Many thanks to fellow entrepreneur Tim Pittman for the recent article about Traughber Design in FIRE Stories. Mrs Woodworker and I hope some of the wisdom we’ve gained in the past several years might be of use to you. If you have any questions, FIRE away in the comments section.
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.
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.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!
In 2 days, we start our Second Annual Minimalism Challenge! What does minimalism have to do with entrepreneurship and woodworking? Everything! Minimalism is a movement to pare back on tasks and things in order to focus on what’s important in your life. If those things that are important to you include entrepreneurship and/or woodworking, then minimalism is a tool to help focus on both of those passions. We wrote earlier about our minimalism journey in What Do You Mean I Have to Move the Wood Shop???!!!??? Entrepreneurs Need to Be Flexible and will talk about a specific tactic (the Minimalism Challenge) to propel you on your minimalism journey.
So what is The Minimalism Challenge? Very simply, you get rid of a number of things equal to that day of the month. For example, on August 1st we will get rid of one thing. On the 31st, we’ll each get rid of at least 31 things. By the end of the month, we’ll each have gotten rid of around 500 things. Our friends Josh and Ryan, The Minimalists, have written out the rules of engagement in their post Let’s Play a Minimalism Game.
So how does one identify the things to get rid of? One method that was useful for us was to follow Marie Kondo’s example. Marie wrote a New York Times bestseller called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up which has a multi-step process (she calls it the KonMari Method) for decluttering your house. If you don’t have a starting point, Marie’s framework might be useful to you. For example, one of the first steps is to focus on reducing your wardrobe. First, you put all of your clothes together then decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Anything that hasn’t been worn in the last 90 days is a prime candidate to jettison. Mrs Woodworker and I did that last year and it was amazing how many clothes we each had when we brought every single piece of clothing we owned into one room. It was a real eye opener. As you need items to shed for the Minimalism Challenge, you can leverage Marie’s method to find more items.
There is at least one caveat, however. Some folks are not great fans of Kondo’s method, so use it with your eyes open. For more, read 5 Reasons I Hate Marie Kondo (Admit It, Deep Down You Do Too).
But why pursue The Challenge in the first place?
#1: It frees up time for your passion
Stuff has to be tended to. The larger the house, the more maintenance required. The more cars, the more trips to the auto shop. In our post Woodworking and Minimalism: If I Buy All These Tools Am I a Minimalist? we described the rationale behind it, but I’d to explore more about the aspect of freeing up time, one of our most precious assets. Maria Popova, the writer of Brain Pickings who has millions of blog readers, gave a great overview of the value of time when she unpacked Seneca’s (Seneca is one of the great Stoic philosophers) letters regarding time (I subscribe to her weekly newsletter). Here is a taste from Seneca:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
If you’d like specific ideas about stealing back more time, read our post Lifestyle Design: Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Entrepreneurs, and Everyone Else.
For more insight into freeing up time, Ii you haven’t had the chance yet, you have to check out a documentary series on Netflix called Abstract (see YouTube trailer here) on multiple ground breaking makers/artists/designers. If you watch very carefully, it’s fascinating to watch how they live their lives and put everything they have into their craft. For example, one of the designers is Tinker Hatfield who designed the Air Jordan shoe for Nike. These designers are all minimalists, so some degree.
One thing to be aware of, is that as you focus on your craft, you will start to see results. As your enterprise becomes more successful, the demands on your time will increase. See our post 4 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Manage Their Backlog: When the Cup Overflows for some suggestions in dealing with this.
#2: It frees up money for your passions
Whether you realize it or not, your house or apartment is full of buried treasure. Anything you haven’t used in about the past 90 days is fair game to be converted into $$$. We follow the following protocol (in this order) for getting rid of stuff and generating dollars:
Sell on ebay. This is the most profitable way to pare down your possessions. One of the greatest advantages is that you can see what the real value of things are.
Sell on Craigslist. Craigslist is a bit of yard sale in terms of prices, but if you are patient, people will come to your house and actually pay you to take your things away. It’s like having your own ATM, but you don’t have to go to the ATM. It brings money to your house.
Sell at a yard sale. This can be a real time suck, but if the weather is good it’s a nice way to spend a Saturday morning and you usually get to meet a lot of really interesting people and neighbors.
