How I Started A $4K/Month Veteran And First Responder Woodworking Company
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is James Wolfer, and I am the founder, owner, and operator of Valhalla Wood Forge. We are a veteran and first responder run woodworking company that started in 2017.
We focus on making rustic wood decor and high end men’s jewelry. Our biggest seller is custom wedding bands made from unique items such as whiskey and wine barrels, meteorite, and coffee grounds. We also sell a ton of heirloom patriotic wood flags, custom cornhole boards, signs, and other woodworks.
Our rings are absolutely huge sellers in the springtime, as primarily we cater to guys (although we make women’s wedding bands as well!) Guys typically wait until the last minute to get their wedding band, and we do a lot of custom and rush work, so we do the bulk of our sales for rings in April and May with about a 4-6 week rush turnaround.
Our second best seller is our custom, rustic wood flags, which really picks up in the fall and towards the holiday gift season. We offer several sizes and customization options, from small desktop-sized flags to large 5-foot wood flags. Our customizations include military branch emblems, police badges, names, dates and unit logos carved right into the wood. Our flags are sealed with a high gloss so they really seem to stand out from our competitors. Plus, being veterans and first responders ourselves, we understand the culture of our customers, which for these are largely veterans, cops, firefighters, and their family members, so our customer service and customizations are top-notch and really, what keeps our reviews high and keeps customers coming back over and over. For this product line, we have A LOT of return customers and referrals.
2019 has seen insane growth for us, and we’re having trouble keeping up with demand. Typically, for this type of business, October and November are the biggest months, often double or even tripling the normal average month. So, we hired our first employee last month, a full-time law enforcement officer (and veteran) that I’ve worked with before who has both sales and woodworking experience, who’ll be helping us with everything from production to sales.
As an update, October 2019 was our biggest month yet, grossing $8500, with about a 70% profit. We paid ourselves $5000, and reinvested about $1000 into future product lines and another $600 in running Facebook and Google Ads. As of today, November 14, we're already at over $4,000 gross and have had a pretty good ROAS.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started Valhalla Wood Forge in 2017 while working full-time as a police officer. Our department was smaller, only seven of us total, we didn’t have full-time detectives so we had to fulfill dual roles as patrol and doing detective level investigations. I was working long hours, investigating a lot of sex crimes, which were taking a huge emotional and mental toll. Additionally, I was (and still am) a Coast Guard reservist, doing law enforcement and search and rescue, so my stress level was very high.
One day, the Police Chief ordered a big wooden flag for like, $500. I remember looking at it and thinking, “I could make that, but better.” So I got some wood, borrowed a circular saw from my parents, and made a flag to donate to my department. The department put a picture of me with the handmade flag on Facebook, and pretty soon, I was getting requests from cops and military buddies for their own flags. For the rest of 2017 and really, the first half of 2018, I didn’t charge much as I was only making 1-2 flags a month. I was having fun and had found a way to unwind and work through a lot of stress, and have my tools get paid for. Score, right?
Do your homework if you’re going to use outside marketing agencies, and don’t take shortcuts.
Then, in the summer of 2018, the Damascus steel and wood-lined wedding band my wife had bought me from Embr Bands, some company marketed towards men, broke. After doing my research, I found out this company was simply importing cheap rings from China and marking them up, and their reviews were tanking. By that point, I was getting pretty good at woodworking, and again, I thought “I could make that, but better.” So I started making wood rings, combining them with metals or carbon fiber to really strengthen them.
The holiday season of 2018 became very busy, and I found myself working long nights to keep up with demand. I began reading everything I could on SEO and social media, specifically focusing on Instagram. My wife came on board and has a natural eye for product photography. With her product photos, I built an Etsy shop, a Shopify store, and began pushing hard for organic growth on my Instagram page. We went from 100 followers to almost 4K of organic followers seemingly overnight.
2019 exploded further. The typical January slump of handcrafted business didn’t hit me, but instead, almost tripled, and continues to grow each month. I really think this is because I have multiple product lines that do well during different times of the year. I have had to figure out ways to streamline my process, as I still do everything myself. We bought a house that came with an external shop, and I really focused on making a space that furthered efficiency. I began batch ordering materials to fulfill orders in groups. I bought a CNC machine to help carve flags, and upgraded my lathe to a metal lathe and got faster at my process. And recently, I hired a buddy to help me with physically fulfilling orders so I can keep scaling up without spending all my free time in the shop.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first flag I ever made was honestly, not the greatest. I glued on stars and used too thin of wood. I quickly moved into using better, thicker wood and hand carving the stars using a hammer and chisel. I sold the first few flags for dirt cheap to friends in the law enforcement and military communities, which got me great feedback and even better word of mouth referrals.
A typical flag would take me about 10 hours to make. After a while, I moved to use a Dremel and hand-carved the stars and other customizations, which brought down the process to about 5-6 hours per flag. Now, using a CNC to carve the stars, I can do an entire 50-star wood flag in less than an hour. I can work on multiple flags at once, and within two hours, have 2-5 flags done.
I’ve also streamlined the ring process. I bulk order ring blanks, which are the metal rings with a channel cut in them, and then inlay whatever wood and other materials in the channel before finishing it with 10+ coats of a polished sealant. For example, inlaying whiskey barrel into a metal ring involves drilling a hole in a piece of whiskey barrel, sanding it the exact width of the channel in the metal ring, gluing it in, and letting that glue cure for several hours before I am able to sand it down smooth and put the sealant on it. I’ll do “glue-ups” of 5-10 rings on one day, and then the next day, sand down smooth and finish those rings.
For many of my ring prototypes, I will make test designs and give them out to friends and ask for their feedback. This has worked well to gauge the response. Additionally, since my social media following is entirely organic, I post pictures and videos of prototypes and gauge the engagement. I get roughly 85% of my orders directly referred through social media, so that’s a pretty good gauge of product interest.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In 2018, after I launched the wedding band product line, my Instagram page started getting serious attention. I realized that I no longer had a paying hobby, but had a legitimate business with a ton of potential. I started a website with Shopify, which for e-commerce, is absolutely amazing. I built my website entirely myself, using Shopify free themes and apps, and the basic Shopify plan of $30 a month.
I registered the business name with the state, first as an LLC as an umbrella for future businesses and then a DBA for this specific one. That cost me about $300 in total. I registered ValhallaWoodForge.com on GoDaddy for pretty cheap, I think around $15 a year, and then got Google Suite for an email with the domain name, which cost around $10 a month for a single .com email address. I’ve since added my wife and our employee, so I pay around $25 a month for three hosted email addresses. I also ordered business cards for like, $50 through Vistaprint.
I completely bootstrapped this business. The material and shipping costs are ridiculously low on rings, like 20%, and my flags and larger items sit around 30-40%, so I had plenty of profit to keep investing. I didn’t start paying myself anything until 2019, choosing instead to invest in the business. I went from a borrowed circular saw to having a fully stocked 20x20 shop in my backyard. In the spring of 2019, we used a personal credit card to buy the CNC, which cost around $2,000, which we paid back within just a couple of months from the profit made from using it.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Really, focusing on social media and great customer service has been our two biggest advantages. I try to be extremely responsive to customers and potential customers, including doing digital mockups of their customization requests. For a physical product, Instagram has been our best referral for rings, especially with the stunning product photography my wife does. I rarely have done paid ads, focusing instead on generating organic followers who will actually buy my products. Shopify is amazing for this, as it can directly plug into Facebook and Instagram, so we’re able to tag our products on both and have people click through to our site direct from Instagram.
To grow the follower count organically, I’ve hosted a few giveaways of larger items, such as our wood flags. Lately, I’ve partnered with some smaller influencers in similar niches, such as construction and the veteran community, to do joint giveaways where in order to win, you have to follow both accounts and comment on the giveaway post. This makes Instagram’s algorithm recognize engagement, which then leads Instagram to push these posts higher in search results. I’ll usually do a paid boost for these posts, around $50 or so, which makes the engagement skyrocket. This helped grow the follower count to where it is today, around 4,000. In order to keep these followers, however, I make sure that I post a quality post, once a day.
Lately, I’ve found that engagement seems highest when I post a good mix of high-quality product photos, as well as “lifestyle” photos showing us in the shop working, or out and about living life while wearing a ring. For example, I often post photos that customers send in of their flags hanging in their houses, or wedding photos their photographer took of them with our rings on.
I wish I treated it more like a business earlier on instead of a hobby. If you are passionate about something and making a little bit of money with it, you can turn that into a lot of money.
Also, as I mentioned above, you just can’t beat great customer service. I answer emails within hours of getting them whenever I can. If a ring has a defect that is my fault, I make it right, no matter what. Often, even though I have a no return policy, I will go above and beyond to help customers who damage their rings or got sized wrong, replacing or resizing rings for free. This has reflected in my reviews on both Etsy and Shopify, with all 5-star ratings so far. The biggest thing I keep hearing and seeing is how great our customer service is, and I’ve definitely started seeing an increase in repeat customers.
Finally, I’ve started increasing paid ads on Etsy. Etsy is probably 20% of our orders, but it’s a built-in marketplace. In August, they changed their ad structure and it costs quite a bit more for results. I saw a lot of sellers complaining about this online and decided to move away from Etsy entirely. Since Etsy is only a portion of our gross revenue, I decided to do the opposite, and more than doubled my ad spend within Etsy. This has resulted in a HUGE increase in sales for the last couple of months. But really, I think I have my budget at $2.50 a day and it’s paid off about with an average of ten times ROI, leading to September being my best month ever on Etsy, during a typically low performing month for handcrafted goods.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’ve since left law enforcement and work a full-time job while I continue to scale the business. I am working hard to one day replace my full-time income. It’s already at the point where my wife was able to go down to part-time at her job to spend more time at home with our family, as well as work on the bookkeeping and administrative side of things.
Right now, after hiring an employee, our profit margin is roughly 50% of gross revenue, meaning we’re paying ourselves about $2,000 a month. We’ve decided to take about $500 a month of that gross profit and re-invest it back into the business. Going into 2020, we plan to expand into some new product lines, add a laser engraver, and invest quite a bit of money into Facebook, Instagram and Google ads to further scale the business.
Additionally, I plan on getting our Instagram follower count above 10,000 followers, which seems to be a sweet spot for profitability. My goal is to increase our monthly gross revenue to at least $10,000 while keeping a roughly 50% profit margin in 2020 and double it again in 2021. To maintain the margins, we’ll likely be investing in a second and possible third CNC, and we’re also considering outsourcing some of our painting and wood cutting work to local contractors.
And finally, I plan to spend a bit more time on our Youtube channel. I’ve started making videos showing how we make the rings, flags, and other products from start to finish. There is a lot of revenue potential in Youtube videos, plus the exposure from having a great Youtube channel is staggering.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Pretty early on, I hired someone to do marketing for me. They were just starting out as a digital marketing brand after successfully building their own brand, and offered to do marketing for me for free for a couple of months as a portfolio builder, but using my money for ad spend.
Their success as a brand did not translate well to starting a marketing agency, and turning over marketing control to them with my money as ad spend, especially in the early days, hurt a lot. I ended up reverse-engineering what they were doing in Facebook ads, reading everything I could on that platform, and trying it myself by doing everything they weren’t. I realized they honestly had zero ideas of what they were doing and had really only been successful with their niche because they were the first to do it, not because they actually knew what they were doing. So I fired them and focused on my own marketing efforts which have been far more successful. So the big lesson here is, do your homework if you’re going to use outside marketing agencies, and don’t take shortcuts.
Recently, I learned another huge lesson: a friend of mine who also runs a business ordered an extremely custom plaque as a gift for one of his employees and asked me to rush it as he needed it in two weeks. I sent him mock-ups based on his written requests, and once he signed off on those, I began work without requiring a deposit for materials. After I made it, I sent him a photo of it in process, and he realized he had spelled the name of his employee wrong when he sent the information to me and asked me to redo it, saying he would pay for both.
I stayed up extremely late getting the redo done in time, and asked him for payment before shipping. The guy completely ghosted me for over a month, ignoring texts, calls, and emails, including a formal invoice, then finally responded that he had been busy with work and would respond to me later. He never did respond or pay me, and I ended up eating the loss on the materials, labor, and really, the friendship. The lesson learned here was not to do favors for friends with your business. A family and friends discount is one thing, but a favor without at least a deposit is quite another. This is your business, and if you don’t treat it like a business, neither will they.
One huge thing that has been helpful has been to network with other makers. I work closely with several other makers who are technically competitors, but really, we’re all still pretty small fish when you compare us to the big companies like ManlyBands, Embr Rings, or Shane Company. We help each other out when we have technical problems, go in on bulk orders together, and also in emergencies. For example, one of the other makers had a family emergency and had to go back east for over a month. He had a couple pending orders he had to get out, so he sub-contracted those to me, knowing that I made the same quality he did. Another maker, again a technical competitor to me, constantly gives me shoutouts on social media since we have different styles, and recently, he commissioned a custom sign from me for his business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Sales Platform: Shopify and Etsy
- Reviews App: Stamped.io
- Email: G Suite by Google
- Shipping: Shipstation, which is amazing as it imports all my orders from both Shopify and Etsy.
- CNC design software: Easel (Pro) by Inventables
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I listen to Entrepeneurs on Fire by John Lee Dumas on my way to my day job. This keeps me motivated to keep pushing, and I’ve also picked up a lot of strategies for streamlining my processes from there.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The biggest lesson I learned, outside of what I already talked about above, is wishing that I treated it more like a business earlier on instead of a hobby. If you are passionate about something and making a little bit of money with it, you can turn that into a lot of money.
There’s a friend of mine on Facebook who has started to restore furniture and is really quite good at it and has sold her pieces. I told her she could turn that into a legitimate business, but she doesn’t have the confidence right now. I’m telling you, if people buy your stuff, especially strangers, it means more people will buy your stuff.
The other biggest mistake I’m seeing from other people selling handcrafted items is regarding Etsy. I’m seeing people do one of two things: underutilize the platform, or they are solely using the platform.
What I mean by this is that I’m seeing a whole lot of handcrafters that only use Etsy because it’s easy. But referring people to an Etsy page as your webpage isn’t as professional as a dot com webpage, plus, Etsy’s fees are much higher than Shopify. Also, when Etsy makes changes to its marketing structure, I’ve seen people who have no other website get absolutely screwed and their shops go under.
The other camp is those that refuse to use Etsy at all. Etsy is a marketplace, with a built-in audience that is often searching for exactly the product you make! Both camps are making the mistake of not diversifying their markets. Use Etsy, it’s an amazing sales tool, but don’t rely on it solely.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Valhalla Wood Forge has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Valhalla Wood Forge to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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