Back in Afghanistan, my pal Steve Patoir and I would commiserate about woodworking from time to time and one of the things we’d talk about was “the pivot” for some of the woodworking guys we’d run across. For example, we heard about the “Bunk Bed Guy” who had started out making all kinds of things, then made a bunk bed which was so popular that everyone began asking him to make bunk beds. Then there was the “Shadow Box Guy” who ended up exclusively making shadow boxes. Am I “The Corn Hole Guy”? I always try to keep a spare set of these corn hole sets in the shop in case a client wants to buy a set for a party or something and we are all out so I just made another one (see picture) this week. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being The Corn Hole Guy since I enjoy making them and hearing clients talk about how much fun their party was with some good old fashioned bean bag tossing and friendly competition (if you’d like to make your own set, check out the plan at our post The Cornhole Plan, or How to Jazz up your Next Party). This small project is relatively quick to make, and shouldn’t take more than 3-4 hours to build.
Speaking of small projects, I was talking with a potential client this week about making a table, and she said she thought her project might be too small. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I love these small projects, because they bring almost immediate gratification and you can see the results of your work in a matter of days or weeks. Corn hole sets fall in that category since I can easily crank out a set in a week (we do have to allow for several consecutive days of glue-up). Some of our bigger projects have taken several months and it requires a lot of patience to wait to see the results of our handiwork.
Or then again, maybe I’ll be the “Jewelry Display Guy.” Did you see Christy Dewitt and Nomades on Fox and Friends Friday morning? If not, check out the clip here. Nomades just ordered three more displays and I picked up the walnut at a couple wood dealers yesterday for that commission. We’re off and running.
Corn Hole Guy. Jewelry Display Guy. It’s all macht nichts to me. I’m glad for the work. Bring it on!
Getting back to corn hole, if you have a party coming up, these things are great. Swing by the wood shop and you can pick one up. We can always make more.
We turned down two commissions this week. Is that how to start a business? Am I crazy??? Maybe so. My pal Derek Sivers who wrote Anything You Want says that when you are starting a business you should say “yes” to everything, because you can’t afford to be choosey. On the flip side, he says that entrepreneurs are creating their own universe with its own set of principles, and why would they do work that doesn’t align with those principles? Don’t get me wrong. One of those commissions was a large refinishing project which I very much wanted to do, but I’ve already told about a half dozen people I would do their kitchen table, bookcase, entertainment center, etc. and there isn’t much time left in the year. The other project was for six dining room chairs, but those chairs would have required upholstery which is not really my thing, and would require a lot of hand carving which is not currently my thing. I guess the good thing is knowing here in year #4 of Traughber Design what “my thing” is. I guess it’s time to start saying no.
Another one of those principles was to migrate to a business that didn’t require a lot of commuting. I’d like most of the work to be in the shop rather than on site, because after 11 years of commuting in DC during two Air Force tours, I’d rather not sit on I95 any longer. Clients can come to the shop and pick up their pieces, which preserves my new 5 second commute to the garage. Yes, I still have that lovely I95 commute because this is a side gig for now (I wrote about this some in the post Reflections on 2017…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Traughber Design!), BUT my retirement papers were approved (hurray!) and we (I use “we” because military service is a TEAM sport as Mrs Woodworker will attest) are within 1 year of official retirement and 8 months of terminal leave.
We’re not aiming to be a Rockefeller with Traughber Design (see our post Lessons Learned from John D. Rockefeller on Life, Entrepreneurship, and Woodworking) but make just enough to get by on military retirement (by the way, if you are making that transition also, I highly recommend Doug Nordman’s site The Military Guide on military transition and financial independence. He also has some great content on how to start a business). Given our current backlog of projects, making a go of it shouldn’t be an issue.
On to more positive things, like saying “yes”! We just completed a four sided jewelry display (see picture) for Nomades Collection in black walnut this week and are pretty happy with the result. You may have seen two of our recent Facebook posts on this. This was an evolution from the two sided version we profiled in the post Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up! Some of the new features are:
100% more display space. The original display had two vertical jewelry trays back-to-back within a wooden frame. While the two-tray model is perfect for a smaller store, this one has space for three trays and a fourth side with posts to hang bracelets and bangles (I don’t know what bangles are, but they seem to be popular with the ladies). This allows for twice as much jewelry to be displayed.
A slot for brochures. This was trickier than it looks. The lazy susan bearings have to be reached from underneath to screw them in, so we had to make a removable bottom to be able to access the holes. It killed me to use metal fasteners for that removable bottom since we always strive for 100% wooden joinery, but I couldn’t see a way around it. At least the fasteners are not visible. I’m still noodling around on ways to access the lazy susan without the removable bottom and metal fasteners. If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments below.
Well, we sold out of the corn hole games, so I need to go tell the elves in the wood shop to get busy! Now, that’s how to start a business…
Santa was very good to us this year. He brought several terrific books on woodworking that were highly recommended by some of the current big names in woodworking. One of these tomes, “The Book of Five Rings”, is a popular strategy book written in 1645 (available at Amazon. Click here for the book), which you wouldn’t normally think of as an entrepreneurship and woodworking book; however, the author and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, talks about working with wood in his strategy analogies which can be very helpful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers.
So who was Musashi? He was the founder of the Niten-Ichi-Ryû-School of sword fighting and fought sixty duels, the first when he was 13. Obviously, someone who fought that many duels with swords and survived, to such an age, is someone that might be worth listening to. They just might have some skill and wisdom.
“The five ‘books” refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life.” I’ll share three relevant concepts to the entrepreneur and woodworker here.
