From Side Project to Booming Business with Just One Hashtag. Meet Justin Nelson
When Justin Nelson left the Marine Corps after serving in Afghanistan, he wanted to find a job that would allow him to spend more time at home. His new house in Oregon came with its own studio, so he dusted off his carpentry tools and set about creating a business that would give him the flexibility he was looking for.
Just five months after launching Fernweh Woodworking, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself — and Justin hasn’t looked back since. We couldn’t wait to find out how a hashtag on Instagram transformed his business.
I was a Marine for four years after I graduated from college. I wanted to serve in Afghanistan and was deployed to Helmand Province for a year, starting in 2012. I met my wife, who at the time was a nurse in the Air Force, while I was stationed there. We made the decision to leave the military together in 2014 and moved into our first home in Oregon, which is where she’s from.
That first summer after leaving the Marines, I worked with a wildfire hotshot crew and spent most of my time camped out in the woods. Being out in the mountains was amazing, but it meant more time away from home. I knew I couldn’t do it forever.
Spending that summer in the forest cultivated my love for wood — it had begun before I was deployed to Afghanistan, when I made my first tobacco pipe.
We moved into a house with a large detached studio and I had some woodworking tools, so I just started messing around and making things that I thought I could eventually sell.
Who was your very first customer?
I launched my Etsy store in late January 2015, and about an hour after I put my stuff online I got a notification on my phone telling me that I had a sale.
It turned out to be my mother-in-law, but it was still exciting! She ordered a hexagon lamp I made out of reclaimed wood.
When did you know your business was going to work?
Five months after launching my store, I found out I’d been selected as part of the Etsy Wholesale Open Call. I applied, along with thousands of other store owners, via the Instagram hashtag competition #EtsyOpenCall and was completely blown away when I was picked.
I was invited to the Etsy headquarters in New York City with 30 other makers, and got the chance to pitch my products to the likes of Nordstrom, Lou & Grey and Clementine.
Before getting the call, I was in the middle of a summer sales slump and I was seriously thinking about cutting my losses, but then everything started to look up. I got a lot of publicity after the competition, and Clementine ordered 15 items from me.
What has been the biggest surprise so far?
I expected to be able to pay myself within a few months of starting out, but it was more like 10 months before I took home my first decent paycheck. Up until that point, I put everything I earned back into the business.
How do you price your products?
Pricinghas been the most difficult challenge.
I started out by taking the cost of the materials and calculating a rough hourly rate of $30 to add on top. I only accounted for the hours it took me to make each piece, which meant my prices werewaytoo low in the beginning.
For every hour I work on a product, I spend another one or two on necessary day-to-day upkeep that doesn’t make me any money. I’m still not paying myself enough, but I’m happy with where the business is now.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My wife is a nurse and does 12-hour shifts three times a week, beginning at 4:30am. When she’s working, I get up with her and check my email first thing to see if any orders have come in overnight.
After that, I make coffee and sit for an hour or so reading my Bible so I can start the day nice and quietly before heading out to the shop to work. I can get long days in when my wife is working, but when she’s at home I try to stick to only 8-10 hours and take at least one day off on the weekend.
I make a trip to the hardware store to pick up wood every week, and when I bring it home I start by planing it all to make sure it’s the same depth. I do everything in batches, whether this means spending a full day cutting wood or making 50 electrical light fittings for lamps.
By making my items in bulk — up to 30 at a time — I can benefit from economies of scale. Each item generally takes about an hour to complete, but it all depends on what it is and how efficiently I work.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
I wish I’d known more about the relationship between wholesalers and store owners. Coming into this with no knowledge, I didn’t have my prices in order and I felt a little cheated when I found out I had to give wholesalers a 50% discount!
Now I’ve got it worked out, and boutique brick-and-mortar stores are my favorite way to sell. It’s important to me that people are able to touch my products — I’m really passionate about exotic hardwoods and it’s hard for a customer to understand and appreciate the unique coloration and grain until they hold the product in their hands.
What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
Aside from social media, my marketing efforts mainly consist of searching for boutiques online and emailing them to see if they’ll stock my products.
I’ve been pretty lucky so far because a lot of these stores have found me, but I can’t depend on that forever. It can be tricky to find independent shops to work with, because most of their advertising is local and a lot of them don’t have websites.
I’m wondering if anyone here knows a better way to find boutiques nationwide without relying on the internet?
Can you help Justin find more boutique stores that can stock his handcrafted items?
Have you made the jump from selling local to expanding your business coast-to-coast? How did *you* seek out independent stores to stock your wares?