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…
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.
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.
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:
We were so excited when we inked the deal for our second gun cabinet (see our post Our First Commission of 2017! Black Walnut Gun Cabinet) for several reasons. First, I wanted to see how long it would take relative to the first version and whether some efficiencies had been gained since we built cabinet 1.0. Second, it was a quick start to our third year as a company and we are now profitable! The Motley Fool says half of all business fail by the fifth year, so maybe we can pat ourselves on the back. Third, I just like working with wood. So here are some lessons learned for other budding entrepreneurs out there:
Revelation #1: Good art takes time.
I was a little surprised the second cabinet took 102 hours to make which was about the same time as the first one! We added some complexity, however, such as solid walnut panels on the sides and front door, but I thought we would have been much faster in other areas. Some of the Festool tools I had used on version 1.0 were new to me then and I figured the second time around I would be faster. For example, it took 15.6 hours to select and cut all the pieces on 1.0 and 17.8 hours on version 2.0. Apparently, carefully selecting the pieces and cutting them with precision is something that can not be hurried.
Reflecting on how those hours remained the same made me recall an amazing commencement speech I saw on YouTube recently by the author, Neil Gaiman, who talked about making good art (check it out here: Neil Gaiman – Inspirational Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts 2012). One of the things Neil talked about, was the consistency of working on your craft, day in and day out. Those initial steps in crafting the wood for those gun cabinets was very much in that same vein: spending the time to carefully create. In Neil’s case, it was writing and editing, but his lessons apply to any craft or art.
Along similar lines, I was reading an article the other day by the entrepreneur, Jason Fried (owner of Basecamp, formerly called 37signals), in Inc Magazine about not concerning yourself with scale before perfecting your craft. Perhaps it was too early to start thinking about speed of production at this point with cabinet version 2.0. Jason’s article (Starbucks Wasn’t Built in a Day) tells the tale about a tea entrepreneur who starts a successful tea pop up store, who then asks Jason for advice about expansion. When the entrepreneur asks Jason for advice, the entrepreneur is already thinking about stores, 2, 3, 4, etc. Jason told the entrepreneur to perfect store #1 first before worrying about expansion. Going from a pop up store to a permanent location was going to be difficult enough.
Revelation #2: Document your processes
I could not have written this blog post or done the analysis of the hours for cabinet 2.0 versus 1.0 if I hadn’t documented my hours. When I was the commander of a recruiting squadron several years ago, we were facing a big inspection. My boss, Mark Ward (aka “Wardo”), had always trained his commanders that if something wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen. The inspectors wouldn’t care if we said we did something a certain way. They wanted to see the documentation that we had actually done things the right way. The same goes for entrepreneurs. I’m not real keen on excessive documentation when it comes to being an entrepreneur, but there are certain areas where it is crucial. For one, it’s important to document where you are spending your time so you can see whether there are opportunities to improve. As I mentioned in the post on How to Price Your Woodworking Projects: Advice for Entrepreneurs and Startups, documenting hours is critical if you are going to develop a pricing model. In the case of gun cabinet 2.0, I should have better documented lessons learned from 1.0. For example, I was happily cutting boards to match the cut list and didn’t realize until assembly, that a couple boards would be too short because they were supposed to be cut extra long, then cut down to size later. The situation was recoverable, though, since I had some extra walnut laying around. If I had documented my lessons learned better, that would not have happened.
It’s important for entrepreneurs to always document lessons learned and review them so we don’t commit the same errors. Time is short in entrepreneurship and there is little time for rework.
Revelation #3: Design in flexibility
As we say in the Air Force: “flexibility is the key to airpower” and this applies to woodworking as well. In the Air Force flexibility means our space, air and cyber forces can do tactical missions in one moment or rapidly perform more strategic missions, depending on what the needs of the commander are (if you really want to dive into the flexibility doctrine click here). In addition, they can adjust depending on the needs of the military campaign. In woodworking, where possible, it’s always important to design whatever it is that you are working on so that it can be adjusted later. For example, on gun cabinet 2.0 I built the door to the cabinet so it fit the case perfectly. Perfectly, that is, if the case is laying flat on its back. I hadn’t accounted for not only the weight of the glass in the door, but also the solid walnut panel toward the bottom which was an upgrade for this piece. When I hung the door, the weight caused it to sag slightly on the side away from the hinges where all the weight was. Luckly, I had placed the screw holes relative to the hinges so they could be adjusted a few millimeters up or down. I was able to raise the hinges to level things out. This would not have been possible if the flexibility hadn’t been designed in from the beginning.
Building this latest commission was great fun, and I hope my fellow entrepreneurs and regular readers can profit from these three revelations: good art takes time, document your processes, and design in flexibility.
