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Ron Diefenbacher’s artistic vision did not include a busy online storefront. In fact, when he got started, the internet did not exist.
Diefenbacher is a fine artist -- in wood. With a master’s degree in woodworking and furniture design, he set out in the early 1980s to build a reputation for high-quality art furniture. (You can see some of his designs at www.diefenbacher.com.)
While a life in art sounds romantic, it’s a business. The difference is that the business is you. Diefenbacher’s three decades of crafting a business around himself offers lessons for any entrepreneur.
You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing. This realization led Diefenbacher to gradually reduce his art furniture activity. “I was driven to work on art furniture for career success, but the self-promotion, schmoozing and networking have to be second nature. I wasn’t really suited to the exclusive art scene.” So despite initial success, he sought other business while continuing to build the occasional showpiece. This led to the next lesson...
Business books advise readers to “focus, focus, focus,” but a better small business mantra is “juggle, juggle, juggle.” Multiple income streams can help entrepreneurs to weather economic storms and pivot rapidly to meet new demands. Realizing this, Diefenbacher added commissioned work (largely for interior designers); small and mid-scale production runs of special designs; teaching; and, more recently, online tool retailing. The mix varies from year to year, but he is usually active in three businesses at any one time.
Managing income streams requires a combination of be-here-now and time management skills. “When I’m in the shop and working on something, it’s all I want to do,” say Diefenbacher. “Then, when a retail tool customer calls, it’s the same: I enjoy talking to him. The key is, whatever I’m doing, that becomes the most important.” Lesson one, enjoy, and lesson two, diversify, combine nicely.
Every customer is an opportunity.
In three decades, Diefenbacher has invented and produced a child’s adjustable “grow chair.” He’s made wooden molds for a plastics company. He has crafted the furnishings for a law firm in a historic St. Louis brick and timber site. He’s built furniture for rapper Nelly. Recently, he constructed a dharma wheel for a Marin County Zen community. Most of his customers come via word-of-mouth: one opportunity opens the door to others. “There’s no secret to this for people who are self-employed,” he says. “Keep lots of things going on all the time. Keep your customers happy.” This extends to all his businesses; he’s proud of a 99 percent positive feedback rating online. Satisfied clients bring more clients.
Find and fill the gaps.
Teaching had been an early goal, but few universities have woodworking departments. Diefenbacher developed a curriculum to fill the gap, serving as adjunct faculty at several St. Louis colleges. His venture into tool retailing was similarly inspired. He and other woodworkers had little access to fine hand tools. His entry into web sales began as he recognized that there were few specialty retailers in that space.
Stay current, plan ahead.
In the late 1990s, Diefenbacher searched for an income stream that would serve him in a retirement 15 years hence. “I had a gut feeling that there would be a strong interest in well-made European or Japanese hand tools.” The venture started with a small flyer, accelerated to a catalog, and then boomed on the web. “The Internet was just kicking off then. I was on the ground floor of something, and the business really took off. The catalog now has 300 to 400 items.” In hindsight, the online choice seems obvious, but specialty web sales were new back then. And therein lies the next lesson: stay current, but plan ahead. Diefenbacher merged his market knowledge with his vision of where he wanted to go. As a result, online sales are now a major income source.
Keep it personal.
Personal contact is how Diefenbacher competes. He notes “Online tool customers are shocked when they call and the owner answers the phone.” Beyond the personal touch, his business streams have succeeded because they relied on his unique personal assets. “The pinnacle of this field is the speculative work -- the art furniture -- but that’s not where we all end up. Finding out who you are over a long period of time is part of the path. We’re all allowed to change, and adapting who you are to what the market needs is a process. I’m always a work in progress.”
Vince Hyman is a St. Paul, Minn.-based writer and editor.
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