Few people go into business because they have a wonderful idea for getting rich. On the contrary, becoming an entrepreneur is often the result of forces far…squishier. That’s according to a recent TSheets by QuickBooks survey wherein 40% of respondents said the reason they got started was to fulfill a dream.
Unfortunately, dreams aren’t always enough to keep a business afloat. Some business owners have all the passion but none of the know-how, which is perhaps why 20% of small businesses fail in their first year.
When TSheets asked over 1,000 U.S. small business owners about their profitability over the past year, 15% said they were in the red, while another 22% said their business only broke even. Fortunately, the remainder made a profit, though the majority of these made no more than $50,000.
For one small business owner and mother of four located in Meridian, Idaho, those statistics hit close to home. Terrianna Bishop, owner and manager of Nailed It Woodworks, a custom furniture business she currently operates out of her home, has experienced her fair share of trial and error.
But while it’s true that each small business owner’s journey is unique, Bishop’s entrepreneurial struggles aren’t so rare. Like many, hers is a story of lessons learned at breakneck speeds and decisions made, for better or worse.
Month 1: A hobby becomes a business
Bishop stumbled into business the way many entrepreneurs do: by monetizing a hobby.
“About 2 ½ years ago, I was doing [multi-level marketing], and I had a leadership conference in Vegas. I had to drive myself and my friend down there and almost canceled because I didn’t have the money to go,” she says. “I was flat broke and had just enough money for gas. [I] didn’t even know if I was going to be able to feed myself. But everything was paid for. I just had to come up with a white elephant gift.”
Seeking inspiration, Bishop turned to every crafter’s best friend: Pinterest. “I had some pallets that I had set aside for my husband to do some projects. I decided to make a sign—some wall art—with an inspirational quote on it, as my gift.”
The sign was more fun than Bishop had anticipated, and she decided to make a few more. “They were awful,” she says, laughing. “It was really bad. But I went down there, made Vegas happen, came back, and just started going to work on signs.”
Over the next six months, Bishop honed her craft, and slowly, the MLM gig fell to the wayside. She began selling her signs for $25 or $30 apiece and received several orders. She put together some pallets she had set aside and posted her first bench on Craigslist, wondering if anyone would bite. Someone did, and what followed set Bishop down the path to becoming a full-fledged craftswoman.
6 months later: A business becomes an investment
With no experience in job costing, Bishop’s prices were low. The woman who purchased Bishop’s bench off Craigslist was so impressed, she hired Bishop to construct a set of custom-made furniture, including an outdoor bar and cake table for her daughter’s wedding. The order included three bookshelves and other assorted items, all for the low price of $400.
“At the time, I was building with nothing but pallets,” Bishop says. “I actually had an old friend whose cousin worked at a pallet yard. We would go over there and load up the back of our car with their pallet scraps. Basically, everything they didn’t want, that’s what I was building out of.”
At the time, Bishop didn’t have a lot of overhead costs. Given that all her wood was free, the only cut coming out of her profits was for supplies like paint or nails. Perhaps that’s why, from very early on, job costing wasn’t high on her list of concerns.
When Bishop’s supply of pallet scraps ran dry, she found someone else who was giving away pallets for free. Bishop and her husband filled their two garage bays with the pallets, and Bishop made her first investment into her burgeoning business’s longevity: A jigsaw and sander from Walmart, priced at $18 and change.
Bishop proudly displayed her creations on Facebook, and just eight months after she’d fashioned that simple sign for a white elephant gift, she began getting orders for outdoor sectionals.
“Then some lady messaged me and said, ‘Have you ever made a bed?’” Bishop hadn’t, but she was up for a challenge. Having grown up with a love for basic tools and a knack for taking things apart and putting them back, Bishop says she just sort of “put it together.” And apparently, what she did was perfect.
“People were asking for beds left and right, and that’s when I would say it went from kind of a hobby to more of a business. I wasn’t officially a business for another six months after that, but it was business-like. I was buying more tools, I was working in my garage, and I decided to build a business page on Facebook.”
Bishop asked her friends what she should name her small business, and with a love for puns in mind, settled on Nailed It Woodworks.
10 months later: An investment becomes promotable
Tapping into her MLM experience, Bishop began to promote her new venture with contests designed to bring in more social media followers. Within a year, she’d gone from 100 followers to 2,600. Bishop’s husband, who was still working full time, used his IT experience to make her a website, but Bishop says even then, parts of her business weren’t yet fully developed.
“I still was kind of treating it like a hobby, to where I wasn’t working all the time, I was still giving myself time off, and it finally got to the point where, again, we found ourselves broke—super, super broke—and the only food we had in our house was a box of spaghetti.”
That box of spaghetti would be the final straw that set Bishop down the path to becoming a full-time business owner.
“It was the day before payday, and we were totally screwed. I was rinsing the spaghetti, and I dropped the entire pan on the floor. So I literally took our only food in the house, rinsed it off, and we ate it for dinner. And at that point, it was like, I’ve got to either go back to work and hang up the woodworking thing, or I need to really, really make this woodworking thing work. And that’s when we kind of decided to run with the business.”
Fully committed to getting her family out of what was clearly a time of financial hardship, Bishop turned once again to social media, hosting a 15% off sale for the first 10 orders. By Christmas, Bishop’s husband had quit his job to devote more time to Nailed It. “We just built,” Bishop says. “We built 26 pieces in two weeks.”
Meanwhile, Bishop replaced her pallets with wood scraps she was able to forage from a nearby construction project or wood purchased from a local hardware store. With the increased cost of building, Bishop began to raise her prices. “I did it on a piece-by-piece basis,” she says, sometimes doubling or tripling the material cost to determine what she should charge, based on how tough she estimated the project to be.
