Maybe you think it isn’t possible to grow a custom furniture business in this age of the IKEA box cabinet and software run wood-shops.
Well, that’s kind of what we thought too, to be honest.
But our guest today, Greg Pilotti, is doing this very thing. And he’s doing very well at it. This is his story…
Listen today and you’ll learn:
- How Greg learned business by running a corner store he inherited.
- How he learned the ins/outs and little secrets of woodworking.
- How to use software to connect your office to your guys out in the shop.
- How Greg grew his business using Instagram and Google Images.
- How he competes with the big boys simply by being himself and keeping to his story.
- …. and much, much more.
- Listen today to this incredible hour-long episode of woodworking skills and entrepreneurial genius!
And if you love this show, please share it with your friends, and leave us review on iTunes. We greatly appreciate it!
From Dreams of Being An Architect – To a Future in High-End Custom Furniture
Greg Pilotti, the descendant of Italian immigrants and entrepreneurs, was raised in Coatesville City in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Early in his life, Greg developed a passion for architecture and design. In high school, his teacher and mentor inspired him to pursue architecture as a career, and after graduating from high school Greg headed to Philadelphia University to study architecture full-time.
Greg studied at Philadelphia University for about three years, until he learned that his father was diagnosed with a lung disease that would become fatal. With his academic career clearly taking the backseat to the acute grief of caring for an ill parent, Greg eventually failed an entire semester of school. Once his father died, Greg says that his life was shattered, and he made the decision to drop out of school at twenty-two, ultimately abandoning his dream of becoming an architect. Overcome with grief and familial duty, Greg accepted the burden of running the family business- a neighborhood corner store that left him with a workload of twelve to fourteen hours a day. Greg claims that this experience was miserable for him, but that it taught him valuable lessons about the responsibilities of running a business.
Greg grew tired of sitting behind the counter of his family’s inherited corner store for a living. After the death of his father, he felt anxious about wasting his life by not pursuing his own goals. Eventually, he sold the store, and he “didn’t look back at all,” knowing that he wanted to do something else with his life. So, he began by purchasing some woodworking tools and reading magazines like Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding. Greg then realized that Thaddeus Stevens, a regional trade school that arms students with skills in fields like welding, plumbing, carpentry, and more, was not far from his hometown. The notion of trade school was and remains a taboo educational path for many, but Greg couldn’t care less and was, in fact, more attracted to the appeal of trade school as opposed to a university setting. He found that the opportunity to be in a hands-on production wood shop rather than a traditional classroom excited him, and this pushed him in the right direction. He remarks that the decision to attend Thaddeus Stevens was the best he has made in terms of his career.
Gaining Crucial Experience in a Hands-On Trade
During his time at Thaddeus Stevens, Greg took on small personal projects as well as the immense required work he did in school, which included rigorous and painstakingly accurate period work.
In between semesters, Greg applied for an apprenticeship in a shop. This apprenticeship, which lasted about four months, tested Greg and the skills he gained at Thaddeus Stevens. He admits that during that time he made his share of mistakes, having even damaged a conference tabletop, but Greg knew, even then, that no one can simply begin a career like his without that initial, tangible experience one can gain from working in an actual shop.
In his second year of school, Greg began to feel more confident and he decided to take on some actual work. Through word of mouth and by promoting his work on social media platforms like Instagram, Greg was able to land some small projects such as built-ins or small pieces of furniture. It wasn’t the money he made from these jobs that compelled him to do these pieces, but instead the promise of experience. Greg knew that he would not make it in the furniture building industry overnight, and that it would take time and continued effort to become a master of the craft. Seeking more and more experience that would help his craft, for his required senior project, Greg opted to remake a secretary desk designed in Chester County in 1749. This project tested him, and forced him to utilize knowledge he had gained during his stint in architecture school such as scaling and other techniques. This task also challenged Greg enough that he sought out a mentor, Steve Latta, an instructor at Thaddeus Stevens known as the “inlay god.”
“Go figure it out,” Latta told Greg. And, he did. Greg graduated from Thaddeus Stevens in 2015.
Addressing The Issue of Custom, High-End Work in a Furniture Mass Market
In business, Greg has learned about his role as a small business owner in competition with big names like Ikea or Ethan Allen.
“I don’t compete,” Greg says. When faced with the competition of other furniture makers, Greg claims that he simply can’t commit to the same kind of advertising and mass market appeal that big names do. However, what Greg can offer is the personality of his craft, which is why he decided to keep his name in the title of his business.
“In furniture, a lot of people want it very personal,” Greg says. Although he isn’t able to work with clients who have
“an Ikea budget,” Greg maintains that people will spend more to have that unique piece. Also unique to Greg’s business is his dedication to excellent communication with his clients. The last thing you want to do,” Greg advises, “is take a client, take fifty percent, and don’t talk to them for two weeks. You’re a con-man. At least, I [would] feel like one.”
Social Media Platforms like Instagram & Marketing His Brand Online
Greg shares most of his work and processes on Instagram, a platform which has since earned him fans and clients. Although he considers his work to be unique, Greg is not afraid of competition from others by sharing images of his pieces as they are being made. However, he doesn’t allow his Instagram to be a web presence dedicated to sharing “tips and tricks” for aspiring woodworkers. Greg sees value in having others learn from his work, but his role is not to teach people how to make furniture.
“Anyone can build a table,” Greg admits, “but you can’t have my story.”
Most of his clients are using their phones and come across Greg’s work on Instagram, then most will contact him via e-mail. The importance of an online presence, then, cannot be understated for Greg’s business. Google drive has especially been a crucial online tool for organization, as Greg says that his business can have anywhere from twenty to thirty people simultaneously but with only a handful of shop workers and it is imperative for them to keep track of information. This method also allows Greg and his employees to work remotely, which can streamline solutions to many communication issues Greg’s business may have.
Books That Greg Recommends:
Apps Greg Can’t Live Without
Board Foot Calc
Where to Find Greg Pilotti Furniture Makers Online:
Greg’s Advice For Beginning Contractors, Woodworkers, Entrepreneurs, etc. Who Are Starting Out.
“You’ve got to work your butt off. You have to have the ability to not give up, and that’s hard to do because this can really beat you down. When you fail, and you lose money, and you make people unhappy, you know, that’s not fun. There’s nothing fun. You have to be able to look five years ahead, you need to be able to understand that while today is not that great of a day, you’re learning from it. You just have to put 110% in, and you’re not going to get all of that back, especially right away.”