSs?
Increased stress levels are probably my main reason for discouraging people from doing this. You need to be able to handle stress well to succeed here. I can tell you in the last 6 years of this business, I cried routinely, lost 1000s of hours of sleep, considered suicide several times, and almost wrecked my marriage. Fortunately, my wife and I had been pursuing spirituality and working through things before this venture. If it wasn’t for that, and her ability to help me work through this shit, it would have all exploded and I’d have lost everything. You’ll need to find what works for you. For me, I find a great audiobook and go for a walk / run. I try to do this daily. It keeps me centered, along with meditation and yoga, and occasional counselling.
My A Frame design is the most copied of all our pieces. It’s being mass produced in Asia and imported by small furniture companies all over the world. The pictures above show the first sketch and the prototype I made in the backyard. Expect good design to be copied.
I made 16 of these shelves for a wine shop in Rhode Island. It was a huge order for me and took a month to finish.
Join the discussion 21 Comments
I have a desire to do the type of work you do. I love building steel furniture. But I lack business skills to get started. Sadly most of my creations are merely given away. I simply ask the folks to tell where they got it from. Magnolia Iron and Forge. Just how do you get started. I am just a one man operation. I do like your work. Anyway thanks for your time. Have a great day.
The more people that see your work, the better chance it has of selling. Find a way to show it to more people. That will take some work. If you are persistent, you’ll succeed in some way. Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the article, I’ve been following you for almost a year on FB, I appreciate what you’re doing. I’ve been running my own carpentry biz for 2 years and I’m very busy. My problem is I want to build my own designs but can’t “find” the time, and I’d be turning down paid work to build portfolio pieces. I suppose the solution is to start with smaller pieces, because working out of my garage (low overhead), I only have so much room. I suppose my first real ‘need’ is to get a website going, but I’m not a tech person. I take lots of photos of work, but I’m not so good at promotion and marketing. It’s amazing how many facets there are to starting a small business. It’s overwhelming at times. Thanks again for the article. Tim
You’re welcome Tim. Well I guess you’ll either make the time, or you won’t right?
This was a really helpful and timely piece to read for me. I’ve been in business for myself for about 2 years now, and I’m definitely in the “struggling” phase. I’m an artist/maker with an Industrial Design degree, but I got the degree later in life (I went back to school at 30 after 11 years of woodworking and metal working experience). When I graduated, I tried my hand at a couple of Product Design jobs, but just hated sitting at a computer all day and designing plastic things to be made in China. It was the most soul-sucking, un-fulfilling thing I’d ever done. So I started making and selling my pieces out of my garage while I worked a low-paying job (this was the depths of the “Great Recession”), and eventually was able to rent a space and “hang out my shingle”. I now make a fair amount of more traditional furniture to pay the bills, but still long to make the stuff that’s in my heart. I lack the finances to get set up to also do metal work (I have a mig welder and grinder, etc, but not much else- I do have most of the woodworking equipment I need for now, so I primarily do woodworking. It’s difficult working for yourself/by yourself when you design things that combine wood and metal. Being set up for both requires two distinct spaces, you know? The “growing” part is what I’m hoping is next, but I currently don’t see when I might be able to do that. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about the struggle from someone who is through at least the first large part of it.
Greg, I really enjoy your blog posts. One question I had was I’ve seen you mention in this blog and also in a prior blog/article that your marketing background / strong web presence greatly improved your success, gave it a good shot in the arm from the starting line so to speak. Could you expand on this a little? I’d be curious how you got your work in front of a lot of people right off the bat. Were you a blogger on another subject and this just came up? YouTube Sensation?? haha. What was your secret sauce?
Well there really isn’t a secret one thing to do. It used to be easier, but now there’s a lot of things to do. And it’s all a test to see if it works. If it works, keep doing it, if not, stop and figure out why. It’s extremely important to be able to measure your campaigns. I started reading books on marketing which has helped a lot!
Greg, That’s a great piece to read. I have done custom paint for 15 years on everything from $60k Motorcycles to $2 toy boxes all from my backyard. Not having a business plan laid out and entering social media drove my customer base to great numbers, but eventually I would find myself constantly swimming to the surface for air. It killed my artistic thought process. I should’ve grown the business with delegating tasks to new employees. Never-the-less, God blessed me with the ability to work with my hands and create art !! That brings me to your blog. I , now, am finalizing the business end of my new Jewelry casting company ( dougmillsdesigns.com ) and after two years of studying business, marketing, branding and reading blogs such as yours I am on track to launch my new business in Jan. 2016. Thanks for the great inspiration and keep turning out Beautiful works of Steel and Wood. Cheers my fellow Worker !!
Great article Greg. I’m also in the Phoenix area and have a workshop in the north valley where I fab metal doors at the current time. Your work and website has been a source for inspiration. Thanks
I enjoyed very much reading your article, It all sounds very familiar to me and it makes total sense.
You’re welcome Andy, thanks for reading it!
Hola Greg, te felicito tus diseños me parecen increíbles, vivo en Salinas-ECUADOR tengo un pequeño negocio de articulos de decoracion que los elaboro con mi esposa, hacemos de todo un poco, diseñamos nuestros propios modelos, pero estoy interesado en fabricar muebles pequeños (mesas de centro, esquineros, muebles auxiliares etc) ya hice un pequeño mueble con madera y hierro….no duro en el almacén 2 dias y lo vendi !!!….quiero incursionar en esta linea e ir aprendiendo mas-
Tu historia de como comenzaste me a dado mucho aliento se seguir adelante con mi proyecto….gracias Greg
You’re welcome Allan. Best of luck on your new venture!
Amazing blog! I run a nonprofit boys home and teach welding & cabinetry. Would you be willing for me to come visit & get some inspiration from you?
Thanks! You are welcome to visit. We don’t do tours, but we can show you around. Should have our showroom open in 1-2 months.
This was such an awesome read. As a medium to large business owner I struggle with so many of the same issues. It’s not a business where I get to explore my creative side as you do, that makes me a little jealous. But your words are such great advice to someone on the edge of turning a “hobby” into a business. Beautiful, really cool work BTW.
Thank you Jennifer. My wife says something similar to what you said. She doesn’t get to be creative in this business like me. But, she eventually realized that figuring out all of the challenges the business poses on a day to day business requires lots of creativity. She might not be designing pieces as much as me, but she’s designing how the business runs which requires a lot of creativity, and is vital to it’s success.
I guess since this is my third or fourth time here reading this, I should let you know that these words have helped me immensely. I have a small eclectic decor business with my wife somewhat similar to yours. As immensely fulfilling as it is, there have been many moments of discouragement since I started it almost four years ago. Trying to create and build my art while attempting to be the businessman I never wanted to be has been challenging. The demands of starting and building a vision from scratch has brought me through a spectrum of emotions, and at times I have felt alone with them. Your honesty and transparency about the challenges you and yours have faced through the journey have truly given me perspective in those unsure times. They have helped me to stabilize when it’s gotten overwhelming or when the failures have knocked the wind out of me. So, thank you. Your work and your words have encouraged me.
Glad to hear it helped. Running a business, especially your first one, is going to be a huge challenge. And it’s not for everybody right?