In the following, you’ll meet five Eastside craftspeople who have artfully honed their trades, developed products or marketable skills, and now excel in their respective industries. We got out from behind our own computers to hang out with these local professionals in their homes, workshops, garages, or wherever they get creative, to bring you an up-close look at the products they produce and improve and their respective business models.
Scaling is a Ball
Jennifer and Chris Boaro
The Cat Ball
Running a small business often means family members are expected to lend a hand or make sacrifices to get a fledgling enterprise off the ground. This is especially true for Jennifer and Chris Boaro, a married couple who enlisted their two cats for help in the day-to-day operation of their business, and also count those cats as their most valuable employees.
Both cross-eyed lynx mixes, Retro and Tink, are the product models, the research and development department, and quality-control team for The Cat Ball, which is run out of the family’s small Bellevue home. However, Retro and Tink can’t take credit for the initial discovery of The Cat Ball product itself; that honor was bestowed upon an earlier generation of Boaro rescue cats.
After graduating from Seattle Central College with an associate degree in pattern making and apparel design, Jennifer found work as a costume designer for a Tukwila costume shop. There, she was approached by some industry personnel who were trying to help the Seattle Sounders Football Club make a human-sized soccer ball costume.
“It was a process I had never done before, but I was willing to experiment,” Jennifer recalled, explaining that she first needed to make a miniature prototype to ensure her idea would work. It did, but then she was stuck with a miniature soccer ball costume that wouldn’t even fit a toddler.
“The prototype was unfinished, there wasn’t any fabric on it, and it was just sitting in the costume shop,” she said. “I got kittens and it occurred to me that if I covered it with fabric, it could be a cat bed and they’d look cute in it. I covered it with fabric; tried it out; and, yeah, they liked it.”
That was in 2011. Today, The Cat Ball is all the rage among trendy pet parents across the globe. Chris left his 20-year career at Microsoft to stay home and run daily business operations while Jennifer designs new products to add to their online store.
The product is so popular that the couple has had to go to court on more than one occasion to protect their intellectual property against copy cats (pun intended). In fact, the first lawsuit was the catalyst the duo needed to begin scaling their business.
“Before the lawsuit, Jennifer had done, like, 10 units at a time with a local manufacturer,” Chris explained. “But after we got involved in this lawsuit, I told her there was no point in fighting these guys if we aren’t going to go big and expand the business. So we decided to go bigger.”
The Boaros found a cut-and-sew manufacturer in Woodinville to produce The Cat Ball on a larger scale. It allowed them to keep pace with client demand and to branch into the wholesale market.
It also doesn’t hurt that many of their clients are repeat customers.
“One of the things we’ve found is that many people have more than one cat, and cats are very territorial,” Jennifer said. “They don’t like to share. They fight over it.” This is something that Jennifer can relate to firsthand with Retro and Tink. “Buy two beds,” she advised.
Know Your Worth
“It was a challenge at first to figure out (our price points). Some people were critical of me (and said) my prices were too high. But over time, I started to develop pricing strategies. I started paying close attention to all of my costs. I created spreadsheets. We needed to do all of that anyway to start doing wholesale.” — Jennifer Boaro
Trusting the Creative Process
Five years ago, Tito Pagán was working day and night on Amazon’s 3D Fire Phone while the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, was asking for biweekly progress updates. Pagán was so overwhelmed with the pressures of his job — and frazzled from sitting in traffic on the State Route 520 Bridge — that he purchased a Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, parked it outside Amazon headquarters, and spent the night inside on several occasions.
As a respite from his imminent burnout, Pagán sought a creative outlet for his dwindling downtime. He had wanted to find a less-harmful, more-organic soap product for his family, so he took a soap-making class. He found the course so enjoyable that he signed up for another, this one focused on sculpture.
Then a thought dawned on Pagán: At some point along his corporate career evolution, he had been completely removed from the creative process. But through the years, his passion had been slowly, albeit quite unintentionally, snuffed out by his work.
“I realized that people hire you for your creativity, but they really do not allow you to embrace that in the fuller sense,” Pagán said. “You earn a sufficient amount of money to be there and play well with everybody, but then you find yourself moving and changing in a direction that you no longer resemble yourself, and you forget everything that led you on the path of becoming a creative individual.”
Less than a month later, Pagán left Amazon to start Sculpturesoap in his Redmond garage. The business combined his new soap-making and sculpting prowess with the skills he had honed from years of working in 3D gaming and imaging for companies like Sierra Online, Wild Tangent, and Microsoft.
