Cutting through start-up problems – knife sharpening business – column

Karen Smith

Cutting Through Start-Up Problems

If you run a small business, you know that you will encounter a lot of problems, some of them so serious that you might wonder whether you can survive them. But problems can have a plus side, too, because if your business is strong enough to overcome them, you know you are on the right track.

Based on this test, I know I have a winner in what I’m doing.

One challenge I have to overcome continually is convincing people I’m serious when I tell them the nature of my business–sharpening knives with cardboard. Yes, cardboard. The kind on the back of a writing pad.

When people think about knife-sharpening tools, they think about grinding wheels and stone and metal. So they think it’s funny when I tell them that I can do a better job with cardboard. My sharpening wheels are made of round layers of cardboard held together with a special glue.

I have a shop in my home where customers drop off their knives and scissors, and I also go to restaurants, fish companies, and other businesses to sharpen their cutting tools.

In addition, I train people and sell them the equipment to get into the sharpening business on their own.

I got into this business in 1982 when my father, who had taken up knife making as a hobby, was looking for a better way to sharpen and shape blades. He didn’t like the available high-speed equipment because it built up too much heat, which caused the knives to lose some of their edge and resiliency. Also, the available equipment made the job of sharpening knives by hand too slow; work on some blades could take days or even weeks.

I had been a trainer at health spas and a housewife when my father asked me to help him work out the sharpening problem. We tried dozens of products before we settled on cardobard. Our first wheels were extremely crude. We kept refining them, and we developed two versions, one for shaping knives and one for sharpening. We also made two liquid compounds, a coolant for the shaping process and a polish.

So many people were interested in what we were doing that we went commercial. From our home in Skiatook, Okla., near Tulsa, we traveled through the Midwest, attending trade shows–such as gun owners’ conventions–likely to attract people with knives. We also sold kits of wheels and polish to people who wanted to do their own sharpening.

Business was terrific. It was too terrific. We couldn’t keep up with orders without getting into mass production, a marketing system, and all the other demands of business. Our expenses grew higher and higher. We took on some business partners who were willing to finance an expansion, but they wanted us to organize and conduct the business by rules that we didn’t think suitable. The investors turned the business back to my father, who had decided he didn’t want to continue it. In 1984, I moved to Washington state, where many of my relatives live. The area’s economy wasn’t thriving, and I had trouble finding a job that I wanted. So I revived Blade Works, my knife-sharpening business.

It wasn’t easy. First, many of the farmers and ranchers I looked to for business came from a pioner tradition in which you did things yourself. You certainly didn’t pay somebody else to sharpen your knives, especially your prized knives for hunting and fishing. Second, you didn’t hire a woman to do a man’s job. I had to show them I could sharpen their knives better than they could. And third, there was my claim that I used cardboard.

Convincing them took some marketing and showmanship. I charged $2 a knife, and I guaranteed that an unsatisfied customer didn’t have to pay. When I finished with a knife, I showed how the new edge would slice a circle out of a sheet of paper or shave hairs cleanly off a man’s arm.

I was building a customer base, but I soon found my problems weren’t over. After I was written up in a national business publication, I figured I would get orders from outside my own area. But nothing happened. Then I discovered that postal workers who didn’t know my company were returning to senders the mail from the readers of the magazine article–because it lacked a street address.

While I largely missed out on that opportunity, another one came along when a Seattle television station interviewed me about my business. My appearance created a lot of interest in my company, but, again, I didn’t reap the rewards. At about that time, a mixup with the telephone company over my new number appaently caused many callers to think I had gone out of business. It took me weeks to find out what was going on.

Although I worked hard and did all I could to make my business succeed, events out of my control caused problems. Despite these problems, business keeps expanding. I have had some orders from outside this area, and I hope to get more. After what this business has been through, I don’t have any worries or doubts. I know that a knife-sharpening business based on cardboard is a great idea.

COPYRIGHT 1989 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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