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  • January 02, 2018 5 min read 3 Comments

    2017 is behind us and what a ride! Happy New Year!

    The Challenges of Owning a Handmade Business

    2017 was a crucible year, at two points in the year, I thought I was done, the strain was almost more than I could bear. We grew through it and ended up stronger than ever.

    As most of you know, this is an extension of my grandfather's business that started before 1957. It has continued without any downtime up through today in 2018 and we continue to grow. While the business has, at its core, my grandparents work ethic and detail, the business itself has provided some unique learning opportunities.

    This is a look behind the scenes, and probably contains thoughts I shouldn't share, but we are all friends here.

    At the end of 2016, my SCORE counselors helped me understand what the business part of Mystic Knotwork needed. We needed consistent training in case there was artisan turnover, a larger stock of raw materials, and more ready-made inventory. Rope and knots made ahead at levels I had never considered before.

    Handmade Turkshead Coasters
    So many coasters!

    By February of last year, we had, literally, thousands of coasters, hundreds of trivets, and a solid team of knotters here in our public workshop. Our shop was filling up and it wasn't quite the selling season yet. We started toward two opposite goals. One was to build stock to the highest levels, and the other was to buy or rent an additional space to put them. We didn't actually have the savings on hand to do both, but I was going through the motions and praying for the opportunity. Prayer with thoughtful action.

    We found a place in New London to build an offsite workshop and shipping center in December. In February, I gave it a closer look. We were out of space and needed to do something. It didn't feel right hiding a second shop offsite, but there would be flexibility. Not until I was in the meeting with the town officials did I find out the town didn't have a zoning law that covers what we do... Are we manufacturing, industrial, shipping? The area wasn't zoned for retail, and online sales didn't classify in any zoning regulation. That resistance, combined with my reservation, caused me to walk away from that idea.

    Downtown Mystic Was the Answer, Again!

    Mystic Knotwork - 2 Holmes St.
    2 Holmes St. - our newest shop!

    On the drive home, I saw the old shop that Skip Hayward, of Foxwoods fame, built on the corner of Holmes and Main was available. Within 5 days, we had the space rented, and by June 1, we had a retail store up and running. The commute between shops is rough. 600 feet, it is a MUCH closer walk than drive. I put my personal effort into building that shop, which is honestly not complete, but was very popular all season. It's the center point of Downtown Mystic, in the 'lighthouse' by the flagpole and drawbridge.

    Our New Shop in Downtown Mystic
    Building the interior

    Lighthouse Building - Mystic CT
    *note: not a photo of our grand opening celebration above*

    Our Handmade Wholesale Line

    At the same time, we did two vendor shows, looking for shops that would like to carry our work. My expectation was to find 30 new shops to partner with, selling our knots to other shoreline communities. Instead of 30, we 'landed' over 100. That was growth I was not expecting, nor prepared for. We dove in headfirst to solve the problem. We drew in talented friends in the community and increased our team size. We had a large team by June, but mostly untrained potential. We met almost every obligation from the wholesale, but the fun projects I planned for the summer were put on the back burner, while we focused on promises and commitments already made.

    Philadelphia ACRE Show
    Jill at ACRE Philadelphia

    Building a Team of Artisans

    We raced through the summer with two shops serving locals and tourists here in Mystic. We joked about our commute times and served a variety of audiences. Our team was steeled as they learned in the most chaotic year Mystic Knotwork faced.

    Mystic Knotwork Team - Tying Boat Fenders
    Our team - tying boat fenders

    We came through as a stronger, closer team. I'm so proud of Josh, Christa, and Jill as they worked through and trained a whole new team of apprentices and helpers. I'm excited that even a couple members of our new team are already helping coach and teach each other. We now have a workshop at 25 Cottrell Street where 80% of the space and time is spent making and shipping knots with 20% of our time and space for the walk-in guest. We also have that new shop at 2 Holmes Street, also in Downtown Mystic, where 80% of the space is set up for our guests and customers to visit, but we also have 2 or 3 work tables for the team to custom make there as well. It is as though we have a 600-foot open-air hallway between our two spaces.

    Handmade Nautical Christmas Ornaments
    Hand tying Christmas ornaments

    We have a tremendous shop now. Mystic Knotwork is now, officially, bigger than the family business that my grandfather started. I am humbled to have so many true artists and craftspeople developing here.

    Over the next year, I hope you stop by and introduce yourself. Each day, there is a slightly different 'cast of characters' working at the two shops. We have surprises in store as we all have time to work on new patterns and projects.

    I appreciate your support. As you'll always here, 'referrals are the greatest form of flattery,' but on a more serious note:

    Our knot shop is unique. It's thanks to your support of our work and you spreading the word about us that lets us live the life we live. We are a business that would fit exactly in this 1832 rigging and sail repair shop, using the tools we have... in a twisted logic, we are more a living history in our shop than a reenactor could ever dream. We are making, using natural fibers, the same knots that were tied in this space nearly 200 years ago. No ticket to ride, you can watch us make your custom bracelet for free. ;)

    Looking Forward to Wedding Season

    Nautical Wedding Decor
    We love nautical weddings!

    You've read this far, so I'll assume you care. If you could do me a favor and share our Instagram page @MysticKnotwork with your local wedding photographer, planner, or pretty venue. The romantic season is around the corner, and any little connections will mean a lot to me.

    Thank you. Thank you for a rollercoaster of 2017 and we are ready for a fantastic 2018.

    3 Responses

    Susan Clark
    Susan Clark

    January 06, 2018

    Have been purchasing from Mystic Knot Works for a few years. I buy sailor bracelets for my sister and I. Love all the colors. This year I purchased tree ornaments for each of us! Loved them! Thank you for these well made items! They are so well made and high quality!!

    Anna Winarski-Tarbell
    Anna Winarski-Tarbell

    January 04, 2018

    Congratulations! Things always work out in the end!!

    Deanne S.
    Deanne S.

    January 04, 2018

    I loved reading your story Matt. It’s so wonderful to see that a small business can still grow and flourish in our present day and age and that you’re keeping your grandfathers legacy alive. I’m sure he would be very proud. Never stop believing and keep up the excellent work! Here’s to a fabulous 2018!

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