As many of you know, my father recently passed away. Many of the principles that have driven the success of Traughber Design were learned from “The Old Man” and are applicable to any entrepreneurial venture. These lessons learned may help you on your entrepreneurial journey as well.
Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time
When I was a teenager, Dad said he wanted to insulate the house. You see, we lived on the Frozen Tundra (Wisconsin) where it was routinely 100 degrees below zero in the winter and a little insulation would go a long way. I figured he was talking about unrolling some bales of insulation in the attic. Oh no. He wanted to remove every board of siding (we had vertical cedar siding), nail on 4′ x 8′ sheets of insulation and replace all the siding. That was the easy part. He also wanted to dig a 3′ wide trench at least 6′ deep all the way around the house so we could also insulate the cinder block foundation. That’s where yours truly came in. This was during the summer, so every day I would go out and dig until my arms fell off. Then the next day, I would do the same thing. Eventually, we were able to cover the entire house in well-insulated foam boards to protect us from the elements. When Dad first proposed the project, I thought he was nuts. But one bite at a time, we ate that elephant and the house became extremely energy efficient.
That lesson is a great one for entrepreneurs. We recently delivered our largest commission to date for Traughber Design. 3 years ago, there wasn’t even a company. There was just an idea in a founder’s head. But one day at a time we worked on crafting commissions in the wood shop and built our customer base. Now we have more business than we can handle as a part time enterprise. Not to mention, the blog readership continues to build, one post at a time. You too can build your entrepreneurial vision the same way.
If you focus on consistently doing the work every day, you’ll be amazed at what can be accomplished in a year. Eat that elephant, one bite at a time.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
What is holding you back from achieving your entrepreneur dreams? Is it money? Time? Something else? There is a way, you just need to find it as Dad did with our first house. Dad was a middle school science teacher and didn’t make a lot of money. He augmented his income with painting houses in the summers and coaching, but he wanted a house for his young family and couldn’t afford it. No problem. In that situation, you just build it yourself. He drew up some designs, hired a general contractor to make sure everything was up to code, and every day after school went up to “The Hill” and worked on the house. Dad used what he did have, those few hours every day after school to convert into a house for his young family. It may be that you are not using what you do have to achieve your vision.
Another example of Dad finding a way was in ice fishing. When I was a kid, Dad would take me out on the ice during the winter to ice fish. Initially this consisted of drilling holes with a manual ice augur, then sitting on an upturned bucket and freezing my butt off as we waited for the fish to bite. We eventually bought a gas powered augur and Dad built a shanty on skis which kept us warm. One of the vexing problems, though, was finding a better way to check our tip-ups when fishing at night. Tip-ups are small wooden contraptions about a foot long that have fishing line that run down through the hole we drilled in the ice and had a lure at the bottom. When a fish bit and tugged on the line, it released a flourescent flag to let us know to come get the fish. Back in the day, there was no way to tell if you had a fish at night other than continually patrolling your tip-up sites or using a flashlight to see if your flags were up. Dad the entrepreneur came up with a better idea, though. What if there was a way for the tip-up to signal you when there was a fish on the line at night? He tinkered for hours on a device that would light up when a fish was on the line. The tip-up flag would pull a line connected to a small plastic insulator separating two contacts on a battery powered lamp. When the insulator was pulled out, the metal contacts would connect and the light would go on. Dad made a small wooden device with a drilled out center to hold the battery, lamp on top, and electrical connectors on the side. This device attached to the tip-up. He willed his way to a system that allowed us to ring our shanty with about a dozen tip-ups that would signal us with lights when fish were on the line. These kinds of devices are commonplace now, but Dad had to invent it from scratch back then. He even researched patenting his contraption, but couldn’t afford the fees to do the patent and market the product on his meager teacher’s salary. Nevertheless, we enjoyed using his invention for many years.
Dad taught middle school science and had the challenge of trying to explain quantum physics for the first time to a bunch of 8th graders. He started teaching us about electron clouds and valences and our minds started to explode. I just couldn’t get my mind around the concept of a “cloud” of electrons until much later. He knew from experience that kids our age were going to struggle with this concept and reframed the problem. He gave us other frameworks to try such as electrons falling into “buckets” at various levels in the atom. That idea I could latch on to until the cloud thing made sense.
Another person who is successfully reframing visions today is Elon Musk who is pushing forward in three primary areas: space launch (SpaceX), solar panels (SolarCity), and electric cars (Tesla). Musk has been very successful in dramatically reducing the cost of launches to space by building his own rockets and making them reusable. No one even thought that was possible to reuse a rocket; however, he’s done it multiple times now. My point, though, is that he didn’t build SpaceX to reduce the cost of getting to space. He says it is to colonize Mars to ensure man’s survival by being on multiple planets. He’s framed the problem as the survival of mankind. Getting a job at SpaceX is extremely difficult because he has rallied young technical talent to his cause. Would they be more enthused about saving money on launch costs or saving humankind? If you are running into a dilemma in your entrepreneurial venture, maybe you need to reframe the problem as Elon Musk has.
