Scaling a handmade business: How Distro started

Scaling a handmade business: How Distro started

I was in tech for several years, but I've always been a maker. Whether that be making handmade clothing, furniture, software... Creating and making is just in my nature. Even back to when I was 5, when I made my first product: a cardboard snowboard with flames on it. If being able to create was all I had, life would still have meaning.

After several years in tech building a successful design career for myself, I was in the unique position to turn my hobbies into something I did full time. And when I asked myself if there was one thing I could do for the rest of my life, regardless of money, I always came back to making furniture. The smells, the natural material, the form, the process... It's something I never got sick of. So after I left my last tech job, I decided I was going to dive-in head first and start my own furniture brand, Lone Birch.

The name Lone Birch is something I came up with when I was walking through a rainy forest one day with a buddy of mine. I love how forests look in the rain - the bark turns dark and the leaves pop from the contrast, it's so beautiful. As we were walking up this path, all of a sudden something jumped out in the corner of my eye. I noticed this big, beautiful white birch. It was the only one around, completely surrounded by trees with brown bark. And I thought to myself, with all the other trees, this one isn't just standing out, it's thriving despite all the competition and tt looked proud of that. In that moment, that Lone Birch reflected back how I look at life and everything I make.

When I knew I was all-in on Lone Birch, I picked home office as my first niche, since it was a familiar space for me (having worked at home for several years) and that working from home was in full swing because of the pandemic. I started with an Etsy store and decided to be made to order since it allowed me to experiment with different products and designs until I found some winners. If I had an idea, I’d create a quick prototype, take pictures of it and put it in the store to see if it would sell. I did this over and over and over to figure out which would sell and which wouldn’t - one of the biggest advantages of being made to order.

After experimenting with about 10 products, I finally had a couple get traction. One became an Etsy pick and that skyrocketed my sales. It finally felt like I'd made a good decision about leaving my job. By the time Christmas came around I couldn't keep up on my own and despite being behind on orders, people were incredibly kind and understanding. I’d send them a message to let them know I’m behind and they’d always tell me, "Don't worry about it", They told me they were happy to wait for a handmade, high quality product. That was really eye opening for me, I learned a ton about customers buying handmade, premium products. Ironically, it’s a much different experience selling plastic, same day products on Amazon.

Having too many orders is a great problem to have, but I knew I didn’t want to fall behind again. And even after the holidays, orders were still pretty steady. That’s when I started looking at how to get help with making my products. I needed to scale.

Since I wanted to stay in-house, I looked at this local commercial space, but the landlord said he wanted a 5 year commitment (!) and I’d be further away from my wife and newborn. Then I looked at the cost of adding a detached garage with electricity and when I saw the estimate, I almost spit out of my coffee. Frustrated with my options, and not wanting to be irresponsible and take out a loan on our house, I had to get creative.

After thinking back on this crazy idea I had about hiring makers to make, pack, and ship products out of their own shop, I eventually said, "Screw it, if we're going to do this thing, let's give it a shot. If it works, it could be a game changer." I knew there were thousands of people out there, more skilled than I am, with much nicer shops that could easily make my products. I really wanted to make it work since I’d avoid leasing a space, buying more equipment, and I’d still be handmade. I could basically double my capacity and not have to invest tens of thousands in a business I just started. And with my tech background, I knew I could make the software to make it seamless.

After mapping things out, I reached out to my co-founder to see if he was interested in the project and he was, so that's when we started building the first versions of Distro to use for Lone Birch. While we worked on building the software, I also spent time finding makers. I started with locals first, but ironically, most of them didn't work out. It was people who were thousands of miles away that seemed to be the best fits. I was unsure about hiring people I would never interact with in-person, but with my experience working remotely, I knew if I could get onboarding and the processes right, it could work. And crazy enough, it actually did.

I ended up finding incredible makers from Washington, Vegas, Utah, Virginia and here in New Hampshire to make and ship Lone Birch products using Distro. When orders come in through our store, they get assigned to the maker closest to the customer and they make it, print a label, and request pickup to have it sent to the customer. At this point, all I do is send them supplies when they need it, but as far as production goes, I’m completely hands off.

Honestly, it still blows me away - the fact that it worked - but I shouldn't be surprised. Plenty of people had doubts about working remotely during the pandemic, it only proved it could work because we were forced to do it from the pandemic. So why would I doubt that it could work for making physical products? I learned that as long as you have the right structure, tools, and processes in place, doing things remotely can absolutely work in a number of different industries and the benefits are tenfold, especially for small to medium businesses.

Once I started to see this model work at Lone Birch, I knew there were people in the position that I was, looking for an inexpensive way to scale their business. That's when we started updating Distro for other businesses to use it. Once we did that, I quickly realized that people don’t want to do all the upfront work that I did - like finding makers, onboarding them, getting samples… It’s actually a lot of work. People just want us to do it for them, and I don't blame them, so that's when we pivoted again to become what we are today, a direct to consumer contract manufacturer.

We've positioned ourselves in a unique place, where we not only make products, but where we connect directly to your e-commerce store and fulfill orders as they come in. Kind of like print on demand, but for handmade wood products, YOUR handmade wood products.

We're a manufacturer + distributor in one. We can scale as big as our customers need since we don't have a central factory or any overhead. We're also helping reduce our customers overall carbon footprint and we're providing opportunities to people in underserved communities throughout the US. Not to mention there's also a huge opportunity to help international companies make their products closer to their US customers, but maybe we'll talk about that in a future post ;).

Funny how seeing a tree in a forest can change everything.

Disclaimer: This article may or may not have been written and/or edited by Chat-GPT. Our articles are always reviewed by a human before posting.