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.
Other than the moving truck ramming the house 2 weeks ago (more on that later), our move went pretty well. We declared Initial Operating Capability on the wood shop and are in the process of wiping varnish on the gun cabinet commission we posted about here and here. We have drying parts scattered all over the garage, so I’m a little reluctant to finish setting up the wood shop for fear of kicking up dust which could mar the finish. There is nothing like wiping finish on a raw piece of black walnut because it magically transforms the wood from a dusty light grey color to a lustrous, rich dark brown/grey. Once all the finish is dry, I’ll get to work putting the shop into its final configuration then we can declare Full Operational Capability.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk more about the design of a wood shop from scratch. I wrote about this earlier (click here), and my thinking has evolved some. We’ve had to move the shop three times now since we started Traughber Design in 2015 so we’re getting more experience in moving than I’d like! The diagram at the top lays out the overall scheme, and we’re going with a counterclockwise flow around the shop. The raw lumber will go immediately onto the lumber racks at the right of the garage when I return from runs to the hardwood dealer. The next tools that typically touch the wood would be the planer, track saw, and sliding compound miter saw, so I’ll have those next to the raw wood. Routing is usually near the end of the process so we’ll have the router table near the end of the loop. In the middle, against the house, will be the assembly table. At the very end, we’ll have some shelves to display finished pieces for visitors to the shop. One of the primary things I’ve learned over the years is to take advantage of the sun, fresh air, and view outside of the garage, so I’ll have the Festool MFT/3 (Multi Function Table) work table near the outer door since that’s where I do most of the work. In addition, I invested in an anti-fatigue mat, which has helped greatly with standing on concrete, and that will go in front of the MFT/3.
The picture at left shows the almost empty garage when we moved in. As you can see, the first thing we moved was the commission in progress (the cabinet) and the Festool MFT/3 work table so we could keep working on the project during the move. The tenants took good care of the garage before their move to Germany, so we don’t have to make many modifications.
This picture is of the workbench I built against the house. That was one of the first tasks after moving in because the workbench is an “enabler” which allows so many other tasks to be done. My pal, Tim Ferriss, talks about how it’s important to identify the “first domino” in any endeavor which knocks down all the others. The work bench is one of those first dominos, since it speeds up getting other tasks done. Luckily I had kept all the pieces from the workbench and marked them before dismantling it years ago at a tenant’s request since they wanted to move a boat into the garage. Putting it back together was a snap.
Once we get all the finish applied to the gun cabinet (five coats with sanding in between), we’ll put everything in its final configuration.
Back to the moving truck saga…I can’t get into the particulars too much since we are working the claim with the mover’s insurance company, but suffice it to say a lack of situational awareness caused the moving truck to be backed into our new house. All is well. The mover’s company said the claim was legit and we should be able to kick off the repair work soon.
What lessons learned have YOU had from setting up your wood shop?
This is our interview with our fourth entrepreneur in our interview series, Haleigh Heard, owner of S’Cute Petite bakery.
Tell us a little bit about your company.
I am a home bakery which specializes in cupcakes.
What else do you make?
You make other things besides cupcakes.
You made a cake.
I made a cake for a birthday party.
You made a cake for us, too.
Yes, I did. I don’t normally do cakes.
What is your biggest seller?
My biggest seller is my chocolate chip cupcake with butter cream or cream cheese frosting.
Is that the triple chocolate one or is that a different one?
It’s a new one. I’ve improved on it. It’s pretty good, you should try it sometime.
I should. Valentines Day is coming up. Can I place an order?
Sure. If you buy twelve, you get one free.
I’ll buy twelve then. Can you make twelve for us?
Sure, no problem.
How did you get started in baking?
I think I found my passion for baking about 4 years ago. Every Saturday afternoon I would go on Pinterest and I’d find something to bake. I’d bake it and bring it to Sunday School. I’d give it to the people in Sunday school class and say “try this.”
That was probably a ready audience.
I’d say “Did you like it? Did you not like it? What can improve? Is it good?”
Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
My creative process is pretty much I go on Pinterest a lot. I look at things. That’s how I got my chocolate chip cupcake. I forgot a couple ingredients in the recipe, and I decided to throw a handful of chocolate chips in it. It was probably the best chocolate chip cupcake and everyone was talking about it.
What are some of your entrepreneur lessons learned so far?
I’d have to say, you can never ask too many questions. I’ve asked my Dad a million questions like how should I sell my cupcakes? How to price them? My delivery system? How I should deliver? And then I think, just have fun with your business. You started it for a reason. It’s not a chore you have to do. I think that’s what I thought in the beginning was I had to have the perfect cupcake when I deliver it. It has to be perfect, and when it’s not I had a meltdown. I threw the cupcake away and I started again. That’s just the way my mindset was, that it had to be perfect. Now I’m having fun with my business. I’m getting more opportunities to promote myself.
Just have fun.
Or else, why do it?
Why do it? You have fun, right?
Absolutely. My time in the wood shop is a lot of fun.
Really, have you ever stabbed a finger? Did you ever miss?
I stabbed myself with the jigsaw the other day. It wasn’t too bad. I rinsed it off, slapped a bandaid on it and kept going.
Shake it off, right?
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
Have fun. You started your business for a reason. Don’t make it a chore.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I am planning on doing coupons and gift certificates, for things like Valentines Day, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day.
That will be a big seller, I think. Try it. If it doesn’t work, move on to something else. Where can we learn more about your company?
You can can go on Facebook and type in “S’Cute Petite” (click here to go to Haleigh’s business Facebook page). I’m trying to figure out more options.
Are you going to have a website besides Facebook or is Facebook going to be the primary?
Facebook is going to be the primary because you can go straight to Facebook Messenger and let me know what you’d like.
Thank you for your time, Haleigh. We love the cupcakes. Readers, go to Haleigh’s FB page and order some!
For our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, write of The Devil Dragon Pilot: Part 1 and Part 2
We just made another deal last weekend to make some baseball bat themed footstools and bar stools, which was terrific. Then I did the math on our total backlog and it’s over 100 hours! Remember, this is a part time gig until I retire (Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire) and I can only comfortably do about 6 hours per week in the wood shop, especially given work travel. That means my backlog works out to about 17 weeks or 4 months, which is too long for my taste. Why? Because there are a few other commissions I’ve been discussing with potential clients that I’d really like to build. They look like really fun projects. Doing these new deals is not about bringing in new business, but about making things that are interesting. How does an entrepreneur manage their backlog when it gets too big? Read on!
#1: Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely
An entrepreneur needs to maintain the flow of business, because the backlog could be gone at some point. We always want new business walking in that door, but not too much or quality will suffer, or we’ll have to turn away too many clients. To give you a specific example, you may have noticed I’ve started to tweet here and there with some updates on what is going on in the shop (follow us at Twitter handle @TraughberDesign). I could be tweeting a lot more, but decided to just tweet occasionally until we’ve worked off more of that backlog. We also have a Pinterest account and could be doing a lot more other on the social media front with apps like Instagram. At this point, though, we need that time in the shop.
Something else to start thinking about is what is your ideal backlog number? That number could be in hours or number of projects to ship, or some other metric. Then work towards that metric you’ve set. Over 100 hours is too much right now for Traughber Design, but once I’m doing this full time, that number may be too low if I work a 40 hour week in the wood shop. What’s the right number for your business? Have you thought about that? You want enough of a backlog to keep yourself gainfully employed for a while, but how long? How frequently does new work typically come in the door? As I mentioned earlier, this backlog will take me 4 months and I can estimate pretty well how much new work we’ll get in that time period. That will determine how much effort (or not) we spend on marketing. We’ve already had 4 commissions this year and it’s only February so we need to manage the incoming and outgoing flow.
We just talked about investing less (time) in marketing, where should the entrepreneur invest?