Become Proficient With Your Weapons (or Tools)
Musashi’s thoughts on artisanship and strategy are particularly useful:
“The Way of the carpenter is to become proficient in the use of his tools, first to lay his plans with a true measure and then perform his work according to plan. Those he passes through life.” Musashi then goes on to talk about the importance of training with weapons every day in order to become proficient. Likewise, the craftsman must build up many hours of hands-on experience to become proficient. Along those lines, I’m finding my current set of measuring tools are not up to the task as I continue to become more accurate. For example, using the English system with 1/16 inch increments is just proving to be inefficient when I have to continually add or subtract 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 inch etc. It’s much easier to do everything in the metric system which increases accuracy because there is less chance of making an adding or subtracting error. In addition, a millimeter is finer than 1/16 inch which increases precision even more. That’s why I’ve been gradually acquiring metric rulers and squares and using them more often.
“Like a trooper, the carpenter sharpens his own tools. he carries his equipment in his tool box, and works under the direction fo his foreman. he makes columns and girders with an axe, shapes floorboards and shelves with a glance, cuts fine openwork and carvings accurately, giving as excellent a finish as his skill will allow. This is the craft of the carpenter.” Musashi brings up a great point here. It is so tempting to keep working away on a piece when you know you should stop and sharpen the tool, but who wants to stop when you’re making progress and having fun? In the long run, it will take less time to take a break and sharpen that tool.
Develop Correct Strategy
“The comparison with carpentry is through the connection with houses. Houses of the nobility, houses of warriors, the Four houses, ruin of houses, thriving of houses, the style of the house, the tradition of the house, and the name of the house. The carpenter uses a master plan of the building, and the Way of strategy is similar in that there is a plan of campaign. If you want to learn the craft of war, ponder over this book. The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as a thread. You must practice constantly.” Probably the most important step in designing a project is to listen to your client (we talked about that in our last post, Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up!) and question them to understand what their vision is. The next most important is to think through your strategy before shaping a single piece of wood. This will save much time in the long run. We see this continuously in woodworking. It is imperative to have a strategy and plan for piece. For example, without a cut list the woodworker will continually be shuttling back and forth from teh wood shop to the wood dealer. I solid plan and cut list will ensure one trip for material and more time spent on the craft.
Another tie to strategy is that the enemy’s actions require the good strategist to adjust. Likewise, the woodworker needs to adjust their strategy as the work progresses. I recently finished a serving tray for Mrs. Woodworker. We got a fine piece of mulberry from fellow woodworker, Jacob Hummitzch (thanks Jacob), and when Mrs Woodworker had seen the raw board (see the post , the original dimensions we had discussed were out the window because the mulberry has so many interesting patterns in it. What I thought was going to be a simple rectangular board finished with a food-safe oil, is now going to be much different. Mrs Woodworker wanted to keep at least one live edge, so then I had to think of a different finish to preserve the live edge. In addition, we followed the circles of the grain at one end, versus making 90 degree corners. The woodworking strategy needs to be adjust to the wood, just as a military campaign strategy needs to be adjusted to conditions on the battlefield as Musashi writes. For more on this read our post about Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian fog and friction.
Musashi’s thesis is that “a man who conquers himself is ready to take on the world, should need arise”. This is very useful advice for entrepreneurs. If someone wants to scale up their enterprise, they need to get their personal leadership skills in order to be a good boss. Leadership in an entrepreneurial enterprise is the same as leadership in the military, according to Musashi: “The foreman carpenter must know the architectural theory of towers and temples, and the plans of palaces, and must employ men to raise up houses. The Way of the foreman carpenter is the same as the Way of the commander of a warrior house.”
“The foreman carpenter allots his men work according to their ability. Floor layers, makers of sliding doors, thresholds and lintels, ceilings and so on. Those of poor ability lay the floor joists, and those of lesser ability cave wedges and do such miscellaneous work. If the foreman knows and deploys his men will the finished work will be good.” In many cases, the supervisor can do the work, but should he/her? In doing the work themselves, the supervisor is taking away an opportunity for subordinates to develop.
“The foreman should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men, circulating among them and asking nothing unreasonable. He should know their morale and spirit, and encourage them when necessary. This is the same as the principle of strategy”
I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into a Samurai’s view of woodworking and entrepreneurship. Check out the book, when you get a chance.
We are very excited about a collaboration we just started with a jewelry company called Nomades Collection to build displays for their retail locations. The five founders have a fascinating origin story and I recommend checking out their website here. During our discussions during the build, a few design principles reinforced themselves and I thought I’d share them with you. First, I’ll talk about the design then about the design process.
A contrast in colors
The sky was the limit when it came to wood color, but the more we talked about it, the more a darker color made sense because the jewelry on the display is silver in color. The black walnut gives a nice contrast to the silver. And as you know, that’s probably my favorite wood at the moment as you saw in the black walnut gun cabinets we’ve made (read out post: Our First Commission of 2017! Black Walnut Gun Cabinet).
We went with some gentle round overs (quarter inch) on the vertical frame and spinning base with a little more ornamentation on the fixed base at the bottom. On the fixed base we went with a 3/8 inch round over and 1/16 inch shoulder since the base is farther away from the jewelry and wouldn’t detract from it. The routing adds a little pizzaz, but doesn’t draw the eye too much.
Low center of gravity
These displays will be sitting on countertops and need to be rock solid as the displays are spun. Given that, we went from thinner at the top to thicker at the bottom to keep all the weight low to stabilize the display. For example, the vertical frames are only 1/2 inch, then we thickened to 3/4 inch on the spinning base, then a full inch thick at the bottom.
The Design Process
This is probably the most important step. In this case, the client was way ahead of the game and had a digital drawing of what they were looking for. That was a great starting point, and this is where you can add value: by explaining which features are driving the cost so they can make informed decisions about which way to go. Some things look great on paper, but can’t be manufactured easily, if it all; however, there are almost always alternatives.
