American Felling Axes, Best Made Shop; Photo, Sandy Soohoo
Peter Buchanan-Smith is passionate about products — and one product in particular, the axe. In 2009, he left behind a successful studio practice and launched Best Made Company with a single product, the Best Made American Felling Axe. Best Made has since expanded into a well-loved brand popular with high-end shoppers, outdoorsmen and the design community alike.
Peter took a risk for the chance to tell a story. He’s grown the business from a company that makes axes to a brand that encourages the Boy Scout, adventurer and dreamer in all of us — and he does it for the love of the product and the chance to do it all.
Can you tell us about your background, how you got your start, and how you transitioned into entrepreneurship?
How far back do you want me to go? [laughs] I grew up on a small farm in Canada, it was relatively isolated, and it wasn’t like I had much to do. I had to self-entertain. The obvious activity that I gravitated to was to make things. Or destroy things. One or the other. The farm was where that seed of ‘making’ was first sown, and I still feel like that’s what I aspire to do — to just make things.
I studied fine art in college, and I got really frustrated with it. I thought I wanted to be a painter, but I realized that making art was essentially making things for myself. I didn’t feel like I made anything for anyone else to appreciate or enjoy, or at least I felt that my making was arbitrary. I became part of a few tiny publishing ventures at a university in Canada, and I got hooked on the idea of mass-producing something. Publication design just seemed like such an alluring facet to ‘making stuff.’ The design was the place that I felt was the nerve center to any kind of publishing operation. If the design sucked, no one was going to read it. Then it became my mission to learn more and get inspired by great designers. I moved to New York to work in publishing. I started working for a book publisher and soon enough hit the wall in terms of where my personal ambition was concerned. There was no room for me.
There were all these other people above me who we allowed, and paid, to design the most beautiful book covers. But I wasn’t in that position, and I wasn’t going to hang around and wait for someone to promote me, so then I went to the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Designer as Author Program. What appealed to me most was the promise of a thesis that would actually get published, one that would see the light of day instead of ending up as a design experiment that gets put in a portfolio under the bed for the rest of your life. The MFA program offered what I had been looking for my whole life: to make something that would see the light of day.
I had lived and worked in New York for two years in the book publishing industry, and the idea of getting something published, or making anything real, seemed impossible. This wasn’t my small town in Canada; this was the real deal. I pushed forward, and using a lot of the resources from the mfa program, which were invaluable, I ended up publishing a book, Speck. That was the beginning of my career as a designer / entrepreneur. That’s the genesis.
What lessons or core values, or principles, did you take away from your previous career in publishing?
Right after SVA, I worked as an art director at The New York Times, but I always worked on side projects to maintain my sanity. Something I try to instill in the students and young designers whom I meet is this idea of doing a side project. No matter how small, it is always important. Remind yourself why you love design and why you’re here to begin with. I think when you go to a corporation, and when you’re entry level and just starting out, a lot is asked of you, and you can lose yourself and get washed up in it. I never wanted to work in a design firm.
I never wanted to have a designer or an art director looking over my shoulder. I wanted to work with people who didn’t know anything about design. I wanted to work with editors and a team of people with different talents and skill sets — then together we would create something. Going back to the idea of making. It’s hard to think of The New York Times as ‘making something,’ but it really was. It’s on a very large scale, but at the end of every day, there’s a newspaper that comes out, and it would have my mark on it. And that was just so exciting.
One of the reasons we started Kern and Burn was to create a resource in which we could gather perspectives. We wanted designers to have greater access to the mentors, stories and inspiration that we as graduate students were fortunate enough to have. How important is it for a designer to get a graduate degree? And what were some of the mentor relationships that you received in grad school, and how important have they been to you?
It’s a case-by-case basis. I firmly believe that most people probably don’t need a master’s degree to do what I’ve done or to become an entrepreneur.
Sometimes I think a master’s degree is almost antithetical to the entrepreneurial process. Getting my master’s was good for me mainly in that I was kind of lost before I got there, and it gave me a lot of options. I could see firsthand stories of success and get inspiration. Of the people who were an inspiration to me, the main one who has been a constant throughout my career is Maira Kalman.
She was my thesis adviser, and the work she did with Tibor Kalman at M&Co, and her whole outlook on life and creating and making has rubbed off on me in a huge way. Ever since I left SVA, I’ve been under her spell. I don’t know a better way to describe it. I’ve been inspired, enchanted and very influenced by her. A lot of my clients have come by way of her, not that she actively sought them out for me. People such as Isaac Mizrahi, who I’ve done a lot of work for — he was her next-door neighbor.
She has taught me a lot about the importance of being true to yourself and keeping things light and playful. I think that’s really important. I also think that there’s a duality to it; you need things to be light and playful, but you have to be super serious about them being light and playful. Often, it feels like everything has huge consequences but you have to let go a little bit. Especially as a designer when you’re starting your own business, it’s easy to get wrapped up in so many things that will just side track you. There are many distractions. Maira taught me that to persevere, it is all one big experiment.
How important do you think business education is for a designer? Obviously, you wouldn’t suggest that design students get an MBA when they’re done, but do you think that business acumen evolves organically from side projects, or do you think it’s something we need to be strategic about learning and teaching?
