The Formula for Success?

Article - December 1, 2008

This week’s question comes from SGT Grigsby, a Serviceman in Italy who asks: “I am exiting the Military in a couple of weeks and on to Furniture-making school (Thank you GI Bill), My questions are: when you decided to start your own business, what was your formula for self success? How did you balance income versus new tools before the WW’er fame? Did your market shift (meaning did you start out doing finishing work and then ease into furniture design?) I guess i just need to know if it’s just a little luck and a lot of effort or is it just being in the right place at the right time?”

And this was my response:
First off, congrats on the furniture school. That is awesome. And of course, thank you for your service to our country.Now I try not to get into the habit of giving business advice, since my experience is rather limited. I only ran my business for about 2 years before I started The Wood Whisperer. And obviously that changed everything. So I can’t really offer you the wisdom of years of experience. But I did learn quite a bit in that time and I will share some of that with you.

So my formula for success? Hmm…not sure I had a formula or even a definitive plan. If there was any secret, it was remaining flexible and going where the money was. Now I don’t know if that would have been sustainable over a long period of time, but that’s what led me where I am today. So obviously mine is a unique case.

First, I learned to juggle. Meaning…I became a jack of all trades. Finishing, refinishing, on-site repair, cabinetry, built-ins, commercial jobs, and of course, studio furniture. They were all fair game for money. Keep in mind that the crap jobs can always lead to new builds. Several of my refinishing customers eventually turned into custom furniture customers. And nearly all of my custom furniture customers were repeat customers over time.

The next thing I learned was that not everyone wants your “best” work. Your best work is very expensive and should be reserved for the customers who are willing to pay for the time and effort you will put into it. So figure out ways to scale back the cost, without making tremendous sacrifices in quality. But sacrifices will need to be made in order to keep your doors open.

Another thing I had to do was stop thinking like a hobbyist. Hobbyists buy tools and supplies because the want them. A business-owner buys tools because he needs them. And in many cases, this can be more fun because when you do buy a tool, you should buy a GOOD one that will not cause you more expense over time. Also, hobbyists tend to work a lot in small bursts. When I finally had a full 8-10 hour workday to utilize, I had trouble adjusting. It wasn’t until I worked in a refinishing shop and started partnering with other craftsmen, that I realized just how much I could accomplish in a full day.

Also, make sure you get to know some of the other craftsmen in your area. Not only can you pass work back and forth to each other, you can also collaborate on major projects that you could never accomplish on your own. And leave your business cards everywhere! Nicole was a master at this. Ha! Make sure you target the markets that have the most money. It may sound shallow to say this, but people with more money are more likely to spend it on custom furniture.

Oh and the final piece of advice would be to learn how to run a business. You should not take this lightly. Without a solid understanding of how a business should be run, you are much more likely to fail. Look for either continuing education night classes or even free seminars given by the city that will help you choose what kind of entity you want to be and how to run it. That’s about all I can come up with right now. Good luck my friend, and keep your nose to the grindstone.