I've been considering starting a new division of Turner Custom Furniture, named Turner Hand-Crafted Furniture. This off-shoot brand would feature semi-custom, hand-made items available in a limited range of woods and finishes, including unfinished furniture and parts kits. I've been encouraged in this idea by friends, family and customers. I've explored it in depth, and here's how it could happen.
Step 1: The What
What should I make? What would be the most profitable? The answer is tables - dining, console, coffee etc. They are the easiest of all pieces of furniture to make, and the easiest to produce in volume. And conveniently, they are with desks and bookcases, my most frequently commissioned item.
Step 2: Money
It begins, as all business ventures do, with money. There are many ways start-ups, or scion brands like this would be, get the money needed to get started. As I don't need a lot of money, relatively speaking, and I'm not a big, public company, I've decided to look at a select few sources.
First, the traditional funding sources I'd rather not use.
- Self-Finance: Not a viable option on the scale needed to make a real go of it.
- Loan: This would take the form of credit card debt. There is risk here I'd prefer not to take.
- The "Friends and family buy-in": This is extremely common in the custom furniture industry (as well as others I'm sure), but I'm uncomfortable with it.
Next, two sources I'd be comfortable with, as they don't involve loans or risk.
- The investor model: I came up with this idea a while ago, but never pushed it very hard. It is truly a win / win: I create 10 table designs, and put them up for investment sale, meaning the customer (1 per design), would pay the development cost of the table, then own the table. My material and development costs are covered, I get good photos, and the investor gets a table at a discounted price. This is my favorite funding solution.
- The Kickstarter model: Small donations with rewards at various investment tiers.
- What sorts of rewards? Higher tiers are easy: Invest $1000 or more, get a table. Lower tiers are trickier. What would a $20 investor get beyond my thanks?
I don't see any reason I couldn't do both, and honestly I'd be a lot more comfortable with both, as I could actually pay myself as well, as opposed to simply building the tables at cost, which is itself a gamble.
Step 3: Prepping for Success
Assuming I receive investment money, at this point I'd have:
- Production methods established.
- Photos and a separate website, focused specifically on selling semi-custom from a catalog of designs.
I'd be in a good place. But I'd need to be in a position to handle the success I'd work hard to achieve. I'd need to be able to build quickly - not overnight; I'd market myself as a local craftsman, selling hand-crafted items, but within a few weeks, which I've found works for most people. So let's say I get 10 orders that first week, all to be turned around in 4 weeks, or less. I'd need man power, and as they say in the baking industry "Just in time" man power if I don't want them standing around (on the clock), waiting for orders to come in.
How would I have a create a system ready to go at a moment's notice, without paying for it when I don't need it? I wouldn't need very highly skilled guys and girls in this scenario. That isn't to say that the furniture wouldn't be well made. It's just that I wouldn't need highly skilled "generalist" custom furniture makers who'd be comfortable building drawers and hand-fitting them to a desk, or laying-up inlaid veneer panels. I'd need people who could glue up panels, do some sturdy but essentially simple joinery, and be able to sand.
The labor problem, though not so bad as that of a general custom furniture shop, still represents the toughest nut to crack in this new business model.
For now, let's say I've gotten enough money through crowd-sourcing and investment to keep one or two employees busy for a while I await orders. There's always something to do in a custom furniture shop.
Step 4: Marketing
Now we're cookin' with grease. If I've gotten this far, I've got designs, a few dollars in the bank, a website, product photos and sturdy men and women on hand, chomping at the bit to get started building some damn fine, American made, locally sourced, hand-crafted tables. Now all I need are some customers. Let's consider my approach to marketing. I'm great and terrible at it. I do a lot right, but possibly more wrong. I believe that I've got a good foundation to build from.
My approach to marketing is based on how I want to be treated by other businesses - yep, you guessed it: "Leave me the hell alone! I just want a new hammer! I don't want to follow you on FB, Instagram, Twitter and Google Plus. I don't want your news letter. I don't want to subscribe to your YouTube and Vimeo channels. I want to be able to find you when I need you, but I don't want you to find me."
I believe most people want to marketed to in this manner. This approach is what I call Passive Marketing. Be available, be find-able. But don't speak until spoken to. The problem is that this type of marketing only works for very established brands in very few nich'e markets. Those businesses who could be located on top of Mount Everest and still be turning down work.
That's not my business, and it isn't most businesses. I need to change some of my attitudes towards marketing and advertising, but do it in a way that works within my established ethical boundaries.
- No lying or overstating. No half-truths and no asterisks. No fine print.
- No spamming.
- No bait-and-switch.
I'm simply not willing to budge on these all too common practices. But that leaves a lot I can do.
- Targeted Facebook and Google ads.
- Houzz.com has a new program. I'd make a product, and they would market, mark-up, sell and arrange shipping of that product. This is a good option, as I'd tell them what I want for a piece and they would set their price to include shipping, and profit, with an eye on what's selling at what price. I'd then simply receive the shippers. I can even give Houzz an additional 2% and they'd cover returns, shipping damage, buyer's remorse etc. That's great, as I don't currently do returns on products that are made as stated in the design.
- Getting better at Social media. Figuring out how to get people enthusiastic about my brand.
- Informative or funny marketing videos.
- Search engine optimization. I'm pretty good at this already. In fact, it represents pretty much all of my marketing.
- Figuring out how to get write-ups in design and culture magazines. The problem here is that I'm so traditional, and I don't live / work in a hip area. I'm not a mid-modern builder in a small shop in Grant Park.
- Local WABE (Public Radio) ads. Expensive, but a good option down the road.
Step 5: Success
I believe this can work. I'd need to keep the machine running smoothly, and deal with all of the issues that can and do come up. But I believe I can make more money this way, and being honest, I believe there needs to be more locally made, finely crafted stuff out there.
What do you think? Want to buy a table?
Hand-Made is Better.