Three years ago, Ben VandenWymelenberg was an architecture major at the University of Minnesota. One late night after studying, he stuck a small veneer of wood on the back of his cell phone and thought it looked cool.
He started selling adhesive wooden phone cases to friends and families, hoping to make a few bucks. Today, his business, Woodchuck, sells those cases and other made-in-Minnesota wood products nationwide online and through major retailers like Target. VandenWymelenberg, 25, explains how he made his way to making millions in revenues, and what aspiring entrepreneurs should consider before calling themselves “Boss.”
How did you decide to start your own business?
Back then, I didn’t even think about starting a business. I was just making wooden phone skins and selling to buddies for twenty bucks or a case of beer. The idea kind of evolved into a business. The turning point didn’t fully evolve until I had to decide whether to take a full-ride scholarship to graduate school or start a business.
So I sat down with two of my mentors and asked them, “Business or grad school? Which path should I take?” They both said to go start a business, that I would learn more by starting one than I ever would in two years of grad school. And if it didn’t work, I could always go back to school. So I filled out the forms for becoming a corporation in 2012 and started thinking about how to turn these wooden phone skins into a business.
Did you have any job experience that helped you run your own business?
I worked at two different architecture firms to pay for school, making big models for big companies, so that experience helped me on the making-products side of things. But how to start a business? I literally had no idea. I bought a Starting a Business for Dummies book and read 10 pages before I decided that the best way to learn was to find mentors around me who had done this before. So I found two good ones here in the Twin Cities and asked them questions about how to sell, handle finance, and run other pieces of the operation.
What did you learn as you got your business started?
It was really difficult to start a business, not having any capital, realizing we had to get a big workspace and all the production equipment. I figured out how to do it piece by piece. The biggest “uh-oh” moment was when Woodchuck launched into 1,800 Target stores nationwide with our first product. But we didn’t know how to work or market for big-box stores, and we had a pretty big fail. We manufactured 18,000 units, and couldn’t get them out in time, so we had to take back a lot of the product, and we lost a bunch of money. But it was definitely a learning experience — we learned about marketing to big-box stores, and how to structure a deal so that we can afford to stay in business at the end of it. That’s when I first realized entrepreneurship is a mindset. We could have picked one of two paths. One was to pay back a lot of money to a lot of people and close up shop. Instead I picked the mindset of, “Let’s figure out how to make this happen, and do better next time.”
How is business now?
This year, Woodchuck did just under $2 million in revenue and became a semi-finalist in the Martha Stewart “American Made” competition. We have 17 employees and just bought an 80,000-square-foot warehouse. Each of those things happened piece by piece.
When we first started getting product orders from big-box retailers, I said, “We want to go to Apple, Best Buy, Target, and more.” When that started going well in the first year, my business partner and I moved to California — we thought we had made it and we were living this ridiculous lifestyle. Eight months later, when a lot of stuff started failing, we realized our business model was not as robust as we thought. So we moved back to Minnesota, moved manufacturing in-house, and really restructured the business — and our lives. It’s now 10 times better because we created a great team and a foundation for something much bigger than I ever thought it could be.
What are the pros and cons of entrepreneurship for you?
For me, entrepreneurship means you truly have the freedom to build something up as much as you want to. I am on the gas pedal 24/7 — I want to create an American manufacturing company that’s the largest of our century and to do that, it’s 100 percent go. I get to travel, meet new people and mentors who’ve done amazing things. But the things that no one sees behind the scenes are the lawsuits that keep you up till 2 a.m., the purchase orders you pray to God go well, the millions of emails and phone calls you get every day — and the amount of financial risk you have to take.
But risk is really just an opportunity — if you strategize, plan well, and have the work ethic, drive, and passion behind your mission, then risk is really irrelevant.
“You have to view challenges as opportunities for change.”Tweet
— Ben VandenWymelenberg
What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
You have to view challenges as opportunities for change. You have to take a situation, even if it’s absolutely terrible and ask yourself, “How do I see this as an opportunity as opposed to a challenge that will destruct me mentally and business-wise?” A lot of entrepreneurship is mental — you have to have the capacity to graduate your mind to the next level. Three years ago, did I ever think I’d have to deal with a lawsuit? Absolutely not, but now my mindset allows me to deal with 10 at a time. Or negotiate $1 million contracts? Now my mindset allows that, and I have to continually graduate that.
You have to have a “why” behind what you’re doing. You have to know the reason why you’re staying up till 3 a.m., doing all these emails, putting in all this extra work — it’s because you believe in your mission. If you’re doing something you don’t believe in and think you’ll just make a lot of money at it, just don’t do it, because you won’t have the amount of passion it takes to break through all these obstacles to get to the end goal.
If you want to build something that’s scalable, you have to build a team. Look at yourself and ask, “What are my weaknesses, and how can I surround myself with people who will help me build this business?” I’m not the best at finance, design, or marketing, but I’ve been able — and will continue — to build a team of people who are 10 times smarter and more talented than I am. That’s a strength I have — finding the people to help make those things happen. A good team is critical to growing your company and making something much bigger than you yourself could ever make it.
Want more detail? Wells Fargo Works for Small BusinessSM can help you do more research on how to start a business.
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