I love success stories of businesses that started as a humble idea — birthed from a very raw and real place — that unexpectedly catches on and suddenly becomes an in-demand product. Sons of Sawdust was started by two brothers, Ben and Matt, who overcame separate life struggles by putting their heads together and creating with their hands, a deeply-rooted natural inclination they received from their late grandfather, Cecil Hall. Growing up in southern Georgia, they spent many of their days at Cecil’s work bench, watching him work wood like butter. So when Ben got injured and was in search of new work, he and his brother Matt, who was unsatisfied with his 9-5 job, turned to wood-working and selling their pieces on Craigslist. What started as a hobby has turned into a thriving business and shop located in the heart of Athens, GA (a gorgeous place we recently featured in a City Guide, which shouted out to Sons of Sawdust).
Ever the treasure-hunters, Matt and Ben go above and beyond to craft their handmade pieces, sourcing and hand-selecting historic and antique wood from across Georgia. Each piece carries a story with it, from its historic past to its new life, where the first cut etched on each piece is made using an old saw that belonged to their Pa, carrying on his spirit and legacy. Not only do the imperfections in Matt and Ben’s products make them beautiful, but so does the imperfect nature and integrity of their story, one which would surely make Pa proud. Today, Matt is joining us to share more about their past, present, and future. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
We honestly didn’t sit down and decide to start a business. Our business was birthed from a place of brokenness and desperation. After a series of unfortunate events, the idea for our business was conceived. Ben injured his knee at his construction job and was unable to work, and Shayna (my wife) was begging me to build her a farm table. After building the table, we got the idea that Ben and I could possibly build farm tables and sell them on Craigslist. So we took a photo of the farm table, put it on Craigslist, and that day we had three people contact us wanting to purchase the table. From there on the orders started rolling in and the business was born.
When you work for someone else, you are at the mercy of their desires, no matter how hard you work, how dedicated you are to their business, you will always be working toward fulfilling someone else’s dreams. You can never truly own your destiny. When you own your own business you are rewarded for every creative thought that you bring to life, every time you go the extra mile there is a greater reward that you will potentially receive. It’s not always easy being your own boss, but it’s always worth it.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
From a very early age, our late grandfather, “Pa,” taught us about working with wood. We used to ride around with him as kids on treasure hunts to find old barns that people would let us tear down to reclaim wood and build birdhouses. Now that we are grown, we are doing the same thing that we used to do with our Pa, tearing down barns, reclaiming the wood, and now — instead of building birdhouses — we are handcrafting custom furniture. We are carrying on his legacy in everything that we build. We even have some of his old tools, and we try to make the first cut of every table with his old hand saws. So I guess you could say that we discovered this passion as kids but it took us years to come back to it. We now realize that this is what we were made to do.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Keep it simple and stay out of debt. Our eldest brother is a wise businessman and he encouraged us to bootstrap our business. Fortunately he also had a barn on his property that he let us use as our first wood shop. We also had a lot of our grandfather’s old tools, so we didn’t have to take out a huge loan to get the business off the ground. We actually started our business with a $900 loan from our older brother, which helped us to purchase our first load of reclaimed wood, and that was it. We were able to pay him back within a few months and we’ve pretty much run our business debt-free ever since. Not having the weight of a huge loan over our heads has been a big part of the freedom in our business. Pa taught us that if you want something bad enough, you should save up your money and pay with cash. He went to his grave debt-free and he left our grandmother free from any financial burden. That’s the advice that we got and that’s the way that we run our business. There’s no greater freedom than being debt-free.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part of starting our business was the fear that we wouldn’t have any customers. We didn’t do any market research, and we didn’t analyze the furniture industry to see what was trending. We honestly didn’t know if we would be able to sell enough furniture to make it to the end of the month. But deep down inside, we knew that we were on the right path. We knew that we were passionate about being creative and we knew that we wanted to carry on the incredible legacy of our grandfather. That was enough for us to overlook the fears of starting a business and focus on what we were passionate about. So, with a positive mental attitude, we leaped into the unknown. We hushed our fears and we started believing that if we poured our passion into our business, people would start showing up to purchase our custom handcrafted furniture; and they did!