#2: Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster
Maybe buying tools should always be the default answer! One can never have enough tools, I suppose, unless you’re traveling a minimalist journey as Mrs Woodworker and I are. But what do I mean by “buy more tools”? I mean to look for opportunities where a tool or jig will make you faster or more efficient in whatever your creating enterprise is. To give you an example, I anticipate we may be making a lot of the baseball bat themed foot stools and bar stools. Is there a tool I can buy that will speed up production while maintaining or improving the quality? Is there a jig (a specially made apparatus to hold pieces in place to make cutting/sawing/drilling/etc. easier) I can make that makes positioning the bats easier to speed things up? Yes, of course there are. I’ve made one prototype foot stool from three bats and can see the value in making a jig for the bar stool to precisely align the bats and drill holes for the cross pieces that will hold the bats in place in the stool. If I make the jigs now, we’ll reap the benefits in the long run with time savings on every piece.
So we can speed things up with capital expenditures, but how about allocating our time wisely?
#3: Reallocate Your Time
As I wrote about earlier in the post Get Out of the Rat Race: How to Manage the Transition from Career to Maker, entrepreneurs have tremendous freedom to decide where to focus their efforts. That’s one of the reasons we start these journeys: freedom and creativity. Not only is it about allocating time after the day job is over, but occasionally an entrepreneur will run across some “bonus time.” There was a bit of serendipity with this holiday weekend. We had planned to go cross country skiing in West Virginia, but the snow forecast was abominable. We cancelled and went out with friends at least one night, but that freed up the entire weekend for some making every morning. I’m the lark, or early riser, in the family so I naturally get up to write a little then hit the wood shop before every one is up. Then we spent the rest of the day together. I try not to work in the shop late in the day because fatigue and power tools don’t go together. I’d like to keep my fingers. If you are an entrepreneur, look for opportunities like that to do a little extra making. For you, would that be early in the morning? Stealing some time during the day? Late in the day? Using a portion of a holiday weekend?
As we’ve written about earlier, if you don’t have enough time you can always pull out that time creation machine we wrote about in the post Time is not Finite and make some time.
#4: Enjoy the Ride
When you run across a “problem” with a backlog like this, it’s important to step back for a minute and do a couple things.
One thing is to pat yourself on the back for having a backlog in the first place. Remember when you started as an entrepreneur? You had zero backlog and were just hustling for revenue. Now that you have one, congratulate yourself. Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases, discusses that more in our entrepreneur interview series.
This is Part Four, the last portion of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases. For Part One click here, Part Two, click here, and Part Three click here.
I want to be respectful of your time, I know you’re busy. Last question. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
One thing I want to say is vets have a big leg up. I don’t know if people understand that. There is a lot to being successful on Amazon and on the Internet. Of course, you need to have a good product. The most important thing of all is your reviews by customers. So that’s super duper important. So generally speaking, people want to help out a vet. That’s what I put on every product we sell, which has a little slip of paper in there explaining who we are. The business was started by a vet. We get a lot of good feedback. You’ve probably seen those things. We just get a lot of good feedback. We have a good product, and we have outstanding customer service. I believe that vet thing really is the difference. The key thing that has put me over the hump. It’s the difference maybe between 90% positive and 99% positive. That difference is everything.
Who doesn’t want to support a vet?
Yeah, all things being equal. On Amazon, the difference between ranking #1 and #10 is everything. #1 gets 90% of the sales, and #10 gets no sales. #2 maybe gets, 10% of the sales. That vet thing is huge and I don’t know if vets really understand that. I just point that out. Especially if you’re competing in a big way. I’m sure people like to help vets locally, too, but I’m not sure there are a lot of vets that sell locally. It’s a good thing. I just stumbled on this, I didn’t know. I’m competing against big sellers all across the country and when the buyer looks at two things all they know about it is “vet” or “no vet.” It’s a really big advantage I think. A lot of people comment on that and say “thank you for your service” so I know it’s a pretty big deal. I know it’s not much of a difference between the good sellers and the outstanding ones, as far as the metrics go. It’s not just Amazon, it’s eBay, it’s Walmart, Etsy, all these places we’re on now. That’s been a really important factor.
If you have more thoughts, send them my way. This is probably going to be a two or three parter, which is good. Thanks!
