Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In medieval times, rust was a hassle. Knights would battle in the rain, blood slicking their armor. Back at the castle, they'd remove their chain mail and place it in casks filled with sand; children rolled the casks around the keep. "That would polish it up and get rid of any rust," Edie Ramstad says. "Now we have electric tumblers that do that."
Ramstad is the founder of Weave Got Maille, a manufacturer of chain mail supplies in Ada, Minnesota. (" Maille" is the archaic spelling of "mail.") The company has dabbled in prop and costume work, crafting a few pieces for Game of Thrones and chain mail car seat covers for an unnamed Marvel film debuting next year. Mostly, though, Ramstad and her 16 employees produce jump rings--the tiny metal hoops from which mail is woven--as well as clasps, ear wires, and other materials for chain mail jewelry making.
About 60 percent of Weave Got Maille's sales come from independent craft stores and chains like Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft. The rest is e-commerce to consumers in 82 countries. "If I had known we were going to be international, that would not be our name," Ramstad says of her company's punning moniker. "It does not translate well."
To make jump rings, which range in diameter from about one millimeter to a half-inch, employees wrap wire in Slinky-like coils around mandrels (a type of spindle) and then slice it with a .006-inch blade so the rings can be linked. Originally, Ramstad thought she'd produce 1,000 rings a week. Today, the company churns out between two and three million a day. "There was no machinery to do it at that volume, so we had to build our own," she says.
Lack of machinery was just one problem facing Ramstad, who at one point almost gave up, thwarted by Ada's sparse infrastructure. Founded in 2012, Weave Got Maille was the first nonagricultural manufacturer in this farm town of around 1,600 people, 45 miles northeast of Fargo. "You can't be an internet business with a post office that closes at 2 o'clock and puts a limit on how much you send because the mail carrier doesn't have a very big car," Ramstad says.
Ramstad attributes Weave Got Maille's unlikely success to the help she got from an entrepreneur education and support program and from the intercession of local and national politicians. Business has expanded with the increasing number of entrepreneurial artisans who buy product in bulk and sell their creations at crafts fairs and online.
Beth Myers, Ramstad's first internet customer, buys hundreds of dollars' worth of rings at a time, which she turns into bracelets, earrings, and other items for sale through Beth's Jewelry Stop in Mechanicsville, Maryland. "The consistency of the cut and color of their rings is phenomenal," Myers says. "I have never bought rings from anyone else in my five years' doing my business."
Hearing from customers like Myers "that we had a small part of making their dreams come true is our greatest joy," says Ramstad. "That is better than any profit or bottom line."
Lure of the links
Ramstad grew up artsy and entrepreneurial. After high school, she shuttled around the country, starting tiny companies, like a hydroponic greenhouse business, wherever she went. She studied jewelry making, creating pieces--many of them reproductions of antiques--that sold for between $200 and $10,000.
Early on, Ramstad became captivated by chain mail. She learned to make armor and immediately translated those skills to jewelry, fashioning the rings by hand and linking them one after another after another. While living in Arizona, she began teaching chain mail classes in jewelry supply and bead stores. "I love the history and the stories behind chain mail," she says. "I like the rhythm of it: The way it absorbs you into it."
In 2011, Ramstad was working an art fair in South Dakota when she met her husband-to-be, a farmer from Minnesota who was in town visiting his daughter. "He is a super-sweet and giving man, but he refused to move his farm to Arizona," Ramstad says. So she joined him in Ada and retired. Two weeks later, with her former students still calling her to request jump rings, she ditched retirement to start Weave Got Maille.
The idea was to work 10 hours a week and bring on a part timer for another six to 10. Her business plan projected $50,000 in revenue in five years. At first, customers arrived through word of mouth from former students. Then appearances at a couple of trade shows catapulted her onto the fast track. Sales doubled year after year.
A rural rescue
But the demand strained a business that, back then, operated out of a building in the middle of a wheat field. Ada is a county seat; but a few years ago it had only dial-up internet. The local post office turned away Ramstad's business because it couldn't handle the volume. As she struggled alone with infrastructure constraints and new challenges, like managing a scaling workforce, she grew increasingly frustrated.
The only solution, Ramstad decided, was to close up shop and let everyone go. She resolved to deliver the bad news on a Friday in the summer of 2014. That week, "I was trying to find things to keep me out of the office because I could not face my employees," she says. One such evasive action was a 75-minute drive to Fargo for a meeting of 1 Million Cups, an education and networking program run by the Kauffman Foundation.
That program, which Ramstad had never had time for in the past, was a revelation. The business had been struggling with phone calls, which could not be heard in the noisy manufacturing environment. A speaker suggested setting up an employee outside the office with an internet phone system. Another attendee connected her with a manufacturer for specialty production equipment she'd been unable to source.
More important, Ramstad says, for the first time she no longer felt isolated. "I went home energized," she says. "Rather than letting people go on Friday, I put an ad in the paper and hired three more."
Someone from Kauffman reached out to North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp on Ramstad's behalf; Heitkamp asked the U.S. postmaster general to intercede with the Ada branch to increase its hours. After hearing Ramstad address a later 1 Million Cups event, the mayor of Fargo advised the governor of Minnesota to bring fiber to Ada. "Three years ago, the kids here could not even do their homework online," Ramstad says. "Now we have good internet."
An expanding chain
In addition to improving Ada's internet and postal service, Ramstad's entrepreneurial streak is generating jobs there. Last year, she invested half a million dollars to open a second business: Premier Anodizing & Metal Finishing, a supplier to Weave Got Maille that employs two full-time and two part-time employees. Both companies occupy a former creamery in downtown Ada, directly across from the grocery store.
Ramstad launched Premier Anodizing after learning that crafters new to chain mail prefer anodized aluminum rings to those made from more expensive metals like copper, bronze, and stainless steel. Unable to find a suitable vendor for the coating process, she built her own and landed several additional clients, including a company that makes fishing lines and one that makes drones. "I think in the next two years it will match Weave Got Maille [in revenue] if not go above it," she says.
Weave Got Maille, meanwhile, continually introduces new products. Currently, it is working on four, including new materials for making armor. Although Ramstad personally prefers jewelry, armor enthusiasts can be good customers. After all, there are 100 to 500 jump rings in a bracelet. A piece of armor might require 70,000.
And Ramstad has no idea where the business will take her. "The company is kind of like that old movie Flubber," she says. "It just keeps growing and growing. We try to hold it down in one place and it bounces out the other side and starts doing something different."