So you’ve decided to turn your passion for furniture into a money-making small business. Soon, all of your time will be spent in the workshop doing what you love most, right?
Take it from me, turning your hobby into a business is rarely a smooth transition. Several years ago I took the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship by starting a small furniture business.
After years of doing woodworking as a hobby and making furniture for friends and family, I came up with a few products and got to work. And to be perfectly honest, I was not prepared for what it would take.
But if you are truly stubborn enough to give it a shot, allow me to give you some eye-opening truths about the reality of what you are about to do.
You will no longer be a furniture maker
You will become an entrepreneur.
That’s right, the very thing you were longing to spend more time doing will quickly take a backseat to the responsibilities of running a small business. You’ll be lucky if you spend half of your time in the workshop, and the other half searching for clients, giving quotes, sending invoices, managing social media, etc.
Sound like fun?
Of course not. Unless you have a previous background in graphic design, admission essay writing, marketing, business management, customer service, AND furniture, it can feel overwhelming at first. The good news is that if you stick with it, you’ll figure it all out in a few years. Or be back at a desk job.
Either way it gets better.
Your focus will shift from making cool pieces of furniture to making money. You will need to do a lot of networking to find new clients and put work into maintaining those relationships. Since you’re small, you don’t need thousands of clients, but you need them to prefer you over IKEA and other brands that you can’t compete with on price.
If you’re ok with giving up manufacturing entirely, you can also turn a healthy profit by reselling items from wholesalers on aliexpress and others online. If you’re like me, that isn’t why you got into furniture in the first place, but hey, that’s business.
Your carefully curated style and taste don’t matter
Maybe you’ve built some slick mid-century pieces in a year’s worth of weekends. Maybe you can’t get enough of Japanese joinery and spent days figuring out how to incorporate your favorite into a piece of furniture. I hope you enjoyed it, because there is a slim chance that any of your clients will ask you for the same.
Learning new techniques is great and all, but in order to turn a profit you have to make whatever your clients want and are willing to pay for. For custom craftsmen, if that means painting over beautiful rift sawn oak or adding way too many shelves to a bookcase, that’s what you’ll be doing.
I’ve had to make some painful compromises in custom furniture designs, but the finished piece will live at the client’s house, not mine. And the sooner it gets there, the better.
You need to become comfortable with the fact that what you like and want to build no longer matters. You are at the mercy of your clients and their demands.
The good news is that sometimes that will push you to new heights, and give you a better sense of what your market is. Plus, as you network and build a client list, you can start to be a bit more choosy about which projects you accept.
But there is an alternative.
If you can find a niche (through lots and lots of market research or trial and error), you can carve out a nice living by exploiting it. Taking on the mainstream, you will require a solid customer base and a sustainable. It might seem repetitive to make the same type of things over and over, but it’s much easier to make a name for yourself when you have a clear-cut specialty.
Your market is probably smaller than you think
But everyone loves your furniture! Friends and family (especially your mom) gush over your incredible designs. If just more people could see it, they’d love it to!
In today’s world, people have limitless options when it comes to pretty much any product. Why in the world would they buy yours?
It might seem like a good idea to start by setting up an online store, but in my experience, it’s less of a golden hen and more of an enormous time sink. I spent months making a slick website with great product descriptions and professional photos of my products. Then even more time and effort trying to find an audience.
The end result? Lots of people saying they like the furniture, but no one taking the next step and actually buying it.
Plus, if anyone actually decides to give their money to some stranger on the internet, you will have to figure out how to get it to them, wherever they happen to live. If your products are large pieces of furniture, they will be expensive.
When starting out you should expect pretty much all of your customers to be local. Attending a few fairs is a good way to get your name (and face) out there, and maybe even get a few sales. People are far more likely to buy your furniture if they can see it and touch it, and more likely to trust you if you engage them face to face. Once you’ve got an established clientele, reviews, and so on, it will be much easier to sell online.
You’ve got the skills, but not the ones that matter
You can saw to a perfect line. You can make a 3D render of a dining table that looks like real life. You know more about materials and finishes than you do about your own family.
But do you know how to make a business plan? Have you ever dealt with a client that wants to change a project halfway through the process, but without increasing the budget? How about your social media following? Logo and branding? Shipping rates? Inventory management?
Believe it or not, your skills as a carpenter, welder, furniture designer, and so on have much less of an impact on the success of your furniture business as a carefully laid out business plan. If you went to business school, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But if you went to business school, you also already know that you could be making much more money in a cubicle of a Fortune 500 company while chatting with Steve from accounting.
When starting out, a shallow knowledge of most of these things can be enough. Or, if you’re willing to invest a bit of money, you can hire professionals from sites like Fiverr or Upwork to give you a helping hand.
You'll become a digital tool addict
You will be trading in hammers and nails, for stuff that will make your business more efficient while you try to juggle EVERYTHING.
There are a number of services online that can give you that little push forward when starting out. Easy-to-use website builders like WordPress and Squarespace can help even the most technologically inept create a beautiful website without too much hassle.
Other services like Zyro, Canva, and Desygner are great for creating a simple logo and some visual content to really start getting people's attention. If you don’t want to be interrupted by social media, you can even schedule posts months in advance with Hootsuite.
As for shipping, you’re in for a bit of a headache when it comes to shipping large pieces, especially internationally. In that case, it’s better to stay local at first, but if your products are smaller, services like ShipStation can give you a hand with all that management and pricing.
But even with all the tools, you will become a jack of all trades as you navigate your new life as an entrepreneur.
The bottom line
The furniture business is tough, and if you don’t go into it prepared, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and failure.
Before you take the leap, think about taking some business classes, learn about your local market, and make a solid business plan. It’s definitely possible, but don’t expect it to be remotely similar to what you’ve been doing as a hobby on weekends.
The good news is that if you do stick it out, you will learn a lot fast. And if you manage to put that learning to good use, you’ll be the proud owner of a successful small business.
That’s way more satisfying than being a weekend warrior.