“I feel so fortunate that through this I have found myself, I found my way, and I found my purpose,” Pagán said of his decision to pursue his creative passion full-time.
Since its launch in early 2014, Sculpturesoap has experienced a steady climb in sales. But Pagán said he is grateful that he had sufficient savings upon his departure from Amazon, and he credits much of his success to his family. His wife — while continuing her career as a teacher — helps him with the bookkeeping, the couple’s son has created some of his own soap designs, and their daughter oversees all the packaging and shipping.
Pagán hopes Sculpturesoap eventually will support the family. It’s a goal that seems entirely possible. He was commissioned by the Burke Museum in Seattle to produce Tyrannosaurus Rex soaps for the gift shop, and he has begun preliminary collaboration with a local chocolate maker to explore the possibility of edible versions of his creations.
Imperfection is Beautiful
“Carving by hand isn’t perfect. It shows the twists and the turns of the tool held by my hand. It shows every decision I make. That resonates really well with everyone who looks at it and sees that it is art and not something that was pumped out using some piece of technology. People appreciate that authenticity in the products they buy.” — Tito Pagán
Nostalgia Driving Business
Fenders and Fins
From the time Jon Carson graduated from college in 1978 with a degree in mechanical engineering until he started his own business in 2001, his job as the manager of a Seattle auto collision shop was to help people — often irate, sometimes mildly disgruntled people — recover from one of the worst days of their lives.
“(Collision) is much higher volume, and you are dealing with people who have been sort of wronged,” Carson said in the garage of his Woodinville classic car restoration shop, Fenders and Fins. “So it’s like you are healing them and the car at the same time, and that’s kind of tricky. Whereas, with this business (it) is really cool because (it’s like) you are doing magic.”
For a guy who had done body work for close to a quarter century, and who still had his high school wheels — a 1955 Chrysler Convertible — making the leap from collision repair to classic car restoration seemed like a natural progression. Though the transition wasn’t an altogether easy one.
“It was terribly frightening for a good long while because it was a lot less money coming in,” Carson said of his initial foray into entrepreneurship while being the sole breadwinner for his wife and daughter. “It was all on my shoulders, though (my wife) did work in the office when we first opened to help get it going, and my daughter actually worked in the shop with me.”
Carson also was able to avoid overhead for the first year by working from his own garage and enlisting the help of friends and clients when needed, many of whom continue to come back time and time again to soak in Carson’s playful jokes and witty retorts.
Though Carson enjoys sharing his gregarious personality with returning clients, his real passion is helping his customers reclaim a special moment from their past.
“That is what is really special, the stories that come with these cars,” he said. “A lot of them are family heirlooms or they (are) re-creating some event from when they were young, particularly something that happened when they were in high school.”
Carson said it’s these moments that make it all worthwhile. “There were times that I doubted (the business), but in retrospect I’m so glad I did that,” he said. “The worst, most stressful things now are still better than the most stressful days when I worked in the (collision shop).”
Find Out What Fuels Your Clients
“It is all about meeting the people, figuring out what they want to achieve — what they want to get out of it — and delivering that. The relationships that develop from that exchange are amazing.” — Jon Carson
The Art of the Pivot
Delicate & Layered
Camille Turner always wanted to be self-employed. The idea of setting her own schedule, taking vacations whenever she wanted, and answering only to herself was a lot of the appeal.
Turner chose that path, and for her first foray into business, she decided to start her own clothing line. After all, she was that girl in high school who was always sketching, and it seemed like a lot of fun. But she quickly realized that a clothing line required too much of an upfront cash commitment.
So instead, Turner started to sell vintage clothing online. It was wildly popular, but also problematic.
“I looked at the calculations of sales (I would) have to make per day, and then how many pieces (I would) need to have on hand to have adequate search engine optimization, (and) it didn’t really seem sustainable,” Turner said.
Jewelry, however, had always been a popular product on her website. It was easy to make and to store, so Turner jettisoned the clothing and refined her business to specialize in handcrafted women’s accessories, primarily necklaces. Thus, Delicate & Layered was born.
“It has taken me a while to find my true niche, and I feel like I finally found it,” Turner said. “I’m staying with jewelry, and I’m staying with empowering women on the blog. I feel like for some people it was just like, ‘This is what I want to do, exactly.’ But for me, it took a while to find the most cost-effective thing.”