Some other questions you need to ask are:
What is your product all about? Is it a premium product, bargain item, something else? This will drive the quality of the materials and how many features you include in the piece. What does the piece need to do? How would you like it to look?
The thing that kept me up at night on this particular project was the mechanism that allowed the display to spin. It needed to spin freely and also last for years. We were initially thinking of having the spinning frame turn on a dowel. That would require waxing or oiling the dowel, but given that the displays will be all over the country, requiring regular maintenance was not a good plan. This is where the crowd came in handy. I pulsed a couple of my fellow woodworkers (read more about plugging into artisans in the post Entrepreneurship and Woodworking Require a Community) and they both suggested a lazy susan mechanism. Speaking of which…
We tried a small two inch square lazy susan bearing set, which just didn’t give enough stability and went with a large 9″ round bearing set from Triangle Manufacturing on the frozen tundra of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The wider stance of 9″ versus 4″ made a big difference and minimized wobble. Remember when we wrote about failing fast and failing cheap (click here to read How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life)? The bearings weren’t terribly expensive and it was worth it to burn through a couple and find the right one.
We’re in the process of iterating on a four sided model now that will also have display space for bracelets and bangles, so I’m sure we’ll have more to follow! Stay tuned…
Mrs Woodworker and I finally pulled the trigger and had the carpet and linoleum floors in the house replaced on the first and second floors with hardwood floors. This house was one of our rentals and after four sets of tenants (who were great, by the way!) the carpet and linoleum were just worn out. After the floors were replaced, the next step was to update the bannister and kitchen cabinets to match. I’ll tell you everything you need to know to update the bannisters and will do another post on the kitchen cabinets.
Given that the floors are a java-colored bamboo, we decided to go with a java stain on the bannister top rail and vertical posts to match the floor. For the spindles we went with a white semi-gloss paint to match the trim in the rest of the room.
So where do you start? It all starts with a lot of sanding. I recommend investing in an electric sander if you don’t already have one. This will save you a ton of time. I already had a Festool Rotex 150 Random Orbit Sander which was a little big for a job like this, but worked out alright. If you are buying from scratch, a small sander from Home Depot or Lowes will work. I recommend using 120 grit sandpaper which matches the grit called for with the stain we used (more on that later). For those hard-to-reach areas, you will have to do a little hand sanding. I’m not going to lie; you’ll need to sand all the intricate curves on the spindles by hand. Turn on your favorite podcast and the time will fly by! One tip which may help you, is to sand when you have natural light on the bannister. Then if you see any shine (remaining finish), it’s easy to see where to focus your sanding energy. Once everything is sanded down nicely, be sure to vacuum really well so no sanding dust gets in the finish.
Before you start applying the finishes, I need to say a few words about ventilation. The fumes from the stain and varnish were not too bad, but I recommend running your ceiling fans and opening the windows during and after you apply the finishes. The fumes from the varnish were the strongest and most important to keep ventilated. Also, I recommend wearing a dust mask when sanding since you’ll have a lot of fine particles in the air and you don’t want to inhale them.
Next, it’s time to apply the stain. We used General Finishes Java Gel Stain. A quart runs about $22.99 at Woodcraft and is plenty for a job of this size. You can also purchase it for $33.95 with Amazon Prime (click here) and have it delivered right to your door. It’s very easy to apply and leaves a beautiful color. To apply, make sure you are wearing gloves then apply the stain using a small rag. Cut up T-shirts work great for this. For the tough-to-reach corners, use a small foam brush. Let the stain sit for about 5-10 minutes then wipe off with a clean rag so it doesn’t leave any splotches. If you like the color depth at that point, you’re done with the stain. If you would like a darker color, then apply more coats until you have the color you like.
Our floors have ever-so-slight streaks of lighter color so I only went with one coat of stain on the bannisters. This left light streaks on the bannister to match the floor. If your floor is solid, you may want to go with two or three coats of stain.
Next, apply the top coat. I’ve used General Finishes Arm-R-Seal for years on our Traughber Design projects and it provides a very durable finish. I typically use the gloss finish when making furniture (see the post How to Make a Beautiful Custom Wooden Mitered Picture Frame for an example of a high gloss finish), but in this case went with the satin finish ($17.99 at Woodcraft). Why? Because the bannister rail is a high traffic item and the wear of hands going up and down the stairs on a gloss finish would look unusual over time. For example, the areas of high traffic would wear to a dull finish and low traffic parts of the rail would still be high gloss. It would look very uneven. With the satin finish the rails should have a consistent finish, even after wear. We went with two coats using small rags to wipe it on. Make sure you leave at least 24 hours between coats and sand with a high grit sandpaper between coats.. We used 600 grit sandpaper.
Last, paint the spindles. We went with Sherwin Williams Interior White Semi-Gloss from Lowes. That’s probably a little more high-end than you need and just about any white semi-gloss interior latex should do the trick. A quart should be more than enough. I used a foam brush for a test section, but it was just too slow and I switched to a 2 inch brush. After two coats and some touch up, the spindles look great.
Check out the pictures. We think the bannisters look much better than when we started. Stay tuned for another post soon on how to redo those kitchen cabinets!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our clients, friends, and family! Traughber Design just delivered its final sale of 2017 last week, and we thought this was a good time to thank our community of supporters and reflect on the past year.
This was our third full year of operation and the business is now profitable! We invested quite a bit in tools the first year, and we continued to build our client base the second year. This year we delivered 17 commissions (plus one pro bono project) with a wide variety of projects and have 1 commission in progress in the shop.
