Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in metal handcrafts but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Terran Marks, Owner of Brown County Forge, located in Bloomington, IN, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Brown County Forge is a blacksmithing company offering hands-on blacksmith classes and hand-forged home hardware. My students come from around the Midwest, with the majority from Indiana and its neighboring states. Most students are men between the ages of 25 and 55. However, my class customers are their spouses, parents, and significant others. My home hardware clients live across the United States, with concentrations in California, the Northeast, the Northwest, and the South. These clients tend to be 25 - 55 as well and predominantly women.
Tell us about yourself
I picked up blacksmithing as a hobby, to begin with. While fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service, I spent my 2011 off-season participating in a work-study at the John C. Campbell Folk School in western North Carolina. What started as a 9-week experience turned into a small side hustle. I continued for four more years before going full-time. After saving 95% of my pay during the 2015 fire season, I moved back home to Indiana to start Brown County Forge. It was important to me to bypass outside investment while I tested my idea. I gave myself nine months to see if I could make it work. Otherwise, I knew I could go back to firefighting. The number one thing that motivates me to continue this work is daily problem-solving. I thrive on creating systematic, well-thought-out solutions to business challenges that pop up. Whether it's orchestrating scheduling for the year to achieve an ideal work-life balance or it's testing a new product idea, it's all an exciting game.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
My biggest accomplishment as a business owner is taking an old, uncommon craft and turning it into a viable business that has reached thousands of customers in the past 7+ years. Doing an independent study of marketing, ads, and sales have made the biggest difference. Without a firm grasp of those business essentials, a small business like mine wouldn't have found its legs as quickly or possibly at all.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
My greatest challenge as a business owner has been customer interaction. This challenge has been two-fold:
- Overcoming insecurities related to public speaking/presenting the information. (Repetition and approaching things with a Stoic attitude have been key.)
- Switching from my own goals in creating artistic ironwork to focusing on what customers actually want and are asking for. It's for this reason that I teach so many classes. It's what customers want.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Three tips to Start, Run, and Grow a Business:
- Start with the customer in mind. Who are you serving, and how do they want to be served? Research your demographics and work to create an offering they will enjoy. I had a vague idea of who my customers might be: I thought my students would be retired men with time and money to spend on a hobby. My class offerings turned out to be appealing to a wide range of demographics, the most important being location and interest in metalwork.
- Run your business systematically. Where does the revenue come from, and where does it go each month? Are you tracking expenses? Where can you boost profits while maintaining the same level of quality? I keep a close eye on revenue and expenses using simple spreadsheets. Over the years, I've made adjustments to emphasize profit leaders, like in-person classes over handmade hardware. It's been talked about exhaustively, but the revenue breaks down fairly close to the 80-20 rule: 80% comes from classes, and 20% comes from hardware.
- Grow your business by staying flexible. What are your customers asking for that you're not yet providing? How has your initial offering to customers changed over time? One of my best-selling products came from a customer request that kept coming up: "Can you make this style of hook a little wider so I can hang my boat or on the wall?" Once I got the fourth request like that, I turned it into a stand-alone product. It went on to sell over 1500 units.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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