It was at this same time, in 2012, that Turner took a job with a local public relations firm to pay the bills while things started to take off. Ultimately, Turner credits that job for the success of her now-full-time business. It was where she learned how to develop a marketing plan, improve search engine optimization, target her ads to her audience, and generally survive in the e-commerce marketplace.
“The few people that I’ve talked to about starting businesses are younger, and they still think that people are just going to find (them online),” Turner said. “That is just not the case. Word of mouth is great, but word of mouth in online business is not going to get you where popping up on someone’s screen is going to get you.”
While Turner maintains her own webstore through Shopify, she also has seen great success through the online handmade marketplace Etsy despite the site taking a percentage of her profits.
“You are getting so much from Etsy; I wouldn’t let that deter anyone from starting an (Etsy shop),” she said. “It is a lot easier to market because it is its own search engine, in a way. You can look at the top sellers on Etsy, and they are pulling six figures — like mid- to high six figures.”
Can a retailer earn a living from Etsy sales alone? As of press time, the top seller on Etsy — a jewelry charm shop called BohemianFindings — had sold more than 1.3 million items since it opened in 2010, according to craftcount.com.
With those numbers, it’s no wonder Turner prefers to stick to e-commerce over more traditional point-of-sale retail models, such as popup shops and craft shows.
“Maybe I will set up a popup shop one day, but it will have to be the right fit and the right aesthetic (because) I want to make sure I’m in front of my target audience,” she said.
A Thirst for Knowledge
“I’m always trying to learn more about marketing. You need to be constantly not just working in your business, but you have to be working on your business. Especially when your business is just you.” — Camille Turner
Taking Ctrl of the Future
A Plus Computer Tech
In the years before the birth of the World Wide Web and during a time when having a personal computer in your home was still pretty rare, 12-year-old Darren Lin dreamed of owning a computer. Then, one day, his father bought him an IBM PC XT 286.
“It was very, very expensive,” recalled Lin, 41, inside the Bellevue location of his computer repair shop, A Plus Computer Tech, where rows of computers with exposed innards lined the small space’s work benches.
But young Lin’s love of computing didn’t end with playing pixelated video games in his Taiwanese home. Instead, his curiosity got the best of him.
“I tried to mess around with it, I tried to upgrade it, I tried to make it faster,” he said. And he did. As he grew up, Lin taught himself about the mechanics of building a computer by reading magazines, computing text-books, and whatever other resources he could find.
After graduating from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan with a degree in applied mathematics, Lin came to America just days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Lin had already purchased his ticket and made his itinerary months before for the sole purpose of finding a job in computer programming.
After winning the Green Card Lottery, Lin worked at a local computer repair shop for two years, though he said the job almost didn’t work out.
“The boss I worked for, he (didn’t) know computers,” Lin said. “He was asking me all (these) computer questions . . . a lot of stupid questions. (On) the second day, I had a fight with him and I told him, ‘I quit.’ (But) finally I calmed down and he calmed down, too, and we just worked.”
But Lin never forgot that exchange. Ultimately, he knew he couldn’t work for someone who didn’t know how to do the work of his own employees. As a result, Lin opened A Plus Computer Tech out of his Bellevue home in 2007, offering to travel to clients’ homes to fix their computers onsite while he searched for the perfect location for a retail space in downtown Bellevue.
Today, Lin has gained his U.S. citizenship, and his business is doing well. His staff of computer repair technicians shares his enthusiasm for the computer repair trade, and he even learns something new every day. Moreover, Lin said he routinely gets customer referrals from the Apple Store at the Bellevue Collection, as well as Geek Squad castoffs.
“Most of (the) Best Buy technicians, they are a whole bunch of college students,” Lin said. “They will come out (to a customer’s home or office) to fix this stuff, then they will have some supervisor or a second tier repair center that they can call in to for help.” Alternatively, Lin said, he and his technicians are the experts, and they thoroughly enjoy their jobs.
“It’s a fun challenge because each computer repair is different; each computer problem is different,” Lin said. “You are not doing the same thing every single day. It’s not like making the same sandwich every single day. I enjoy my life every single day, and I think I can call myself ‘an American dream come true.’”
Standing Up to the Man
“(The) boss is not always right and it sometimes takes time to prove your skill as a new employee. If the working environment is not suitable to you, quit the job immediately. There are plenty of jobs out there … Working should be fun, not (full of) worry about (a bad) boss.” — Darren Lin