I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. I’m still not sure, but since I have a tendency to sometimes overshare, I’m going for it. I’ll be pulling back the curtain a little bit on my business Red Onion Woodworks. If you only want “Happy! Pretty! Fluffy!”, then I suggest you just scroll through and look at the photos. If you want a little bit of reality and wonky shop talk, keep reading…
The gem of an idea that eventually became Red Onion Woodworks surfaced in the spring of 2006. I had two part-time jobs, one apprenticing in Henry’s parents’ custom woodworking shop and the other doing odd jobs and ranch chores for Stu and Carol Hemphill. Working for Henry’s parents, I had a Karate Kid-esque experience, learning the particulars of each unfamiliar machine and tool by repeating tasks over and over and over. Henry’s parents were methodical in their lessons and were unfazed by my clumsiness and inexperience. I learned so much in the time I labored in that shop. Working for Stu was completely different but life-changing as well. We spent a huge amount of time outdoors, splitting firewood or sorting and cleaning up entire barns full of lumber that Stu had milled over the years. Having never worked with wood before, I certainly got a crash course on the material with those two jobs.
After a few months of working for Stu, it became clear to me that he needed a retail outlet for his inventory of mostly natural edge lumber, so I turned to what I knew best for a solution: the farmers’ market. I had worked at the local farmers’ market pretty much every Saturday for previous six years, and even before that, my mom had been selling her wares there since the year I was born, so I was pretty familiar with the scene. Lumber was not something I’d seen before (or since) at the market, but I figured it was a local agricultural product, and when I pitched my idea to the market board, they were quite pleased with it.
I spent a good deal of time prepping the booth. With Henry’s dad’s help, I built a rack to hold upright lumber and a display board with samples of the different species of wood Stu had for sale. I rounded up tablecloths and makeshift tables, and I designed a pretty nice price sheet/flyer. At some point during this process, Henry’s late grandma (sweetest woman in the world) handed me a little clipping from some fancy schmancy (now defunct) magazine. It showed a cutting board made from a single piece of wood with one natural edge and large hanging hole. I decided to make a similar board as an example of a project that potential customers could DIY with the wood I was selling. Henry’s dad helped a little to turn that design into reality, but really, it wasn’t rocket science.
During the summer of 2006, I set up my lumber booth at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market every weekend, and every weekend, (in addition to the million stories people told me about wood in their garage and the million times people went around the booth sniffing things) I was asked the same question, “How much for the cutting board?” The farmers’ market association has pretty strict rules against selling crafts, and I didn’t want to sell my sample board anyway, so I held onto it, but the wheels in my head started to turn.
That summer, I got married, and a few months later, I was pregnant. Any vague plans I had for a career were shuffled onto the back burner. Levi was born in 2007, and Charlotte came into the world in 2009. For most of three years, I was “just” a stay-at-home mom, and let me tell you, I was starting to go crazy. I know other stay-at-home moms who truly love the job, and I totally respect that, but I felt isolated, bored, and mentally soft. I was not happy, but when I’d broach the subject of returning to the working world to Henry, he’d simply ask, “Well, what do you want to do?” and I would have no answer. It made no sense for me to go out and get a minimum-wage job just for the sake of having a job, so instead I waited for inspiration to strike and opportunities to present themselves.
And then I found Etsy, a magical place on the internet where individual sellers and customers could connect. I had never forgotten the enthusiastic response to that one cutting board I’d made years before, so it didn’t take long before I was convinced that Etsy was my golden ticket to success in business.
I planned and prepared for months before I uploaded the first items to my Etsy site (when Charlotte was just 9 months old). Henry’s brother let me borrow a few tools and gave me advice about which other tools to buy. Henry’s dad helped me come up with a production model for making boards. Henry found wood for me to use. My parents babysat a lot and let me fill up my old bedroom with tools, lumber, inventory, and the stuff one needs to run a small business. No one, I repeat, NO ONE believed that my business would be profitable, but they humored me, maybe because they thought I needed a hobby or something. I, however, knew in my bones that this thing was going to work.
And it did work. I made my first sale within a week. A few months later, I was accepted into a (at the time) powerhouse Etsy team, and shortly after that I was chosen to be an Etsy featured seller, which catapulted my business to a whole new level whether I was ready for it or not. The next year, one of my boards was featured in the December issue of Sunset magazine, and things went crazy. I had nothing but unconditional love for Etsy and all the opportunities it brought my way.
2012 was a little bit different (read: less profitable) for several reasons. First off, I had another job that took up some of my “free” time and a lot of my brain. I had a hard time maintaining my priorities (Red Onion Woodworks, my contract work for Gathering Together Farm, this blog, volunteer duties at the Marys River Grange and my home/farm life), and I got confused about which was the most satisfying, most lucrative, most good-for-my-future, or most good-for-my-family. It was too much of a good thing, and my business definitely suffered because of my inattentiveness.
There were some big changes on Etsy, too. The search function switched from organizing by “recency” (like craigslist where the newest stuff comes up first) to “relevancy” (where supposedly the stuff you’ll want comes up first). Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to game the algorithm, my boards kept falling farther and farther back. In a search for “cutting board” (pretty much the only search term potential customers use to find my boards), the first board of mine comes up on page 20, and when was the last time you made it to page 20 when looking for something online? Yeah, never. I thought so.
In the early months of my time on Etsy, one of my favorite aspects of selling was the community of sellers, particularly the Etsy team I used to belong to. I relied on the that team tremendously for several reasons. First of all, the group of 70+ Etsy sellers communicated actively through a Google Group, and they passed along some of the most valuable business advice I’ve ever received. We also committed to creating a certain quota of Etsy treasuries per month, which as a result, gave all of us regular exposure on Etsy’s home page among other places. My team members were the first folks I ever felt connected to that I’d never met face to face before. I never before imagined that I’d be the type of person to “meet” people on the internet, but it happened, and I liked it.
The power of my Etsy team, however, began to dissolve. Over time, the number of treasury-centric teams on Etsy multiplied, and the number of treasuries being put together grew exponentially. At the same time, some of the more experienced members of my team left and took their wisdom with them. The hours I was putting into building treasuries seemed more and more wasteful, so I reluctantly quit the team and more or less dropped out of the Etsy community.
Etsy was the first place where I connected to folks on the internet, but after a while a found other avenues for meeting people online. I started this blog, I began to read other people’s blogs, and I joined Instagram. These online spaces have opened up small and large communities for me. When I go to New York at the end of the month, I’m hoping to meet at least six different people that I first encountered on Instagram, and I am so excited about it. The point is, Etsy is not the center of my online universe anymore (though I’m still connected to many of my Etsy friends through Instagram and blogging), and I’m okay with that even if it some potentially negative consequences for my business. On the flip side, this blog and my connections to moderately influential folks has upped the exposure of Red Onion Woodworks. I wouldn’t say an exceptionally large number of my blog readers or Instagram followers have actually purchased boards from me (and that’s okay), but it’s helped.
At the beginning of 2013, I was fired up to revive my business. I ordered supplies, I spent days working on new boards, and I started pitching my product around to bloggers. I felt like I was doing everything right, but what I heard back in response was…for the most part…silence. January and March were the two worst sales months in my three-year history on Etsy, and April isn’t shaping up to be much better.
As it stands now, I have a pretty full inventory of products in my shop. Those products are at least as good as they’ve ever been, and the product photos are a million times better than when I started out. My packaging, though still not fancy, is better, and my customer service is more or less the same as it’s always been.
What’s different is that everyone and their dog is selling a version of a natural edge cutting board. When I started on Etsy, my boards were not only unique to Etsy, but there was almost nothing like them anywhere on the internet. I think the fact that customers, bloggers, and Etsy employees alike had never seen anything like what I was offering had a lot to do with my early success even if my product photos weren’t that great. (Gray Works Design and Herriot Grace were launched around the same time as Red Onion Woodworks. I have tremendous respect for both companies, and although I’m sometimes aggravated by the competition, I swear up and down that I never copied either one.) I think I got in just at the exact right time when the market was primed to love my product. Now, however, the market is fairly saturated, and my little shop is being buried by hundreds of other vendors and thousands of other boards. I could spend five times as many hours and five times as much money on marketing my products, but that’s not really what I want to do, and I don’t think my business would be much more profitable because of it. I really had it easy for so long (even though I was pretty clueless in the beginning), but I think this new landscape is just the reality of online retail.
I knew this day would come eventually, and I’m discouraged but not that sad. I’ve always insisted on keeping my overhead extremely low, and though that strategy has been less than ideal or efficient at times, it’s also meant that I had no debts, and if I had to shut things down without any warning, I’d just own a few nice tools that I could use for other projects.
I’m also in SUCH a different (figurative) place right now than I was when I started my business almost three years ago. I have more friends and more hobbies, and my kids are no longer tiny, constantly needy babies. I don’t NEED my business to be the defining characteristic of my identity other than my status as a mother. And let me just say that even if it dwindles to nothing eventually, Red Onion Woodworks has been more successful than I ever could have imagined, financially, socially, educationally, self-esteem-ily, and door-opening-ly. I’m still actively selling on Etsy and moving along with things, but I’m also rustling up some freelance writing gigs as well.
I have over a hundred finished boards in stock, a pretty significant stack of unfinished lumber, and a few potential features on the horizon, so I’m planning on riding this one out for a while. In the meantime, I’m researching selling wholesale and scouting out possible stockists. This is new territory for me, but I’ve always appreciated a learning opportunity and a challenge. I’m particularly interested in finding a home/kitchen/food-centric store or couple stores in the Portland area, so if anyone has any leads, I’d appreciate it if you could send suggestions or contact info my way.
Okay, after all this blathering, I just want to say thank you for supporting me with your dollars and your kind words over the years. I’m not trying to guilt you into anything, but if you’re so inclined, use the coupon code “WAYWARD10″ for $10 off any Red Onion Woodworks purchase over $50 between now and April 26. You are all so very appreciated.