Monday, April 1, 2013

A Little History – Part 3

7:28 AM Comments 0

Last time we left off, I was about two years into running J. Alexander Fine Woodworking. I was slowly developing some relationships with interior designers, was honing my woodworking and business skills, mostly through mistakes made and lessons learned, and was gaining confidence in myself as a woodworker and a businessman, but it was incredibly slow going.

In November of 2009 I tackled a project that illustrates that point quite well. I had an interior designer call me, one that we had worked with through Shutter Crafts, and ask if we built cabinets and if I would like to bid on a kitchen remodel. My answer was immediately “YES!” to both inquiries, even though I had very little experience in building and installing cabinetry. I won the bid, which was the largest job I had done at that time, and, as you can see, the final product turned out just fine. There were two things that resulted from that job. One, I gained a new, repeat interior design client, whom I still work with today, and two, I learned that no matter what, I can figure out how to get the job done. There have been so many jobs that I have taken on that included skills and techniques that were foreign to me and that I had to figure out as I went. Thankfully, rather than paralyzing me with fear, it excited me and forced me to get much better, much quicker.

Early in 2010, fresh of that kitchen remodel, I decided to stop focussing on furniture exclusively, and expand into cabinetry. As discussed in previous blog entries, that included me pulling building permits in my area, and beginning a cold call marathon. It was one of these calls that lead to me winning the bid for an entire house of cabinets for a home builder, who has turned out to be one of my top two accounts. Not only does he supply us with steady work, but we do all of his work without having to bid against other shops, which is my ultimate goal with any wholesale account. On top of that, we have developed a great working friendship over the past 2.5 years.

April 2011 was a landmark month that still stands out in my mind to this day. Just by happenstance, I scheduled myself four appointments on the same day, and when the dust settled, I had won three of the four jobs, which represented over $50,000 worth of work. Just like the first kitchen job I ever completed, this was a huge confidence builder. It showed me that I can sell both myself and my company’s product successfully, and it was the moment when I actually started to believe that J. Alexander Fine Woodworking might actually be a viable business!

Fresh off that day in April, along with some newly developed contacts sending us work, I was quickly downing in work. This was my first experience with one of the more frustrating aspects of running a small business; the feast or famine cycle of sales. It was around this time that I made the incredibly scary decision to hire my first employee. I entered the prospect of hiring an employee with eyes wide open, since I have observed my father over the past 20 years as he has employed as many as 8 people at a time. I sent the word throughout my small network of contacts, and within a month or so, I became an employer.

Training a new employee, who had no woodworking experience whatsoever, and trying to keep up with the ever increasing demand for our work, led to the summer of 2011 being a complete blur. One day began to blend into another, since my life consisted almost entirely of working and sleeping. I also got to experience first-hand the life of a small business owner as my wife and sons left with my parents on a summer vacation to Yellowstone National Park without me. That summer, I was learning the hard way, that if you don’t purposefully manage, guide, and direct your business, the ebbs and flows of the market with throw you all over the place.

That following winter, my brother also joined the crew, since the retail business he purchased the prior year is a seasonal one, and I was able to keep all three of us busy and paid. This showed me that we were cresting yet another volume milestone. I was still making cold calls pulled from building permits, and it was around this time, February of 2012 to be exact, that I made contact with a small remodeling company, whom just happened to be looking for a new cabinet company. We worked together on a job that spring, and they quickly rose to be my top account, both in terms of dollars and volume of work.

Due to that new account, and what seemed like an explosion in the demand for furniture and cabinetry from all corners, we were, once again, drowning in work. It also didn’t help that my brother left to open up his business for the season, so all of a sudden we were down one man. I held out replacing him for a while, wanting to make sure that we were not just experiencing a small surge of activity that would all of a sudden die out. That turned out not to be the case, and in the summer of last year, 2012, I hired my second employee. I decided to hire an experienced woodworker with installation experience because I needed a guy that could hit the ground running, and I was quickly developing a distaste for installs because they took me out of the shop for a day or two at a time, which did no good for my workload in the office.

The end of last year was another one of those seasons of learning things the hard way. It seemed like, no matter what, we could never get ahead. Sales continued to increase, not just from one or two accounts, but from everywhere! I was also becoming my own worst enemy. Due to my optimistic nature and crazy work ethic, I was over promising what we could deliver. This lead to me working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, from October through December of last year. I was revisiting the summer of 2011, but this time the volume of work had increased, and so had my stress levels!

I was re-learning the same lesson from 2011, which was that I was responsible for creating the business life that I wanted. As a result, I have done a much better job realistically scheduling jobs, as well as charging extra for a rushed job. Just because you can complete a job in half the time, doesn’t mean you should for the same price.

My brother was once again with us for the winter of 2012/2013, and I was able to keep him employed full-time, which raised our head count to 4 personnel for J. Alexander. That brings us to the present, which is to say my brother went back to open his business for the season, and I am contemplating hiring my third full-time employee.