The Business of Making Furniture by Hand
Often I hear, "I love working wood with my hands. At my job I don't end my workdays with tangible progress on a thing of beauty. I want to. You seem to be successful, can you tell me how you do it?"
One day I made a list of the things I do that aren't making furniture. It reads like a list of corporate departments: customer service, marketing, photography, copy writing, graphics, advertising, publicity, sales, design, purchasing, scheduling, maintenance, shipping, accounting. Any sale generates most of the above tasks, but substantial sales are required to pay for them.
To sell enough furniture to cover all the costs, you have to solve three obvious problems:
- What can you make that people want?
- How can you make furniture and sell it for a price that people will pay?
- How can you find these people?
I have approached problem one from both directions. I have offered my services as a custom maker, that is, offered to design and build whatever the people want. And, from the other direction, I have designed and developed some products and offered them to the people. I found it almost impossible to recoup the design and development costs of the one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture much less the cost of the support functions listed above. The craftsman's life can appear, and can be, idyllic, but living from commission to commission year after year can spoil the pleasure of creation and turn independence to bondage. The chairs have saved me. People want comfortable, beautiful, wooden chairs. I have them.
Some say, "Your chairs are so expensive." Those who know fine furniture ask, "How can you sell your chairs so cheaply?" The right selling price is as hard to pin down as a quark. People decide to buy by their own assignment of value. An acceptable selling price is related to measurable quality, but not as firmly as we artisans would like to think. The artisan's reputation, the product's presentation, the validation of third parties (justified or not), and the price of possible substitutes are just as important. This was contrary to my artist's "sensibilities". "What! Are not my creations precious? Doesn't laboriously, lovingly, and painstakingly made mean valuable?" Slowly I realized that what a product is worth to people is not related to what it costs to make.
The first rocking chairs that I built took 160 hours each. During that period, one of my lumber dealers mailed a reprint of an article to all his customers. (He regularly sent pieces on business management to his customers. In self-defense, I suspect. The better businessmen we became, the more likely he got paid on time.) This timely article said that it is possible to make things better while making them faster. Moreover, it said that the best way to make a product better is to build more of it in less time, because this gives more opportunities for learning and improvement. I had these rocking chairs to sell that, by taking cost as the prime determinant of price, were extremely expensive. I had no reputation as a chairmaker, a weak presentation, and no third party testimonial. To sell the rockers so I could learn how to build them, I priced them at $800. People howled and scoffed at the price (a great deal more than they do now). But enough bought.
Improvements to the rocking chairs, dining chairs, and dining tables have been subtle. Reductions to the time invested in them have been profound. They are built better and faster, at less cost. There is no necessary relationship between labor hours invested and quality. Just as perfection can not be achieved, there is no absolute minimum time. We can always make them a little better and a little faster (this remains our goal), but now the opportunities for improvements in quality and time are very, very small. Does this repetition make furnituremaking into manufacturing? Yes, in the best sense — better, faster, less cost, short lead time, on time delivery, consistency. No, in that the hand and heart of the craftsman are required to do what we do.
I have products that people want, that I can "guarantee to be the most comfortable, most beautiful, and the best-constructed, or your money back including shipping." I can sell my furniture for less than any furniture of comparable quality. I can sell enough to pay for the tasks of supporting the furnituremaking with a little left over. I am thankful. But problem three remains, reaching the people.
I don't wholesale the furniture. What we build goes directly to our patrons.
I don't do shows much anymore. I enjoy visiting with people at art and craft events, but the effort adds up to a lot of work, inconvenience, and risk.
We built a showroom. People come to see and touch the furniture. We get the pleasure of visiting without the work of wrapping and hauling and tending.
Our patrons are our sales force. Their homes are showcases for our furniture. People sit in our chairs and eat at our tables around the country . . . ask questions, and remember. About 20% of our sales are to people who see our furniture in the homes of their friends. Another 20% of our sales are to people who already have some of our furniture.
Advertising is just as much of a gamble as attending a show, but easier and, when it works, builds a cumulative presence — a following even. Advertising requires convincing supporting literature — a catalog and website that celebrate the furniture and its making. These presentations require freshening (and substantial investment) every couple of years. I shoot photos, write text, and make layout drafts on the drawing board for my ads, catalogs, and website. Bob O'Brien makes the ads and catalogs shine; Jim Fish, the website.
The web has been an astonishing benefit to our business, connecting us with people from all over the world. Geoff M. of Melbourne, Australia, found us in the results of a search for rocking chairs. Australia is about as far from Texas as you can get and still be on land, so, at first, I discounted the prospects of sending him a rocker. But after several lively e-mails, we established trust — friendship even. It was fun to figure out how to ship the chair and exchange the money. About 40% of our furniture goes to people who found us on the Internet.
We get some publicity. Being featured in print or on television is powerful third party validation. Our story is unusual and interesting from several angles: We are a family business. We are a father and son building furniture together. We built this business on an original design of an American symbol of hearth and home, the rocking chair. Our rocking chairs and dining chairs are beautiful, comfortable, and guaranteed for life. Our working associates are "sort of half apprentice and half graduate fellow." Our shop and showroom are clean, orderly, well lit, "state of the hand-maker's art", and tailored for what we do. Our development of this land and the buildings we built on it are certified for high standards of sustainable design and construction by the City of Austin Commercial Green Building Program. Most of our wood comes from forests certified as sustainably managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. We won the Collinswood Award for the best furniture built of certified wood. From a small, Texas town we have shipped furniture to all fifty states, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Our patrons support us by continuing purchases and testimonials.
Furnituremaking is very competitive. The mass marketers and the manufacturers, with the pricing advantages of economies of scale, leave just a little slice of the market for handmade furniture. Craftsmen can easily print business cards and compete for that slice. I read an article one time listing the jobs and pay of many individuals. The furnituremaker was very near the lowest paid. For a handmade furnituremaker the odds of making enough money to support a family with a little left over are not good. I liken the odds to those of a musician making a hit record. Many furnituremakers, and I have been one, build furniture for their local clientele for low wages and no profit, as musicians play the clubs for a cut of the gate. It is fun, but cars break down, kids need braces, health insurance . . . (Does your mate have a good job?) There is no way to find success without paying the dues, but skill, originality, dedication, and long hours, while necessary, are not sufficient. Luck is required.
I was lucky to have a mentor, Loyd Cali, to show me that building a business is as important as building the furniture, and lucky to be comfortable with most of the tasks required. I was lucky to have a good, liberal education, ending up with some knowledge of art, math, and business. I was lucky to have a little money from selling our home, so that I could rent and lose money while building this business, and beyond lucky to have a wife to join me in the venture and who would stand for the investment and risk. And, can a man be more fortunate than to have a son join him to work?
While it is essential to know and be informed by the costs, ratios, and financial statements of a business, I believe the best business decisions are made without focusing on profit as the outcome. We exist as a business to make people happy. If we who work and those we serve are happy and the costs are known, controlled, and respected, this business will make enough money to prosper. We build furniture to serve this and subsequent generations. Likewise I run this business for the long haul. My family may want to run it after I am gone.