How They Did It
Mike Stone, CEO of MakersKit, was creative since the day he was born, according to a soothsayer his grandmother once took him to on a trip to South Korea. That proved to be an understatement.
Beginning from an early age, Mike won numerous National and International Awards for Art and Design, his work being shown in art shows throughout Japan and California. While in college, he was approached by a talent scout, leading to over 50 movie and TV roles as well as print work. By age 19, he opened up his first business, a little dessert cafe in Berkeley, CA. It was this business that taught Mike the basics in running a business and that he had a knack for it.
Today, he has sold every business he started at a profit, a total of nine. MakersKit is now Mike Stone’s 10th business, merging his passion for art, design, and being creative with his talent for business.
His co-founder Jawn McQuade complements Mike’s passion and business savvy. With MakersKit as his first business venture, Jawn has helped steered the organization into the lean, tightly run start-up that it is today. As host of the red carpet at the GLAAD Media Awards, screenwriter, actor, designer, and published book author, Jawn’s boundless creativity combined with Mike’s has led MakersKit to unexpected heights.
I sat down with “The Maker Boys” to find out more about their journey, their challenges, and inspiring successes.
Tiffany Pham: What inspired your move from working in fashion design and politics to ultimately launching your own company, MakersKit?
Mike Stone: Well, my co-founder Jawn McQuade, began by studying film at a small learning community in Oakland, CA. He managed to sell his first film script right before beginning his college career, yet unsure of the stability of a life in the film industry, he decided to focus his efforts on a Bachelor’s Degree in political science. After only a few semesters he started to realize that a life in politics wasn’t where his passion lies. Instead, the thought of sharing his creative spark with the world, and encouraging people to do the same, was where he was most content.
I loved the world of fashion design, creating something unique and beautiful from a single idea, fabric, and thread. It was a creative outlet that I could use to express myself, and every little bit of that expression and emotion would show in my finished design. I wanted a way to share my passion with the world, but not everyone is able to quickly pick up on the complexities of fashion design and become competent overnight, it takes years of dedication. So, I thought that if I was somehow able to give people the tools and guidance to make things themselves, they may realize its importance and go on to create further.
With both Jawn and I feeling the need to start something new, to provide a service that would ultimately help others tap into their creative side, MakersKit was born.
Pham: What was your plan of action once you decided to launch your own company?
Stone: There were other kit companies out there, but they focused solely on more niche markets. We wanted to aim bigger than that. Everyone has a drive to be creative and we decided to pursue that notion.
We came up with a business plan, a marketing plan, and a hundred ideas on how to grow the business. Fortunately, we were lucky, opportunity came knocking early on and making the most of those inbound interests was key in growing MakersKit to more than just a product, it helped us create a brand. We also published a book early on in our career, “The Maker Boys Cheap + Easy DIY Projects”, which proved invaluable in terms of exposure and press we got from it. We decided to partner with retailers we loved, and together we hosted live events like MakersKit workshops and book signings. Soon after, Sunset Magazine chose our Classic Cocktails Bar Set as one of their “Top 12 Favorite Things of 2014” which led to several respected blogs discovering us. Before we knew it, we didn’t even have time to put our original plan into action, instead we were choosing which opportunities would best benefit MakersKit. Knowing which opportunities to turn down were just as important to take, because we really care about how MakersKit is branded.
Pham: What were some of the tactics you used to grow MakersKit’s brand and passionate following, leading your products to be sold at Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters at unprecedented rates?
Stone: From day one, it’s all been about interaction. We want to build a lasting relationship with our customers, continuing to provide support and advice. We still host live do-it-yourself workshops around the country and will continue to, as long as MakersKit exists. Workshops are where we got our start, you can consider it to be our roots, in other terms. Meeting new people and teaching them a useful skill is our greatest privilege. We knew we wanted to keep that personal feel, so that is why we decided to replace the traditional printed instruction that comes with other DIY kits with interactive and fun instructional videos. This way, Jawn and I still work with the maker through each step of the project, just like attending one of our workshops, but in the comfort and convenience of your own home. Our customers have responded well to the change of using video as a medium and larger retailers began to notice the loyalty and enthusiasm of our customers. I believe our style fit the feel that these retailers were going for and resonated with their audience, that is why they have chosen to partner with MakersKit.