Sell from your yard. This is a new technique for us. If there is a garage sale down the street from us and the garage sale traffic will be passing in front of our house, sometimes we’ll put an item with a price tag on it in the front yard. Everything we have placed in the yard this way has sold. We were able to sell our oak dining room set very quickly this way.
Donation tax break. If you can’t sell something, take it to the nearest donation center. We’ve been using the Vietnam Vets donation site in Woodbridge for years, because you drive up, they come out and take your things away. It’s very fast and convenient. You can also get a break on your taxes IF you are itemizing deductions.
Give it away (don’t have to pay to move it again). I don’t believe in Karma, BUT you’ll get a good feeling from giving something away. Freecycle is a very easy way to do this and they also have an app which makes it easy. Visit www.freecycle.org to learn more.
#3: It frees up your mind
Before I took command of my first squadron, we had to attend a pre-command class. One of the lessons that really stuck with me was given by a three-star general. He said “only do what only you can do”. That was very profound and I had to mull it over for awhile. He told us to take a look at our to-do list. I had over 30 items on my to-do list that day that I planned to tackle when I got to the squadron. He told us to consider how many of those items could be delegated. In my case, it was just about all but a half dozen. There were a half dozen tasks that only I could do as the commander. The others could be delegated. He also make the point that by delegating we were creating teaching opportunities to develop our subordinates in the squadron. His comments were a revelation. Now I could really focus on the few things that were necessary to lead the squadron. It freed up my mind.
Along those lines, the French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of many misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” We spend so much of our mental bandwidth thinking about low probability things and can free up a lot of that bandwidth by thinking about more constructive and positive things.
Try the minimalism game for yourself and see if it frees up your time, frees up money, and frees up your mind. If not, you at least had some fun in the process. Follow me on my personal twitter feed @jttraughber for daily tweets on what we are jettisoning and our progress. The hashtag will be #minimalismgame
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.
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?
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:
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.
I replied: “yes I agree, show me something else I can import that has the same profit margin”
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
Have I told you the story about the refrigerator?
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
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
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.
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.
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…
No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.
I used to think that time is finite, but have since learned that’s not true. We can create time. If you are an entrepreneur, or would like to be an entrepreneur and have a dream you are pursuing, you must create time to devote to it, just as the philosopher Epictetus said that we need to allow time for that fig to grow.
Let me share three ways you can create time:
Cut the cable
As we wrote about earlier regarding Stoicism and having correct perceptions, we can change our perception of time to trick our brains into thinking there is more of it by reducing stimuli, in particular, eliminating TV. Did you know the average American watches 5 hours of TV per day according to the New York Daily News! By eliminating TV you are creating 5 hours per day, 35 hours per week, or almost 2,000 hours per year! That’s the equivalent of a full time job (in France). Not only that, while you are watching TV, the minutes seem to be racing by, but when you eliminate TV time slows down, or at least appears to slow down. You’ve tricked your brain into thinking you have more time. So how specifically can you go about it?
My pal Rich Davis turned me onto a blog by a guy called Mr Money Mustache (view his blog here) whose primary focus is sharing lessons learned for achieving financial independence. MMM, as he’s called, advocates cutting your cable for primarily financial reasons, but my opinion is that the primary reason is to create time, with the ancillary benefit of reaping huge financial savings over time. I decided to pursue MMM’s advice because we weren’t watching cable much and were paying $180 per month to Verizon. No matter how much I negotiated with Verizon and cut services the price always moved back up to what I was paying before. So Mrs Woodworker and I decided to cut both cable and the phone landline to see what would happen. We had stopped answering the landline because almost all the calls we were receiving were telemarketers, so why pay Verizon for a service we weren’t using? Anyway, our Verizon bills with the bundles (Internet, phone, and cable) were $180 before we cut the cord. Now we are paying $85 per month, which is a net savings of about $100 per month, almost $1200 per year, or $12,000 (!) over 10 years. There is one major drawback which we haven’t fully mitigated, however.
