Following an eight-week long search that began on August 15th, Dell announced that Shwood Handcrafted Wooden Eyewear has been voted as the winner of the “America’s Favorite Small Business” contest sponsored by Dell, MasterCard and Microsoft. A select panel of judges filtered the more than 200 video entries down to the best 10 submissions and invited the public to vote for their favorite.
The result? America’s favorite small business, Shwood Handcrafted Wooden Eyewear, won a $75,000 prize package and a six-part web reality show. The prizes included $25,000 in Dell solutions and Microsoft software suited to Shwood’s unique needs and a $50,000 MasterCard prepaid card. The reality show premieres today, October 25, 2011, on Dell’s Facebook page (Facebook.com/DellBusiness) and runs on Tuesday and Thursday for three weeks.
Eric Singer, founder of Shwood Handcrafted Wooden Eyewear in Portland, OR, started his company after hand carving a pair of sunglass frames from a Madrone tree limb in his back yard, adding a rusty pair of cabinet hinges, and lenses from the corner store. Yes, Singer produces wooden sunglasses – and they are becoming all the rage.
Singer went from working solo in his workshop to having approximately 20 staff members, comprised of artists, skateboarders, musicians, and various creative types to deliver their product. Today, Singer tells us about his journey in hopes of inspiring those who share the entrepreneurial dream.
Eric, tell us how did you started out.
A. The first pair of Shwood sunglasses was carved by hand and knife, out of a Madrone tree branch broken off of a neighbor's tree. The inspiration came solely from the need for something new. It was during a burnt out time on my creative life, where everything I had been doing just seemed dull. I needed a new edge, and the idea for a pair of wooded sunglasses seemed like the ultimate challenge once I had the tree branch on my hand.
Q. What were your challenges starting out and how have you overcome them?
A. The challenge was balancing this newfound creative spark with a real-time job. I didn't start actually selling the sunglasses for a profit for the first couple years I was making them. Instead, I just traded them for other things, art, food, candy, you name it. It was fun, period. Needless to say, the sunglasses weren't paying the bills, and it was getting tough to balance my full time job with my newfound obsession. I eventually quit the job, loaded up my car with wood tools and an A/C convertor, and moved to a small mountain town where I lived out of my car to snowboard and make shades from my back seat. That eventually led me to meeting the right people who partnered with me and bam. It was wildfire from there.
Q. How did you know when it was time to rent a workshop and start hiring staff?
A. Shortly after forming the company we launched an online website/store. Within a week of launching the site we were backordered 200+ pairs, without the help needed to keep up with that sort of demand. It definitely caught us off guard, and we had to think fast to keep our head above water. We quickly started scaling our production with the little amount of operating capital we had by hiring friends and moving the tools into a little 10x10 shed. Things were crazy to say the least. Luckily, we have a great team of problem solvers.
Q. Who have you looked to for guidance outside the company?
A. Anyone with any sort of business sense. There were a lot of legal documents along the way that we had to learn about as we were trying to make sunglasses. It was crazy, so any help from family, friends, college professors, and business professionals greatly helped us keep the project afloat. Looking back on the first year of forming the brand we seemed to meet the right people to help us solve whichever brick wall was standing in our way, at the right time. I still can't fully describe how we consistently overcame our challenges. Just a bunch of really great people came together, and pulled on every resource we could think of.
Q. How did you hear about the contest?
A. We purchased the Dell Vostro, and signed up for Dell's small business promotions. We received an e-mail blast about the contest, and decided to put together and submit our story. It was that simple.
Q. What will winning the contest do for your business?
A. It's going to do a lot. We will be able to set up systems that control and manage our day-to-day work flow (which is enormous considering we manufacture 100% of our products in-house). The pre-paid Mastercard will help us move into a much bigger facility, and expand our production to keep up with demand. Also, the coverage from the reality webisodes alone will send a lot of business our way.
Q. What are three tips you would give aspiring entrepreneurs about starting a business?
1) Use mistakes as a platform for growth.
2) Take calculated risks. Don't be that person who sits and wonders "what if". Be that person that does, and doesn't look back.
3) Know your own skill set, and don't wonder far from it. Confidence is important, know what you do best and don't hesitate.
Marla Tabaka is a small-business advisor who helps entrepreneurs around the globe grow their businesses well into the millions. She has over 25 years of experience in corporate and start-up ventures and speaks widely on combining strategic and creative thinking for optimum success and happiness.