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Integrity. If you say that you are going to do something, do it! This is something that our Pa poured into us all throughout our lives. He taught us to be men of integrity. He always said that a job worth doing is worth doing right. In this day and age of social media, if you aren’t running your business with integrity, people will find out sooner rather than later.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
The times when we didn’t say NO. We have learned that we need to be laser-focused on what we are doing well and to say no to everything else. It’s hard when you are bootstrapping your business, and you have no money. In the early days of Sons of Sawdust we said yes to everything! We found that we were being pulled away from our true passions by not being focused. Our natural tendency was to take on any project that came our way where we could make money. The problem is that some things just aren’t worth it. We would get caught up in these “side projects” that would suck away our time. We found that we were spending way more time on these distractions and not making near as much money. Not being super focused has caused us to suffer at times; we have learned in our business that we can’t be all things to all people. So we have had to learn to say no.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Spend more time with family. The rapid growth of Sons of Sawdust has taken us away from family more than we would like. We’d take the time to pour into these important relationships the way that our grandfather poured into us.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Time. When you work for someone else, as soon as the work day is over, you’re off. When you own your own business, you’re never off. One of the guys that works for us asked me a question this week. He asked,”What’s the most days that you’ve ever worked consecutively?” I paused for a minute to think about this question and then replied, “I work every day, I can’t remember the last time that I had a day off.” As a business owner, we get text messages while eating dinner with the family, we get phone calls when reading bedtime stories to the kids, and we get emails while laying in bed at the end of the day. Time, which is our most valuable resource, is the greatest sacrifice that we have made for our business. The struggle is real, but it’s one that comes with the territory when you decide to own your own business.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
The thing that we are most proud of is the recognition that we received when Mike Wolfe from American Pickers called us and told us that he wanted to produce a reality TV show about Sons of Sawdust. We work extremely hard, and every day when we get home we are covered in dirt, sawdust, and sweat. We carry bruises and splinters in our skin. We get baked by the sun in the summer, and we freeze our tails off in the winter. Sometimes it feels like there is no glory in what we do. It’s a dirty job and it’s extremely physical, from tearing down old barns and houses, to moving around these insanely heavy pieces of wood, it feels like the only glorious moment is when a finished product goes out the door. So, the fact that we just finished shooting a sizzle reel with Mike Wolfe, up in Nashville, makes us feel good to know that our hard work is paying off. Our sizzle reel is being pitched to some major networks right now, and we’re excited to see what happens next for our business. It’s just so crazy to be living in this moment. We are so proud of how far we have come.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Napoleon Hill’s Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. Napoleon Hill is such an amazing person. He studied more than 2,500 people over a 20-year period (in the early 1900s) on a quest to find out what made certain people successful and certain people failures. One of keys to success he discovered was that people who had a positive mental attitude were more successful than those who were negative. Here’s one of our favorite quotes by Napoleon Hill, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” Hill’s words have been a huge inspiration for us in our business.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Me and my wife Shayna once owned a successful photography business. A few years ago when the economy crashed, so did our photography business. We couldn’t afford to pay the rent and had to move in with family, which eventually led us to Athens, GA. Over the course of two years while living in Athens, I struggled to find steady work. After working several different jobs that I quit, and one of which I was fired from, I realized that the security of working for someone else was not a good fit for me. Even after suffering through a failed photography business, I knew that the only way I could find fulfillment was to be the master of my destiny. All of this was going on with me about the time that Ben was injured, and it just happened to be the right timing. When the idea to start building farm tables came, it was truly birthed out of many failures. But as things progress, it turns out that those past failures have led us to some of the greatest successes in our lives.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Proof of concept. Before you go off borrowing a ton of money to start a business, do a little test to see if anyone is interested. For us the proof of concept was when we put the first farm table on Craigslist. We had an immediate response which told us that we were fishing with good bait!
2. Know what resources are available to you. We had a ton of our Pa’s old tools and a free space to start working in. These resources proved to be invaluable, not to mention that they were free!
3. Are you willing to be fully committed? Owning your own business is a huge sacrifice. You’ll be getting up in the morning while other folks are still fast asleep and working way past five o’clock. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s in our blood and we love being entrepreneurs! If you aren’t willing to go the extra mile and give it everything you’ve got then you may not be ready to start your own business.
What’s the first app, website, or thing you open/do in the morning?
The first app we open is Instagram. My wife took over our social media about six months ago, and we went from having a few hundred followers to over 11,000. This platform is huge for us! Probably about 95% of our business comes from Instagram, so it’s very crucial to our business. We try to be authentic, relatable, and relevant in our posts. We enjoy connecting with our followers this way on a very personal level. We share everything from difficult situations in our lives, to woodworking tips, to stories and the history of the wood, and we even share silly videos of us dancing every once in a while! Instagram is how we’ve connected with all of our major clients and it’s made way for collaborations with other brands, businesses, and connections with people like Mike Wolfe. The power of Instagram is that it gives normal people like us a voice, and we are grateful for that.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Maintaining balance. There are so many moving parts and there is so much responsibility that it’s easy to get burned out. Finding a way to keep your work-life balance in check is crucial. Otherwise you’ll wind up hating the thing that you once loved. You have to find a way to keep your work from being just a job. This can only happen if you maintain balance.