Traffic continues to grow to the blog and we have had over 2,800 unique visitors and 5,900 page views. We’ve published almost 60 posts now and have many more ideas for posts in 2018.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned over this 3 year journey is persistence. Most small businesses fail, and I wonder how many were on the cusp of success if their owners had just kept at it. Speaking of which, I’m grinding my way through David McCullough’s 1100 page biography (called “Truman“) of Harry S. Truman and the President’s persistence when everyone wrote him off is absolutely stunning. Check out this passage from the book which references a Newsweek poll of the biggest writers of the day: “Of the writers polled, not one thought Truman would win. The vote was unanimous, 50 for Dewey, 0 for Truman. “The landslide for Dewey will sweep the country,’ the magazine announced. Further, the Republicans would keep control in the Senate and increase their majority in the House. The election was as good as over.” As we all know from the history books, Truman won the election in 1948. He never gave up. The same goes for a small business; you have to believe you are going to win, just as Harry S. Truman did in 1948.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, please continue to support your local artisan ecosystem. Local small businesses are all tied together and a dollar spent with Traughber Design flows to other businesses, like hardwood dealers, tool vendors, glass manufacturers, etc.
Looking forward, soon the Air Force will be kicking me out after 30 years of service, and I’m excited to pursue Traughber Design full time. I will be on terminal leave at the end of 2018, and we will see what other exciting commissions come our way.
Traughber Design was pleased to recently deliver its latest creation, a Little Free Library, to the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center in Horicon Wisconsin. If you haven’t heard of the Little Free Library movement that’s sweeping the nation, I’ll give you a quick overview of the revolution, talk about the glorious new Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center, then wrap up with some crucial tips for making a little free library.
The Little Free Library Revolution
You may have already seen a Little Free Library in your neighborhood since there are now over 60,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide and they are in all 50 states and over 80 countries. The concept is simple. You take a book you’re interested in from the library and/or leave a book of your own: easy. If you make a Little Free Library, you may want to consider registering it so more people will know about it. Apparently, some people are making pilgrimages to as many of these libraries as they can. For more on Little Free Libraries visit the official website at littlefreelibrary.org. There are also many plans on this site if you would like to build your own, and you can even order prebuilt kits.
The Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center
The location for this particular Little Free Library is an interesting one. It’s at the new Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center and will allow visitors to “check out” bird books before they hit the trails behind the center. You can check out the Center’s website here. The staff at the Center was very supportive of installing this library to commemorate Jerome R. Traughber (Dad), who passed away in 2017, and who was a big supporter of the Center (and reading in general). If you get a chance, I highly recommend hiking the nature trails behind the Center and also checking out some of the exhibits inside. For much more on the memorial site and to see much better photography than mine, I highly recommend the blog Horicon Marsh Nature Photography.
How to Make A Little Free Library
This project was a lot of fun to make. We started with a basic design from Wood Magazine (click here for the link), then made several significant modifications. Wood Magazine also has a comprehensive YouTube video if reading plans is not your thing. Click here for the video. If you are looking for plans, I recommend Googling “little free library plan” on Google or searching those terms on YouTube. As mentioned earlier, littlefreelibrary.org has plans as well.
The original plan called for 3/4 inch plywood, but since this library was going to be so visible, we decided to upgrade with cedar for a couple reasons. Cedar is a little more pleasing to the eye than plain plywood, and holds stain well. In addition, cedar is insect resistant and should last longer than plywood.
Since cedar boards are not as wide as plywood, you will need to join several 8 inch cedar boards together to get boards that are wide enough. We used our trusty mortise and tenon joints for extra strength to join the boards along with TiteBond III glue which is well suited to the outdoors. For more tips on glue technique, check out our post Woodworking Glue Technique, a Metephor for Life.
One quirk of the plan was that it called for an 1/8 inch (or. 125 inch) acrylic window. Acrylic doesn’t typically come in that width, so we used .08 inch acrylic instead, which introduced a variable you need to be careful of. Since the acrylic was thinner than called for in the plan, the wooden stop blanks (the thin pieces of wood that hold the acrylic in place) that were to hold them left a slight gap. Looking back on it, I should have made wider stop blanks, but I was committed at that point, and going back to remill and stain the blanks would have taken a long time. To ensure you don’t have any visible unstained cedar, including cedar you think is going to be underneath the acrylic, make sure you eyeball the stop blanks from every angle including from within the door and outside the door, or else some unstained wood will be slightly visible through the door. I was able to easily adjust for this by staining the stop blanks on all sides, which is usually not necessary.
As far as the stain, we tried a redwood stain, but it was a little too “orange” for my taste so we went with the rosewood stain in the original plan. Always stain a test piece first. This is part of the fail fast and fail cheap mantra we talked about in our post How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life. Stain is so variable from wood type to wood type that a test piece is a must. Rarely does stain look like the color palettes you get in the store.
Last, we decided to go with a cedar shingle roof to add some pizzazz and make it blend in with the natural environment. I had considered asphalt shingles, but when I was poking around the hardware store noticed some cedar shingles that I thought would look much nicer. To make the shingles, I used cedar shims and laid them out to hang over the edge of the library about a half inch. I also left about 4 inches exposed in each layer. I highly recommend the video How to Install Cedar Shake Shingles on YouTube before starting out. After the shingles were nailed and glued, I added a cap using cedar with a bevel equal to the angle of the roof (see the video). I screwed the cap on the library using deck screws then coated the shingles with Thompson’s clear stain.
This is a view of the Little Free Library as you approach the front door of the Center and you can see the beautiful Horicon Marsh in the background. If you are ever in Wisconsin, I highly recommend visiting the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center.
Rumor has it, there will be a bike trail going from Mayville to the Center soon, then another trail going to Horicon which will connect to the 34 mile Wild Goose Trail. If you are a rails-to-trails fan, this will be right up your alley, since the Wild Goose Trail is a rail trail (see the link here for more on Rails to Trails). This new trail should open up the Center for even more visitors to enjoy and spur an innovation boom in Horicon and Mayville (see our post Having a Mental Block with a Thorny Woodworking or Start-Up Problem? Get on the Bike!)
