I often get asked how I got started in the rustic furniture business. With arguably only 1% of the active furniture buyers willing to purchase rustic furniture for their home, cottage or cabin finding the right person seeking furniture for this lifestyle is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Notice I said “willing to purchase”? The percentages are much higher if you measure those that “like or appreciate” the uniqueness and aesthetics of rustic furniture. But these folks’ homes may not be rustic or a spouse doesn’t share their passion for rustic furniture so they admire it, but they are not willing to mix it into their traditional or country home. These opinions are based on what I knew about rustic furniture 14 years ago (1998) when I first started Woodland Creek Furniture. The rustic furniture business is changing, and I will talk more about this is forthcoming paragraphs. I am referring to very traditional rustic furniture - furniture that is primitive; furniture that incorporates natural bark, hair on hide, wildlife carvings or canoe silhouettes into the furniture’s design. This type of traditional rustic furniture is often referred to as Adirondack furniture, Molesworth style furniture, lodge furniture, cabin furniture, or log furniture. Woodland Creek began as a local source for these styles of traditional rustic furniture. Now, the how and the why?
I am not sure if anyone will ever read this blog entry. I am writing it because I have read countless articles by marketing “experts” which state people like to know the story behind the business. I know that I enjoy learning how and why people started their business so there may be one or two others out there that think the same way. If no one outside of family ever reads this, at least it will document some of the history for my kids to one day understand their father a bit better. Anyway, there is a gene in our family that encourages (even demands) risk taking and nonconformity. I inherited this gene from my father who got it from his father. At the time of writing this I am not sure if I hope this gene has been passed on to my son or daughters. Entrepreneurship is not an easy path. It is an exciting path, but not for the faint of heart.
Approximately 20 years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life. I was 29 and not sure what I wanted to do for a long term, stable career. That gene I referenced earlier had caused me to enter into a variety of different and often risky businesses – some were profitable and others we not so profitable; thus, I have been forced to start over several times in my life – usually from rock bottom. I knew in my heart there was something out there that would be personally gratifying and allow me to provide for a family. I really wanted this next business to afford a creative outlet, allow me to travel and experience other cultures and allow me to meet interesting people. Great wish list, but what was the business that would allow this?
For years I had been reading business magazines and cutting out articles that either told of new technology to help a small businesses gain a completive edge, articles on interesting new trends and/or niches, or articles spotlighting interesting startups and their founders. After years of reading and clipping, I had accumulated several, neatly categorized boxes containing a wide range of articles. My quest for the right business continued.
In the fall of 1996 a high school friend was having some personal problems (a difficult divorce), and it was affecting his business. He was (and remains) a very talented carpenter, but his organizational and managerial skills were not his strong suit. He had helped me through some personal lows so I felt comfortable working with him. Thus, we entered into a partnership in his home remodeling business. I very honestly explained that this would be a short term proposition for me (2-3 years) as I planned to one day pursue a different path. For now it fit for both of us as I could refine my marketing and management skills and still have the freedom to study and research future opportunities. I focused on creative marketing for our home remodeling business. Some of these ideas paid off and the company expanded to a point where we had multiple crews working on simultaneous projects, and we were booked sometimes 4 to 5 months out. This cushion allowed me to take short trips to research business ideas.
Life’s happenstance led me to meet an interesting person named Fred. Fred once lived and studied in eastern Europe. He was there right around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His stories of import and export opportunities titillated that that pesky entrepreneurial gene to the point I could hardly sleep. Fred planned to return to start a business in Budapest, Hungry. Fred extended an invitation to visit and show me around eastern Europe. I did not procrastinate. A trip was planned. I forgot to mention that Fred was a collector and seller of military memorabilia. He had done quite well for himself buying and selling World War II vintage collectables to collectors and museums around the world. Fred would use my trip and other future trips to also search out things of value for his business. We were both on the hunt for opportunities. We took the train out of Budapest and traveled throughout eastern Europe ultimately ending up in Moscow. Fred took some law classes at a University in Moscow years earlier so he knew is way around pretty good for a foreigner. Fred even shared a story with me that Boris Yeltsen (at the time the Mayor of Moscow) once was a guest speaker at one of his classes. Fred also said he was there the day the tanks advanced on Parliament and Boris Yeltsen stood in front of the advancing tanks and persuaded them not to follow the orders of the communist government. That historic day ultimately led to Boris Yeltsen becoming the first elected president of Russia. I share this as Fred was quite the personality. He also had the “gene” and was a risk taker. Sorry for the digression, but I thought the story shed light on the time and opportunities. The entire country was trying to adjust to capitalism - shedding the shackles of 80+ years of communism. The country was struggling to adjust which meant there were opportunities for risk takers.