Pham: What were some of the personal and professional challenges you faced, transitioning from politics and fashion design to retail entrepreneurs?
Stone: I was always creative. As a kid, I decided to be an artist, but my parents strongly discouraged it. They, like many parents, didn’t exactly see a bright future in the arts. But being a stubborn person and wanting to rise up to the challenge, I did it anyway, to prove them wrong and show others who have similar ambitions to never let go of your dreams. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll have no regrets.
However, starting a new business is frightening, exciting, and challenging. We took a huge risk by letting go of our stable jobs for a chance at creating a totally new type of business. We had no cash and no place to put our kits together (other than Jawn’s apartment). But we did have a great idea and tons of customers who were already selling out our live workshops. What they loved most is the experience Jawn and I were able to offer with each project.
Naturally, the first few months were challenging, we started off by going store to store in San Francisco trying to sell our kits. Once we decided on which projects to turn into kits, we had to figure out how to raise money to produce them. The profits we made off of our live workshops helped a bit, but we also found creative ways to raise money. For the first few months I worked as a Lyft driver and Jawn worked as a substitute K-9 teacher. Eventually we were able to scrape together enough money to get MakersKit off the ground.
Soon after, Google and Facebook asked the us to do joint events which was a huge boost in the right direction for MakersKit.
For those who have heard about our live events but were not able to make them in-person we wrote a book titled, “The Maker Boys Cheap + Easy DIY Projects”, that helped make a name for ourselves as expert makers. The publishing of the book also led to a two-page cover story in the SF Chronicle, which then turned into partnerships with Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters.
Pham: What do you see as the future of retail and the Maker Movement?
Stone: The Maker Movement has always been there, but we are taking it into the spotlight. We want people to tap into their own creative side. Craft fairs such as Renegade Craft Fair are becoming more popular every year and people are really beginning to appreciate what individuals are able to make on their own. Both the quality and care that goes into each creation is far more respectable when comparing it to something that is mass produced. With this sudden spike of interest in the Maker scene and with services like Etsy providing a platform for those makers to market their wares, the Maker Movement is ready for a trusted brand that represents the movement, they are ready for MakersKit.
Pham: What successes have you achieved so far at MakersKit? What new opportunities are you working towards?
Stone: MakersKit has had amazing growth since launching in February 2013. Thanks to a dedicated team with complete faith in the MakersKit mission. Just this year we were able to get MakersKit in Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom stores nationwide, partner with BirchBox, and graduate TechStars’ NYC class of spring 2014. We are in the midst of expanding our Los Angeles workshop which will allow MakersKit to take on larger accounts. We are going to focus on our kit production and begin to release 15 new kits each season. We hope to release the successor to our “Cheap + Easy DIY Projects” book in the near future. Plus, working towards getting our own television show. The show revolves around Jawn and I traveling across the country meeting different types of makers, showcasing what they make and how they create it, and finding out what inspires them.
Pham: Do you have any advice for other creatives aspiring to start their own companies?
Stone: Don’t let the opinions of others or anything else hold you back. We were always told that there is no money behind creative businesses, but that’s simply just not true. If you have a passion and give it your all, you can make it happen.
Start small, within your means, create a budget, and formulate a plan of action. You don’t have to wait either, if you want to start a jewelry line, try making a few pieces and selling them online or at your local craft fair. If you want to start a specialty cupcake shop, try selling a few batches at a local farmers market. It’s all about getting your name out there and making connections.
Also, don’t hesitate to try out new ideas. Every new kit we think of is still tested with hundreds of live makers via our do-it-yourself workshops. These live workshops provide valuable feedback and we use that feedback to tweak the kit before green-lighting it for production.
Tiffany Pham is the Founder & CEO of MOGUL Inc. (www.onmogul.com), a worldwide platform connecting women to top trending content.