From their first piece of furniture, listed on Etsy in November of 2011, to a full-time business manufacturing handcrafted industrial modern furniture for clients across the country, it's been a complete whirlwind for Jonathan and his wife, Sarah Bucklew, owners of Seventeen20.
"That first piece of furniture, a dinning room table I made, was listed because we needed money to buy a cool bathtub that was out of our price range," Jon said with a laugh. "We put it up on Etsy and gave ourselves the name, 'Seventeen20', which was our property address. We didn't think there'd be a local market for a modern dining room table, but after a few months, it sold. From that one piece, we got additional inquiries and by early 2012, we added pictures of other pieces we made and listed them as 'made to order'. By the summer of 2012, I came home from touring with my band and went to work full-time in my garage making furniture. By August, we had a 3,000 square foot warehouse."
Growing up, Jon always worked with his hands, doing home projects with his dad. Even though he was born in Wisconsin, Jon has lived in Lakeland for 31 years and considers himself a local. He learned how to weld when he was young and applied those skills while working for a trailer manufacturing facility on the north side of Lakeland. Through the years he'd make a desk, night stand or coffee table. He built even more furniture after he and Sarah got married. Jon thoroughly enjoys working with his hands and loves modern industrial clean-lined furniture.
Prior to focusing exclusively on Seventeen 20, Sarah spent 11 years with Jenzabar, a software company that provides student information systems for colleges and universities. She's extremely grateful for her time with Jenzabar, but the time spent on the road as a software consultant was taxing. In 2017, Sarah was ready to flex her creative muscle and left Jenzabar to join Jon full-time.
Sarah and Jon shared some of their early challenges with getting the business off the ground and gaining traction. "We didn't start out to start a business," Jon said. "Our biggest challenge early on was pricing and packaging. Most of our customers were out of state. We had to learn how to package and ship our products safely and effectively. The cost to do so was shocking. Do we charge for shipping? Do we split it? It took a lot of learning and figuring out how to price things appropriately. The first year we did $40,000 in sales. The next year we did $120,000. It was crazy. I don't even remember that year!"
"From the very beginning, we always looked at different ways to solve problems without having to buy new things," Sarah said. "Until recently, our big tools were mostly used." Jon added, "I even wrote reviews for a tooling review website to get discounts on tools. Keep in mind, this was a hobby and now it was a profession. That's a very dynamic change. We had to develop processes around everything. There were constant choices to make. We had to learn to not look back and not be afraid to make mistakes while navigating the unknown. We also had to find the right balance between details and finishing something appropriately. Managing labor was and continues to be an ongoing challenge."
What keeps Sarah and Jon up at night? "Having to do social media," Sarah said with a half chuckle. "I really don't like self promotion, but you have to do it for the business. I'm constantly thinking about how we best market ourselves in a way that feels authentic and is not self-promoting." Jon's concerns are more product focused. "Things come up and I'm not sure how I'm going to engineer something or handle a new piece," he said. "At night, I'm laying there thinking about a new way to do a top. I'll think about it for days."
Most entrepreneurial journeys face, at some point in time, a major speed bump that derails so many well-intentioned small business owners. For Sarah and Jon, that bump came in the form of three different customers from different parts of the country that all wanted a certain finish, based on a Japanese torching technique, along with Cypress as the main wood. Sarah and Jon, who mostly work with pine, oak and other hardwoods, reluctantly agreed to build the unique pieces. Everything shipped out and all seemed to be going as planned. Unfortunately, since the pieces were made from Cypress, a wet wood, and were sent out in the winter time, the wood dried out and the furniture started to crack. Placing an extremely heavy emphasis on integrity and a commitment to following through with a resolution, Sarah and Jon sold a truck and used the cash to remedy the situation. What was the lesson learned? "Don't work with a wet wood," Sarah said.
Looking ahead, Jon and Sarah will remain driven by the freedom and creative outlet afforded to them through their business. In terms of future growth, they would like to move into more commercial spaces. They likely won't get rid of the residential aspect of their business, but they want to focus heavily on supplying furniture to restaurants and hotels and cultivating other larger orders.
Jon and Sarah offer up some great advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. "Just start and start small," Jon said. "It's unbelievably fulfilling and the work can give you purpose and meaning and, as a result, you start serving others. Entrepreneurship gives you a way to serve your community and put some of you behind something. No one on earth wouldn't benefit from doing something on their own, but don't quit your day job right away. Start in the evenings and on the weekends. It's also important to fail small. If you fail big, it's more painful." Sarah added, "Jon and I are very different. He just goes for it. I'm the opposite. If it weren't for him, Seventeen20 wouldn't exist. We joined a business group where we get together once a month with other business owners. This gathering allows us to have a sounding board with other owners. It's a great resource. I'd recommend something like this to anyone starting their own business."