Mo Johnson sent the following thoughts via E-mail after the live interview:
Hey Jerry, thanks for the interview. Love the blog you are doing — great idea. One thing we didn’t talk about is how we came up with the motto: “display your story”. That happened after I was floored by customers contacting me, sharing very personal stories about how much our cases meant to them. Usually it involved an item that they were displaying that had belonged to a loved one who had passed away. I mean people have called me, literally crying and telling me they wanted me to know that our cases were much more than just a display case. That all really surprised me and changed the way I thought about the business. We weren’t just in the business of creating, manufacturing and selling a product. Rather, it is more about the item the customer is displaying. More about their story. Displaying their story. That’s really what it’s about. We are helping people to display (and thereby tell) their life stories, the things most important to them.
OK, so that’s one thing I wanted to mention. Also, one point of that is that once you start down the entrepreneurship road, you really don’t know where it will lead. So, that’s both scary and exciting.
Another thing, related to that, is I think you and I spent a good amount of time with me dwelling on the negatives of entrepreneurship — the long hours and stress of it. And the impact of that. That’s definitely true and important to understand. I was tired yesterday so thinking more about that side of things 🙂
On the other hand, it is also very rewarding to know that you are building something from nothing to what it has become. The impact that it has on so many people. It may sound corny but in its own way, Better Display Cases has changed the world — for the better. Many display cases we design, make and sell are new and different and never been seen before. Most were things customers asked for. They are being used to display people’s stories that maybe would never have been told otherwise.
That’s what I was getting at when I mentioned before that I work all the time. That’s true. The business is on my mind pretty much all the time (unless something more urgent replaces it) — but my mind is always wandering to what we can do better and solving problems. And, I have piles of notes and calendars and audios — all with notes of ideas I’ve had that I wrote down or recorded and need the time to go over again and implement. I also have a never-ending flow of emails and online blogs, audios, articles, etc — all with ideas, tools, etc that can improve the business in one way or the other.
Right now I’m initiating a huge change that hopefully will put all our selling channels on one place where we can change all listings from one central locations if we want to make changes and also keep track of inventory — and also do shipping. Part of that is negotiating a better deal with FedEx — anyway, all that is a long story, but just a small example of the kind of things I’m always working on. Many things you try don’t work. So, it’s not a straight line. Which is part of why the process of innovating and getting better is never ending. Each one of those things involves not only the technology but the people and the partners and all the issues that go with all that.
Then, as a small business owner I’m also building manager (yesterday just before you got there, a pipe burst that I was dealing with). I’m chief technology officer (anything breaks, my problem). Chief tax officer (have a part time accountant, but I still have to gather all the info for her which is the most time consuming part). Custodian (thinking of hiring a cleaning crew, not sure if worth the money). Head of HR. On and on. There’s no substitute for the owner. Only the owner cares like an owner.
Theres nothing as hard, or rewarding, as starting and building a small business. So, there is not enough time in the day to do all I would like to do. Which is why, there’s never a spare moment because I always have good stuff I could be doing. That’s the working all the time piece.
But, importantly, I don’t think of it as work at all. It’s just me. It’s who I am and what I do — as much as I can. There’s almost no where I’d rather be than in my office, “working”. So, I both work all the time and not at all — if that makes sense. It’s very cool to wake up every day and know that your time will be spent building something of your own — rather than something that belongs to someone else.
Another thing — I mentioned how being a vet is a big advantage for me. The other thing that has really helped is that I have little competition. The reason for that is that my business is a terrible business in many ways. When I started, I mentioned those groups I was part of that were looking at importing from China. I mentioned my idea to them. Unanimously — everyone said it was the stupidiest idea they’d ever heard. “Of all the things you could import from China, why pick something so large, expensive to ship, and so likely to be damaged in shipment — nightmare.”
I replied: “yes I agree, show me something else I can import that has the same profit margin”
So, I gave it a shot (by the way the profit margin has turned out not to be as great as I thought when I started, but still, fortunately, it’s good) .
Really that is a common thread in the business. Most of the important things I’ve done that have proven to be really successful were things I was told not to do.
