Michelle and Gray Craig signed up for a class at Woodcraft in Roanoke several months ago— just for fun. He has always had a fascination with ink pens so he learned to make exquisite ball point pens— yes, you can turn a pen on a wood lathe. Michelle learned to turn beautiful wooden bowls. In a two- or three-hour class, they discovered they had a knack and a passion for woodworking.
That led to the purchase of a lathe, installed in their garage. Over time they added one piece of equipment after another, until their garage was overtaken by their hobby.
They extended their skills through trial and error, talking with fellow woodworkers, and watching YouTube videos. They joined the local Blue Ridge Woodturners group.
Gray says that at this point they would have to “take out a second mortgage” to outfit themselves with all the equipment they would like to have.
“Just like most hobbies you really love, there is always one more thing you need until your skills outstrip your space,” Gray said.
The Craigs began mulling over the unique idea of a community workshop “where people can come together to learn, create, shop, and sell custom works.”
They describe their concept as being like a “gym membership for professional tools, studio space, and instruction.”
As they were tossing around the workshop idea they became aware of the Gauntlet Program and Competition and “on the spur of the moment” signed up for the business sessions, which were about to get underway.
In the Gauntlet, established by Annette Patterson of The Advancement Foundation, 70 entrepreneurs are “studying the feasibility of their proposed business, exploring business models, and developing business plans.” The Gauntlet will conclude with the awarding of $200,000 in cash and prizes.
The Craigs have named their business venture the “Blue Ridge Makers Guild.”
Their plan is “to market monthly memberships which will allow guild members to access individual studio spaces with all professional power and hand tools.”
They will offer hands-on classes, workshops, and seminars taught by experts, both local and from farther afield, with “guest demonstrators and instructors from a wide range of mediums in special day-long or multi-day events.”
Their plan also includes “a commissioned gallery and website featuring work from their members, instructors, and local artists and craftspeople.”
Gray says a friend at work told him about building a bedroom suite in about eight months in his garage and driveway. He didn’t have the tools or space he needed for the project, which could have been completed in a few weekends with access to a professional workshop with professional equipment.
That’s one type of person they identify as their “target market”— people who like to “dabble and tinker.”
Comprehensive research to determine your target market is one strategy the Gauntlet classes emphasize.
The Craigs have developed a basic two-minute online survey available at www.blueridgemakersguild.com to assess what individuals would like to see at their guild.
The question they pose is, “Have you ever wished for a garage, basement, studio, or workspace fully equipped with everything you need to work on the ideas but are limited by tools and space?”
The survey includes a wide range of possibilities for what people might be interested in learning— mediums, arts, crafts, and equipment for woodworking, art, metal and blacksmithing, textile, and digital studios.
Another factor entrepreneurs enrolled in the Gauntlet program are asked to evaluate is their potential and existing competition. Gray and Michelle say their competition, even regionally, seems to be limited. There is an existing Maker Mart in downtown Roanoke devoted solely to teaching hands-on skills to middle school children and a small space in Blacksburg.
Each week the Gauntlet invites successful businesses owners for an “Entrepreneurial Showcase,” to detail how they started up their businesses and the challenges they encountered. Many have described how their ventures have evolved over time.
That’s what the Craigs anticipate. They envision different phases growing their business. Gray says Phase 1 is “just to get the doors open” with the facility equipped as fully as they can afford, offering classes on nights and weekends. In Phase 2, they would expand into multi-day classes taught by experts. A more distant Phase 3 might even resemble a folk-art studio.
Most likely they will open with three labs— possibly woodworking, textiles, and 3-D print technology. They say they don’t want to get “pigeon-holed” into just offering woodworking, although that’s where their own interest began.
Their intention ultimately is to connect people back to “vocationalism, technologies, and the spirit of do-it-yourself invention.” They say there is vast interest and untapped market in 3-D printer technology by consumers and small business owners who want to create prototypes.
Their market analysis has also led them to conclude that there may be a market with millennials, who seem to increasingly eschew “accumulating stuff,” and instead want to accumulate experiences.
They point to the popularity and success of Paint Nights (why not cutting board nights?), the Glazed Bisque-it pottery, and Parks and Rec classes.
Both believe that there is a gap in the United States in acquiring hands-on skills with a shift away from vocational training back in the 1970s when college was pushed as the ultimate goal for all students.
The Craigs hope the community workshop will serve students, experts, retirees, and small businesses, and even rent space to groups and group projects, including non-profits and churches.
The Gauntlet classes have covered marketing strategies. Gray is the Web Content Manager for Roanoke County; Michelle is the Web Content Manager for National Government Services. They are well versed in marketing and believe their own best strategy will be “word of mouth and good experiences.” Individuals tend to share the experiences they have with businesses; they intend for the community workshop experience to be all good. They hope to draw patrons in by word of mouth, and then “get them hooked.”
The Craigs reiterate that they have gained much from the Gauntlet experience. The program assigns mentors and advisors recruited from around the region based on the needs of the entrepreneurs. They have worked with Meg Carter from the Taubman Museum, who has shared a “wealth of knowledge” on both art and business, and Katie Comer from Virginia Tourism.
The Gauntlet sessions and the experts who have counseled on writing business plans, doing market analysis, and doing “due diligence” to crunch the numbers have been invaluable.
At this point the Craigs’ main focus is getting their “financials” in order and finding a location. The Gauntlet is offering weekend tours in Botetourt and Roanoke Counties and Vinton to get the lay of the land and scout out available properties zoned appropriately.
The Craigs believe they will need a facility with between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet of space. Gray says you can’t have sawdust invading a textile space, so they will need to segment the different proposed labs in the building.
They like Vinton because of the energy emanating from the town with the downtown revitalization and renovations of historic areas. The town lies at the intersection of two major traffic arteries and also has easy access to I-581 and I-81, and it’s just a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway. They would like their community workshop to become a community center.
The Craigs believe that the classes and services their workshop could eventually offer are “only limited by their imaginations.”