We Started A Leather Manufacturing Business From Our Parents Garage [$1.2M/Year]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Jason Angelini, and I am a co-founder of American Bench Craft. American Bench Craft is a Veteran owned leather goods manufacturer based out of Wilmington, MA. We combine unique designs, sustainable sourcing, sturdy, high-quality materials, and reliable American craftsmanship to offer leather goods and gear that truly stand the test of time.
In 2021 we were fortunate to have our best year in business and averaged approximately $100,000 in revenue per month with our biggest months being in June for Father’s Day and November/December for the holidays.
Our best selling products are our wallets and belts and the majority of our sales come from direct to consumer.
What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
We are a team of family and friends that dreamed about starting a business together since high school. However, we went the conventional route, earned college degrees, and then spent our twenties running in a million different directions trying to find the “perfect” job. We did everything from working desk jobs, pursuing film production, joining the military, joining the merchant marines, and traveling the world, yet we always found ourselves searching for more.
In 2013, my brother Chris and I were working tiresome office jobs, and both of us wanted out. So, when Chris came up with an idea for a local web design business I was in, even though all I knew about computers was how to turn them on and off.
We both quit our jobs, and as you can imagine, our wives were “thrilled”. About a month into that venture, Chris realized I wasn’t kidding about my lack of computer skills, and we agreed we needed to find something different.
My wallet had recently fallen apart at the seams, and I came up with an idea for a seamless leather wallet that used rivets instead of thread stitching. I pitched it to Chris and he jumped at the opportunity to start a new business that I could contribute.
We used the best leather we could find and designed the product using solid brass rivets instead of thread stitching to ensure we had a product that would live up to a lifetime guarantee. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2014, sold $20K worth of products in 30 days and we were off and running.
Our first office was in our parents’ garage, then we worked our way up into a small basement office in downtown Reading, MA (which was smaller than our parent's garage, but at least it had heat), and now we operate out of an awesome 4000 square foot facility in Wilmington, MA.
Today, American Bench Craft is a seven-figure company with fifteen employees and we have over 100 products including belts, tool sheaths, key fobs, dog collars, drinkware, and more.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I come from an Engineering background so I do all the designing and prototyping at our workshop. It can be tough to try to re-engineer a product to have rivets instead of thread stitching. Products like our belts are easy to eliminate stitching because we can use one piece of leather and use snaps and rivets for the buckles.
Journals can be a lot more difficult because it has multiple pockets and compartments and it is tough because if the product has too many rivets, it becomes an eyesore but if it doesn’t have enough rivets then there can be too big of gaps.
The design process almost always starts when a bunch of customers starts requesting the same product such as our traditional bifold wallet. The majority of our original wallets were slim front pocket wallets but we had so many of our customers reaching out and asking if we could make a bifold wallet. This makes the designing process easier because I know that once I perfect the product we already have customers lined up to buy it. I use software CAD to design all of our product templates and will start with printing out the templates and using those templates to hand cut some products to see if the design works. It usually takes multiple attempts and making a bunch of small adjustments in CAD to get the perfect design. Once I am happy with it and have tested the hand-cut product for a couple of weeks, I will then order a custom dye so that we use our clicker press to quickly cut the leather.
The most recent product that we are coming out with has taken me years of prototyping. Since we launched American Bench Craft we have always wanted a made in USA ball cap but we have never been able to find the perfect design. All the caps that we tried had a combination of a weak bill, flimsy mesh, or a cheap front panel. We finally found a manufacturer that worked with us to create the ideal ball cap that we are releasing within the next couple of months.
The hat has a strong bill, heavy-duty canvas front panel, and a strong back mesh. A couple of our corporate clients saw the prototype and liked it so much that we already sold out of our first production run and had to immediately start another run.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In 2019 we got heavily involved with attending trade shows around the country and also got into the on-site product making for corporate events. This all came crashing down in 2020 with the start of COVID-19 and we were pretty nervous the first couple of months but in the end, we were extremely fortunate to have our two best years in 2020 and 2021.
At the height of the pandemic, we used our die-cutting machines to assist in the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline workers.
We cut over 500K filters and assisted in the production of over 75K face shields. We also have a loyal customer base that kept ordering our products through the pandemic which helped keep our shop constantly running and employed. Since then, we have returned focus to the key areas of our business which are direct-to-consumer sales and corporate gifts.
As for other updates, we switched from Mailchimp to Klaviyo to enhance our Newsletter marketing. Klaviyo is more expensive but we like all the new features and flows that you can set up. We recently just launched a YouTube and TikTok channel primarily focusing on how our products are made. It is in the very beginning stages but one of our new employees has some background in video editing so he has been doing that for our videos.
Be a forever optimist. Whatever happens, good or bad, trust that it is for a reason and keep pushing forward.
We also just hired a new sales rep to increase our B2B sales, especially in the corporate gifts space. Our sales rep also pursued PR and was able to get us featured on two local news channels. We have always found that local PR and media is the most effective way for us to drive traffic and sales to our website. The reach may be smaller with local PR, but the conversion is often significantly higher.
