Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. I should say that with more reverence, home of the ambitious upstart. And there’s a reason why I say that. I want to do interviews for people who are so driven that they want to hear and learn from other entrepreneurs, and I’ve been doing this for over a thousand interviews now. And as I did these interviews, I found out about a company that makes cutting boards in the shape of states. And I thought how big a business can this be? What is it about selling cutting boards in the shape of states that gets people to buy it online? Who are the people behind it? And today we’re going to find out, you and me together. Bill Mowat is the co-founder of AHeirloom, a company that makes and sells cutting boards in the shape of United States states.
This interview is sponsored by Toptal. If you need a great developer because you’ve heard a great idea here from one of my interviews and you don’t have enough time or your team of developers doesn’t have enough time to do, what am I saying? Bill, I better get myself together here if I’m going to be the interviewer leading you. Let me say this, guys. If you need a developer to code something up and all the developers on your team are too busy or you don’t have a developer team, go to Toptal.com. Let them know what you need. They have a network of top developers who they can tap into that have already been pre-vetted, that means pre-tested and made sure they’re the top of the field. They will find the right person for you. Get to have a conversation with them and if you click, if they’re the right fit, you can start working with them and they will guarantee the work. I mean, guarantee that they’re a good fit. We’re not talking about a year of working with a person and then saying I want my money back, but they have a very considerate policy on that. And I want you to go check it out by going to Toptal.com.
Bill: I’m going there right now.
Andrew: Sorry, you’re doing it right, huh?
Bill: I’m going there right now.
Andrew: You kind of warned me when I said, “Don’t put me in the big screen that takes up your whole screen?” You said, “Andrew, I’m going to be clicking around.” Did you look over at Amy, is that who’s over there?
Bill: She just poked in.
Andrew: Amy, Amy, will you please come on camera? I had an interview scheduled with Amy and last minute Bill, her co-founder and husband, sat in. Am I making her feel uncomfortable?
Bill: She’s great on audio, radio interviews, beautiful.
Andrew: But she won’t go on camera.
Bill: Camera shy.
Andrew: Is that really what happened because I had her scheduled and I think she cancelled and rescheduled on me three or four times.
Bill: That’s probably actually not what happened. Probably what happened was other things had come up and such is the way of life.
Andrew: You know what, Bill? She actually told me that you guys were having trouble hitting demand, and I think we had an interview scheduled before the holidays. And I said if we could find a way to do it, it might actually get people to buy the cutting board but she was too busy. So what kind of demand do you have? What were last year’s sales, 2014? What were the revenues?
Bill: We sold close to 10,000 cutting boards.
Andrew: Ten thousand cutting boards and a cutting board swells for what? Let me see.
Bill: Sixty dollars.
Andrew: Okay, so about half a million dollars, more than half a million dollars in revenue.
Bill: Yup and then we have, there’s add-ons on top. So one of the benefits is really that we can personalize each cutting board because we’re making them once they’ve been ordered. So you can add engravings, you can add brass. There’s lots of different things that you can do to it to really shape it so that it kind of hits home with the buyer.
Andrew: I see, so when we’re talking about $50 roughly is the price of a cutting board, that’s base price. Most people add more to it, get the limited edition, maybe they add an engraving and that increases the prices. Revenue then is up, is it fair to say that it’s over three quarters of a million dollars in revenue from selling cutting boards?
Andrew: Wow. And meanwhile you and I were talking and I asked you what was important to you and you said I like making things that look good. I like making things that, what did you say, did you use the words crafts?
Bill: I think I said beautiful.
Andrew: Beautiful, right.
Bill: We want to make things that have a life outside of two weeks. Most of this culture is just kind of throw away really fast. I think both Amy and myself really want to make things that last for a long time and then actually have a presence, that have a meaning. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we named the company A Heirloom because we wanted something that you would consider handing down for generations to hold onto.
Andrew: I see. I thought it was actually pronounced or it was supposed to be An Heirloom.
Bill: A Heirloom, really it’s A as in Amy and then Heirloom.