How do we watch our favorite professional and college sports? I think we’ve cracked the code on pro sports, but college sports are a work on progress. I was finding that the ending of NFL games were so late here on the East Coast, that I needed a workaround. A couple years ago I started subscribing to NFL GamePass ($99.99 per year) which allows you to watch all NFL games via replay. I get up for work at 0430 (remember Traughber Design is a part-time business for now) and if an NFL game doesn’t get over until 0100, that’s only 3 1/2 hours of sleep. That’s not a sustainable model. With NFL GamePass I can just watch the game the following night and get 8 hours of sleep (or close to it).
College games are a bit trickier, but I’m finding more games are starting to be streamed on the Internet live and that ESPN is starting to show many games via replay on their website. A fallback option is to Google the closest watering hole that is showing your favorite college team’s games. I always feel obligated to keep ordering things while I’m there, since I’m receiving the benefit of watching the game in their establishment, so this can be an expensive option. Another option is to “invite yourself” to your friends’ (thank you, Kevin Hanson) houses ; )
Truth in advertising here…does that mean we watch absolutely no TV? Of course not. We’re not Luddites. We’ve got Netflix for $9.99 per month and now we purchase about two TV series per year on iTunes (of course, we have to keep up with The Walking Dead). Each series runs about $30 for a season, which means we are netting over $1000 per year, or over $10,000 over 10 years versus cable. That’s a whole lot of power tools!
So…you can create time by cutting cable. How else can you create time?
Do a cost/benefit analysis of Amazon Prime Versus Running Errands
We signed up for Amazon Prime about a year ago as an experiment. I looked at our orders over the preceding year and we didn’t have enough orders to justify the $99 annual fee, but I wanted to experiment with it (See our post about failing fast and cheap. This was an inexpensive experiment) to see what all the hubbub was about. There’s no surprise given the clever mind of Jeff Bezos that we are purchasing more from Amazon than we had before, because it’s so convenient. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if we were going to purchase those things anyway. Where Prime really comes in handy is in creating time by having packages shipped to your house if they are the same price in the local store. You’ve just created the amount of time required to do that round trip to the local store by ordering via Prime, not to mention the time to stand in line. To give you an example, recently Mrs Woodworker’s headlight went out. I was going to run to Advance Auto Parts and buy another bulb. Then I got to thinking “I wonder what the price is on Amazon?” Sure enough, the price was about the same. Now if Mrs Woodworker was going to be doing night driving, I would have gone straight away to buy the bulb to keep her safe. She was only going to be driving during the day for the next 2 days, so I ordered on Amazon and the bulb showed up 2 days later. I had just created 40 minutes of time (20 minutes each way, plus any additional time standing in line).
Jeff Bezos just helped you create some time, how else can you do it?
Stop Doing Something
It’s important we evaluate our to-do lists from time to time to make sure we’re not doing things we don’t need to be doing. I tried to zero in on things that were repetitive which would mean large time savings over the long haul. One of those things was paying bills. We’ve been paying bills online via our bank for a long time, but were too lazy to fully automate the process. Before you pay one more bill, go to the company’s website and sign up for autopay. You will never have to write another check or facilitate another payment again. I figure I was spending at least 15 minutes every Saturday paying bills. I just created 12 hours per year. Now we just get an E-mail every month stating when our card was charged and by how much. In addition, I’m using that wonderful Naval Federal Credit Union (NFCU) Visa card that pays 1.5% cash back (thanks Gareth Embrey for the recommendation).
Another great way to eliminate errands is to leverage Craigslist and Freecycle. People will actually come to your house and pay you for your stuff if you use Craigslist! Think about how many trips to the dump or donation center that will eliminate. If I post something on Craigslist and it doesn’t sell, then I usually post it on Freecycle. For example, as I mentioned in the post about moving the wood shop, we are getting ready to move. Our realtor recommended replacing two old ceiling fans and an old light fixture with three ceiling fans, which I just finished installing. I posted the old fans on Craigslist, but they didn’t sell so I posted them on Freecycle. A very nice lady came and took them away. Bam! I just saved the time it would have taken to get rid of them, and she got three fixtures for free.
What else is there on your to-do list that you can eliminate or automate?
Well, that’s enough temporal philosophy so I’d better call it a day and head down to the wood shop.
Thinking about cutting the cord? Go for it!
For other Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures on managing time, check out our post here.
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.
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.