If you get a chance to build a little free library, go for it! I’d be glad to answer any questions via this blog post’s comments section or the Contact Us page.
Congratulations on launching your first startup. Tell us a little bit about Impeesa.
Impeesa Coffee and Tea was a venture created by three other friends and myself. We are all Boy Scouts. The concept behind it was to create a market for a product that we enjoyed that we were passionate about and that had a purpose. That product being coffee and tea, two things that in the high velocity environment that we were raised in, this kind of area, coffee and tea for a lot of people are a relief and an energizer at the same time so that they cultivate a lot of productivity and efficiency. We are people that really like to get involved really heavily and really quickly. We decided to create a marketplace for something like that. The purpose we brought in, is related to the term Impeesa. Impeesa was how the Matabele in South Africa referred to Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouting. The translation was the “Wolf that Never Sleeps,” so you can probably see the coffee reference there. Being Boy Scouts we’ve all gone through National Youth Leadership Training which is a spectacular opportunity for young men to go in and really understand what leadership really is. We decided that with this marketplace we had created with something we really enjoyed, that we could also create more opportunities for youth to pursue that National Youth Leadership Training. So, we decided to really round off Impeesa as an opportunity to raise money for scholarships for National Youth Leadership Training. That was the main goal and why we started Impeesa. Something we enjoyed. Something we were passionate about that we could make a purpose out of.
You talked about creating a market. How did it go?
All in all, this was probably our most successful failure, is how we refer to it (both laughing).
I’m sure you learned a lot in the process.
Exactly, that’s what it is. We got to the point in our journey of the red and black line where we were finally coming out of the red and we decided to reinvest back into coffee. That’s when things kind of went downhill because that’s when the startup hype died down. That’s something that we had known was going to happen. We tried to account for it and we to market for it. We just didn’t do it overtly successfully. Everything we learned was so much more valuable than any penny or dime that we could have made. That’s what we enjoy the most looking back on it. We said from the beginning, if we don’t make a dime out of this we will probably have had a more valuable experience than most people our age do.
It was a heck of an education. It was almost a mini-MBA.
It’s a mini-MBA. We threw ourselves into it and we didn’t do great, obviously, which is why we’re putting it on hiatus so we can focus on going to college.
My hats off to you, because a lot of people talk about starting a business. You’ll probably hear that a lot in college, but very few will have done it, especially in high school.
Definitely, when we started initially talking about it, we weren’t just talking about it. In our heads, the minute we brought this up, we knew we had to do it, because everybody talks about this, but never does it. That was probably our main motivation, not only creating the opportunity for scholarships, but also just doing it. What’s the point in talking about it if you’re not going to do anything about it.
You talked about when you started getting into the black. I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard entrepreneurship is. There’s the hype in the beginning, but then it’s just hard work. Can you talk a little about that. If you continued it, what would you do differently or what would you continue to do?
It is so much work getting out of that initial investment. It was all personal investment. We all contributed about $200 in each, so that put us down about $800 total. Just getting up from that number was such a challenge. Just paying off that overhead. We rode that startup hype really, really well. If we weren’t full time students in high school we probably could have had the capacity to ride that startup hype right out of the red. Being high school students we didn’t really have the capacity to focus full time on getting a quality marketing plan. About January or February we started thinking about when our next step should be after the startup hype was over. That was our frame of thinking. We tried to anticipate what we were going to be as a brand and how we were going to market as a brand. We had a really solid plan. It just didn’t work. I think that’s the most important thing that we learned. You can plan for whatever you want, but it might not work. Your plan might not be the best even if it’s eight pages long and you have your headers and your bullet points. Your plan might not work and you have to be ready for that. That’s something that as full time students we couldn’t necessarily do. And definitely to anybody reading this don’t discourage yourself by your circumstances. Don’t think because you’re a full time student you can’t have the capacity to plan effectively. We thought that our plan that we had put all this thought into would work and it didn’t, necessarily. Things that we could have done differently…definitely just anticipating the credibility of people and utilizing a lot of those quality resources. Everybody is going to say that they will buy your product.
How many actually buy it?
Probably 20-30% of people actually buy the product. Everybody wants to be part of this cool new thing. Nobody wants to spend money, though. I started getting into a lot of Facebook groups where people were like “this is what you’re doing wrong, this is what you’re doing right.” People with experience not only running tea businesses, but tea snobs. The tea snobs were probably the best resource. Your black tea is definitely not worth this much. Don’t sell it for that much. You might sell more. There are quality resources, things like Facebook groups. Tea Mavens, I think, was one of them. You jump into one of those and suddenly you have this wealth of knowledge that you as a high schooler definitely could not have. When it comes to our industry, food and beverage, tea and coffee, those experts, those snobs, were definitely great resources because we know when we were wrong. They liked to point that kind of thing out. You can put all this thought into a marketing plan and try to get around that startup hype, but at the end of the day your best resources aren’t going to be that plan or the points of that plan, they are going to be the people who know what they are talking about. And they want to help you out because you’re a young kid and they want to show off their knowledge.
It’s a win win. Where did you get the first idea for the business?
