In this product-based business profile, we sat down with Daren Sumrow and Mandy Simpson, owners and operators of New Orleans Woodworking, and their sister company NOLA BOARDS, to see how their backgrounds brought the two businesses together, and why their marriage creates a unique work/life balance.
QuickBooks Online Team: Tell us about your backgrounds and how your businesses started.
Daren Sumrow: When I was a kid, I built things with my dad around the house. He taught me a lot of woodworking, even though he was a butcher. My mom had a little craft business on the side. She saw how I took to making wood things, so she had me make some pieces to put in her craft show. That turned into a whole little business. Later on, I ended up going into the Navy for six years, and when I got out in my mid-’20s, I moved to New Orleans to teach at-risk youths construction and deconstruction before and after Katrina.
Drawing on these experiences, I started New Orleans Woodworking 16 years ago. I ended up with tons of beautiful wood scraps from different things we built over the years. Just as I was looking around and thinking we needed to get rid of this wood because it was taking up too much room, the craziest thing happened. My friend Simone asked if I could make a cutting board for a wedding the following weekend. Of course I said yes, but I also knew I could make a thousand cutting boards whenever I wanted to. Next thing you know, I’m spending $1,000 a week on wood just to keep up with the demand through the Christmas holiday.
After Christmas last year, my wife and I took a little vacation and decided that we needed to take this to the next level. We needed to find a storefront to display all of our goods, cutting boards, innovative products we built, our furniture and our kitchen showroom. That’s how we combined our two businesses.
Mandy Simpson: My background has nothing to do with cutting boards, wood or craftsmanship. My degree is actually in journalism and photography. After doing a bit of that, I decided to get my masters in social work, and for seven years, worked at the biggest hospital in the state doing heart transplant social work.
I realized a couple of years ago that as the cutting board business started growing, I couldn’t help Daren with his business and do my hospital job at the same time. So, I made the difficult decision to leave my job and help Daren full time.
Now, I do everything from helping design boards to managing accounting and shipping. Daren and I work really well by bringing together both of our backgrounds. With mine being photography, I do all of our website, take the pictures and handle all the marketing. We put it all together and created NOLA BOARDS in 2014.
QBO Team: What’s it like working with your spouse, and how do you find a work/life balance?
Daren: I love it, and I think Mandy does, too. I wish that more husbands and wives could get out there and start their own businesses together. You’re working for a common goal rather than on somebody else’s business. Your success and failure is all your own, and you get to own both.
Work/life balance is great for being a business owner with your spouse because you have to be married to your business to be successful. However, I know this situation also causes a lot of divorce because your family gets kicked to the side so that you can go pursue your endeavor – and then things suffer. But, in our case, as husband and wife business partners, we share the same goal and it becomes what I like to call an “equity enhancing marriage.” You’re really pushing each other, and hopefully inspiring each other to build great things.
Mandy: Before working with Daren, I never worked for myself. When I was making the transition, it was really hard. As a small business owner, you’re always wondering when your next paycheck is coming … but he helped me overcome that fear, take the big leap and do something totally different by encouraging me that we could do this. It’s been working so far!
QBO Team: What did you all consider when you were looking for your brick & mortar location?
Mandy: Price, location and aesthetics. Cost is always the first thing a small business owner looks at. Location is also very important. We knew we wanted a prime location and on one of the main thoroughfares that people go to shop in New Orleans. Magazine Street is certainly that. Other than the French Quarter, it’s probably the best place to find anything. We are near a couple restaurants that are very popular in the area, which helps drive customers to us who are going out for a nice dinner and want to do some shopping, first. It’s always nice to have businesses around you that are supportive of your own store, but it also allows you to support them. We send people to other businesses around us all the time.
We also wanted to make sure we had a store that really brought out the feel of our products. I think we just hit it spot on. We love our location.
QBO Team: How do you network with other local small businesses?
Mandy: We’re always out in the community and seeking out those other people. We end up finding, for some reason, a lot of other husband-and-wife teams. We like to really spend time with them, get ideas and bounce ideas off of each other. Also, in terms of networking, we carry a lot of other artists in our store. Other craftsmen are making really unique things in New Orleans and we want to highlight them. It’s really important to us to support other local businesses and people who are out at craft shows so that they actually have a brick and mortar spot to showcase their work, too.
QBO Team: What was the hardest part of starting NOLA BOARDS ?
Daren: The hardest thing for me was keeping up with production. For example, one of my producers is in the National Guard and dealing with a flood right now. It’s like my key player has left us for a couple of weeks, and now we’re trying to fill that void. That’s been my biggest, most daunting task … keeping up with the demand of our products.
Mandy: I think the hardest part is just putting all the pieces together. Figuring out your marketing plan and making sure that you find the right customers that really want these products are so important. Finding the right employees is also key because you want to find the right people who are going to represent your product the right way. Can they produce without me having to babysit them, or stand over their shoulder and supervise them? Can they produce without me having to be there so that I can just remove myself and trust that they’re going to be building it to my standards? That’s always been a hard task, but we definitely found our team and we’re happy with everybody that’s working with us!
QBO Team: What sets you apart from your competition?
Daren: Being innovative and keeping the quality high. A lot goes into the process of making a cutting board. You have to make sure the wood is dry enough to put together and then rip it into a bunch of strips, glue all the pieces together, put it in some really heavy clamps, plane, sand, route, and brand. Then, oil it and wax, wrap and put it on the shelf.
Mandy: One thing to keep in mind is that it takes hours to sand these boards, and I think the smoothness created from that is something that makes our boards stand out. The first thing people want to do when they see our boards is touch them. It’s not a product you can just tell people about; they have to come touch, feel and lift the product, looking at all sides of it.
Also, we touch every board before it comes into the shop, so we’re checking them for quality control. We’re always asking ourselves, is this something that we would buy, and is this something that we would pay this amount of money for? That’s the most important thing at the end of the day: Are we providing a quality product at a fair price?
For us in New Orleans, it’s a big deal to have something that is from home and named after something significant to us. That’s why all of our boards are named after New Orleans places or locations throughout Louisiana. For example, our Atchafalaya board is made out of all sinker cypress, which is a wood that comes out of the Atchafalaya Basin. Also, our roux board displays the many different colors of a roux, which represents the base in all of Louisiana’s cooking. We also have the Marigny Triangle, representing the Marigny side of town, and the Vieux Carré, another name for the French Quarter.
QBO Team: What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Daren: It’s when I get to hand somebody something I built and they just fall in love with it. They take it home and they rave to everybody. Whether they go back to mid America, the west coast, east coast, Canada or anywhere else, I know that something that I built with my hands is in somebody’s home and they love it every day. That’s why I keep doing it.
Mandy: For me, it’s seeing the fruits of our labor. Because I love the marketing side of the business so much, I love hearing from friends and others that they know and love NOLA BOARDS. Just the fact that our brand name is getting out there is really rewarding because it shows that we put all this effort in, we’re trying to get out there and it actually is working.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles and videos for Product-Based Businesses. Here are several videos to check out on similar businesses:
Inventory Management – Lollaland:
Using QuickBooks to Help You Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor: