Part of my research into setting up GalwayPens was of course developing the dreaded business plan. I wrote one in 2012 which was 48 pages long (and hated doing it as I’d rather have spent the time turning). I had it looked at by a friend who owns a large manufacturing business here in Galway (which he inherited from his father). He read through the document and handed it back to me one night when we went out for a few pints. I took a notebook and one of my pens with me that night and we brainstormed as much ideas about the business as the pints allowed (yes I give him the pen at the end of the night and didn’t charge him). My friend has spent all his working life working in high-volume manufacturing environment. Like me, as soon as he could do something for the family business e.g. sweep the floor, or operate a CNC machine, his father had him working too. He couldn’t get his head around why I wanted to start to produce low-volume once-off pieces. He suggested to me that I should set up a small workshop to mass produce wooden pens (he was aware of my years spent in manufacturing). Or better still; out-source the whole production to a third party, for example go to China. His idea was that I would develop and keep the brand-name but get someone else to make the pens.
I remembered thinking that this mass producing and outsourcing idea made me feel uncomfortable. It went against the direction I wanted my business to go in. I recounted the story to him of the six pens I made from granny’s chair and the emotions attached to them. I wanted to get the idea across to him that buying something that is hand-made locally is different than the mass produced items we buy every day. I tried to explain to him that hand-made crafts have a connection to the person who has made something special for you. They have put their blood and sweat, and heart and soul into making something of more value than just money alone. This was good stuff, and I had to write this down. Looking back on the notes I took during that night out, I realised I was “turning soul into wood”. I had actually written this down as we tried to develop an elevator pitch (something I’ll come back to in another post). This was later to become the tagline for my business. It was a simple way of telling my story. I needed to find a way to tell this story to more people. The notes became more and more disjointed as the night and the lovely pints continued. He went home that night with my pen in his pocket, but I don’t think it meant anything to him. There was no story attached to it that meant something to him. He wasn’t aware of the effort I’d put into making the pen for him or even what the pen was made from (too many pints at that stage). Reading back on my notes, I’d actually written that fact that he wasn’t too impressed by the pen as I hadn’t reinforced the effort I’d made in making the pen. To him it was just a thing to write with. I still have the pages of notes I took that night. They are summarised as follows: I had to make stuff that mattered and the stuff had to matter to the person who wanted it.
I continued my research and I came across this quote from St. Francis of Assisi:
He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
I think this best describes my work. I have always worked hard and put the maximum effort into everything I did or made. Now I needed to convince people to buy from me. I was always aware that when you buy something from an artist/craftsman, you are actually buying more than a simple object. What people are actually buying is the result many hours spent making mistakes and experimenting. I’ve spent five years experimenting and learning. Don’t forget the many times of pure frustration, getting hit in the face by wood chips, the grazed knuckles, cut fingers, the many breakouts (where the timber fractures along natural internal fault-lines which you can’t see until you start spinning the piece of timber) and catches (where I lose control of the chisels and it digs into the timber while on the lathe causing the timber to snap off the chuck at high speed), but also the moments of pure joy when you make something beautiful, when the polish brings up the best in the timber. Not to forget the simple joy of digging through an old woodshed and finding a piece of timber which I would use to make lovely pens. I dread to think how many hours I spent in my self-imposed apprenticeship trying to make the next pen better than the last one. I had to forget about my mistakes and time spent learning, and to remember all the lessons learnt. Also one of the things my father always said to us when we were young was quite simple “do it right, or don’t do it at all.” Everything I made had to be made right.
So back to the question I posed at the start; why buy crafts? Well the answer is simple. You’re not just buying a thing – a mass produced object which you will have no hesitation in dumping in a bin; you’re actually buying a piece of heart, a piece of soul, and quite literally a small piece of someone else’s life. You’re buying something that is real and honest, something you can keep and use (and preferably reuse) on your journey through life. Hence my tagline “turning soul into wood”. Every pen I make has more than just a piece if timber and a few pen parts. It has a small piece of my soul in it.
By the way, I recently caught up with my old friend and we went for a few pints again. He asked about the business and how far along I was with it. I told him I was nearly ready to launch. I asked him about the pen. It turns out that his wife found it in his shirt pocket the next morning before it went into the wash, and she kept it. She took a shine to it and he told me she still had it in her bag and used the pen daily. He admitted he should have kept it as it was quite a nice pen (when he looked at it without the beer goggles on) – it was made from bog oak and has gold plated parts on it. Naturally he asked me for another one. This time I charged him. Success. I included a hand-written note in the box when he collected it. It’s a quote from Elbert Hubbard: “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man”. He agreed.