The four co-founders were Josh Rigby, Keenan Murphy, Hart Lukens and myself. Josh and Keenan…and we tell this story to everyone because this is how it actually happened…they had just gotten out of a movie at Potomac Mills. They were in the bathroom and Josh yells from one stall to Keenan “Hey, if we started a business, what would we sell?” And at the same time they both say “coffee!” They are coffee addicts without a doubt. For fun they wrote up a quick operating agreement. Why not do this just for fun? So, I’m sitting in AP Literature one day with Josh and I see this operating agreement. I’m like “Dude, what’s this?” Because I recognized Impeesa from the name of the National Capital Area Council for NYLT camp. “Impeesa Coffee? This seems really cool” I text Keenan. I asked him if there was a way to invest in this. He said “no, it’s an LLC.” “But, if you want in, you can buy in.” I’m like “OK, why not?” If we’re going to talk about this, we need to do it. We actually looked at the numbers for coffee and realized how expensive coffee was going to be. Josh and I said we need the money for coffee. How are we going to make the money for coffee? So, Keenan shoots us both a text with a tea wholesaler that has like a 12,000% turnaround. You could buy this stuff for almost nothing and sell it for any amount that you want. He said this is how we are going to make money for coffee. A few days later Hart Lukens and I were talking, and he wanted in, too. You’re part of our solid group of friends, of course you’re in.
How many founders were there?
There were four total founders, including me: Josh Rigby, Hart Lukens, Keenan Murphy, and me. After we brought Hart on board is when we really got into the swing of things. We really decided to buckle down and make sure this happened. We felt cool. You feel cool starting a business. We had this down. After a swim banquet, we all had the operating agreement, these crazy 17 page long contracts with each other because it was an LLC partnership. We had them in our hands ready to go. That was December 14th when we officially filed all our paperwork that we needed. We had our EINs (IRS Employee Identification Numbers) and all that. So that’s the weird wonky journey that led up to that. We didn’t really have a plan in place. We just had the idea of “Yes, we are partners in business. We’re not entirely sure how that works yet.”
Let’s talk about FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) a little bit. You were the President of FBLA. How did FBLA help you with the business, if at all?
It definitely did. What we were doing with coffee and tea…we’re sitting in Starbucks right now. People who want coffee don’t necessarily want coffee. They want Starbucks. They want Keurig. People want their tea from a particular place. Creating a market was kind of creating that market, creating demand for our product, was something that we really needed. Especially if we’re starting off with tea. So FBLA was more of a social experience than anything else. You’ve got a lot of skill building in there, but more than anything else when you walk into an FBLA conference you’re shaking hands, and you’re learning how to interact with people. That interaction with people who already have a heightened expectation of what is supposed to be going down was probably the best skill I learned in FBLA. Keenan was a member of FBLA, too. Josh was for a short spell. So learning how to interact with people and how to really sell yourself taught us how to sell our product. You definitely want some of this (product). This is something you want to be a part of. We’re a bunch of dumb young kids starting a business our product, come join us and tell everyone you love it. Definitely the social scene of FBLA helped teach Keenan and myself how to sell something in a setting that’s very fast-paced. And high school is especially fast-paced. If you want to sell something in a hallway, you don’t have much time: “we just started this business, check us out.” Sitting in a classroom you’ve got a five minute break between Powerpoints. I started a business, you should try it and check out our mission. I think in FBLA there were definitely skills that we learned when it came to business plans and marketing. The social scene behind FBLA helped us to sell ourselves.
What are some of the habits that you would say have helped you be successful?
Communication. A big theme at National Youth Leadership Training is communication. It’s kind of a running joke that NYLT is a camp for talking (laughs).
That’s a useful skill.
For sure. Communication is something that initially we were really great at. As we got further into running Impeesa, we started getting distant from each other and that’s when problems started arising. We started getting really stressed and upset with each other. That’s because we stopped communicating. Later in the game we started communicating again. That’s when we decided to chill for a bit. Let’s put Impeesa on hiatus. Communication was probably the best habit we had. Whenever there was a problem, immediately we were in a Google hangout. We were trying to plan a business meeting. We knew if we were all on the same page, we could do anything we wanted. Communication, definitely. And then we made it a habit to vote on everything. Nobody operated outside of the group. Every purchase, as annoying as it was, we had a poll in our Facebook group chat and voted “yea” or “nay.” If it’s “nay” then we deal with the consequences. Everything was a group effort. That’s what made us so successful was that we were all on the same page. Successful in our eyes as far as consistently learning and getting out of the red a little bit. Communication is everything in my opinion. That was our best habit. When we really started to get stressed with each other and not like each other so much it’s because we weren’t communicating. Communication, without a doubt, was our biggest strength.
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
It depends if you are going into a parternship…always be on the same page. Expectations are everything. Going into management and having experience with management in my current job and Impeesa you learn that managing expectations is the only way to really accomplish a task. Because if everybody is not expecting the same thing, if somebody has a misunderstanding of what they are going to get out of this or what we are working towards, they are going to be operating in a completely different plane than us. Communicating with each other and being on the same page and respecting each other’s time and schedules. As high school students and Boy Scouts we all play sports. We all have jobs.
You guys are busy.
Super busy. It’s so hard to find time. There were times we just got frustrated with each other, and decided we cannot function like this. When you try to cut someone out of the picture it doesn’t work. We just stopped doing that. If you’re looking at a partnership, be a good person within your group. Respecting the fact that these other three guys who literally run our company just as much as I do are people, too. They have schedules. They have expectations. They have a way they want to operate, so let’s make sure we’re all operating the same way. Compromise. A lot of the time we didn’t need to compromise because we did communicate so well. But it really comes down to communication and expectations, I think.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Starting the business isn’t the hard part. So just do it, but be ready to fail. Be ready to be wrong because that’s the most important thing you’re going to do. Is fail and be wrong. That’s where you learn to be right.
And that’s OK. Failure is OK.
That’s the best thing. Succeeding is pretty great, too (laughing).
Where can we learn more about Impeesa?
You can visit our website which we’re kind of revamping for our hiatus so it’s information-based. www.impeesa.us is where you can learn a little more about us. Just bear with us as we reconfigure it so it carries more information.
