Intro to Carpentry

How a 26-year-old with no woodworking experience is building an Arkansas furniture empire

03_james_TSometimes Emmalyn Smith comes home to find her dining-room tabletop sitting unceremoniously on the floor, legless. Although setting the table becomes more difficult when the raw-steel hairpin legs have been spirited away, Emmalyn knows they’ve gone to a good cause.

But such are the hazards of being married to a furniture maker. With 40-plus tables a week to build, her husband, James Smith, sometimes needs to borrow his own dining-room-table legs to fill the orders for his custom-built James + James brand tables.

Although it seems strange now, two and a half years ago, even one handcrafted table would have been a stretch for the California native, who came to Arkansas to attend John Brown University in Siloam Springs.

“I had no carpentry experience whatsoever, but I really needed to make money,” says Smith.
Living with three roommates and finding himself between jobs, Smith got it in his head to try his hand at making a coffee table. While browsing Pinterest, he started to notice how wildly popular farmhouse-style furniture had become.

“The designs were very simplistic, a solid-wood look,” Smith says. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it certainly could be hand-built.”

It wasn’t long before he bought a skill saw, some wood, and set up shop in the garage of his rental house, fabricating his first coffee table through trial, error and several online videos. He had a little experience with a saw from building sets for plays in high school, but that first table still took weeks. When he posted photos of the table on Craigslist, people started asking what else he could build. Benches? Chairs? A full-size table?

0114FPMadeJ+JFurn2“I just said, ‘Of course I can,’” Smith says, adding that he didn’t have the checking account balance to turn down work.

Just weeks after he’d assembled the inaugural coffee table, a college friend of Smith’s, James Eldridge, joined him, and the two began spending more and more time crafting furniture in the garage. After working days at his newly acquired day job doing graphic design, Smith would return home to make furniture until 2 a.m., catching a few hours of sleep before starting all over again the next morning. But the sleep deprivation was worth getting the business off the ground, Smith says.

“There are very few things left you can build in the U.S. and compete on pricing,” Smith says. “I figured that we could beat their prices, have a higher quality of product and customize furniture.”
Betting on their low prices to draw customers from across Northwest Arkansas, Smith eschewed a flashy website for a simple pre-templated blog to keep up appearances as a grassroots startup.

“But as we started to deliver tables in those first months, we were delivering to multimillion-dollar home after multimillion-dollar home,” Smith says. “We started to realize that people weren’t buying from us because the tables were cheaper. People loved our story and our product.”

After gaining a foothold, Smith decided it was time to properly brand the business. He quit his day job. He’s been running with James + James ever since. The Springdale-based company is now on track to do 50 percent more business in 2014 than 2013 and has already done more than $1 million in sales—with its completely customizable, made-to-order tables, chairs, bookshelves and beds landing in 41 states, Canada, even Bermuda. In fact, only 15 percent of James + James’ orders come from Arkansas.

And though the business shows no sign of slowing down (the company’s Facebook page has more than 18,000 “likes” and counting), Smith recently became the only namesake partner at James + James after Eldridge exited the company and sold his stake to other investors.

0114FPMadeJ+JFurn3“My job has transitioned to making everyone else’s job easier,” Smith says. “I do a good bit of the sales, answering phones and our social media. But we have such a great team now that if I don’t show up, things would hum along great.”

Though he still has a hand in design, he no longer builds the tables himself, leaving the actual construction process to his team. Smith says he spends much of his time now planning how to handle the incredible growth James + James has experienced since it first launched. Increased orders have created their own problems, including a need to use the space in the James + James workshop more efficiently. New racks are being installed so tables can be stacked like pizzas to dry, taking up much less space. And while all orders before late 2013 were taken over the phone, online ordering was added in December.

But no matter how big the company gets, Smith doesn’t anticipate relocating his business.

“The economy in Arkansas is really great,” Smith says. “The cost of labor is affordable. It would cost much more to have this business somewhere else.”

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