Andrew: Got it. I see. But you’re saying the emphasis here is that this is something that will be a family heirloom that you will keep around not just for the next month but for the next generation.
Bill: Yeah. I think the idea that caught on with people that aren’t necessarily thinking about it but when you have a life that’s as transient as we all have nowadays days, you’re never … Nobody lives where they’re actually from. So this product in a way embodies the nostalgia of where you’re from or where you’re going to be which is a kind of future nostalgia if that’s even a thing. But it holds a lot of meaning for people. So when you consider an heirloom, a lot of things that are passed down don’t really mean anything to anybody else except for the people that actually own it and have received it from their family.
Bill: So the idea becomes something that is imbued with meaning.
Andrew: If I had this idea and I had to figure out where I was going to have each piece of wood cut and made for each customer, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. You knew where to begin because you had experience with it. What was the experience that allowed you to get started here a little faster than most people?
Bill: Well, we studied architecture in school and a part of that process not only is aesthetics and beauty, but it’s also processes, so manufacturing technology where to resource things. We were designing things that were pretty much unbuildable, and we had to figure out ways to actually make those things.
Andrew: I see.
Bill: So rapid prototyping, using computer technology to output things very quickly. It’s not exactly 3D printing, but it’s using the computer to program for the machine to cut things out.
Andrew: Okay. All right and that’s what you studied in school.
Andrew: And then was it Amy who didn’t have a job in 2009?
Bill: Yeah, we formed a company that was a design and fabrication company and then I’m still a partner of that company. She had left and then we got married and then she was freelancing for a while. And then right before we got married we were making some things for the wedding using this technology and after we finished the hub bub we …
Andrew: Wait, this is you saying we have a wedding, we want some things to be beautiful. We’d like them to be personal and handmade. And one of those things was a cutting board for what at the wedding?
Bill: Reception in the shape of Michigan for where she’s from and Connecticut for where I’m from.
Andrew: I see, so you created it and then what made you say why don’t we sell this online?
Bill: I don’t know.
Bill: I think Etsy’s a great platform. I think a lot of people liked the things that we made. I mean, we live in Brooklyn. It’s a maker culture, and I think when you start to hear people respond to something they’ve never seen before, it kind of gives you that idea, “Oh hey, maybe I could do this and put this out there in the world and see what happens.”
Andrew: I see. So Amy told our pre-interviewer you guys decided to just list a couple on Etsy.
Andrew: So you put it up on Etsy and then it hits the front page of Etsy. What does that mean for you guys as a business when Etsy decides to feature you on the home page?
Bill: Early on it’s exciting and scary at the same time. Ultimately we don’t want to disappoint people, we want to make stuff that they like and that has a high quality. So you get a lot of sales, you want to be able to actually produce those items and have a good response.
Andrew: I see. And so you were a little worried that you couldn’t keep up with demand. Did you get a lot of demand? How many sales came from being on the home page?
Bill: Early on? When we think about it now it’s not many at all, but when you haven’t actually developed your process to produce, to ship, to communicate with the customers, which is a really big deal. It’s not a mobile app, you have to talk to these people to decide what they want. And another thing I think that’s really appealing with Etsy is that you’re dealing one-to-one with a maker and oftentimes when you go to Target or you talk to Verizon because your internet’s not working, it’s nobody. You know, out there in the world with this big corporation behind them and when you deal with Etsy and the people that are actually making it, you feel like you’re actually part of something more. So early on, yeah, it was maybe a couple hundred boards in sales within a week.
Andrew: That’s a lot.
Bill: Early on, yes.
Andrew: It’s a lot to make because you had to go and individually make each one of them, you guys had a fabrication company.
Andrew: And the fabrication company, well actually I wouldn’t think it would be a fabrication company that you would need. I thought it would just be, oh, I get it. Actually, what is the process for making it? What was the process for making the first ones?
Bill: So we draw everything in the computer and then we program it so that there’s a robot that moves in three axis that cuts it out.
Andrew: I see, okay.
Bill: Once it’s cut out we then sand it, finish it with a mineral oil and then package it up and send it off.
Andrew: You hand sand it?
