Learning how to craft a business on the fly

Posted On October 4, 2023

When Hastings Read and his wife decided to open a custom woodworking shop in the middle of a recession, they realized that they didn’t know much about the woodworking business. And, aside from kitchen projects, they didn’t really know much about woodworking, either.

But that was OK, Read said. “It’s fine not to know anything, as long as you know you don’t know anything,” he said. “So we embarked on a journey of learning.”

Read, our guest in a recent episode of “What’s Working with Cam Marston,” has used lessons learned in his background as a banker and consultant to take that journey and build a successful business, Oakleigh Custom Woodworks.

British by birth, he worked for an American bank in London before coming to the United States and ultimately finding himself in Mobile. It was there that he and his wife bought a house in the historic Oakleigh district and decided to gut the kitchen.

“In a moment of semi-whimsy I said to my wife: ‘Look, if we had some tools I think I could build you a kitchen,’” he said. “She said, ‘That’s a good idea. Let’s do it.’ So my bluff got called. So there I was, committed to building a kitchen. And that started us on this journey.”

A neighbor liked the end result so much, he asked if Read would redo his kitchen as well. And when the recession hit in the late 2000s, slowing his consulting work to a trickle and leaving his wife unemployed as well, they decided to turn that hobby into a business.

Oakleigh Custom Woodworks specializes in windows, doors and shutters —  particularly high-end projects. It is a niche the Reads came to naturally – by taking any work they could get, improving their skills at it, and learning what people in Mobile wanted.

“I’ve always been suspicious about market research,” he said. “What you can take to the bank is watching people’s behavior. What do they get out their wallet for and put bills down on the table? That is extremely reliable.

“What we found was that we were getting a lot of inquiries about windows. … People want to make their homes more distinctive than three choices.”

Now that they’ve built their business into a success, Read and his wife manage a team of skilled craftspeople and do their best to give them the tools and time to create their works of art, to navigate what Read calls “this modern tyranny between the important and the urgent.”

“We try to give our customers a realistic time frame,” he said. “If they sort of balk at it, I say, ‘Look, do you really want to deal with someone in this market who’s not busy?’

“You have to remind yourself that it’s more important that someone gets a front door that really works well, that looks as we want it to look and will be a thing of beauty on the front of their house for many years to come.”

Categories: Blog, Entrepreneurship, What's Working with Cam Marston