Fred and I traveled from small town to small town via a train. Under Soviet times, the leaders planned the economy. They essentially decided what town would manufacture what product. Meaning there was no competition so there was one car factory, one underwear factory, one dish factory, etc. Each town had assigned industries. Citizens were basically given aptitude tests and were assigned life-long jobs based on their tested skill sets. I could write volumes on what this did to the human spirit and psyche, but those thoughts are for another time.
Fred and I walked through all kinds of factories – glass factories, foundries, art studios, etc. Every business was hungry for business. Two Americans represented opportunity to expand beyond their present customer base (which was virtually non-existent as the country was teetering on collapse). The Russians were always gracious and answered all our questions. Anyone of these businesses presented a valid export opportunity, but none to this point felt like the right fit. I do not remember exactly how the topic came up, but I believe Fred and I were casually talking and I asked Fred what other products or talents were the Russians known for? Fred explained to me that under Soviet times it was considered the most noble profession to be an “artist” – even more so than a doctor or politician. If you were in the arts – music, painting, acting, sculpting, carving, etc. and were good at it – you were revered and at the top of the status ladder. Thus, kids were encourage, if not pushed, into the arts. The one example he stated “carving” caught my attention. I asked him what he knew about it. He said that he had read that one of the finest carving institutes in the world was in a town name Bryansk. I told Frank I would like to visit this institution, and even thought it was several hundred kilometers from where we were off we went.
Why did carving interest me? Well, a couple of years earlier I had read and cut out an article in Forbes Magazine that spotlighted the CEO of a company that had started a small carving business out of the back of their bait & tackle shop. They were hand carving fish, birds and other wildlife. They had grown the business from a two man operation to over a hundred employees with 6 or 7 million in annual revenue and projected to grow. The interviewer asked the CEO, “what his biggest obstacle to future growth was?” The CEO stated that “carving” was a lost art here in the U.S. They could not find enough talented wood carvers to fill the jobs. They were forced to bring in duplicating machines that did a mediocre job, and they were also looking at setting up overseas in other countries. Well, hearing from Fred that there was a whole town of talented wood carvers out of work made my mind kick in to high gear.
Bryansk, Russia. I remember getting into town on a chilly fall evening. We had just enough time to take a walk through a local park before checking into a hotel. The entire park had large, beautiful wood carvings. Some of the carvings were abstract art; others were creatures of Russian folklore. There was no doubt there was talent in this town. Were the carvers still here? Did they all leave to seek work in western European factories like we had heard at some many other places we had visited? It was a long night, but morning did come. We went to the famed carving university, and from the very moment we walked through the doors you knew you were in a special place. There were relief carvings of incredible detail on the walls, 3-D carvings of all size including a massive, scowling 8’ bear. The detail on the bear was unlike anything I had seen. Our guide took us to an area where carvers were actively carving. There were still carvers studying and after talking with the guide he informed us that there were plenty more around town that had not yet left who would surely be interested in working.
I really think I have to start to condense the chain of events or this blog article will turn into a thick book so here goes. We meet and found many carvers anxious to use their talents and earn money for their families. I returned home and purchased the rights to many different carving designs. I brought the samples back and showed the carvers. They basically laughed at me and said “who is going to buy these goofy looking carvings?” I mean to tell you several of them had a good laugh, and I could not understand why? I asked the translator to help me understand. He then explained that everything carved under Soviet Union times was serious or based on history or culture. I brought back smiling bears, fish, nautical figurines (usually smiling) and they could not believe that Americans would want, let alone “pay for” these figurines. As a side note, I am using much tamer wording than they used because after they stopped laughing, then then began to mock the carvings. Anyway, I told them that is what I wanted and what my dollars were buying, and this terse statement brought them back to reality as I was holding the money. We lined up a local manager who happened to be a local police officer. He was in charge of overseeing the carvers and taking what they produced to a warehouse until we had enough to export. I returned the following month, and the samples were better than perfect. I returned home to set up channels of distribution. I returned the following months to find a nice collection of carvings. The formation of a business was taking place. Again, there are dozens of interesting events between these trips, but in my attempt to keep it succinct, I will keep it to the important parts. On one return trip I, Fred and my mother (I took my mother to experience the culture) were waking in a hotel room after a long train ride. I turned on the TV to listen to the International News. The announcer was explaining that overnight the Russian Ruble had collapsed, and the currency had lost 50% of its value overnight (best recollection of value loss). I turned off the TV and Fred and I discussed what this meant. Fred knew instantly what it meant. It meant Russian people barely living off of a modest government pension were not going to be able to sustain themselves. I went down to the lobby and out into the streets and the best example I can give as to what I saw was seeing hundreds of thousands of people walking “numb”. It was that look you see at a funeral on the faces of the immediate family who just lost someone close to them - just numb and blank. You could cut the fear, anxiety and stress in the air with a knife. It was that palpable.