Andrew: So you had to get into the software a shape for each state. Where did you get that?
Bill: Oh, we just drew them.
Andrew: You drew them?
Andrew: That’s always impressive to me. I have no artistic ability, I wouldn’t know where to begin to do that.
Bill: I don’t know, it’s less complicated than you think.
Andrew: Okay so you draw it, you put it into the system, it comes out, who does the original sanding? Was it you, was it Amy, did you have people do it?
Bill: Yeah, we both did it.
Andrew: You both hand did it. You’re standing there doing it. So if I did it there’s a part of me that would be say one day I’m going to be so big that I don’t even have to do this, I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m committed to my business, I’ll doing it. I don’t get a sense that you’re like that. I get a sense that you took some pride in even doing the individual first ones.
Bill: Yeah, I mean, of course, we try to take pride in all of them. Ultimately it would be great to have a staff to hand stuff off, but we’re still very much hands on.
Andrew: You’re still doing it. If I buy it it’s you guys sanding it.
Bill: Yes, yeah.
Andrew: Oh, excuse me, I just sneezed, I’m getting cold here. I told you I’m in San Francisco. I don’t know if I’m getting a cold, but I’m definitely affected by the temperature here, by the weather. So you’re still, if I buy it today, if I go to AHeirloom.com I’ll get redirected to Shopify and we’ll get to that in a moment but you will then take what I buy and you will hand sand it, you or Amy.
Bill: Yeah. No, no, no, sorry. I’m the one that’s still, I’m still drawing it up, and making sure everything is good, but we personally do not sand each one. We have other people that are helping us with that.
Andrew: I see.
Bill: Thankfully. There’s only so many things you can do in a day.
Andrew: Did it get overwhelming at some point? Did you get behind with your sales?
Bill: Clearly. I mean, our first holiday season we stopped taking orders, I think, it was December 6th. You know that’s a clear 19 days before Christmas that we had to stop taking orders because we had to allow time to produce everything and to have that then ship which is another issue.
Andrew: Sixth, wow, that’s incredible. Do you feel you lost sales? Do you feel why am I not able to get this up and running faster? How do I get more people in here?
Bill: Early on. no, it wasn’t such a big deal. In fact, while we were excited that we were getting so many sales, we wanted it to stop. We wanted to make sure that we could handle it all.
Andrew: Did you get excited and say, “I think we’re going to be rich here, honey? You married the right guy.”
Bill: You know what, ultimately we were thinking that we could do this and then just help us live a better life.
Andrew: Are you getting to live a better life, or do you end up with new stresses anyway?
Bill: You know, I was telling someone the other day when you work for somebody ultimately you end up hating your boss for whatever reason. You know, maybe they don’t do things the way you want to. Maybe they tell you to do things that you think are stupid, but when you work for yourself you kind of end up hating yourself. And mostly that’s because you, like we work all the time. We can pick when we want to work which is great, so that you can have a very flexible schedule but there’s no real time off.
Andrew: And so when you say you end up hating yourself is it that what part, what do you mean by that?
Bill: Well, when you have to decide between working or going out with friends or working and playing with your kid, you want to do both, but you can’t. So you’re put in this really tough decision.
Andrew: I see. I thought what you were going to go with that is you say why am I not able to run this business better? Why am I not able to run this business in a way that allows me to have more free time? But that’s not how you feel.
Bill: I don’t know. We all have limitations and I think that it’s hard to know more than you actually know in what you’re doing so if somebody were to come in now, like you, who didn’t know about how to actually make the thing but you were looking at the thing we already made and you’re like you do this, you move this, you move this here, boom, now you’ve got weekends. And maybe even a Monday or something, we would probably be amazed.
Andrew: What do you mean by that? You’re saying, “I think I have to do this, I have to do that and all those little steps end up taking a whole weekend.
Bill: Oh no, all those little steps end up giving you free time.
Bill: Like so you don’t have to work on the weekends.
Andrew: I see. So why would I be able to do it as an outsider but not you?
Bill: Well, I think that people that don’t know aren’t inhibited by what the people that have actually created are inhibited by.
