A huge thank you to Julie and the whole team at Etsy for featuring us on their blog today. Etsy has been a huge support to our business and our growth and we are thrilled to be sharing our story with them.

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Quit Your Day Job: Peg and Awl

Margaux and Walter Kent’s shop, Peg and Awl, exudes an old-world mercantile charm, with handmade waxed canvas bags, leather-bound journals and multi-purpose wooden kitchen implements lining their virtual shelves. In their workshop in an old casket factory in Philadelphia, the couple breathes new life into discarded materials to create beautiful products for daily life, including swings made from 19th century wooden floor joists and carry-all totes with leather straps made from reclaimed World War II gun slings.

Early on in their relationship, Margaux tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Walter to start a business with her. “It was not within his realm of belief that we could make something happen on our own,” she says. A lifelong artist with a passion for photography, jewelry, bookbinding and writing, Margaux had started several businesses, including a vintage clothing and record store, an online CD business and a bookbinding and jewelry shop on Etsy. Walter worked with his father as a carpenter, starting as an apprentice when he was 11 years old, and served with the U.S. Army for seven years. The couple got married in Iceland in 2008. 

After returning home from a year in Iraq, Walter began to think about what he would do next. While working out a plan, he and Margaux started renovating their house, using wood salvaged from houses being torn down in their neighborhood. Walter made a tub caddy for Margaux using the reclaimed wood. It turned out so nicely that they decided to make another, open an Etsy shop and list the tub caddy for sale, along with a few other products. Within the first week of opening shop in 2010, a boutique in Madrid, Spain requested a large number of their reclaimed wood candle blocks. This initial wholesale order came as a surprise, but today, approximately 60 percent of Peg and Awl’s business comes from wholesale clients.

Since then, Walter and Margaux have sold more than 7,000 items in their retail Etsy shop. Over time, many of Walter’s 11 siblings have worked with them. Currently, the business employs ten staff members who help sew bags, make jewelry, bind books, tie rope swings and manage the production process. The couple now has two sons, ages 3 and 6. Margaux recently spoke to Julie Schneider, writer-editor for Etsy’s Seller Handbook, to discuss what she has learned while building a business from scratch.

What inspires your product designs?

Our products are mostly based on what we need or want in our own lives. Our boys break plates all the time, so we decided to make wooden plates. When we got married in Iceland, we went to a lot of old house museums and saw simple objects made for multiple uses. Without really realizing it, I think we picked up on that when we started to design for Peg and Awl. We aim to create timeless things that will endure and are useful for different purposes, such as sandwich plates that double as cutting boards and book necklaces with miniature functional journals as pendants. I’d say, instead of making what you think will sell or what’s easy, make things that you need in your life. For us, that’s the best way to work.

How did you handle your unexpected pivot into the wholesale business?

From the start, stores just came to us. Not only were we not thinking about wholesale, we certainly weren’t planning price-wise for it. But, we decided to make it work. In the beginning, we made a series of mistakes. Rather than creating wholesale prices that informed the retail price, we were discounting off of our retail prices. Initially, we thought, “Oh, the wood was free, so anything we sell it for is a profit!” But we were not counting for time, electricity, rent and other expenses. We were losing money on wholesale, and it wasn’t a pattern that could continue. But we learned from our mistakes and from talking to other business owners, who shared formulas and ways to price things out. Understanding the cost of a product from start to finish is a very important first step in wholesale.

How do you decide which products to sell wholesale?

In a word: pricing. Using the best quality materials possible and keeping the products made in America is a decision we’ve made — but it’s also a huge cost. When it gets to the point where an item would be too expensive for what it is after the wholesale markup, we give it a fair price and sell it only through our retail shop. For example, our log carrier would not be a good fit for wholesale, because the retail price would be around $280 after factoring in the markup. Instead, we keep it retail-only and sell it for $125. 

Describe some of the challenges you’ve faced working with wholesale clients.

When a small store contacts us, they’re happy and say, “We love your stuff. We’d love to carry it.” It’s a partnership and it’s very mutual. When a big company contacts us, we know it might be more challenging. We had been talking with a big company about carrying our stuff for a few years when they finally put a few of our products, including our tree swings, in their catalog. When we sent them the swings, they said, “These have mistakes all through them! We need to replace them.” But they’re not mistakes — it’s reclaimed wood. Going forward, we’ve made an effort to send them our most consistent pieces. Some aspects of the wholesale business aren’t always efficient or sustainable. For instance, when selling to retail customers, we use minimal packaging to cut down on waste, which is a core part of our business. But when we work with huge companies, we have to package each item individually and pay for the company’s labels. A lot of big companies also have manuals with 80-plus pages that you have to read.

Despite the challenges, so many people on the wholesale side are incredibly supportive and just as excited about what we make as we are. They are buying our products for their own stores, restaurants and spaces. From these business relationships, friendships really can develop. In fact, we just went on a trip to Denmark and Sweden to see people we met through a wholesale order. 

What do you love most about running your own business?

We get to make what we want, and make a living from it. It’s exciting when people are as happy to have what we made as we are to make it. From Instagram to Facebook, the people we’ve met through Peg and Awl are incredible. When we were planning to get married in Iceland, we looked all over trying to figure out who could perform the ceremony. No one was getting back to us, and we felt stuck. Then, we went to Etsy. At the time, there were 12 people from Iceland on Etsy, and we emailed all of them. We heard back from eight people and half of them told us the same guy. And, he ended up marrying us! There are real, good humans involved in this world that we’re in, and it’s amazing.