We took the train up to Bryansk. We introduced some new designs and planned to export our first container in 3 or 4 months. I returned home and several weeks later the reports of violence and kidnappings in Russian increased. These things always went on before, but now they were becoming more and more frequent – the country was disintegrating, and the criminal elements were doing whatever it took to survive. I remember my heart falling when Sergei (our Manager) emailed me saying he got word that the local mob planned to kidnap me the next time I returned and hold me ransom to my family. I had to reread it several times as I could not believe what I was reading. I had my whole savings in this business venture, and it would be devastating to lose it. Why would they want me? I knew the answer. I was one of the few Americans coming to this town. They did not know if I was a small business guy rolling the dice of life with what little he had saved or some rich American business person. They got wind of me coming to town, hiring people, paying people – I was a quick and easy way to get $50,000 - $100,000 in hard cash to them. I skipped much in an attempt to shorten this article, but I learned early that the value of life in this part of the world was low. You could have anything done to anyone for little money. The laws of the jungle trumped all. I saw things happen right in front of police and military and knew that the mob was really in control during this period of Russian history.
I took the night to contemplate Sergei’s email. The following day I emailed him and told him to set up a meeting with these guys. I asked him to explain a long term scenario – one that instead of a quick payday they would get them monthly money for providing a “service”. They would hire them as our “security” – watching and safeguarding our products out of Russia and safely into Hungary. Call it a security expense; call it a tax; call it whatever you will I was looking for anyway to protect my investment. Sergei wrote back saying he had explained everything like I asked. He said they listened “stone faced” (like most Russians do) and then they said they “agreed.” Sergei ended his email by saying “he did not trust them and he could not guarantee my safety if I returned.” I knew that I could not return as it was a 50/50 chance of them understanding the long term plan, and I like my ears and fingers so I did not return. I ended up losing tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of time in this venture.
After licking my wounds and having a short pity party, I found that entrepreneurial tenacity and decided to take one last trip to eastern Europe to see if anything else tickled the gene. Fred, our translator and I traveled into Romania this time going from village to village visiting cottage businesses. There were some interesting prospects, but they needed a lot of time and capital to develop. I just didn’t feel it. We were on our way out of the country - it was late afternoon or early evening and Fred, Sergei (not Russian Sergei, but translator Sergei) and I were hungry. We couldn’t wait to hit McDonalds in Budapest (you would understand this statement if your only choice for food was borscht soup or hard cheese & bread while traveling). We were driving very fast (Sergei always greatly exceeded the speed limit as $5 American money got you out of any ticket) when I noticed a small road side stand and something caught my eye. We flew by it at such great speed I could not make it out. It appeared to be interesting furniture. I told Fred and Sergei that I would like to go back and check it out. Sergei dismissed my request with a derogatory remark saying “it was just Romanian @#&% (insert expletive here)”. I had to remind Sergei that I would soon be paying him and his tip. He started cursing at me in either Hungarian or Russian, but none the less he turned around (quietly swearing at me all the way).
We pulled up to this road side stand, and my heart started to pound. In front of me was crudely made furniture, but the table tops were 3” to 4” thick burl wood slabs. The table tops were 36” to 48” wide by 120” to 144” long - one solid piece and burl throughout the entire slab. I did not mention this earlier, but my uncle in Alaska built log homes and rustic furniture when he was not commercials fishing. Years earlier I had written a business plan for a family fishing lodge. It was then that I realized I had an affinity toward wood and the rustic lifestyle. Anyway, right in front of me one some of the most beautiful solid wood I had ever seen. I was not a woodworker, but I instinctively knew we had nothing like this in the U.S. Again, I could write paragraphs about events that happened between this point and importing the wood, but the bottom line is this wood species gave me the motivation to come home and beg and borrow the funds I needed to start a rustic furniture business.
I knew in my heart that this wood would give us the competitive edge needed to enter the rustic furniture business. There were hundreds of good woodworkers in my own state – how would we stand out and differentiate ourselves? This unique wood started conversations with other rustic furniture builders at shows all across the country. I would often trade our wood for their wood. Friendships were made; business relationships were established. Woodland Creek Furniture, a rustic furniture store, started. Woodland Creek Furniture now imports natural wood slabs and logs from a variety of states and countries. Combining a wood from Romania with a wood from Utah or California gives you a look that no one else has. The rustic furniture business has been a blessing for my family and I. We enjoy creating functional works of art for people who like the rustic lifestyle. I thank you for taking the time to read this and hope Woodland Creek will have the opportunity to work with you and your family to design and build you rustic furniture that will become a family heirloom.
Woodland Creek Furniture