Andrew: I see.
Bill: So you can get a little bit of tunnel vision in the way that you think things needs to work. So outside perspective is always welcomed, you know?
Andrew: I see, I see, right. You’re saying you’re so used to everything that you’ve done that you don’t know how to change it because you’re the one who created it and you created it for a reason but an outsider, who doesn’t have all the legacy understanding of how the business got here would think more freshly.
Bill: Yeah. I think you can change it but you change it within your own construct, within your own parameters.
Andrew: Okay. So then, that’s why sometimes it helps to have consultants. We always laugh at bigger businesses for hiring management consultants, but frankly if they’re working for so many other companies they often bring back new ideas and they have fresh perspective.
Andrew: All right. So first Christmas, do you remember what your sales were? The Christmas that you could only hit December 6th?
Bill: Oh I think we sold, I think it was around 3600 units, so 3600 cutting boards.
Andrew: Wow. You know what, I’m not familiar with your part of New York. I grew up in Queens, I went to school in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Tech, but my attitude was always very Queens like in the sense that everyone in Queens wants to move to Manhattan and take over the world. Everyone in Brooklyn wants all of Manhattan to just leave so that they could have more park space. For me I had to leave New York because it made me too aggressive. I would get aggressive with people on the subway because I’m allowed to be.
Andrew: You don’t have that in you. You don’t have this sense of why aren’t we making more money? Why aren’t we selling more cutting boards? Why did it have to be December 6th and not December 8th because if we went two more days, you don’t have any of that.
Bill: I mean maybe, I think I do internally. But there’s a realism there. You can’t have everything that you want. I mean, the problem ultimately with New York and I think that you can see it best when there’s actually like a holiday. So now there’s spring break mostly, so now there’s mostly 20% of the city is gone and it’s perfect. That 20% just adds so more stress. When you’re in New York there’s always somebody in front of you and in your way. And I think that’s where a lot of the aggravation comes from, there’s just too many people. But you get a lot of stuff because there’s so many people. The Metro system, it’s great. Like all the cultural institutions that’s great, you don’t get those where there’s less people.
Andrew: I miss the open aggression though. Really I could if I’m walking down the street say to somebody, “You’re going too slow, move it already” maybe exactly not like that, but people are trying to walk here. Something like that I could say and get people out of the way. In San Francisco I’m standing behind people and I really just want to shove them out of the way sometimes because they’re all walking so slowly, looking at their phones. I’ve got places to go.
Bill: You’ve got places to go.
Andrew: My soda dropped.
Andrew: Can’t do that.
Bill: California is definitely more passive aggressive, I think.
Andrew: Yeah. So your first Christmas, you’re doing well, you’re selling thousands of units. At that point do you realize this is a hit business, it’s worth investing in. And is that when you started building your own site?
Bill: Yeah. I think yeah, shortly after we put a site up on Big Cartel which is another platform that kind of built very easily, a web design and then that was a little flat. So we went through a redesign and went onto Shopify and then that lasted for about two years and then last year we started a new design on the Shopify site.
Andrew: Your site looks stunning. You guys have really good taste.
Bill: Well, thank you.
Andrew: It’s just the details are just beautiful. But why build it on Shopify? Actually yeah, you built it yourself, you don’t want to hire a developer to code something up for you, you don’t want to use Magento, it’s overkill, so Shopify makes sense.
Bill: I think early on we had a friend that did all the HTML stuff. I don’t know, a full out custom build on a site for us because we don’t know it, would be really hard to instruct and inform the developers as to what we wanted. So it was easier to build within the framework of templates and see that kind of thing.
Andrew: Who created your first logo, the one that’s green, blue, a little gray?
Bill: Oh we had a friend of Amy’s. They have a company, they’re called Enormous Champion.
Andrew: And they did it as a favor, or did you guys hire them out of Brooklyn?
Bill: I can’t remember if it was a trade or it really wasn’t a favor. I think either we paid them a little bit or it did a trade.
Andrew: Nice. And I can see the early logo does have A.Heirloom on it.
Andrew: So one thing I wonder if it matters, I always look at it and going to AHeirloom.com redirects me to AHeirloom.myShopify.com. Why didn’t you ever change it so it just has your domain instead of being a subdomain of MyShopify.com?
Bill: Oh I don’t think there’s any good reason honestly.
Bill: We don’t get any benefit from being on the Shopify platform, I think, although they did feature us in December as somebody that uses their site. But yeah honestly there wasn’t really much of a …
Andrew: But getting rid of their domain from your domain doesn’t bother you? It’s just hey we’re selling cutting boards?
Bill: Yeah, I think you know what, it’s just we try to put our name out there as much as possible and the platform that we use whether it’s Etsy.com/shop/AHeirloom, is, you know.
Andrew: Fine with you.
Bill: It’s fine. In fact, when we deal with Etsy there’s a little bit more, because it’s a marketplace you do get a little bit more with people searching on Etsy, within Etsy, within the general web which is what Shopify kind of offers you.
Andrew: So once you go off on your own and it’s time for you to get your own customers, what did you do to get customers? How did you people to come to your site?
Bill: I think you’ve got to take really good photos, you’ve got to make something that’s appealing to them. After that it’s outreach, bloggers, print media.
Andrew: What did you do to get bloggers to care about your stuff?
Bill: Ultimately it’s through the product and it’s through the representation of it.
Andrew: I wouldn’t have known it existed, they wouldn’t have known it existed. I know that one thing that Amy feels comfortable and confident about is her ability to promote, her ability to get press.
Andrew: And that includes bloggers, that includes magazines, like Real Simple. I had this whole list here, Southern Living, Home Journal, Us Magazine featured you. Why don’t we start with the first ones? Do you guys remember what you did to get into blogs?
Bill: Well, people on Etsy people found us, the first blogs they found us. But press exposure nets more press and more exposure.
Bill: But there has to be, it’s not as simple as that. You have to have follow through. You have to nurture these relationships with these people. So it’s getting back to them right away, it’s being positive, it’s sending out product, it’s talking to them, it’s positioning yourself within their vision for what they’re doing. You know Amy, I think Amy’s has her pulse on the internet really. She’s got her finger on the pulse of the internet which she knows what’s cool and what looks good and what’s out there. So I think she’s really great at positioning the things that we’re interested with within the realm of what the internet is interested in.
Andrew: Okay. Do you have an example of how she did that?
Bill: Only our business and that we’ve been existing.
Andrew: Be more specific. I mean, we’re here sitting trying to learn from you guys about how you did it.
Bill: Yeah. I’m not sure I can, to be honest. There are things that you can’t quantify.
Andrew: It comes naturally to her.
Bill: I think the number of emails, the number of inquiries that we’ve responded to far outnumber the things that have actually gone through, so consider that everything that you do might not lead anywhere. It kind of makes it more of an endurance and a marathon rather than a sprint. And so you have to kind of just keep with it.
Andrew: Give me more specifics. If I leave my audience with it’s a marathon not a sprint, they’re going to say this is a cliched interview, Andrew is a horrible interviewer. There’s got to be more to it than that. Let’s talk about press. One of the things that Amy felt really strongly about is her talent with press. In fact, we asked her if you could teach entrepreneurs anything what would it be? She said it would be how to pitch a product to the press. I know you’re not Amy, but it’s part of the business. What do you guys do to pitch to the press that gets them to write about you?
Bill: I don’t know, I think that you have to have a good representation of your product, it’s got to look really good.
Andrew: Okay, to look good, what else?
Bill: Staging photographs, like knowing the setting that it works best so that the photos can tell people what it is that they’re looking for.
Bill: And then really after that you have to follow up, you have to be there. You have to help them with their job in a way. So you’re helping them fulfill the content that they need through what it is that we need. So you’re positioning yourself like a team member.
Andrew: Do you have an example of how you’ve done that? Of become a team member of someone who wrote about you guys?
Bill: Oh, I mean, only in kind of doing everything that they’re asking you to do.
Andrew: But nothing specific?