“I also kind of looked at what other woodworkers around town were doing and what you could buy online. In the beginning, I was trying to keep myself competitive with places like Walmart, Ashley Furniture Homestore, and other low-end stores.”
But without any sort of formal process for job costing, estimating, or figuring out profitability, the small price increases Bishop made weren’t enough. And worse, she had no formal structure in place for scheduling.
1 year later: A business owner struggles to survive
At this point, Bishop was working full-time on her business, but that didn’t excuse her from also being a full-time mom. Bishop’s kids attend three different schools, some in a neighboring town. At first, she was the one getting the kids where they needed to go each day, taking care of house chores, and working on Nailed It. But with her husband now home and working on the business as well, those responsibilities changed.
“Seven days a week, no exceptions, we would wake up at 8 o’clock in the morning. I would get out to the garage while Will got everybody fed. He would take the kids to school, and I would just work. So I would build from 8 a.m. until, most nights, between 2 and 4 a.m. I pulled a lot of all-nighters, back-to-back all-nighters, sometimes, trying to get orders done.”
But it wasn’t enough.
“Every single day, I’d get messages from people asking where their stuff was, but I was building as much as I could and not eating, barely sleeping, just working. I let my entire life get away from me because the business was everything.”
Part of Bishop’s trouble was not having an accurate, realistic idea of how long each project was going to take. “In my head, it was two to four days per project,” she says. “I built a mudroom bench in 24 hours—literally 24 hours of work—and so I knew that it could be done.” Each time she beat her best time to build something, she gave herself less time on the next project.
And then tax season came.
For most of us, depending on whether we get something back or end up owing, tax time is like second Christmas, where we get a little money back to put toward that expensive camera, treadmill, or in some people’s case, custom furniture.
“I had people wanting more projects, and anything that anybody asked for, I said yes to. If I didn’t know how to build it, I knew I could figure it out, and if they said they couldn’t wait three months for something to get made, I would just push myself to get it done faster.”
Then one day, in the midst of their busiest time, everything came to a screeching halt.
Bishop was loading several pieces of melamine into her truck when one of the half-sheets fell and landed on her foot. “I shattered it—broke pieces off of different places. Needless to say, it was difficult.”
Since Bishop’s husband had quit his job just a few months before, neither of them had health insurance, and the couple faced their most challenging time yet.
“That was kind of the start of everything falling apart,” Bishop says. Unable to wear shoes because of the swelling and barely able to walk, Bishop and her husband did what they could to fulfill their orders, but time wasn’t on their side.
Customers who had already paid for their projects in advance began to lose patience, threatening to cancel if their piece wasn’t finished by a certain date. “And I didn’t have the money to refund them,” Bishop says, “because we’d taken that money and used it to get the materials and pay our bills, and we still had a life that we had to pay for. I couldn’t refund them—that wasn’t an option. I had to be able to get it done.”
Worn out, stressed out, and overwhelmed, Bishop’s marriage began to suffer. Her husband urged her to stop taking orders, but Bishop couldn’t see how that would help.
“I was stuck between supporting my family and keeping my husband happy, and at the same time, my kids were starting to have issues with school.” To top it all off, Bishop began having panic attacks.
“It got to the point where it just felt like a prison. Every time I walked out to the garage, I just felt depressed. Like I was only working for other people when I was supposed to be working for myself.”
18 months later: A business owner lets go
As exhaustion and unhappiness pushed Bishop to the breaking point, she and her husband finally made a choice. They took out a loan and paid every outstanding customer back: $10,000 in refunds.
“We decided to basically let these people off the hook and let ourselves off the hook. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but the moment that I paid those people back, I just felt more at peace.”
But where some business owners would take $10,000 of debt as a sign to throw in the towel, Bishop used it as a learning opportunity.
“I kept a manageable amount of orders on my schedule and eventually got to the point where I was starting to get excited again. And now it’s fun. I actually look forward to the pieces that I’m building, and I’m excited to get out to the garage again.”
For one, Bishop’s schedule. “I’m booking four orders a month if that. Three to four a month is what I’m trying to stay at, because most things I can do in a couple days, which allows me to have a bit of extra time.”
For her mental health, Bishop says she’s sleeping now as well, and she’s become very strict about not working every weekend. “I need that family time. I need that time to recharge. I need that time to build something for myself if I want to.”
Finally, Bishop has reevaluated her product and has stopped setting her prices to be competitive with low-end retailers. “I had so many people telling me that what I was doing was pretty amazing, and I started to get more confidence in myself. I finally realized that if my customers were going to be getting custom furniture, I could charge them custom furniture prices. I’ve doubled prices in the hopes of slowing things down. But that didn’t slow things down at all.”
2 years later: A business gets back on track
Bishop has finally reached the point many small business owners hope to achieve: She’s able to say no. Her work, built off her own ingenuity, sweat, and in some cases, blood, has gained the attention of builders who now contract with her regularly for custom requests like built-in entertainment centers and sliding barn doors.
She’s finally had time to dream again and consider what new business venture she might take on next. This time, with a bit of that business know-how she lacked in the beginning.
“I think it would be fun to take the shop on the road, probably after the kids are grown,” she says. “That’s likely a later-in-life thing, but I feel like that’s kind of what we’re building toward.”
Looking back, Bishop knows her story is tough and occasionally cringe-worthy—months of debt and pain and emotional turmoil. But it’s also been the greatest triumph of her life.
“If you had told me three years ago that I would be building furniture, I would have laughed in your face, because never in a million years did I think I’d be doing anything like this. I’ve always said I’m not creative, I’m not artistic, I’m not any of those things—and I’ve proven myself wrong by accident.”