I periodically receive emails from aspiring woodworkers who are looking to start a new woodworking business. Most of them say something like,
“I see you’ve been successful in your business and I too am looking to start building furniture for a living. Do you have tips or advice for someone just starting out? I really don’t like my current job and I’m hoping to make a career out of something I love.”
I always feel a bit awkward as I break the news to them: I do not make my living as a professional woodworker. You can read my About and FAQ pages if you’d like more details on my personal situation, but my business is 100% online. Every dollar I make comes from videos, books, dvds, advertising, sponsorship, and teaching engagements. The only client projects I take on these days are the ones I actually WANT to take on. So there’s a bit of a misconception about what I do that leads folks to believe I run a successful custom furniture business. The simple reality is I don’t.
In the past, I did run a custom furniture business. It was called Marc’s Wood Creations (because that just rolls off the tongue) and I would build anything a customer wanted. The cool projects were very few and far between as most folks just wanted odd-sized/cheap cabinets. None of these jobs paid well and I kept my doors open by taking on refinishing work, working part time in a refinishing shop, and collaborating with another local woodworker on larger commercial projects. In the end, most of my jobs would net me about $10/hr if I was lucky. At one point, I even had to find a 9-5 job just to make ends meet until the woodworking business picked up again.
I eventually made enough money to satisfy the portion of the bills Nicole couldn’t handle. At this point, I had already established a relationship with my mentor David Marks and we collaborated on a little side business selling veneer cut-offs and walnut burl bowl blanks sourced from Northern California. I also taught woodworking classes to locals in my shop for a while. In spite of working my butt off, I was just barely getting by.
In an effort to boost business, I came up with the idea to start filming my projects. The goal was to show clients just how much work went into their furniture so that perhaps I could start charging what I felt my time was worth. That was back in 2006 and at the time, there wasn’t much in the way of woodworking video content online. In fact, The Wood Whisperer was officially the first woodworking video podcast. Credit goes to my buddy Matt Vanderlist for being the first audio podcast hence his nickname “The Woodworking Podfather.” Much to my surprise, my videos were proving more attractive to woodworkers than they were to clients. In fact, the clients didn’t seem to care. So within a few months of launching my first video, I came to realize my future was in online education and not furniture production.
This is why I feel I am in absolutely NO position to dispense advice to people who are looking to start a woodworking business. I can certainly share my personal experiences in hopes that you’ll be able to glean something from it, but I will never be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Not to mention, there are so many variables to consider: your shop, your skill, your target market, your competitive edge (if you have one), your family, your motivation, your business acumen, and the viability of your products, just to name a few.
There is actually one small piece of advice I can give you, assuming you’re coming at this as a career change. In fact, most inquiries I receive are just that: a person who’s not happy in their current job and they’re looking to turn their passion into dollars. For this person, I recommend doing what I did when I started out: hold down a solid job while building the business on the side. My day job served as something of an insurance policy and it wasn’t until I had more work than I could handle on nights and weekends that I took the plunge and quit the corporate world. While this method doesn’t provide you with any real guarantees, it will give you at least some additional confidence that you’re making the right decision. Furthermore, you can use your steady paycheck to purchase the tools and other things you might need for your business to run smoothly.
What if you can’t drum up enough business to fill your nights and weekends with work? You keep your day job! Depending on your life situation and tolerance for risk, you might be willing to take a chance. But don’t be foolish about it. If it isn’t a viable business, your love for the craft won’t save you and it certainly won’t pay the bills. For many, woodworking as a hobby while receiving a steady paycheck IS the best-case scenario.
Part of the problem here is that folks tend to make assumptions about me and my fellow bloggers and podcasters. Whether you know it or not, the vast majority of people producing content online are holding day jobs in completely separate fields. Their writing/videos are a hobby almost as much as woodworking is. Some of them are able to derive a second income from their efforts and the whole thing supports their woodworking. But very few of them are professional woodworkers who make a living solely by producing furniture and goods for other people. These folks do exist and some of them blog about their adventures, but most of them are too busy working long hours to take the time to document their efforts online. Why do you think some of the biggest names in woodworking start their own schools and regularly produce books and DVDs? Because teaching people how to woodwork is generally easier and more predictable (many times more profitable) than doing the woodworking yourself.
By example, here’s a small sampling of woodworkers I know personally who are making a living as professionals. Notice that most of them have links to their blogs which are either minimal, unpopulated, or dead. Dorset Custom Furniture is probably the one exception and how Dan has enough time to write such great blog posts while running a successful woodworking business, I’ll never know.
Dorset Custom Furniture – Dan and his family craft amazing stand-alone pieces and built-ins on a scale most of us can only dream of!
KALA Studios – Kaleo is an old friend of the show who builds his unique furiniture designs in the DC area.
CK Valenti Designs – Chris is a Phoenix-area local who crafts amazing designs in both wood and metal.
R Jones Woodworks – Another Phoenix area local, Ron’s bread and butter is CNC work. He’s the guy that makes all of the templates and push sticks we sell in our store.
Of course I’m not recommending that people leave their blogs empty, quite the opposite in fact. If you want to talk about how good content marketing can be for your business, that’s a discussion I’m willing to have. My point is simply that running your own business is a potentially all-consuming endeavor. Should you succeed, your biggest challenge won’t be how to fit all the work in, it’ll be how to make time for the other important things in life like family, friends, and *gulp* vacation!
Ultimately, I would hate for someone to make any career decisions based on my or any other online personality’s perceived success. Running a woodworking business is a tremendous amount of work and has all of the same challenges found in any other business. Just because you love the subject matter doesn’t mean you’ll automatically know how to design a successful business around it. The work may hold a deeper meaning for YOU but at the end of the day, you’re making a widget and selling a widget. To do that successfully you need good old fashioned business know-how, determination, and even a little luck. So I guess that’s another piece of advice: treat your business like a business. Take some business courses. Learn what it means to be a business owner well before you are one.
While most of this article is intended to be a splash of cold water for some, I should be clear that I’m not being negative for kicks. I’m just trying to be painfully realistic and honest. I’m also trying to make sure folks understand the reason why I won’t dish out “pearls of wisdom” whenever asked. It certainly isn’t because I’m hoarding all of the good ideas for myself. A smart person knows what they know. A wise person knows what they don’t know and isn’t afraid to admit it.
So what about our up-and-comers looking to make a career in woodworking? First and foremost, learn to ask for advice from the right people! Speak to career counselors, local successful business owners, and take some business courses. You’d be surprised how little woodworking is involved in starting and running a successful woodworking business. Of course the woodworking knowledge is essential as well, but it’s actually the easiest part of the game (in my opinion).
So to sum up: I went to school for biology, started to get my MBA, became a woodworker, and now I’m essentially a dancing monkey on YouTube. What the heck do I know about running a successful woodworking business?!