1. go into the acrylic display case business 2. sell them on Amazon 3. make cases without mirrors 4. make cases with silver risers (in China they told me “no body like silver; everybody want gold” — this is what I began to tell you at one point yesterday — if one of my competitors wanted to do something like sell with silver risers — first they’d have to convince their supplier to go to the manufacturer and then the manufacturer would have to agree to make them. Plus, the big supplier in the U.S. is HUGE and orders millions of cases many months in advance. So, probably won’t even listen to a small seller. We are small, nimble, responsive, willing to take risk. We cut out the middle man and design/manufacture ourselves and sell direct to the customer.. Anyway, China was wrong. Lots of people want silver risers. 5. make cases with black risers (see 4 above)
So for me, it’s truly been the road less traveled that made all the difference. Well, that should about cover it I think. Again, thanks for the interview. Talk to you later
Sorry, one more thing, then I’m done.
I didn’t talk much about all the customization work we do. I’d say about half the cases we ship require some major customization — changing riser color or mirror or turf, etc. You probably had the impression we just ship what we receive from China. But, because we have soooo many options, it doesn’t usually work out that way. Which is a huuuge challenge.
Many thanks to Mo for not only his time during the original interview, but also taking the time to document and send his thoughts after the interview. I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot listening to his story of success!
Last week we passed 1000 readers of the blog! Many thanks to all of you for spending the time here and your support. As you can see from the picture, the blog seems to be really taking off, which is encouraging since we just launched on September 8th.
We’ve learned many things about blogging and launching this digital side of Traughber Design which I’ll share in a future blog post, but just wanted to mark this milestone and pass along my thanks to all of you!
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 the Part Three of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases. For Part One click here. For Part Two click here.
So how was that transition going from the military to being an entrepreneur? Although, I suppose you always were one, weren’t you?
That’s why it’s hard. I never really decided to be one. I never finished that story of how I got into display cases. I always had the idea of being an entrepreneur. I applied for other (government) jobs and none of those panned out. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time applying for jobs. I guess it was a waste of time. So I was separately doing different tracks. I’m not crazy; it’s not like I said I’ll never work for the government. It wasn’t like that. It just happened. I had a website which might still be up called Zero Risk Internet Marketing, and I was going to help small businesses improve their internet marketing and get paid for that. My zero risk concept, which I still think is a good concept, but it didn’t work for me…that’s what I was saying, things that work you invest more, and if they don’t you’ve got to quit. My concept with that is that I would work for free for people, but we would split the profits of whatever sales I was able to increase. Obviously there is a real problem with tracking that. How do you know what your impact was on a sales increase? I never really solved that problem. I worked for a couple people and helped them out, but they never paid.
I can see that would be a problem.
It was, what do you call it, a non-profit situation. So I was helping a lady, she was doing a website to help vets start businesses which is kind of, what’s the word?
Ironic? (both laughing)
That was me (a veteran), but she didn’t want to pay me. So I stopped that project. If you went to that website it looked pretty good and I never made a penny out of all that effort. I had a few months there where I still had government pay. At that point I decided I’d be a realtor. Not a bad idea. Maybe that would have worked out well. I have a website called PWCVA.com which I used to put a lot more effort into. It’s all local in Prince William County. So my idea was I would use that to market and be known. I would focus on representing military buyers, which is a great, great market if you can get ’em, because they are easy: they have guaranteed income. They can get the loans.
You can link up with USAA and their transition program.
