Three Simple Questions That Created A Meaningful Business

Great works are performed, not by strength, but by perseverance.
— Samuel Johnson

On the third anniversary of my company, Maplewoodshop, I thought about what got the business where it is. My idea of teaching kids life skills through woodworking went from a brick and mortar business where I taught shop, to what it is now: a woodshop program that is taught in 40+ schools and organizations across the country. It took so many people, circumstances and ideas to “click” in order to be where we are now, but I realized that there were three important questions I always asked myself to keep the company moving ahead and helping the kids we serve.

Question #1: Wouldn’t it be cool if?

Maplewoodshop began with curiosity.

I am a tinkerer by nature. I am always asking myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if...?” Or, “I wonder what would happen if…?” Sometimes things break or spiral downward after I ask that question. But sometimes they work out better than anyone could have ever expected. That happens to be the scenario for Maplewoodshop.

The short version (click here for long version) goes like this: 15 years ago, my wife, Liz, and I bought a house that needed some repair. I asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I learned woodworking, plumbing, and electrical wiring to repair it?” And I did. I liked woodworking so much that when I was offered a corporate buy-out 3 years ago, I asked: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I did a complete 180 on my career and taught woodworking for a living?” And I did.

Asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool?” has a way of opening up doors in your mind. It allows you to figure out what other people can’t. The question invokes a growth mindset (believing that talents can be developed, rather than having “fixed” talents) that forces your brain to create a solution to almost any problem. When you ask this question, you can go further when others decide to stop. You innovate.

I asked this question over and over in the past three years, and it yielded some meaningful results:

1) A patent-pending portable workbench that uses existing tables to hold the wood in place to make woodworking easy and possible in classrooms and camps. Before I invented that, I built workbenches for my classes. These benches were useable for adults and toddlers, thanks to a large screw that made the table telescope up and down. The tables were complicated and heavy. The portable workbenches are light and simple to use. They are what “turns any room into a woodshop.” It’s a small invention, but it is the foundation of the Maplewoodshop Program.  

2) A way to consistently convey knowledge of woodworking (use of tools, sequence of events, and project structure, for example) that allows hundreds of teachers and counselors to teach thousands of kids hand tool woodworking.

3) A laddered lesson plan progression that allows kids to “crawl, walk, run” and learn meaningful life skills from the craft.

Question #2: How can we make this into an opportunity?

“You guys don’t know enough about woodworking.”

That was the feedback from one of my advanced adult woodworking classes. We were trying to teach how to make dovetails without really knowing how to do them ourselves.

Many times things do not go as planned, and you have to expect that. I always tell my students and teachers, “Something will always go wrong. It’s how you deal with it that matters.” There were many times that I “failed” but the growth comes from what you do with that failure. Do you learn from it, and move on? Are you curious about what can happen next? Keeping an open mind is key to creating opportunity.

I took that crushing feedback as an opportunity to try more ideas; some worked well and some didn’t work so well. But that’s what led me to get out of the brick and mortar business of teaching woodworking. I started thinking about teaching thousands of kids - not just dozens. I thought it was time to start marketing to schools. That made a huge difference in the trajectory of the company.

And as chance would have it, I met one teacher...

Question #3: What if we could make it easy?

At a summer barbeque, I met an art teacher that was wracking her brain trying to give her students the opportunity to do woodworking. She loved woodworking because it is sculptural, 3-D and she realized she could integrate classroom learning into the woodworking lesson. But she was frustrated; having gone to her local hardware store and looking online, she couldn't figure out how to bring woodworking to the classroom. I asked, “What if we made it easy for her to bring woodworking to her school?”

An easy solution is better than a complex one any day.

Relentless curiosity has helped me find the simple solution first and that seems to have paid off. As a business owner, decisions need to be made almost every minute. I find the simple solution is often the best.

I remember learning this lesson the hard way. When I first started out, kids would sometimes cry in my class because the lessons were too hard. I had a vision in my head of how the projects should look and wanted the kids to have that terrific end result. But really what I needed to do is take a step back to ask, “How can I make this achievable for my students? How can I break this down further so they can accomplish their goals?’ Now, we are able to offer lessons that all learners can grasp and feel successful with each time they are in woodworking class.

Looking ahead with gratitude for all those that supported me in this: my wife, Liz, who has supported me these three years. My first woodworking instructor, Danny Birnbaum, who taught me the essentials of true hand tool woodworking. Erin Doppes and Johnathan Sidhu, who helped shape my vision from the very start and so many others who have been drawn to our mission.

We are moving ahead swiftly now, and I am curious to see how many people we can serve through woodworking. I am grateful to the woodworking community and those educators who believe like I do, that teaching kids slow down, to fail fast and grow, and take pride in their work is important in this day and age. I look forward to asking more questions and sharing this craft with the next generation.

Amy McGlinn