Overall, from 2019 to 2022 our business grew from 3 full-time employees to now 8 full-time employees and 7 part-time employees.
Our three biggest revenue sources are our Website, Corporate gifts, Amazon, Faire, and Etsy. We are constantly updating our website design and flow with a new website designer to make everything more user-friendly and intriguing for our customers. We have a very friendly and accommodating customer service policy to try to always keep our customers happy. This has helped us keep a very high return customer rate.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The vision for American Bench Craft is one filled with difficult but attainable goals. Our major goal for the next year is to double our website and Amazon revenue. While this may seem ambitious, we have more dedicated staff to help achieve it.
We are quickly running out of space at our current workshop so we want to build a custom workshop in the next 2 years. Our goal is to have a bigger and better workshop with more efficient workflow, new equipment, and complete with a rock-climbing wall, ping pong table, and archery range.
We believe some of the best ways to foster creativity and effective brainstorming is through fun physical activity. We want our employees to enjoy coming to work and have a place to exercise, relieve stress, and have a different way to promote idea development.
Our long-term goal is to build American Bench Craft into a medium-sized business (5-10 million in revenue), where we can grow at our own pace and have a lot of fun while doing it.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of our failures in 2022 was implementing a new one-click fast checkout on our website. The company had some great people and they were really helpful with the installation however, for whatever reason it did not work with our customer base. Our conversion rate dropped to under 1% and we had to scrap the new checkout in less than a month.
Our conversion rate almost immediately recovered after we got rid of it so the damage was minimal. I recently saw that the checkout company we used just closed its doors after raising more than 100 million dollars.
Overall the biggest challenge our company has always faced is trying to grow through Pay Per Click advertising and social media ads. We have hired a bunch of companies to help us in this area ranging from small independent contractors to big expensive companies.
The individual consultants we used didn’t seem to have the resources to keep up with the constantly changing guidelines and best practices. On the other hand, the big companies seem to keep placing us in a cookie-cutter model that does not work for our brand and we aren’t the “big spenders” so it seems like our account does not get the attention needed.
Don’t see setbacks or failures as roadblocks, see them as guides redirecting you down the right path.
They can get a ton of impressions and sell our products but they also spent way too much money for it to make sense to continue using them. We have just not been able to find a company or an individual that knows how to advertise our brand and sell our products at a reasonable ad spend. We know some of our competitors have had really good luck with advertising so it is something we will continue to try and figure out.
Almost all of our growth on our website has been from organic traffic which has saved us a lot of money but it has also been a much slower growth process. If anyone reading this story thinks they can help us with this paid advertising, please don’t hesitate to reach out and email us!
The last challenge that we still have not been able to figure out is email collection. It sounds so easy, but has proven to be extremely difficult! We have worked with other brands to do giveaways to collect emails and we were so pumped to collect thousands of emails. We quickly found out that a lot of those emails were from people just interested in the free giveaway and were not going to be engaged customers. We then had to delete the majority of those emails because it hurt our open rate and damaged our email reputation score. Now we just have a subscribe box on our website, but we are always brainstorming new ways to collect emails
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Website - BigCommerce
- Email Marketing - Klaviyo
- Shipping - ShipStation
- Reviews - Yotpo
- SEO - MOZ
- Page Development - We just downloaded a free trial of Shogun to test out. We have read great reviews about Shogun for webpage development so we are excited to try it out.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Two books that we have read that stood out, and helped our company, were
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber and Rocketfuel by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters., and they should be read in that respective order.
The E-myth was essential in growing our business from $500K to $1mil in Revenue. Rocketfuel will be essential in taking us to $5mil and beyond.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be a forever optimist. Whatever happens, good or bad, trust that it is for a reason and keep pushing forward. Don’t see setbacks or failures as roadblocks, see them as guides redirecting you down the right path.
Tell us more about your team and your hiring process
We are always looking to hire people that want to be a part of our company. Our most recent hire was Josh and he just walked into our workshop one day and asked for a job. He graduated with a Psychology degree but wanted to do something different and had discovered our company when his aunt gave him one of our belts as a gift.
We hired him to do shipping & fulfillment but we quickly learned he had a lot of skills with video and photo editing and he is now a great addition to our team and helps in almost every area of our business.
Another new hire is Kelly. She was a practicing Physical Therapist but was looking for a change. She is smart, creative, and ambitious and has a great personality so we trained her up in sales, account management, and business development. In only a couple of months, she has closed a bunch of sales and got us featured in two local news segments.
We are a bit unconventional when it comes to hiring. We don’t recruit and hire based on job title, college degree, etc. Our ongoing joke is that we are the Island of Misfit Toys, all coming from completely different career paths (engineering, military, healthcare, maritime, film) none of which apply to our current business.
This makes it a little bit harder to train employees in their new roles, but it allows us to focus on creating a talented, passionate, and ambitious team. We are always looking to hire creative passionate people that are willing to put themselves out there, learn new skills, and work as a team.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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