In 2 days, we start our Second Annual Minimalism Challenge! What does minimalism have to do with entrepreneurship and woodworking? Everything! Minimalism is a movement to pare back on tasks and things in order to focus on what’s important in your life. If those things that are important to you include entrepreneurship and/or woodworking, then minimalism is a tool to help focus on both of those passions. We wrote earlier about our minimalism journey in What Do You Mean I Have to Move the Wood Shop???!!!??? Entrepreneurs Need to Be Flexible and will talk about a specific tactic (the Minimalism Challenge) to propel you on your minimalism journey.
So what is The Minimalism Challenge? Very simply, you get rid of a number of things equal to that day of the month. For example, on August 1st we will get rid of one thing. On the 31st, we’ll each get rid of at least 31 things. By the end of the month, we’ll each have gotten rid of around 500 things. Our friends Josh and Ryan, The Minimalists, have written out the rules of engagement in their post Let’s Play a Minimalism Game.
So how does one identify the things to get rid of? One method that was useful for us was to follow Marie Kondo’s example. Marie wrote a New York Times bestseller called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up which has a multi-step process (she calls it the KonMari Method) for decluttering your house. If you don’t have a starting point, Marie’s framework might be useful to you. For example, one of the first steps is to focus on reducing your wardrobe. First, you put all of your clothes together then decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Anything that hasn’t been worn in the last 90 days is a prime candidate to jettison. Mrs Woodworker and I did that last year and it was amazing how many clothes we each had when we brought every single piece of clothing we owned into one room. It was a real eye opener. As you need items to shed for the Minimalism Challenge, you can leverage Marie’s method to find more items.
Stuff has to be tended to. The larger the house, the more maintenance required. The more cars, the more trips to the auto shop. In our post Woodworking and Minimalism: If I Buy All These Tools Am I a Minimalist? we described the rationale behind it, but I’d to explore more about the aspect of freeing up time, one of our most precious assets. Maria Popova, the writer of Brain Pickings who has millions of blog readers, gave a great overview of the value of time when she unpacked Seneca’s (Seneca is one of the great Stoic philosophers) letters regarding time (I subscribe to her weekly newsletter). Here is a taste from Seneca:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
For more insight into freeing up time, Ii you haven’t had the chance yet, you have to check out a documentary series on Netflix called Abstract (see YouTube trailer here) on multiple ground breaking makers/artists/designers. If you watch very carefully, it’s fascinating to watch how they live their lives and put everything they have into their craft. For example, one of the designers is Tinker Hatfield who designed the Air Jordan shoe for Nike. These designers are all minimalists, so some degree.
Whether you realize it or not, your house or apartment is full of buried treasure. Anything you haven’t used in about the past 90 days is fair game to be converted into $$$. We follow the following protocol (in this order) for getting rid of stuff and generating dollars:
Sell on ebay. This is the most profitable way to pare down your possessions. One of the greatest advantages is that you can see what the real value of things are.
Sell on Craigslist. Craigslist is a bit of yard sale in terms of prices, but if you are patient, people will come to your house and actually pay you to take your things away. It’s like having your own ATM, but you don’t have to go to the ATM. It brings money to your house.
Sell at a yard sale. This can be a real time suck, but if the weather is good it’s a nice way to spend a Saturday morning and you usually get to meet a lot of really interesting people and neighbors.
Sell from your yard. This is a new technique for us. If there is a garage sale down the street from us and the garage sale traffic will be passing in front of our house, sometimes we’ll put an item with a price tag on it in the front yard. Everything we have placed in the yard this way has sold. We were able to sell our oak dining room set very quickly this way.
Donation tax break. If you can’t sell something, take it to the nearest donation center. We’ve been using the Vietnam Vets donation site in Woodbridge for years, because you drive up, they come out and take your things away. It’s very fast and convenient. You can also get a break on your taxes IF you are itemizing deductions.
Give it away (don’t have to pay to move it again). I don’t believe in Karma, BUT you’ll get a good feeling from giving something away. Freecycle is a very easy way to do this and they also have an app which makes it easy. Visit www.freecycle.org to learn more.
#3: It frees up your mind
Before I took command of my first squadron, we had to attend a pre-command class. One of the lessons that really stuck with me was given by a three-star general. He said “only do what only you can do”. That was very profound and I had to mull it over for awhile. He told us to take a look at our to-do list. I had over 30 items on my to-do list that day that I planned to tackle when I got to the squadron. He told us to consider how many of those items could be delegated. In my case, it was just about all but a half dozen. There were a half dozen tasks that only I could do as the commander. The others could be delegated. He also make the point that by delegating we were creating teaching opportunities to develop our subordinates in the squadron. His comments were a revelation. Now I could really focus on the few things that were necessary to lead the squadron. It freed up my mind.
Along those lines, the French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of many misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” We spend so much of our mental bandwidth thinking about low probability things and can free up a lot of that bandwidth by thinking about more constructive and positive things.
Try the minimalism game for yourself and see if it frees up your time, frees up money, and frees up your mind. If not, you at least had some fun in the process. Follow me on my personal twitter feed @jttraughber for daily tweets on what we are jettisoning and our progress. The hashtag will be #minimalismgame
This is the 10th installment in the series of our entrepreneur interviews (see links at the bottom for our other interviews). In this interview, we talked with successful inventor Deane Elliott who has already sold one business and was recently awarded another patent.
Thanks for your time and congratulations on getting your fifth patent. As we were talking about earlier, that’s quite an achievement. Not too many people get a patent in the first place. Tell us a little bit about your fifth patent.
So my fifth patent is hunting related. It’s called GutCheck and it’s an indicator for application to an arrow. Basically, to allow the hunter to determine if the arrow has been exposed to acid. More specifically, if the arrow has gone through the stomach portion of the deer.
How did you come up with that idea? That sounds pretty novel.
