From Amateur to Professional: Your Stories, Part II
In our first installment in this series, we featured Jeffrey Roltgen of Roltgen’s Woodworks in SD, whose amateur love of woodworking blossomed into a professional career six years ago, after working for years in retail and construction. He talks about both traditional media and internet marketing strategies, having more success with the latter for his business. He mentions the importance of connecting with clients and engaging with them on a personal level but remaining a salesman throughout, because even return clients need to be sold. Your handmade furniture is an investment: the client is buying your personal fingerprint on the piece, your presence, as much as the piece itself. Selling is an art, just like woodworking, and as Jeff puts it, “As a professional woodworker, I need to sell the pieces I make.” But focusing on selling doesn’t need to mean “selling out”—your love for your craft always remains the heart of your business, and it shows in the quality and inventiveness of your work.
Do you agree that the “selling-without-selling-out” part is the biggest difference between practicing woodworking as a serious hobbyist and being a professional woodworker?
Stories related to Jeff’s came out in your comments: cosmec502 fell in love with woodworking early on but felt social pressure against being a tradesman so he went to study engineering. He tried working overseas in a corporate setting, but after a while realized his passion lay in his woodshop back home: like Jeff Roltgen, he channeled the knowledge he gained in the corporate setting into his own business… and here he is 27 years later! It’s an inspiring story of tireless determination; of combining your talent and your passion for the craft with practical business experience.
But let’s face it – it’s not easy. We all know how many challenges stand in the way of successfully taking the leap to pro. Robin9 asked a question that’s on most people’s minds when facing this juncture: even if you develop the skills, set up the shop, and devote every minute of your spare time to woodworking, “It seems part time furniture making is a full time job. I put every productive minute I have into it, but it is nowhere near enough. The only realistic way I can see this working is to cut back hours at work, however I cannot afford to do that. I’m curious to know how others managed to get off the ground without burning out.”
There’s no simple answer; it would be false to say that all you have to do is pour your heart and soul into your business and all outside pressures and real-life obligations will melt away. But Jeff-o offered some practical tips from his personal experience. First, the “transitional period” lasted around eight years for him, it doesn’t happen overnight. During those years he dedicated himself to a rigorous schedule of working in his shop for at least an hour every night after a full work day, plus up to twenty hours of weekend time. “Between delivering/meetings/design work/ shop visitors/ material procuring, you will see weekends as your time to really produce,” says Jeff-o . “It requires full physical and mental involvement to a point of consumption.”
One professional woodworker who lives that extreme involvement is Ed Soucy. Ed Soucy of E.S Designs / The Menage Gallery shared the same love-from-an-early-age in building and woodworking that many of you have described in your comments. His turning point from amateur to pro came when he was working in construction and offered a top position at a commercial company that would have meant financial gain but little time for creativity and personal independence. Ed decided to take the risk of striking out on his own, and he markets his work, with the help of his right-hand woman and business manager Heather, as fine art furniture. Ed’s professional storefront in Gloucester, MA presents handmade furniture in a gallery setting, but that is only the beginning; like Jeff Roltgen and cosmec502, Ed offers a diverse range of soup-to-nuts services, even home remodeling, and that strengthened his business in its early stages. Ed also began cutting and preparing ready-to-use components, such as legs and frames, which he organizes and catalogues in the back of his shop, as a means of increasing efficiency when it comes time to produce a project. This practice could be employed by the serious amateur hobbyist looking to transition or the fledgling small business owner looking to streamline the production process and save time.
In addition to patience and endurance through the transitional years and developing a disciplined routine of woodworking on top of your day job, Jeff-o suggests diversifying your skill set beyond furniture-making into all levels of production, including sales, design, finishing, and repair. This tip came through in Ed’s case and in cosmec502’s experience also: he applied CNC and autocad skills into his business and is constantly, but patiently over a period of many years, branching out into a wide, diverse range of skills, mechanical capabilities, and business strategies.
So what do you think about all of this?
As before, if you are transitioning now or at some point in your career taken the leap from amateur to pro, then tell us your story! We’ll continue to feature your stories and keep the conversation going. Feel free to comment on any point that hit you or to present a new angle from your personal experience.