Small Business Spotlight: Turning Crafts And Creativity Into A Successful Business

July 10, 2018 - 5:34 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The owners of two companies offering American-made, personalized crafts met at a holiday show a number of years ago, stayed in contact and send each other personalized business products. Since then, they have shared retail stores and started a partnership of sorts.

Since then, Grant Tankoos of Soundview Millworks and Wendy and Mike Hille of MW Coastal Goods have shared retail stores and started a partnership of sorts. They are great friends and refer clients to each other, and they brought their products to a recent WCBS Small Business Breakfast.

WCBS 880’s Joe Connolly asked them to explain how they started and grow their businesses.

MW Coastal Goods sells small, beautiful products – including buoy bottle openers and wine openers for which they offer customization.

"I was making fishing lures and my wife said, 'You should try putting a bottle opener on one of them.' So I did and it looked good,” said Mike Hille. “So her father saw it, and he was in sales, so he ordered 20. So that was our first order. And then we got into some shops and it kind of exploded from there."

At the time, Wendy was working as an elementary art teacher, while Mike was working full time for his family business. Wendy said she ended up leaving teaching to work full time for MW Coastal Goods.

“As I brought them out to different stores people loved them. They got spotted by someone who was the buyer at the Ocean House Hotel, and then they purchased them, and it just kind of took off from there," she said.

Wendy said she was confident from the get-go that the crafts would spawn a successful business, but she said Mike had to be convinced.

“It really took on a life of its own. It's something that's not seen around very often. It's a buoy that's turned into a bottle opener and a fishing lure that's turned into a bottle opener or a wine opener,” she said. “And the fact that we could customize these was great and we ended up getting spotted on social media and got an order from Vineyard Vines several times and then we just started getting larger and larger businesses were interested."

As it happened, Vineyard Vines made the first contact. Wendy said she posted a picture on Instagram of her dog, and someone who worked at Vineyard Vines happened to see it and got in contact with them.

Mike said it was Wendy who gave him the idea of putting a bottle opener on a fishing lure – a concept that made perfect sense given that people often enjoy a beer while fishing.

“We did that and we expanded into different shapes, we went into wine openers. And we brought them down to a local store and they loved them immediately so we got in there, we befriended the store owner and soon enough the Ocean House someone else saw them and they wanted them," Mike said.

The Ocean House placed an order, and then custom orders started coming in. It soon reached the point where Mike and Wendy couldn’t keep up given that they were both working.

“So I had to make a choice, 'Am I going to give this a go?'” Wendy said. “And I did, I decided to leave teaching."

Wendy said she learned a great deal about business that she didn’t know while working in education.

“The biggest help to us I have to say is we had a SCORE mentor and I can't tell you how helpful he was to us and he still is,” Wendy said. “It really benefits you to have someone in your corner that knows business."

The mentor had the Hilles get a bank loan so they would have some credit under their business name, Mike said.

The Hilles started the business in their house, and they now have a retail shop and workshop.

"We sourced out originally to Maine to have them turned. We found a cast molder in Providence to make the parts,” Mike said. “We manufacture them."

"Mike was turning every single piece until it became overwhelming,” Wendy said. “We have a patent on our design. It's the two of us. Mike does all the epoxy hand brush finish; I do the painting and the vinyl design."

Meanwhile, Tankoos makes beautiful wood products. The core service at Soundview Millworks, as he described it, is “artisan-influenced cutting boards that become personalized.”

“So we have a product that we accent with unique handles so our core handle and our most popular one is a cleat. So if you're a boater, you would have a cleat on the cutting board and then we would personalize with an initial, or a monogram, a latitude-longitude, or something unique that speaks to you,” he explained. “We continue that path with unique handles like horse bits for equestrians, fish-shaped handle for people who are into fishing. We have some new ones that are coming out that are similar to bamboo shapes or like a generic rod or branch. The handle sort of speaks to the person you are."

Tankoos said there are endless possibilities for new items based on individual passions.

“One of the sayings we have back in the shop is kind of, 'Bring your passion to life.' What is it that you like to do? For me, it's boating, so the cleat is a natural fit. For Mike, it's fishing, so he would get a board with a fish handle. For my girlfriend, it's horseback riding so it would be the horse bit,” he said. “So it's sort of a continuation of those things in life that you love."

There are numerous ways Tankoos and his team decide what handle to develop next.

"Some of it's by demand, some of it's sort of looking at things that are aesthetically pleasing and that you think are fun and have a great following,” he said. “They need to be specific enough that people love that hobby and that lifestyle but generic enough that it appeals to a broad enough market that it's not one tiny little segment of it."

The process of making the cutting boards is broken down into several tasks.

“It's a little bit of time of gluing, a little bit of time of planing, a little bit of sanding and oiling. And then engraving, packing, shipping. In all it's probably 30 minutes spaced out over multiple days,” Tankoos said. “The oiling process itself takes four days."

The process of personalization is done by laser engraving, which allows for many unique characters to be emblazoned on the boards.

“We can take photographs of custom logos,” he said. “Let's say the Newsradio 88 logo or a picture from a wedding invite, we can pull out unique characters of that and engrave that into the board. So it becomes a piece that is truly personalized to the recipient of it."

Tankoos also has a job redoing boats. He said the cutting boards are the main business, but he has forayed into refurbishing power boats as an expression of his own passion.

“Some similarities with Mike and Wendy and I, I used to work at Vineyard Vines as well. And I learned a lot about business and passion and the mix of a work-life balance and how enjoyable it can actually be,” he explained. “For me, redoing those boats was a great way to keep doing what I love. I've made some money doing that along the way but I've sort of branched out into honing my skills."

He said Soundview Millworks is especially proud of the quality of the cutting boards, and always wants to produce something they can be proud of.

 “All of our products are handmade in the U.S. I design all those handles myself, and come up with how they're supposed to look and how they're supposed to be aesthetically pleasing. And the look of it coming together is something we're really proud of," he said.

As Connolly noted, the Hilles and Tankoos use technology, artistic skills, and entrepreneurial talent to lead a lifestyle many would dream of. They might give you some ideas to pursue your dream too.