Bill: I don’t really have specifics on it. Like I said, it’s hard thing to pinpoint exactly what makes success. I don’t really know. I think that you have a lot of different things that coalesce that come together to help out.
Andrew: This is a tough interview for me. I always have to be honest, I keep going back to honesty. My feeling is that you guys don’t take this interview seriously, that we scheduled it and you rescheduled it. We had the interview scheduled for right now and instead of Amy coming on we had all this notes of what she’s going to talk about you come on because it doesn’t really matter. And now as I’m asking you for specifics, it’s just generalities and I’ve got an audience too of people who came here listening and ready to learn from you and if we just give them junk because it doesn’t matter because your name gets mentioned I’m going to feel disappointed and that’s just not right. And that’s why I feel like you guys just aren’t taking it seriously. And when you cancel or reschedule it’s always been with very little notice. And I get it, you have a lot going on, but if we’re really going to talk openly let’s be open, what’s going on?
Bill: Oh, I mean, I can’t apologize more for cancelling the other events, but you know I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’m not sure that there’s a magic sauce. I’m not trying to be elusive when you’re talking about pinpointing moments of how to reach out and communicate with bloggers. I mean, it’s pretty simple.
Andrew: This is especially why we do a pre-interview. I mean, obviously some people come across really well on camera and other people don’t. But we spent some time trying to figure out what makes someone look good so we can make you look good, that’s why before the interview started I didn’t just say “Hey, you’re either going to be okay or not and if you’re not okay then it’s tough luck.” I said, “If you put a couple books under your laptop you’ll be more eye to eye with people and it will be less jarring for them because the screen won’t be so tilted. If you take me off of big screen, put me in small screen then and you move that little small screen under the camera it will look like you’re looking the audience in the eye when you look at me.” I understand that we’re overthinking it, but we’re thinking about it because we care about the details. You care about your business details too. It sounds like maybe Amy is the one who really focuses on promotion and design and that’s why my notes here are about that but you focus on other parts of the business and you can’t speak to that.
And so I’m feeling at a loss here. I don’t know, what do you think? How do we, we have this audience of entrepreneurs, I don’t want to waste their time. Is there anything that you can teach them about how you to built your business or should we just call it a day here? I mean, with all due respect, I want to respect my audience, I want to respect you with openness. But I would never be the kind of interviewer who just pretended everything a guest said is Holy Grail and terrific. I have to be open.
Bill: Well, I mean I would never, you know, you’re certainly right it’s a question of things that people say. I don’t think there’s any real magic answer. I think we work hard, I think that you have to reach on many levels which is one actually fulfilling the things that you’re saying you’re fulfilling. So if you put this product out there in the world and you present it in such a way, those people are basically buying into your vision. So they buy this thing, it comes to them, it has to be right. You have to get it there in a timely fashion, you know, and there’s many ways within the business that can disrupt the quality of the service that you get and how the company is represented out there in the world.
Bill: So you get a bad review on something, you want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Andrew: How do you keep a bad review from happening again?
Bill: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that are completely irrational and think that you owe them the world because they paid for a $60 cutting board, you know? I think that it’s impossible for us to ruin somebody’s Christmas although we’ve received a lot of emails about, not a lot, but there are people out there that say blah, blah, blah, you ruined my Christmas. It’s like how could one gift ruin your Christmas? So you have to make sure that you tend to all of your customers. So there’s production components, fulfilling the things that you say that you’re actually going to fulfill. And then there’s outreach, making sure that you … Sorry about that.
Andrew: It’s okay.
Bill: Yeah, you’ve got to make sure that you can actually …
Andrew: Do you have a process for outreaching, for reaching out?
Andrew: All right. Well, I’m taking your point about taking your customers’ needs seriously to heart. I think for some reason this just isn’t working out. I’m going to accept that and not push, in the past I used to push beyond. I’m not the type of person to pretend when it doesn’t work out I’m going to call it and say it’s sometimes things don’t work out and I really appreciate you doing this interview with me and to everyone who’s listening thanks for being part of it. The website is AHeirloom.com. And feel free to send all the hate mail you guys want to me. Bye everyone.