Here is another example of reframing. I’m currently reading a book called “Bold, How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler which provides some examples of successful and unsuccessful reframing. Diamandis founded the Ansari X Prize and 17 companies while Kotler is a best selling writer. One of the successful examples they explain in their book is how Kodak reframed itself from a company that “was somewhere between a chemical supply house and a dry goods purveyor” to a company that wanted to make photography an every day affair. The company grew to 140,000 employees with $28 annual revenue in 1996. Kodak also highlights an example of unsuccessful reframing. They were the inventor of the digital camera, but shelved it because they didn’t think it fit within their view of their business. As most of you know, Kodak went bankrupt as a result.
I hope you enjoyed those three lessons from Dad: Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time, Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Maybe you Need to Reframe the Problem
One of the things I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is to keep innovating and experimenting. Some things work out and others, not so much. You just press on. One of the recent experiments I’ve tried was using epoxy resin to fill in voids in my work. Ever wonder how they get those really awesome thick “bar top” finishes on tables and bar tops? In many cases, those are epoxy resin finishes (click here if you’d like to do more research on epoxy resins). Resin is also very useful for dealing with knot holes, cracks, and other voids. I recently took the dive into experimenting with resin finishes and thought I’d share some lessons learned to help you get started. I’ll also provide specific product recommendations you can purchase directly from Amazon and have delivered right to your door.
The most important step is protect yourself before beginning. These finishes are very toxic so make sure you are in a well-ventilated area. When I applied my first resin finish it was in the basement shop, so I flung the outer door wide open to let the air in and applied the finish at a table that was very near the door. In addition, make sure you are wearing long sleeves and are wearing gloves. You definitely don’t want this stuff on your skin. I also recommend wearing safety glasses, just in case you splash some up toward your face. This is not likely with the resin since it’s so viscous, but might happen with the hardener or dye.
The materials you’ll need are the resin, a hardener, and dye. The particular resin I’ve been using (System Three’s MirrorCoat) is mixed two parts resin to one part hardener (also MirrorCoat). One of the advantages of MirrorCoat is that it’s clear, so you can add dye (I’m using TransTint’s product) to make it any color you like. I chose black because I was filling in some voids in the black walnut gun cabinet I’ve been telling you about. Clear resin without the dye might make for an interesting finish in the black walnut as well. Here is the list of materials with links to Amazon if you’d like to purchase them:
I also recommend a plastic cup, measuring spoon, and scrap stick to use as an applicator. If you wipe the measuring spoon carefully with a paper towel, you can reuse the measuring spoon indefinitely. I like to use a plastic cup because it’s disposable and doesn’t require clean up. I’ve tried a couple different applicators, and a long thin piece of scrap wood seems to work just about as well as anything else.
The procedure. This stuff is very expensive so you only want to use the bare minimum required. I recommend finding a piece of scrap wood with a small knot hole to practice on. A small knot will not require much resin to fill in. During my first experiment I used two 1/4 teaspoons of resin, one 1/4 teaspoon of hardener, and one drop of dye. Start by pouring the resin into the cup. Then add the hardener. Then add the dye until the color has the opacity you like. Mix with the scrap stick and let one drop fall from the scrap stick into your void. Then add another drop, then another until the void has been filled. You want to slowly add drops, rather than pouring the resin so the air has time to escape and the resin has time to slowly fill all the gaps in the void. Fill the void to the top then wait about 5 minutes to check it again. You’ll probably have some settling. Then add more resin to top off the void. The resin will take about 24 hours to set and 72 hours to cure completely.
This is very important: make sure you set aside a time period when you have a few days in a row to check on the settling of the resin. You’ll typically find that overnight the resin has settled, and you’ll need to add some more the next day to level it off with your wood surface. If you wait more than 24 hours to do this, your resin may not bond together and you could end up with air gaps in your resin which would create an issue during sanding.
The finish. You may have a slightly convex shape over the void, but not to worry. You can sand the resin just like you sand the surrounding wood. I like to use 80 grit, then 120, then 180 as discussed in the post about my go-to finish on the cherry coat rack. As you can see from the picture, the resin really added some pizzaz to what could have been a distracting knot hole.
One caveat: the directions recommend using a propane torch to heat the resin and pop any air bubbles at the surface, but I’ve found that in the proportions recommended, the air bubbles escape before the resin hardens.
If you haven’t tried resin, but have always wanted to, give it a shot. For less than $70 you can be up and running in no time. This is consistent with our entrepreneurial mantra of fail fast and fail cheap which we wrote about here. If you have any questions, post below. I look forward to hearing from you about your experience with resin finishes.