They move a lot, so it’s high churn. All that sounded really good. I’ve always really liked real estate. I loved visiting houses and seeing what they’re like. I love that, actually. It was kind of fun for me. So that was what I was going to do. And I was beginning the process of studying for the real estate exam. One day, I don’t know why, for some reason, I searched Google for NFL Fatheads. I used to rank high for that search term with SECSportsfan. I think I was just curious. At that point I had given up on the idea of making money on the Internet. That’s impossible. And up popped somebody’s store on eBay. Like #2 or #3 in Google. I was like wow, that person’s doing pretty good. They’re getting a lot of good searches. Wonder how they’re doing it. So I went to their store. I wouldn’t have ever pursued anything except I would have figured well, somebody just got lucky. Maybe they put a lot of money into it. Maybe they know somebody. Maybe the New York Times wrote an article about them and that’s why they’re ranked. Who knows. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except the guy who owned that page, I knew. He used to be a partner of mine. So I was like, if he can do it, I can do it. I know him. Right at that moment I had picked up the phone, and I called Fatheads. I said I want to sell Fatheads; how can I become a distributor? Luckily I got Lindsay Fraterolli. That’s the person I talked to. She signed me up, and she gave me a lot of tips along the way. I never would have made it without her. I started selling them on eBay, and it worked. I sold a lot of Fatheads that Christmas. That was December 2013. I had no job. I had nothing going for me. I did this thing with Fatheads. I was just amazed. I had tried so hard and gone through so much and it had just all just fallen apart really. They had a cash register. It used to go ka-ching, ka-ching. And I was just amazed. It was ka-ching, ka-ching. Ten, fifteen, as it got closer to Christmas is was twenty times a day. To me, that was amazing. I was making, I don’t know, ten or fifteen bucks on each one. You add that up it’s a few hundred dollars a day.
Not bad. Not bad.
The only limit was they had limits on the eBay account. They had limits on how much you could sell. I would hit that limit every day and kept calling them every day and ask for exceptions. They kept trying to make it better. Once that happened, it was working. That’s it. I was on to that. One thing leads to another. I started selling Fatheads on eBay. I started selling football helmets on eBay. I found a guy who was a distributor wholesale. All this stuff I wasn’t buying, I was just getting the sale and it was drop shipping. Fathead was shipping it. I was making the money. I was selling a good bit. Growing, growing, growing. Then in January, eBay called me out of the blue and said “Hey, we see you’re selling sports-related stuff, do you have any display cases?” I said “What are you talking about?” They told me “People put collectibles in display cases, and we have a lot of demand for them and not a lot of supply so can you help us out?” I said ” I don’t have any, but I’ll look into it.” I looked around a lot. I tried to do the same thing I was doing with Fatheads and football helmets. I tried to find somebody I could buy them from and resell them. I just couldn’t really find anyone. I had a hard time with that. At the same time, I was looking for the next thing. I was in a lot of Facebook groups at the time. Somehow, I was involved in people talking about importing from China. That was big. It was just starting back then. The idea is you buy stuff in China, import it, resell it. I was already trying to figure out what I could do. It sounded like a good idea. Then I get this call from eBay out of the blue. I know there’s a good demand for it, and not much supply. It’s a pretty credible source if eBay is calling you.
Seems like a no-brainer.
I searched on Ali-Baba for display cases and lo and behold, and I didn’t know this, but China makes all the display cases in the world, for the most part. I got a couple samples from a couple different people. I ended up selecting a company to go with. That’s a whole story in and of itself. Part of the way that worked, I bought an ebook online from someone that had been an importer all their life. They wrote an ebook about it and they put in there if you buy my ebook I’ll help you out personally you can contact me with any questions. It’s pretty scary, the first time you’re sending somebody a $30,000, $40,000 check and you have to trust that it’s going to come. That’s a big deal. That’s why I’m saying, I was very fortunate. There are many places along the way where I was lucky. That’s why I wouldn’t tell someone to be an entrepreneur. I know where I’m at and it’s a good place, but it’s a risky place and could still fall apart. I know the stress and difficulty. That’s why I wouldn’t tell somebody to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be lucky. I chose one, but I wasn’t sure, there was something questionable about the payment they were asking for. I had this guy with the ebook and he looked into them assured me they look credible and go with them. And it worked out. They’ve been great. They’re a great partner. They make a great product and stand behind it if there are problems. I just haven’t ever had any problem, and obviously that’s crucial. So that’s how I got into display cases. So I still sell those, those are my three products. The display cases are the growing part of the business, because I can control it the most. I design them myself. All the cases are things I made up. I didn’t just copy someone else’s. I got generally speaking, ideas, but I set the measurements; they’re mine. No one makes them exactly the way we do. Once we started going then it’s been the feedback from the customers and also my employees who’ve come up with a lot of great ideas. That’s what’s really propelled the company. First it was just the basic products, which by the way at first, I stored in my house and shipped then from my house. Then I got a storage facility, Dumfries Self Storage. At first I started with one storage facility, when the first container from China came, it’s not going to fit in there. Luckily, and again I keep saying this word, it just so happened, because usually that place is full. They had another storage place right next to the one that I had already got open. So I was able to that day to go down and get both of them, and I needed both of them and so we filled up both of those storage places. I worked out of there for about a year, I guess. No electricity, no heat, no lights. That was difficult, in retrospect. That’s why I always, when ever people complain here, I’m like…
This is ten times better.