I was hunting with a friend of mine named Jeff. He had a super steep shot at a deer, maybe 8 yards away. He shot it and he thought that thing’s dead. The way that it ran around him he had no indication that it was not a fatal shot, but it ran quite a ways out of his sight. So we tracked and we were having a hard time finding a blood trail. Eventually we did find the deer and its stomach had been cut open by the broadhead. I thought there has got to be a way to tell if an arrow has passed through the stomach or through the entrails of a deer. Basically that got me thinking along the litmus paper lines…but chemistry is not my strong suit, so I went to a friend of mine who is a patent attorney whose brother is a PhD chemist. I proposed the concept to him. He identified the materials and found a way that we could prove the concept and make it work.
You’ve obviously been very successful in being awarded patents. What is the secret to getting a patent through the system?
I think the primary thing is having a search done. That’s what I do for a living. That’s been my main career for the past 30 years. A lot of people don’t know where to start, but I think the process starts with having a search done and having it done professionally. A lot of people go onto Google patents, or other sites and feel like they’ve done a comprehensive search. A searcher that does it for a living has a different way of doing a patent search. So having the search done professionally is really the foundation of getting a good patent, because then the patent attorney has what we call a prior art, the known prior that he has to weave around in order to craft the application so that he can file a good application.
How did you get started being an inventor? Would you call yourself an inventor?
(laughing) I think so. You know, the word entrepreneur is an interesting word. I think at some point when one crosses over from being an inventor to making money then they can legitimately call themselves an entrepreneur. I’m definitely an inventor. I’ve been reluctant to call myself an entrepreneur, but then my wife reminds me that I had a patent search business for a number of years that I was able to grow and sold it successfully so I think I can say I’m also an entrepreneur.
You’re definitely a successful entrepreneur if you were able to sell a business that was a going concern.
Right. Absolutely. Inventing with me starts like a lot of other people by identifying a need. My first two inventions were in the golf industry. I invented a system for confirming ball position relative to the golfer. That was a problem I struggled with and still struggle with today. I came up with the idea of painting lines in front of the golfer on the ground with lasers and then placing the ball at the intersection of the lines. The hunting ideas have been sort of the same thing. More or less have to do with identifying the problem then coming up with a fix.
Have you come up with an idea to make golfers hit the ball straight yet?
(both laughing) No.
Tell us a little about your creative process. You talked about how you invent to satisfy a need.
So the process is that I identify a need that affects me personally and then I start thinking how can I solve this need or make a better way of doing something. I start sketching. Often times I’ll go right away and put something on paper so I don’t forget. But sometimes I forget and then I come back to it. Being in the industry I have a search done. Usually I do some searching myself just to make sure there’s not some patent out there that someone is going to find in 10 or 15 minutes. So I do a cursory check, and then if I don’t find anything I’ll send it to one of my researchers to have a search done.
What are some of the habits that have helped you be successful?
That’s a good question. With regard to patenting, or in general?
Just in general. Tactics in your day, your week, or your month?
Prioritizing is important. I wear so many hats with regard to my current position. And then trying to fit in so many of the other aspects of inventing and being a husband and all those things. Identifying those things that are most important and allowing some of the things to wait to another time when I can dedicate some time to it.
What are your entrepreneur lessons learned so far? Either from when you had a business before or in doing the patents?
One thing I notice is that people tend to glamorize the term a lot.
For sure. Maybe it’s what they call survivor’s bias. You tend to only hear about the winners and not the losers.
I think it’s harder to own a business, for instance, than some people might understand. It takes discipline. A lot of people that I encounter tell me they could never work from home, because of the distractions and the discipline it takes. I can focus more and get a lot more done. Discipline is definitely an important part of success, I think. And then, being reasonable in expectations, and emotionally separating yourself from a particular idea. When I got the first golf patent I thought that the industry would knock on my door. They would come to me. They would want to license or buy the patents. That didn’t happen. They were obtained in 2008 right before the crash.
How long are the patents good for?
Give or take 20 years. You can keep renewing them by paying maintenance fees. I’m still keeping them alive. I’m not sure I’ll pursue them. It’s interesting to know you hold a piece of patent history.
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
I would say be realistic in your expectations. It’s one thing to get a patent. It’s another thing to go into production, sourcing, and actually setting up a business around the patent. I wouldn’t suggest building a business based upon one invention or one device. Be well rounded and continue to create a portfolio of things. If that’s your niche. If it deals with a particular product.
So the patent is just the beginning, not the end.
It’s not the end. My preference would be to license. That’s always been my desire: to create a product, have someone see it and then be interested enough to offer a licensing deal. You don’t have to deal with manufacturing at that point, sourcing, getting it out on shelves or any of that. I’m told that many inventors make the mistake of over asking when it comes to licensing, basically wanting the potential licensee to put way too much out way to early without proving that there is a market. At least in my case, I haven’t really gotten down to negotiating a license yet. I am talking to some people with regard to GutCheck.
Speaking of which, what’s the next step for GutCheck?
So, I’m currently speaking with custom ink manufacturers. The material that changes color upon exposure to the acid is a body of materials that’s commercially available. It’s just a powdered dye that has to be mixed in a way so that the viscosity, dry time, cure time, all that is usable in different printers. If we go with an inkjet printer I need to make sure the ink is compatible with that particular print head. I would prefer to identify a source that would print it on the label or media and do the whole thing. I could pay them per label or per run, as opposed to setting up an actual print shop and printing these things myself.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think on the whole I would say that inventing and entrepreneurship should be fun. It’s a journey. If you can’t enjoy the entire process, it may not be for you. So find a way to enjoy the process, and understand that it will have challenge all along the way. And try and enjoy the ride.
Where can we learn more about GutCheck and your other ideas?
Probably e-mailing me would be best. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alright, that was fantastic. Thanks.
That was fun. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in print.
Click these links to see our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, writer of The Devil Dragon Pilot: