How To Cut Your Work Hours 40% to Focus on Making: Interview with Writer and Award Winning Photographer Lisa Traughber

Entrepreneur:  “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.”  (dictionary.com)

Lisa Traughber, Award Winning Nature Photographer
Lisa Traughber, Award Winning Nature Photographer

This interview is our fifth in a series of interviews with entrepreneurs and makers, this time with magazine writer, blogger, and photographer Lisa Traughber, the Best-Sister-In-The-Whole-World.  Lisa has been published in multiple magazines and also won several photography awards.  Our readers may find her move to slash her work hours in order to create very interesting.

Thank you for doing the interview.  You have many creative talents and I think our readers will be interested in how you were able redesign your life to shift your time from working to making.  You only work 3 days per week and spend 2 days per week creating:  writing for magazines, blogging, and doing photography.  You made that shift some time ago, and how you made that shift might be very interesting to our readers.

You’re welcome.  Thank you for your interest.

You started with writing for magazines and have had several articles published.  Tell us a little about how you got started.

I took a week long class a number of years ago that was devoted to writing articles for inspirational magazines.  The class was held at the beautiful Glen Eyrie located in Colorado Springs.  The class taught me everything I needed to know to properly submit articles for publication.

How were you able to go from 5 work days per week to 3?

I changed job locations within the same organization.  The location change was the right time to cut down my work hours so I could pursue other things. The change also gave me more time to spend with my family. The people in administration at the organization were happy because they wanted someone who would be flexible with their hours when they opened the new location.

Was that a difficult transition?

It was a very easy transition.  I simplified my expenses and had my mortgage and car paid off, so I had more freedom in cutting down my work hours.

Tell us a little about the focus of your blog.

My blog is specific to nature at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin.  This includes the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area.  My blog focuses on wildlife and plants along with talking about photography.  My main goal is to share the beauty, creativity, and artistry found in nature.

How did you get started in photography?

I have been interested in photography since I was in high school.  I set up shots around the house and took pictures in the yard.  Later, two of my favorite subjects were (and still are) my niece and nephew.

You’ve won some awards.  What does it take to get to that level?

It takes practice and study.  I have taken thousands of poor photos.  That part is necessary to arrive at an exceptional photo.  I have also taken online classes and done a lot of reading.  That has been helpful in learning the technical aspects of photography that can improve a photo.  I am still learning and I share mistakes with my readers so they can learn with me.

The blog is something new you added in 2016.  How is that going?

The blog is going well.  I want to do at least one post per week.  This motivates me to get out and shoot regularly.  The blog is a wonderful outlet for me to work on my photography and writing skills.  I have new readers checking it out every week.

How often do you write?

I write for the blog at least once a week.  I also write in a journal occasionally.  My focus is on the blog rather than writing magazine articles now. I enjoy the creative freedom that writing for a blog provides. When you write for magazines, you have to follow their writer’s guidelines.  You may also receive more rejection letters than acceptance letters.  That becomes discouraging.  When you write for a blog, you may receive immediate feedback and, in my experience, it has been encouraging.  Bloggers are often good cheerleaders for each other.

What have you learned on your blogging journey?

Prior to starting the blog, I took the class “Creating WordPress Websites” through Moraine Park Technical College.  It is a 6 week online class.  I learned everything I needed to know to get a website up and running.  Knowledgeable instructors answered all of my questions.  I highly recommend it.

Any big plans for 2017?

I plan to take the class “Writing Effective Web Content” (www.ed2go.com/mptc) to help me to develop my writing skills.  I also plan to watch a photography DVD series I purchased a while back to improve my photography skills.

Tell us a little bit about your creative process.

My blog is photography driven.  I will go for a drive or hike at the Horicon Marsh and whatever happens to be there that day can become the subject for my blog.  I develop the written content from the photos.  I try to include interesting, educational content as well as personal insights.  At times, I will decide to look for something specific, like macro shots. I may also talk about the process of taking the photo if I think it is helpful for my readers.

What advice do you have for beginning bloggers or photographers?

I recommend taking classes, reading, and talking to other bloggers and photographers.  You can avoid a lot of mistakes by learning what has worked for others.

Where can we learn more about your photography?

The best place you can learn about my photography is at the blog, horiconmarshnaturephotgraphy.com.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Don’t be afraid to jump in and start your own blog.  It is a great opportunity to learn and to meet others who share the same interests.

Thank you, Lisa!

For our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:

Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, write of The Devil Dragon Pilot:  Part 1 and Part 2.  Colby has finished his draft of his second book, The Black Scorpion Pilot.  Stay tuned for another interview with him after the book is available on Amazon.

Amazing photographer Richard Weldon Davis.

Successful entrepreneur and owner of Custom Display Cases, Mo Johnson: Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

Incredible baker and entrepreneur, Haleigh Heard.

Stay tuned for our next interview in the entrepreneur series!

 

4 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Manage Their Backlog: When the Cup Overflows

An Entrepreneur Working the Backlog
An Entrepreneur Working the Backlog

We just made another deal last weekend to make some baseball bat themed footstools and bar stools, which was terrific.  Then I did the math on our total backlog and it’s over 100 hours!  Remember, this is a part time gig until I retire (Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire) and I can only comfortably do about 6 hours per week in the wood shop, especially given work travel.  That means my backlog works out to about 17 weeks or 4 months, which is too long for my taste.  Why?  Because there are a few other commissions I’ve been discussing with potential clients that I’d really like to build.  They look like really fun projects.  Doing these new deals is not about bringing in new business, but about making things that are interesting.  How does an entrepreneur manage their backlog when it gets too big?  Read on!

#1:  Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely

An entrepreneur needs to maintain the flow of business, because the backlog could be gone at some point.  We always want new business walking in that door, but not too much or quality will suffer, or we’ll have to turn away too many clients.  To give you a specific example, you may have noticed  I’ve started to tweet here and there with some updates on what is going on in the shop (follow us at Twitter handle @TraughberDesign).  I could be tweeting a lot more, but decided to just tweet occasionally until we’ve worked off more of that backlog.  We also have a Pinterest account and could be doing a lot more other on the social media front with apps like Instagram.  At this point, though, we need that time in the shop.

Something else to start thinking about is what is your ideal backlog number?  That number could be in hours or number of projects to ship, or some other metric.  Then work towards that metric you’ve set.  Over 100 hours is too much right now for Traughber Design, but once I’m doing this full time, that number may be too low if I work a 40 hour week in the wood shop.  What’s the right number for your business?  Have you thought about that?  You want enough of a backlog to keep yourself gainfully employed for a while, but how long?  How frequently does new work typically come in the door?  As I mentioned earlier, this backlog will take me 4 months and I can estimate pretty well how much new work we’ll get in that time period.  That will determine how much effort (or not) we spend on marketing.  We’ve already had 4 commissions this year and it’s only February so we need to manage the incoming and outgoing flow.

We just talked about investing less (time) in marketing, where should the entrepreneur invest?

#2:  Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster

Maybe buying tools should always be the default answer!  One can never have enough tools, I suppose, unless you’re traveling a minimalist journey as Mrs Woodworker and I are.  But what do I mean by “buy more tools”?  I mean to look for opportunities where a tool or jig will make you faster or more efficient in whatever your creating enterprise is.  To give you an example, I anticipate we may be making a lot of the baseball bat themed foot stools and bar stools.  Is there a tool I can buy that will speed up production while maintaining or improving the quality?  Is there a jig (a specially made apparatus to hold pieces in place to make cutting/sawing/drilling/etc. easier) I can make that makes positioning the bats easier to speed things up? Yes, of course there are.  I’ve made one prototype foot stool from three bats and can see the value in making a jig for the bar stool to precisely align the bats and drill holes for the cross pieces that will hold the bats in place in the stool.  If I make the jigs now, we’ll reap the benefits in the long run with time savings on every piece.

For more on tools read these posts:

Choosing Woodworking Tools, or Why I Love Festool

Woodworking and Minimalism:  If I Buy All These Tools Am I A Minimalist?

3 Reasons You MUST Invest in the Best Tools You Can Afford! 

So we can speed things up with capital expenditures, but how about allocating our time wisely?

#3:  Reallocate Your Time

As I wrote about earlier in the post Get Out of the Rat Race:  How to Manage the Transition from Career to Maker, entrepreneurs have tremendous freedom to decide where to focus their efforts.  That’s one of the reasons we start these journeys:  freedom and creativity.  Not only is it about allocating time after the day job is over, but occasionally an entrepreneur will run across some “bonus time.”  There was a bit of serendipity with this holiday weekend.  We had planned to go cross country skiing in West Virginia, but the snow forecast was abominable.  We cancelled and went out with friends at least one night, but that freed up the entire weekend for some making every morning.  I’m the lark, or early riser, in the family so I naturally get up to write a little then hit the wood shop before every one is up.  Then we spent the rest of the day together.  I try not to work in the shop late in the day because fatigue and power tools don’t go together.  I’d like to keep my fingers.  If you are an entrepreneur, look for opportunities like that to do a little extra making.  For you, would that be early in the morning?  Stealing some time during the day?  Late in the day?  Using a portion of a holiday weekend?

As we’ve written about earlier, if you don’t have enough time you can always pull out that time creation machine we wrote about in the post Time is not Finite and make some time.

#4:  Enjoy the Ride

When you run across a “problem” with a backlog like this, it’s important to step back for a minute and do a couple things.

One thing is to pat yourself on the back for having a backlog in the first place.  Remember when you started as an entrepreneur?  You had zero backlog and were just hustling for revenue.  Now that you have one, congratulate yourself.  Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases, discusses that more in our entrepreneur interview series.

The second thing is to enjoy that ride every day. Remember in our Ode to Ralph the Woodworking Cat where we wrote about Ralph’s joy for life?  He embraced life to the fullest.  Entrepreneurs need to stop and smell the roses as they are working that backlog.  We also wrote about this in the post on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, specifically in the portions on flow and contentment.  Why did you start this enterprise in the first place?  Wasn’t to spend more time on your craft?  Enjoy it!  Tim Ferris also talks about this in his recent interview with Entrepreneur Magazine in the article Tim Ferriss: If You’re Not Happy With What You Have, You Might Never Be Happy.  Check it out.

Rejoice, Mr/Mrs Entrepreneur!  You’ve got a backlog to manage!  Don’t forget to:

#1:  Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely

#2:  Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster

#3:  Reallocate Your Time

#4:  Enjoy the Ride

Veterans MUST Read This Post! Key Transition Tips from Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

This is Part Four, the last portion of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases.  For Part One click here, Part Two, click here, and Part Three click here.

I want to be respectful of your time, I know you’re busy.  Last question.  Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Showroom at Better Display Cases
Showroom at Better Display Cases

One thing I want to say is vets have a big leg up.  I don’t know if people understand that.  There is a lot to being successful on Amazon and on the Internet.  Of course, you need to have a good product.  The most important thing of all is your reviews by customers.  So that’s super duper important.  So generally speaking, people want to help out a vet.  That’s what I put on every product we sell, which has a little slip of paper in there explaining who we are.  The business was started by a vet.  We get a lot of good feedback.  You’ve probably seen those things.  We just get a lot of good feedback.  We have a good product, and we have outstanding customer service.  I believe that vet thing really is the difference.  The key thing that has put me over the hump.  It’s the difference maybe between 90% positive and 99% positive.  That difference is everything.

Who doesn’t want to support a vet?

Yeah, all things being equal.  On Amazon, the difference between ranking #1 and #10 is everything.  #1 gets 90% of the sales, and #10 gets no sales.  #2 maybe gets, 10% of the sales.  That vet thing is huge and I don’t know if vets really understand that.  I just point that out.  Especially if you’re competing in a big way.  I’m sure people like to help vets locally, too, but I’m not sure there are a lot of vets that sell locally.  It’s a good thing.  I just stumbled on this, I didn’t know.  I’m competing against big sellers all across the country and when the buyer looks at two things all they know about it is “vet” or “no vet.”  It’s a really big advantage I think.  A lot of people comment on that and say “thank you for your service” so I know it’s a pretty big deal.  I know it’s not much of a difference between the good sellers and the outstanding ones, as far as the metrics go.  It’s not just Amazon, it’s eBay, it’s Walmart, Etsy, all these places we’re on now.  That’s been a really important factor.

If you have more thoughts, send them my way.  This is probably going to be a two or three parter, which is good.  Thanks!

Mo Johnson sent the following thoughts via E-mail after the live interview:

Hey Jerry, thanks for the interview.  Love the blog you are doing — great idea. One thing we didn’t talk about is how we came up with the motto:  “display your story”.  That happened after I was floored by customers contacting me, sharing very personal stories about how much our cases meant to them.  Usually it involved an item that they were displaying that had belonged to a loved one who had passed away.  I mean people have called me, literally crying and telling me they wanted me to know that our cases were much more than just a display case.  That all really surprised me and changed the way I thought about the business.   We weren’t just in the business of creating, manufacturing and selling a product.  Rather, it is more about the item the customer is displaying.  More about their story.  Displaying their story.  That’s really what it’s about.  We are helping people to display (and thereby tell) their life stories, the things most important to them.
OK, so that’s one thing I wanted to mention.   Also, one point of that is that once you start down the entrepreneurship road, you really don’t know where it will lead.  So, that’s both scary and exciting.

Another thing, related to that, is I think you and I spent a good amount of time with me dwelling on the negatives of entrepreneurship — the long hours and stress of it.  And the impact of that.  That’s definitely true and important to understand.  I was tired yesterday so thinking more about that side of things 🙂 

On the other hand, it is also very rewarding to know that you are building something from nothing to what it has become.  The impact that it has on so many people.  It may sound corny but in its own way, Better Display Cases has changed the world — for the better.  Many display cases we design, make and sell are new and different and never been seen before.  Most were things customers asked for.  They are being used to display people’s stories that maybe would never have been told otherwise.

That’s what I was getting at when I mentioned before that I work all the time.  That’s true.   The business is on my mind pretty much all the time (unless something more urgent replaces it) — but my mind is always wandering to what we can do better and solving problems.   And, I have piles of notes and calendars and audios — all with notes of ideas I’ve had that I wrote down or recorded and need the time to go over again and implement.   I also have a never-ending flow of emails and online blogs, audios, articles, etc — all with ideas, tools, etc that can improve the business in one way or the other. 

Right now I’m initiating a huge change that hopefully will put all our selling channels on one place where we can change all listings from one central locations if we want to make changes and also keep track of inventory — and also do shipping.  Part of that is negotiating a better deal with FedEx — anyway, all that is a long story, but just a small example of the kind of things I’m always working on.  Many things you try don’t work.  So, it’s not a straight line.  Which is part of why the process of innovating and getting better is never ending.  Each one of those things involves not only the technology but the people and the partners and all the issues that go with all that.

Then, as a small business owner I’m also building manager (yesterday just before you got there, a pipe burst that I was dealing with).  I’m chief technology officer (anything breaks, my problem).  Chief tax officer (have a part time accountant, but I still have to gather all the info for her which is the most time consuming part).  Custodian (thinking of hiring a cleaning crew, not sure if worth the money).  Head of HR.  On and on.  There’s no substitute for the owner.  Only the owner cares like an owner.

Theres nothing as hard, or rewarding, as starting and building a small business.  So, there is not enough time in the day to do all I would like to do.  Which is why, there’s never a spare moment because I always have good stuff I could be doing.    That’s the working all the time piece.

But, importantly, I don’t think of it as work at all.  It’s just me.  It’s who I am and what I do — as much as I can.  There’s almost no where I’d rather be than in my office, “working”.  So, I both work all the time and not at all — if that makes sense.  It’s very cool to wake up every day and know that your time will be spent building something of your own — rather than something that belongs to someone else.
Another thing — I mentioned how being a vet is a big advantage for me.  The other thing that has really helped is that I have little competition.  The reason for that is that my business is a terrible business in many ways.  When I started, I mentioned those groups I was part of that were looking at importing from China.  I mentioned my idea to them.   Unanimously — everyone said it was the stupidiest idea they’d ever heard.  “Of all the things you could import from China, why pick something so large, expensive to ship, and so likely to be damaged in shipment — nightmare.” 

I replied:  “yes I agree, show me something else I can import that has the same profit  margin” 

crickets.. 

So, I gave it a shot (by the way the profit margin has turned out not to be as great as I thought when I started, but still, fortunately, it’s good) .

Really that is a common thread in the business.  Most of the important things I’ve done that have proven to be really successful were things I was told not to do. 

1.  go into the acrylic display case business
2.  sell them on Amazon
3.  make cases without mirrors
4.  make cases with silver risers (in China they told me “no body like silver; everybody want gold” — this is what I began to tell you at one point yesterday — if one of my competitors wanted to do something like sell with silver risers — first they’d have to convince their supplier to go to the manufacturer and then the manufacturer would have to agree to make them.   Plus, the big supplier in the U.S. is HUGE and orders millions of cases many months in advance.  So, probably won’t even listen to a small seller.  We are small, nimble, responsive, willing to take risk.  We cut out the middle man and design/manufacture ourselves and sell direct to the customer..    Anyway, China was wrong.  Lots of people want silver risers.    
5.  make cases with black risers (see 4 above) 


So for me, it’s truly been the road less traveled that made all the difference.  Well, that should about cover it I think.  Again, thanks for the interview.  Talk to you later
***
Sorry, one more thing, then I’m done.
I didn’t talk much about all the customization work we do.  I’d say about half the cases we ship require some major customization — changing riser color or mirror or turf, etc.  You probably had the impression we just ship what we receive from China.  But, because we have soooo many options, it doesn’t usually work out that way.  Which is a huuuge challenge.
Many thanks to Mo for not only his time during the original interview, but also taking the time to document and send his thoughts after the interview.  I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot listening to his story of success!
To visit Mo’s company website click here.
To read our first entrepreneur (Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby) interview Part 1, click here.
To read our first entrepreneur interview, Part 2, click here.
For our second entrepreneur (photographer Richard Weldon Davis) interview, click here.
Stay tuned for another entrepreneur interview next week!

 

3 Reasons You MUST Invest in the Best Tools You Can Afford! Festool Saves the Day: the Refrigerator Saga

Have I told you the story about the refrigerator?

fast moulding project
Fast Moulding Project

One day, Mrs Woodworker decided that she needed one of those gargantuan stainless steel refrigerators to spruce up the kitchen.  I reckon’ I don’t have a problem with that, since the other appliances were already stainless steel or were about to be upgraded to stainless steel to jazz up the kitchen.  Being the awesome husband that I am, I told her to buy whatever she wanted.  She’s pretty frugal so I figured this was a low risk offer.  So she did some serious refrigerator reconnaissance, ordered one she liked, and the company delivered it.  Lo and behold, it didn’t fit in the alcove in the kitchen!  Now if I was buying a refrigerator, I’d measure the opening and buy an appliance that fits the hole.  But that’s not how the mind of Mrs Woodworker works.  She thinks “Aha, I’ve got a husband that makes things and has really awesome Festool tools.  I’ll buy whatever I like and he’ll figure it out.”  Which is what we did.  Thank goodness we had invested in good tools.  Here are 3 reasons you should invest in the best tools you can afford:

Reason #1:  Speed

unfinished fast moulding project
Unfinished Fast Moulding Project

All sarcasm aside, it was fun to whip out this project over an hour or two last weekend.  We had to knock out some of the drywall to the left of the fridge when we installed it, and there was an ugly jagged edge there where the drywall was missing.  Given how close the refrigerator was to the wall, we couldn’t just slide the refrigerator out and replace the drywall.  Using the planer, track saw, mitre saw, and router, we were able to cut moulding as shown in the pictures to 1/4″ thickness, 1″ width, and then routed the edges with a 3/8″ round over to make it blend into the wall a little.  In addition, I mitered the upper corners to make it look nicer.  After a coat of paint to make it match the walls, we were done.  That sounds like an incredible amount of work, but it only took and hour or two.

There are a couple ways that buying into a system of tools increases your speed.  One is that if you have the entire core of tools, you don’t have to jury rig something to make the desired cut, which I’ve had to do in the past. You already have the right tool for the job and can get right down to the work.  In addition, if I had had a myriad of tools that weren’t part of a system, switching the dust vacuum back and forth between tools could be an issue which would reduce our speed.  For example, with the Festool system you can very quickly switch the vacuum from tool to tool.  Speaking of the dust vacuum…

Reason #2:  Your Health

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of buying quality power tools along with a dust collection system.  For this project, I was able to shift the dust collector from the sliding compound mitre saw, to the track saw, to the router in no time flat.  Unfortunately, the planer generates a ton of shavings and dust so I just did that outside.  When cutting small pieces like this moulding there is usually plenty of ventilation outside, but for planing large boards, use a mask.  But most of the work you do will be inside, and that’s where a HEPA dust collection is so important.  Those tiny particles you are generating with all those tools will lodge in your lungs over the long haul and you will be incapacitated.  I have read multiple articles over the years about woodworkers who didn’t think carefully through this and developed lung issues.  No one wants that.  Get the dust collection system.

Reason #3:  Simplify Decision-Making

trim piece
Trim Piece

I was giving a shop tour to a young fella the other day who was trying to get some ideas for setting up his own shop and was deciding whether to invest in Festool.  If he does go that route, he’ll have the advantage of owning great tools much earlier in life.  I didn’t start buying my high end tools until 2014.  Now when I buy tools, I don’t have to agonize over it.  I’ve bought into a system of tools that interconnect and have proven themselves in the shop.  If I need a new tool, I just buy Festool if they have that tool.

Truth in advertising here, I’m not a Festool affiliate and receive no compensation from them.  I’m just a Festool Fan (see our post here about why I love Festool and our post here about tools and minimalism).

As we said in the title, buy the best tools you can afford.  They will increase your speed, save your health, and simplify your decision-making.  You won’t regret it.

 

Do You Have the Courage to Start Your Own Business? Military to Entrepreneur – More Insights from Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

This is the Part Three of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases.  For Part One click here.  For Part Two click here.

So how was that transition going from the military to being an entrepreneur?  Although, I suppose you always were one, weren’t you?

Better Display Cases
Better Display Cases

That’s why it’s hard. I never really decided to be one.  I never finished that story of how I got into display cases.  I always had the idea of being an entrepreneur.  I applied for other (government) jobs and none of those panned out. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time applying for jobs.  I guess it was a waste of time.  So I was separately doing different tracks.  I’m not crazy; it’s not like I said I’ll never work for the government.  It wasn’t like that.  It just happened.  I had a website which might still be up called Zero Risk Internet Marketing, and I was going to help small businesses improve their internet marketing and get paid for that.  My zero risk concept, which I still think is a good concept, but it didn’t work for me…that’s what I was saying, things that work you invest more, and if they don’t you’ve got to quit.  My concept with that is that I would work for free for people, but we would split the profits of whatever sales I was able to increase.  Obviously there is a real problem with tracking that.  How do you know what your impact was on a sales increase?  I never really solved that problem.  I worked for a couple people and helped them out, but they never paid.

I can see that would be a problem.

It was, what do you call it, a non-profit situation.  So I was helping a lady, she was doing a website to help vets start businesses which is kind of, what’s the word?

Ironic?  (both laughing)

That was me (a veteran), but she didn’t want to pay me.  So I stopped that project.  If you went to that website it looked pretty good and I never made a penny out of all that effort.  I had a few months there where I still had government pay.  At that point I decided I’d be a realtor.  Not a bad idea.  Maybe that would have worked out well.  I have a website called PWCVA.com which I used to put a lot more effort into.  It’s all local in Prince William County.  So my idea was I would use that to market and be known.  I would focus on representing military buyers, which is a great, great market if you can get ’em, because they are easy: they have guaranteed income.  They can get the loans.

You can link up with USAA and their transition program.

They move a lot, so it’s high churn.  All that sounded really good.  I’ve always really liked real estate.  I loved visiting houses and seeing what they’re like.  I love that, actually.  It was kind of fun for me.  So that was what I was going to do.  And I was beginning the process of studying for the real estate exam.  One day, I don’t know why, for some reason, I searched Google for NFL Fatheads.  I used to rank high for that search term with SECSportsfan.  I think I was just curious.  At that point I had given up on the idea of making money on the Internet.  That’s impossible.  And up popped somebody’s store on eBay.  Like #2 or #3 in Google. I was like wow, that person’s doing pretty good.  They’re getting a lot of good searches.  Wonder how they’re doing it.  So I went to their store.  I wouldn’t have ever pursued anything except I would have figured well, somebody just got lucky.  Maybe they put a lot of money into it.  Maybe they know somebody.  Maybe the New York Times wrote an article about them and that’s why they’re ranked.  Who knows.  I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except the guy who owned that page, I knew.  He used to be  a partner of mine.  So I was like, if he can do it, I can do it.  I know him.  Right at that moment I had picked up the phone, and I called Fatheads.  I said I want to sell Fatheads; how can I become a distributor? Luckily I got Lindsay Fraterolli.  That’s the person I talked to.  She signed me up, and she gave me a lot of tips along the way.  I never would have made it without her.  I started selling them on eBay, and it worked.  I sold a lot of Fatheads that Christmas.  That was December 2013.  I had no job.  I had nothing going for me.  I did this thing with Fatheads.  I was just amazed.  I had tried so hard and gone through so much and it had just all just fallen apart really.  They had a cash register.  It used to go ka-ching, ka-ching.  And I was just amazed.  It was ka-ching, ka-ching.  Ten, fifteen, as it got closer to Christmas is was twenty times a day.  To me, that was amazing.  I was making, I don’t know, ten or fifteen bucks on each one.  You add that up it’s a few hundred dollars a day.

Not bad.  Not bad.

The only limit was they had limits on the eBay account.  They had limits on how much you could sell.  I would hit that limit every day and kept calling  them every day and ask for exceptions.  They kept trying to make it better.  Once that happened, it was working. That’s it. I was on to that.  One thing leads to another.  I started selling Fatheads on eBay.  I started selling football helmets on eBay.  I found a guy who was a distributor wholesale.  All this stuff I wasn’t buying, I was just getting the sale and it was drop shipping.  Fathead was shipping it.  I was making the money.  I was selling a good bit.  Growing, growing, growing.  Then in January, eBay called me out of the blue and said “Hey, we see you’re selling sports-related stuff, do you have any display cases?”  I said “What are you talking about?”  They told me “People put collectibles in display cases, and we have a lot of demand for them and not a lot of supply so can you help us out?”  I said ” I don’t have any, but I’ll look into it.”  I looked around a lot.  I tried to do the same thing I was doing with Fatheads and football helmets.  I tried to find somebody I could buy them from and resell them.  I just couldn’t really find anyone.  I had a hard time with that.  At the same time, I was looking for the next thing.  I was in a lot of Facebook groups at the time.  Somehow, I was involved in people talking about importing from China.  That was big.  It was just starting back then.  The idea is you buy stuff in China,  import it, resell it.  I was already trying to figure out what I could do.  It sounded like a good idea.  Then I get this call from eBay out of the blue.  I know there’s a good demand for it, and not much supply.  It’s a pretty credible source if eBay is calling you.

Seems like a no-brainer.

I searched on Ali-Baba for display cases and lo and behold, and I didn’t know this, but China makes all the display cases in the world, for the most part.  I got a couple samples from a couple different people.  I ended up selecting a company to go with.  That’s a whole story in and of itself.  Part of the way that worked, I bought an ebook online from someone that had been an importer all their life.  They wrote an ebook about it and they put in there if you buy my ebook I’ll help you out personally you can contact me with any questions.  It’s pretty scary, the first time you’re sending somebody a $30,000, $40,000 check and you have to trust that it’s going to come.  That’s a big deal.  That’s why I’m saying, I was very fortunate.  There are many places along the way where I was lucky.  That’s why I wouldn’t tell someone to be an entrepreneur.  I know where I’m at and it’s a good place, but it’s a risky place and could still fall apart.  I know the stress and difficulty.  That’s why I wouldn’t tell somebody to be an entrepreneur.  You’ve got to be lucky.  I chose one, but I wasn’t sure, there was something questionable about the payment they were asking for.  I had this guy with the ebook and he looked into them assured me they look credible and go with them.  And it worked out.  They’ve been great.  They’re a great partner.  They make a great product and stand behind it if there are problems.  I just haven’t ever had any problem, and obviously that’s crucial.  So that’s how I got into display cases.  So I still sell those, those are my three products.  The display cases are the growing part of the business, because I can control it the most.  I design them myself.  All the cases are things I made up.  I didn’t just copy someone else’s.  I got generally speaking, ideas, but I set the measurements; they’re mine.  No one makes them exactly the way we do.  Once we started going then it’s been the feedback from the customers and also my employees who’ve come up with a lot of great ideas.  That’s what’s really propelled the company.  First it was just the basic products, which by the way at first, I stored in my house and shipped then from my house.  Then I got a storage facility, Dumfries Self Storage.  At first I started with one storage facility, when the first container from China came, it’s not going to fit in there.  Luckily, and again I keep saying this word, it just so happened, because usually that place is full.  They had another storage place right next to the one that I had already got open.  So I was able to that day to go down and get both of them, and I needed both of them and so we filled up both of those storage places.  I worked out of there for about a year, I guess.  No electricity, no heat, no lights.  That was difficult, in retrospect.  That’s why I always, when ever people complain here, I’m like…

This is ten times better.

You have no idea.  They’ll say we’re not going to have space for the next shipment.  Believe me, we have space.

We’ll figure it out.

The things I did, no employee would ever do.  Everything had to be stuffed in there.  I didn’t have enough space.  I’m not stupid.  I know what stuff sells the most.  I’d put the stuff that sold the most in front.  But still, every once in a while a customer would order something that was way in the back.  So my choice was either to pull everything out, or I would take my shoes off and climb on my stomach like a snake and go all the way to the back.  I would be sweating like a pig coming out of there.  I just remember all that.  That’s helpful when you are growing to look back where you were and give yourself a pat on the back and realize how far you’ve come.  You have to enjoy the ride.  Otherwise it’s no fun at all.

It seems like the business is doing really well.  You have a couple employees I met on the tour, and then you talked about a vacancy, and there’s a lot of turnover.  How do you deal with all of that?  That’s one of the challenges, right?

Yeah, that’s one of our biggest challenges is keeping employees.  I have two great employees now and we had two other great ones.  They were missionaries and they were called by God into the mission field.

You can’t really argue with that.

I can’t compete with that.  I lost them.  We’re just trying to replace them.  There was so much we could do when Wayne was here.  He did a listing on Indeed, I think it was.  It was a great listing.  Better than I ever could have done.  I wouldn’t have thought of how to present the job in such a positive light as he did.  We got flooded with applications.  I was shocked.  I always thought we would have a really hard time finding anyone.  We got hundreds of applications.  That was a lot of time to wade through that and talk to people.  We went through that whole process.  We picked somebody.  He didn’t work out.  I had to fire him, actually.  We went to the next guy.  It took awhile to figure out that he wasn’t going to work out.  Then I got rid of him.  Then we brought in our second choice guy, he was still available.  He was great.  Then his family moved to Arizona.  The other people have not been so good (laughing).  They just didn’t like the job, I guess.

You said some people don’t want to work.  Which is kind of surprising.

Some people don’t.  Everyone has a different story.  Hopefully I’ll find somebody good.  That is the biggest challenge by far.  Honestly, there a lot of options.  That’s one of the nice things about having a business:  you have a lot of options.  We could ship more to Amazon.  We could change things so that we ship everything just to Amazon and we have Amazon fulfill our individual orders.  They already do a lot of that if you have Amazon Prime and we have the products there, they come from Amazon.  Right now, we’re so far behind.  We got wiped out over Christmas.  Everything  got sold.  What happens then is we have the listings both ways, you can buy them Amazon fulfilled if they have them, or we ship them.  Right now we have nothing there in stock which means everyone is buying direct from us.  With one guy, basically, and me helping, we’re doing all we can just to fulfill the individual orders.  We need somebody to work full time on shipping to Amazon so we can get caught up.  If we ever did get caught up, and we got everything in to Amazon then we could change things and have Amazon do everything and fulfill individual orders.  But that costs a good bit.  I would rather hire someone and do it from here. It would be more cost effective.  We already have a warehouse, the facility.  A lot of people don’t.  Some people do this stuff in their home office sitting in their underwear, they have nothing.  Some people, believe it or not, buy stuff from China they ship it direct to the Amazon warehouse and all they’re doing is sitting on the computer passing money around and telling Amazon what to do.  Our product requires a lot more attention, I think.  That would be hard for me to imagine.

Maybe one of our readers is looking for a job and they can contact you.

That would be great.

We can put the URL in the post.

I’m trying to transition everything to Made in the USA and I hope to be able to do that this year.  I’ve been working with a guy in North Carolina for a while and gradually having him make more and more of the cases.   I’d love to be 100% “Made in the USA” by the end of 2017.

Stay tuned for Part Four, the last section of our interview with Mo…

 

What Everyone Ought to Know About Launching a Business: More Wisdom from Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

This is Part Two of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases.  In this part of the interview Mo gives indispensable wisdom for anyone launching a business.  For Part One click here.

Showroom at Better Display Cases
Showroom at Better Display Cases

I got a few interviews on some websites that were kind of biggish.  I never made it to ESPN, but I was making a name for myself.  But then along the way Google changed the rules and it became much more difficult for an independent website to rank for those kind of search terms.  I don’t blame Google.  When I started, a lot of people didn’t think the Internet was a big deal, so it was easy to compete if you just knew a little bit you could rank very high.  So I just learned a little bit, in retrospect, and I probably thought I was a genius.  It was just a few simple things I was doing.  First of all you have to search for a keyword that is profitable, and you know, by the way all this stuff applies today to what I’m doing now so it’s worth talking about.  So the first thing you want to do is find search terms that a lot of people are looking for, but there is relatively little competition so you can do well.  You also want them to be profitable so product stuff is really good.  Where were we?

How you got started with the idea for the business.

Google sort of changed  the rules so for product search terms.  I wasn’t really adding a whole lot of value for the most part.  The only thing you had to do to rank high back then was  find the keyword, put it in the title, put it in the first paragraph, put it in the last paragraph, maybe in the middle, put it in the meta tag which is a simple thing.  I was using a particular website builder.  You are telling Google what the keyword is that you are focusing on. You need to put that in the description and also the meta title.  It was good to have an image or two that again use that keyword you have all this stuff going on in the page that tell Google this page is about this keyword.  At that time, that was all you had to do.  It didn’t really matter if it was a quality page or not because nobody else was doing this, so you could easily rank at the top.  But Google got a lot smarter and they look at a lot more factors.  The truth of the matter is, for the customer honestly it’s probably better for them if they are looking for Alabama Crimson Tide football to go directly to Amazon or directly to the eBay listing rather than going through my page which honestly didn’t really add a whole lot of value, you now what I’m saying?  I understand why Google did it.  But whatever, it happened.  All I’m saying is my traffic went from way high to just nothing, or almost nothing.  So that went away.  So I struggled a bit to try to make it work.  Eventually I pretty much gave up.   I still have that website.  I still have SECSportfan.  It still makes money, but not enough for me to spend much time on, unfortunately.  So that is kind of a downside of what Google did, because there were probably more quality sites back then, because there was more reward for it, in my opinion.  You need to be a big company that can invest a lot of resources to make it a high quality website for there to be any return on your investment.

So how did you transition to display cases?

So eventually I kind of dropped that idea and around and about that time I had to come up with something different.  I was retiring.  By the way, I applied for government jobs, and I would have been very happy to receive a government job.  If I had, that’s probably what I would be doing.  I would be driving up to DC and sitting in a cubicle and doing the government thing and that would be okay.  Might be better.

It doesn’t sound like you’d be very passionate about it, though.

No, I wouldn’t be passionate at all.  That’s what you give up.  Now that I’ve been on the other side, that’s not a bad deal.  I mean, being an entrepreneur in my experience has been very hard.  Very hard.  I can’t overemphasize that.  And very risky.  And I’ve been very lucky, very blessed, but there is no guarantee.  A lot of things that could happen that my business is ruined.   Every day you have to worry about that as an entrepreneur if you own a business.  If somebody wants to hand me a government job at $100,000 guaranteed money, not much stress, not even much work, I’d want to talk about it you know what I mean (laughing), for the good of my family.  You have to understand, I have a lot of…

You have a big facility here, over 5,000 square feet you were telling me when you took me on the tour, and something could happen.  You could have a fire, act of God, who knows.  There’s some risk.

The more concern is my selling channels like Amazon.  Right now I have a fantastic relationship with Amazon, better than ever.  Amazon has improved things, I think, so that they are not as arbitrary.  If you were to search on the Internet something about, I don’t know, “seller stories with Amazon”.  There are all kinds of horror stories.  I have a friend who lost his account on Amazon, mostly because of things that were not his fault.  It’s not right.  That’s scary.  Amazon has just recently done some things.  I was afraid, see this is what I was getting at with the stress thing.  He lost his account in November, early November, I was afraid I might.  We had some of the same issues.  It wasn’t real clear even what the issues were.  We still don’t even know why he lost his account.  He just lost it.  Part of it probably was some things he was doing that I’m not doing.  He was selling MLB licensed products, and I guess he shouldn’t have been.  He bought the MLB licensed products, but Football Fanatics which is now called Fanatics apparently has purchased the rights to all MLB licensed products and they told Amazon all these people shouldn’t be selling.  Now there are all these lawsuits because this doesn’t seem right.  All these people bought legitimate products that they were selling so it doesn’t seem right that they can be told retroactively told sorry you no longer have a right.  There are some legitimate issues there.  It’s all being fought out in court.  In the meantime, though, my friend lost his Amazon account.  Now he had some other things going on,  I think.  My only point about this whole thing is it’s uncertain, and it’s stressful.  That’s kind of what I was getting at there.

Luckily, on the way, I was also worried about some shipping issues at the time. I was getting all these red flags on my account.  Your shipping is late.  That’s a whole another issue about Fatheads shipping that I rely on and that’s another problem.  That’s another reason that I would just assume get away from Fatheads because I have to rely on their shipping when its late it reflects on me, and again, I could lose my Amazon account.  Turns out there were some issues Amazon was not tracking things correctly so really it was more Amazon’s fault.

A couple weeks later, while I was in the middle of this stressful situation, I got an E-mail from them saying “congratulations, you’ve been selected as one of our top sellers, and you are now in a special program”.  I was assigned to a special account and given a somebody who would help me with any problems that I had.  I did have some problems at that time.  See I told you with this interview, I could talk all day.

It might be a two parter here.  We’ll see.

Direct me another way.  I don’t know.  Anyway, we were talking about #1 product, right?

Tell me about the #1 product.

So my #1 product was banned from Amazon.

Banned from Amazon.

Banned from Amazon.  Gone.  Deleted.  The reason for that it had MLB in the title.  It said MLB.  It’s not.  It has nothing to do with MLB.  There’s no logo on there.  It was just to help the customer understand that if they had an MLB baseball bat it would fit on the display.  It had MLB, something else, something else, all these key words.  Totally stupid.  But Amazon, they are this big huge company they send a notice “get rid of MLB”.  Zoom.  Hundreds of thousands of listings with MLB in them are gone.  So I went from selling 20 of those per day (pointing to baseball bat display on wall), #1 product, very profitable, to nothing.  And I had hundreds of them because we were getting ready for Christmas.  So I had sent hundreds of them to Amazon.  They were sitting in the Amazon warehouse and I’m paying storage fees every day.  What am I going do?  I’m losing money.  But maybe they’re going to reactive it.  They tell you to go get permission from the MLB to sell it.  I went to MLB.  Of course it takes weeks, and eventually they did send me a reply “Oh, we’re very sorry for this problem.  We never complained about your listing.  I don’t know why Amazon did this.  Please let them know we have no problem with your product.”  Of course, that took about 3 weeks before I got that E-mail back.  By then I had already fixed the problem because of my new guy who was assigned to me and he was able to sort of intercede because he works for Amazon.  It took him about 10 days to talk to different people and whatever he had to do to get that reactivated.  So we just got rid of the term MLB.  So that’s back up.  Then, and not just that one, we had about ten products like that.  A lot of baseball stuff.  All our baseball stuff had MLB in it so were all thrown off Amazon then it was all reinstated.  But when that happens you’ve lost sales history, now, so the product loses it ranking.  You know, there are a lot of factors that Amazon uses to rank products but the most important one is sales velocity.  So if you’ve lost your sales, you’ve gonna lose your…

You start all over again.

So we were down at the bottom of the page.  And so I had to do a lot of things.  But now it’s back stronger than ever and hopefully we won’t have any more problems.  All this relates to a whole bunch of things, including the stress on an entrepreneur who is the owner who is responsible at the end of the day.  If you’re an employee and the business goes bankrupt you just go find another job.  It’s not such a big deal.  One of your questions was would you advise someone to be an entrepreneur.  No.  No.  If you can get a good job that isn’t stressful.  Now, there are a lot of rewards from being an entrepreneur so I also wouldn’t say don’t be an entrepreneur.  And really I can only answer that question ultimately probably on my deathbed looking back and we’ll see.  I don’t know.  If I become a millionaire because of it, then yeah, it was great.  For every millionaire I’m sure a hundred people fail.

We will continue this interview in Part Three.  Stay tuned for another post…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Military to Entrepreneur: Interview with Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases
Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

This is the third in our series of interviews (see bottom of post for links to the other interviews) with successful entrepreneurs, in this case, Mo Johnson, the owner and CEO of Better Display Cases.

 

 

Thanks for the interview today.  Like I said, this is the fourth interview, probably the third that we’ll publish.  We have a couple more in the queue here.  I really appreciate your time.

Sure.  Thanks for coming.

So, tell us a little bit about your background before you became an entrepreneur.

Well, I’ve always been an entrepreneur I would say.  Going way back to when I was a kid I would deliver newspapers and, you know, did different things.  I started a janitorial business which was the first real business I started.  That was while I was in college.  I did that for awhile.  I had a lawn care business.  Anyway, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, I suppose.  Along the way, I went to law school and became a JAG and did a 20 year career in the military.  After I retired from the military and I’m doing what I’m doing now…doing the entrepreneurship thing full time.

Awesome.  Where did you get the idea for this business?

Well, so that just kind of happened.  I retired from the military in 2013.   I have to back up a little bit.  During my last years in the military I was already trying to, you know, have a business on the web.  What I did then was I had a website.  I started with SEC Sportsfan.  My idea was when I retired I would just be a blogger like you and do that full time and write stuff that I enjoyed writing. Hopefully people would enjoy reading it, and the website would be popular.  More people would read it.  And they’d click on ads.  I’d make money.  Life was good.  That was the plan.  And I would love to do that now, by the way (laughing), if I could.

I saw the blog and I was encouraged you had a Green Bay Packers article on there.

Which blog?

The sports blog.

The SEC Sportsfan one?

The article about Eddie Lacey associated with Better Display Cases?

I guess Wayne must have written that.  That was one of our ideas.  Wayne was my Internet marketing guy and did that.  So I started that (SEC Sportsfan) in 2006.  I got passed over for Lieutenant Colonel, and I don’t know if we even want to put this in.

Maybe we’ll edit that out.

Maybe we will.  Maybe we won’t.  I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.

That’s probably a key point.  

It probably is.  Of course it is.

That probably spurred you to do all this.

I’m sure.  Probably.  Of course.  I had something to prove, you know.  I’m going to be more successful than any of you.  Whatever, I don’t know.  It certainly changed my focus.  I knew I was going to be getting out of the military.  I started being really interested in the Internet.  I’ve always wanted to start a business.  Then of course the Internet was big and looked like it was actually going to be a real thing.  Actually, the way that started, I wanted to get sell on eBay, so one of my co-workers was looking for a gift that she needed for somebody.  She wanted to get them a little Tennessee mascot.  So she had a hard time finding it.  So I was like maybe I could start a business helping people, or selling sports-related gifts on eBay.  I bought some products and tried to sell them on eBay which didn’t work well at all.  While I was starting that I was looking at other things and then I became interested in the idea of building a content website, blogging, and having traffic coming to it, and then you get money from the ads or from selling products related to what your customers that visit that website are interested in.

And that worked really, really, really, really well.  Really took off which I guess is what got me excited about it and that’s the way things go.  If it doesn’t work out, you’re not going to be excited and you’re going to move on.  But that worked so that motivated me.  I would stay up to 2, 3, or 4 o’ clock in the morning working on my website.  There was a lot to learn.  There was a lot to do.  It takes a lot to do that.  The SEC Sportsfan website did fantastic and went from nothing at all to at one point I was making $5,000 per month from my website.

Wow, that’s really good.

Because I was ranking high in Google for product search terms like Dallas Cowboys Fathead.  Of course it was SEC Sportsfan so it was more SEC I mean that was what you were more likely to rank for so you’re better off focusing on that.  All kinds of product keywords related to SEC teams.

So the $5,000 was people clicking through ads on your site?

About half of that was Adsense, so ads, people clicking on ads.  The ads are going to be more valuable and you are going to make more money if they are product-oriented.  I ranked for all sorts of things.  The things that make money are products.  If people are selling stuff they are willing to pay a lot for a click on a product ad or product search term as opposed to just anything.

So I was also an affiliate, if you’ve heard of affiliate marketing.   It’s where you sign up with a company and you sell their product with a simple thing like a click.  I signed up with Fathead, with Amazon. It’s the same thing. It’s an ad on my website.  People click on it.  If they buy something, I get a percentage.  With Fathead it was 15 percent.

Through all of that, the first thing was getting the traffic which is a whole thing in and of itself, the content, the images, and everything.  Then the selling happens and then you make money.  At the peak, I’m talking Christmas, I had some months where I made $5,000.  Maybe on average it was $1,000, or something, $2,000.  For a couple years.

But still, that’s pretty good.

And the way it was growing, my goodness, it looked that would really work.  Like I would be able to retire and just do that.

I was Mo Johnson of SEC Sportsfan.

This interview was so in-depth that we broke it into multiple parts.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Mo Johnson where he hits it BIG with his next venture:  Better Display Cases.

For our first entrepreneur interview with best selling author, Lawrence Colby, click here.

For part 2 of our interview with Colby, click here.

For our second entrepreneur interview with photographer Richard Weldon Davis, click here.

Entrepreneur Philosophy: Give Time, Talent, and Treasure to the Community

entrepreneurs should give
What Can You Give?

Before we launched Traughber Design, I put a lot of thought into what kind of company I wanted.  I wanted a company that gave back to our clients via high quality craftsmanship, but also wanted some of the profits to flow to its employees (currently an Army of One) as well as the community.  I wanted that entrepeneur philosophy to be embedded in the company DNA from the very beginning.  The first 2 years of operation we invested heavily in tools and ran at a loss which I had fully expected, but here in year #3 we are going to turn a profit and it’s time to put our money where our mouth is and execute the vision we had at the beginning.  So this year we are going to invest a portion of our profits in the local community.  A percentage of the proceeds from our first commission has been set aside to sponsor a sports team at the local high school.  As future commissions roll in, we will disburse that same percentage of our revenue to other causes.

We all have time, talent and treasure.  Some of us have more time than money, while others have more money than time.  If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, have you thought about giving your time, talent, and treasure directly in your community, if you are not already?  For example, in our local church we have a ministry called Helping Hands of Grace where we serve dinner to the homeless on Friday nights during the winter when the need is greatest.  Several other churches sponsor different nights of the week.  What we are finding is that those service nights at our church get signed up for very quickly by the various small groups in our church.  People want to help their fellow man and are being intentional about serving on those Friday nights.  Events like those are a great opportunity to give your time to others.  If you would like to serve by giving your time, consider contacting your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or church for opportunities.

Earlier, we wrote a post about John Rockefeller and his keys to success.  One of the things we didn’t write as much about in that post, was his struggle after he become very wealthy to find his way in philanthropy.  Setting up a foundation to distribute wealth was a new thing back then and he had to basically invent the model which is used today by some of the large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation, but had a difficult time deciding how it should be run, who should get the funds, and how to ensure the receiving organizations had a sustainable model.  One of the first large efforts he started was establishing the University of Chicago, but he fought with the leadership because they weren’t broadening their donor base and weren’t (Rockefeller felt) being frugal.  Rockefeller didn’t want the receiving organizations to be solely dependent on his foundation.  Of course, when he was a young man he didn’t know he would have this “problem” of distributing extraordinary wealth, but now that we have his example and the example of others, we can incorporate this thinking about giving early on when we craft our entrepreneur philosophy.

It is up to each person to consider what is appropriate for them.  To whom much is given, much is required.  If you’ve launched an entrepreneurial venture, have you thought about who your stakeholders are and who should benefit if your venture is successful?  Should it be solely you?  Your employees?  The community?  All of the above?  In what proportion?

I think some of the most important questions a founder can ask themselves are:

“Why am I starting this enterprise?”
“Who are the stakeholders?”
“How can I support them?”

In addition to philanthropy, an entrepreneur should give back to its employees.  I did another of our entrepeneur interviews last week (we’ll be publishing that interview soon), this time with the owner of Better Display Cases, John Johnson.  He is giving back to another group of stakeholders, his employees.  Here is a veteran who just retired, started his own company and already has two employees and is looking for a third.  Business is booming and he is giving back to the community by providing good jobs here in Northern Virginia.  BTW, if you’re looking for work, contact him at his website here.

Another great example of giving back to employees is Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments.  Dan is a very thoughtful guy and was troubled by the stories from his employees of struggling to get by in a high cost city.  He was making over $1 million per year and thought it was unfair that he had it so good, while his employees were struggling.  He decided to set a “minimum wage” of a $70,000 annual salary for every employee including himself (you can read all about it here in Inc. Magazine).  The reason he picked $70,000 is that studies have shown $70,000 will meet most families’ needs and your marginal happiness does not increase much above $70,000 no matter how much you make.  As you can imagine, his employees were shocked and overjoyed.  They were so ecstatic that they bought him a new Tesla last year which you can read about here.

My point is, in both Johnson’s and Price’s cases they have thoughtfully considered who the stakeholders are in their enterprises.

So we’ve discussed giving of time, talent, and treasure to two groups of stakeholders, the community and employees, but not much about the third, yourself.  This goes back to that earlier question of why you’re starting the enterprise.  Are you seeking a certain level of income?  Self-fulfillment?  Something else?  In my opinion, if you take care of your clients, employees, and community, your needs will be taken care of organically.  Those stakeholders will support you, if you support them.

These philosophy discussions are best had before launching the venture or early in its development, because once it’s launched you are going to be unbelievably busy as I saw at Better Display Cases this week.  John and is two employees are really hustling to fulfill orders and have boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in the entire building.  They receive large shipping containers from China monthly and race to unload the containers and deliver their products to all their customers.  John’s time to have these philosophical discussions now is extremely limited.

Along those lines, seek out mentors who are farther along the entrepreneurial path who can share what they’ve done.  It may not be exactly the correct path for you, but will help clarify your thinking (check out our blog post here on Stoic philosophy for more on clarity).

Time to get back to the shop and work on that black walnut gun cabinet commission, so we can give back more ; )

How to Use Stoic Philosophy for Lifestyle Design and Entrepreneurship

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Several years ago when I was going through a military course, we had a reading about Admiral James Stockade, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions during 8 years as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam.  In the article, Stockdale was describing the mission where he was shot down over North Vietnam and talked about how he was flying along at hundreds of miles an hour, had to eject, and realized he was suddenly entering the world of Epictetus.  I had never heard of Epictetus and thought how significant it must be that in that moment, of all the things that might have been going through his head, Stockdale was thinking of someone named Epictetus.  Intrigued, I started to do a little research and found that Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who belonged to a school of philosophy called Stoicism.  I wanted to learn more and during one of my business trips, found a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses in a used bookstore.  The Discourses are lectures written down by one of Epictetus’ students.  I don’t agree with everything in the Discourses, but there are some useful concepts for designing our lives, entrepreneurs and woodworkers in Stoicism.  We can learn much from studying philosophers.  As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  We can get so caught up in the tactical details of life that sometimes we don’t step back to ask the question of whether what we are doing is even important.  Shouldn’t we be continually asking that question?

That being said, Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence these days.  Some of the more popular Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.  Epictetus was born a slave, taught philosophy in Rome, then was exiled to Greece.  Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and advisor to the Emperor.  Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wrote the Meditations on Stoic philosophy.  It’s important, though, when someone declares “Stoicism says” that you take that with a grain of salt.  Each of the Stoics has a slightly different take on things.  If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend The Daily Stoic.

There are three principles of Stoicism that I think are very relevant to lifestyle design, entrepreneurship, and woodworking.

Clarify our perceptions

Many times what we perceive is going on is not what is really going on.  For entrepreneurs it’s especially important to think about what data you need to gather to tell you if you are on track to your vision.  Sometimes entrepreneurs analyze the data that’s readily available, rather than what’s important.  The important data may be difficult to get, but is not usually impossible to develop.  If someone asks you “how is your business doing?” how do you you know rather than just saying “fine”?  For example, if you are writing a blog it’s important to install at least a couple plugins that gather metrics to let you know how you are doing.  The blogger needs to look at the data to find out what ground truth is.  They tell you exactly how many users there are every day, where they are coming from, what they are looking at, etc.  For example, if someone asks me how the blog is doing, I’ve got the data and it’s clear this blog is growing.  This month’s traffic is on track to be double last month’s.  In addition, we can see that the hits from search engines are increasing, which means the search engines are finding us or we’re writing about things that more people are interested in, or just having more published posts is drawing more search.  We’ve made mistakes with the blog such as running into a photograph interface issue between WordPress and Facebook, but it’s clear we are on the right path.  We wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t decided which data to collect to clarify our perceptions.

Another aspect of clarifying our perceptions is to control our thoughts, which is especially important for entrepreneurs.  I think over the past 2 years, I’ve gotten much better at banishing negative thoughts about what could go wrong.  This is a skill any small business owner can exercise and develop.  For example, I noticed that most of the time these thoughts are late at night before I’m going to bed or in the middle of the night.  Knowing that, if one of these thoughts rears its ugly head, I can say to myself “oh, it’s late and I’m just tired” and let the negative thought go.

As the famous French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened” (see brainy quote.com.  Why dwell on something if it will probably never happen?

Act reasonably and wisely

In an earlier post, I wrote about failing fast and cheap which aligns with acting reasonably as the Stoics recommend.  An entrepeneur probably shouldn’t do an experiment that would bankrupt the company, but should instead place small well-thought-out bets.  For example, many entrepreneurs following a strategy of doing A/B experiments.  This means “A” is the current method and “B” is an experiment trying something new.  If “B” is successful, you switch to that method even if it’s only an incremental gain.  If “B” wasn’t successful, you default back to “A” then dream up some more A/B experiments.  Over time, these incremental gains of the “B”s that worked will add up to big gains.  It’s important to not agonize over “failed” experiments, but to consider that you learned something in the process.  Make sure you know how much you want to pay for those failed experiments ahead of time to cap your risk.

The third Stoic principle is related to the second.

Know what is in our control and what is not

This is one of the most fundamental Stoic principles.  Epictetus says at the most basic level, all we can really control is our will.  That’s why Stockdale referenced Epictetus when he was shot down.  He realized that if he was captured, he would be in a test of wills with his captors, which he was…for 8 years.

This relates to entrepreneurship as well, especially blogging.  One of the most successful bloggers right now is Maria Popova who has 5 million readers per month and writes a blog called Brain Pickings.  I’ve listened to interviews with her and done some reading of her blog and she shares some terrific points on successful blogging.  One thing she emphasizes is to write for yourself.  This is within our control as the Stoics would advise.  Popova’s point is that we shouldn’t chase an audience.  We won’t be interesting if we try to write what we think most people will like, rather than what we are really passionate about.  In addition, we’ll likely lose interest if we are constantly writing about what we think others want to read rather than what really interests us.  Readers can tell if a blogger is passionate about something.

This also relates to woodworking in that woodworkers should focus on the task as hand; it’s in our control.  We can control the level of craftsmanship in our project as we’ve written about previously in the post on the Soviet gulag and the post on glue, but have limited ability to control external factors.

It’s important to be present when we create which is something I have not mastered, but am always striving for.

 

What Do You Mean I Have to Move the Wood Shop???!!!??? Entrepreneurs Need to Be Flexible

400 square feet of basement wood shop bliss
400 Square Feet of Basement Wood Shop Bliss

Well, Dear Readers, this time comes in just about every woodworker’s life:  the time to move the wood shop.  In our case, we are moving in about 6 months which means the shop has to be moved lock, stock, and barrel to the new house.  Not only that, we are going from a cushy basement shop, back to a garage shop since we are on a path to downsizing and minimalism which we’ve written about earlier.  Kudos to Mrs Woodworker for letting me monopolize the basement as long as I did.  Unfortunately, in the garage during certain weather we’re just going to have to suck it up.  If I figured right, this will be the fourth time moving the shop and there are definitely some tricks to doing it wisely.  When it comes to woodworking, we can’t let obstacles stand in the way as we wrote about in our Ode to Ralph the Woodworking Cat.

Sequence Your Projects

I read a great book early in my Air Force career called Lean Thinking, Banish Waste and create Wealth in Your Corporation by Womack and Jones.  One of the concepts in the book was to start from the end of the process and work backwards to pull resources through the production process.  Lean thinking helps us in this case of moving the shop as well.  One way to make the move as efficient as possible is to only move the tools, raw material, and project pieces that are required to the new house then only bring others as required.  This keeps the production line going smoothly.  However, this only works if you have some overlap while you are in both houses AND the houses are relatively close together.

In addition, the work should be planned so that large projects are completed and delivered to clients before the move, then other large projects started after the move is complete.  For example, this week we received a commission for another large gun cabinet (we’ll be writing a post about that soon).  I don’t want to move a cabinet with that much glass twice (from one shop to the other, then to the client), so I’ll press to deliver it before we move.  Smaller projects like our cornhole sets can easily be moved while they are in progress to the new shop.

Adjust to the Environment

Advantages

The new shop will be in a garage which does have its advantages.  One advantage is that we can bring in lumber much easier through the large garage door or stage large or unwieldy pieces near the outside of the garage as they are being assembled so they can be easily loaded into the pickup for delivery.  I recommend having some lumber racks immediately inside the large garage door to minimize the movement of lumber around the shop.  As soon as you bring a load from the hardwood dealer, you can stack the lumber right on the rack.

A second advantage is that when the weather is nice, you can open that large shop door to let in the fresh air and see some grass and trees.  On nice days I also like to move the Festool MFT/3 table (where I do much of my work) out onto the driveway to catch some of that great sunshine.  If you are doing a finishing project this also helps greatly with ventilation.

A third advantage is when the shop door is open the neighbors can see you are working on something and stop by.  I’ve had many conversations over the years that were started because I had the garage door open and a neighbor would yell “what are you working on?”  It’s a great conversation starter and this is all about that great community we wrote about in an earlier post.

A fourth advantage is the symbiosis of having the shop in the same room as our favorite mountain bike.  As we’ve written about earlier, that bike can be a real problem solver when it comes to woodworking.  Having it at the ready will make it even more likely to be used.

Negatives

One disadvantage of a garage shop is the temperature variability which adds some Clausewitzian friction.  This is not such a big deal during the summer, but if you are doing finishing work in certain climates, cool weather may put the kibosh on adding varnish or paint to a project until the temperature warms up.  I bought an inexpensive digital clock with thermometer so I can make sure the piece I am finishing is in the right temperature zone before I start applying finish.  Be sure to read the required temperature ranges on the can so you know if it is warm enough to wipe on that oil and urethane mix.

Related to that are the human factors working in temperature extremes.  Northern Virginia is pretty mild in the winters, but I still need to wear a light jacket and gloves in the winter while I’m working in the garage or my fingers will get numb.  Try to find some gear to wear that you can sacrifice to the woodworking gods because it’s going to get a lot of finish, wood chips, and paint on it.  Likewise, in the summer it can get to 100 degrees around here which is not conducive to long hours in a garage shop.  On those days, I try to work early and late, but not in the middle of the day.

Use This Opportunity to Start With a Clean Slate

Moving a shop also creates a golden opportunity to rethink how to design the tool layout to optimize flow and increase efficiency.  For example, think how the wood moves through the shop.  It’s going to come in through the big door, so why not just stack it by the big door as mentioned earlier.  What is the most likely next operation?  For me, that would be the TrackSaw (Festool TS55) or Kapex (sliding compound mitre saw) so I should probably have those lined up next.  I love the router, but that doesn’t usually get used until later in the process after the boards have been squared.  That means the router can be shoehorned into a corner.  Oh, and I forgot about the planer.  That’s probably the first tool that’s going to touch the wood.  So given the sequence the wood is going to go through, you can lay out the tools so the wood can flow from tool to tool to tool.

If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t worry about it.  Remember when we wrote about failing fast and failing cheap?  Try one iteration with the tool layout and if that’s not working for you, try another one.  If you don’t have enough space, just tell your spouse their car is banished from the garage, too.  After all, why would you have cars in your garage when it could be a wood shop???