You have no idea. They’ll say we’re not going to have space for the next shipment. Believe me, we have space.
We’ll figure it out.
The things I did, no employee would ever do. Everything had to be stuffed in there. I didn’t have enough space. I’m not stupid. I know what stuff sells the most. I’d put the stuff that sold the most in front. But still, every once in a while a customer would order something that was way in the back. So my choice was either to pull everything out, or I would take my shoes off and climb on my stomach like a snake and go all the way to the back. I would be sweating like a pig coming out of there. I just remember all that. That’s helpful when you are growing to look back where you were and give yourself a pat on the back and realize how far you’ve come. You have to enjoy the ride. Otherwise it’s no fun at all.
It seems like the business is doing really well. You have a couple employees I met on the tour, and then you talked about a vacancy, and there’s a lot of turnover. How do you deal with all of that? That’s one of the challenges, right?
Yeah, that’s one of our biggest challenges is keeping employees. I have two great employees now and we had two other great ones. They were missionaries and they were called by God into the mission field.
You can’t really argue with that.
I can’t compete with that. I lost them. We’re just trying to replace them. There was so much we could do when Wayne was here. He did a listing on Indeed, I think it was. It was a great listing. Better than I ever could have done. I wouldn’t have thought of how to present the job in such a positive light as he did. We got flooded with applications. I was shocked. I always thought we would have a really hard time finding anyone. We got hundreds of applications. That was a lot of time to wade through that and talk to people. We went through that whole process. We picked somebody. He didn’t work out. I had to fire him, actually. We went to the next guy. It took awhile to figure out that he wasn’t going to work out. Then I got rid of him. Then we brought in our second choice guy, he was still available. He was great. Then his family moved to Arizona. The other people have not been so good (laughing). They just didn’t like the job, I guess.
You said some people don’t want to work. Which is kind of surprising.
Some people don’t. Everyone has a different story. Hopefully I’ll find somebody good. That is the biggest challenge by far. Honestly, there a lot of options. That’s one of the nice things about having a business: you have a lot of options. We could ship more to Amazon. We could change things so that we ship everything just to Amazon and we have Amazon fulfill our individual orders. They already do a lot of that if you have Amazon Prime and we have the products there, they come from Amazon. Right now, we’re so far behind. We got wiped out over Christmas. Everything got sold. What happens then is we have the listings both ways, you can buy them Amazon fulfilled if they have them, or we ship them. Right now we have nothing there in stock which means everyone is buying direct from us. With one guy, basically, and me helping, we’re doing all we can just to fulfill the individual orders. We need somebody to work full time on shipping to Amazon so we can get caught up. If we ever did get caught up, and we got everything in to Amazon then we could change things and have Amazon do everything and fulfill individual orders. But that costs a good bit. I would rather hire someone and do it from here. It would be more cost effective. We already have a warehouse, the facility. A lot of people don’t. Some people do this stuff in their home office sitting in their underwear, they have nothing. Some people, believe it or not, buy stuff from China they ship it direct to the Amazon warehouse and all they’re doing is sitting on the computer passing money around and telling Amazon what to do. Our product requires a lot more attention, I think. That would be hard for me to imagine.
Maybe one of our readers is looking for a job and they can contact you.
I’m trying to transition everything to Made in the USA and I hope to be able to do that this year. I’ve been working with a guy in North Carolina for a while and gradually having him make more and more of the cases. I’d love to be 100% “Made in the USA” by the end of 2017.
Stay tuned for Part Four, the last section of our interview with Mo…