That’s a really good question. If design is sort of like a nerve center of sorts, what it can bring to any business is critical, and if in the right hands, with the right designer, it can be so powerful that at the very least, it can get something up and running. You don’t need to know how to use QuickBooks or Excel. It’s good to have a basic understanding of this stuff and an appreciation enough that you can bring people in to help you with it. I spent the first three years of Best Made Company totally flailing around with what I would consider the ‘ back-end stuff, ’ the parts of a business that no one ever sees. But I had my hand on the pulse and worked very hard at crafting all of the stuff that people do see. I don’t want to sell the business end short; I think it’s hugely important.
It sounds stupid, but as long as you’re making money that’s the most important thing — you might, because of your lack of business skills, lose it, but if you’re a good designer, you can make up for that. Looking back, I feel like I’ve spent the last two or three years building my business plan in real time, and I think that’s a good thing. Most people would create a business plan before they even opened their doors, but I’m glad that I did it this way. Now I’ve got the template, and the mold is cast. We are starting to embark on this process of finally writing our business plan, and it’s going to be a lot easier for us because the business is there.
Who can write a business plan unless they have some real sense of what’s going to sell?
No matter how much experience you have, it is hard to know how anything is going to sell until you know how your brand is received and the message of what you have to say as a brand — unless you’re designing software, or car parts or something. Best Made Company is much more nuanced. It’s much more about this, for lack of a better word, lifestyle, or aspiration or attitude that people want to be a part of. To create that does not take a business degree.
The other thing that I want to say, that I think is so important, is whether your specialty is in business, design or whatever it is that you bring to the table, it’s really important to remember that as an expert or as someone who has a specialty in something, you can very quickly become a technician. And that is the death of every small business.
It’s so easy to get lost in a specialty, especially when you’re an entrepreneur. You are running a small business; you’re out on your own, and there’s no structure. It’s very easy to get lost and lose track of time. It’s like being stranded on a desert island; I’ve seen it time and again. It’s a trap that I constantly have to remind myself not to fall back into — the trap of only doing stuff that I’m really good at. Graphic design only occupies about 5 percent of my time, but that 5 percent makes it all so worthwhile. You have to be really disciplined in that sense.
The Best Made story seems to be directly related to your personal history and your passion for the outdoors. How have those interests shaped or infused the business? Did you intend them to, or have they been crafted into the story after the fact?
The business started at the height of the mortgage crisis and the economic meltdown in early spring 2009. My graphic design business was losing clients, budgets were being slashed, I had been working in the city for 15 years, and I hit the wall. I decided I really needed to look after myself. I understood that a client wasn’t going to take care of me. I needed to not only look after myself in terms of putting bread on the table, but also look after myself emotionally and creatively speaking. There were a lot of people who felt this way and were ready to use the financial crisis as a source of change. It is almost like an addiction working for clients. There’s a saying that drug addicts will never recover until they hit rock bottom. It was like that for me. I started to feel like I could never do this on my own; instead of believing that, I just started the business.
My parents still lived up on the same farm that I was born on, and I would go up there three to four times a year. While all of this was happening — the economic crisis, the loss of clients, an extreme amount of time in the city combined with these trips to the farm — it was a whole collision of conflicts and ideas going on in my brain. I was at the point where I needed to reconnect with nature in the most basic sense. I could sense that same feeling bubbling and simmering in the public imagination. I felt like people were anxious to get outside and into nature but didn’t know quite how to do itthey just needed a little push in the right direction and some inspiration. I found that in the axe, in this tool that would be an evocative symbol for people. If they bought it, had it in their house, hung it on their wall, did whatever they wanted with it, even if they never even went outside, it would always be this reminder to them, this window into another world.
Did the concept of getting back to nature start when you discovered the axe? Or were there other keystone products that you thought about using first and then came to the axe?
The axe came first; the axe came before Best Made. I was invited to contribute some products to a gallery in New York. And at the time, I had some axes sitting in my workshop that I bought on eBay, and none of them had any kind of adornment. I knew that I didn’t want to make an art piece for the show in a way that I normally would or a way that I was comfortable with. I wanted to make a real product. I remembered that when I was growing up, my dad had an axe that had a yellow safety handle on the bottom of it, and it was painted on as a purely utilitarian function. For the show, I decided to take an existing object and then paint it. Those first axes sold pretty much instantly. I just put two and two together. My inclination for everything is, ‘ Oh, we can start a business out of that. ’ Rather than just keep painting axes, I decided, that no, this was an excuse to start a real business that’s going to sell other products in addition to the axes. It’s not like M&Co was started because Maira and Tibor saw that the future was in umbrellas, or paperweights or weird watches. They had a desire to communicate with people on a very substantial, meaningful level. They were working on expressing that sort of connection for their clients and then discovered that they could do it just as well, and they did. I feel like designers, just by virtue of being a designer, have it in themselves somewhere. A lot of people are terrified of starting a business. It’s not easy.
I think that every business will succeed if the owner feels like there is no stopping it. The only way to get to that point is to be so in love with what you’re doing that there is no such thing as failure. I said, ‘Well if this project just ends up becoming me painting one axe a month for a friend and mailing it to them, then it’s still a success.’ A lot of people would consider that a total failure, but I remind myself of that. Once you wrap your head around what you think is the worst possible case scenario, everything else is easy. It becomes really simple.
The digital fabrication revolution has allowed many entrepreneurs to create products overnight. Why have you chosen to go the route of the craftsman, and why is that important to you?
I feel like I’m a Frankenstein of both the overnight and slow-growth models. I took an axe that was made by someone else, and I just painted the handle. The hard part was selling it and developing a catalogue and world around that one painted, simple axe. It was done overnight in a way. I had no business plan when I started. I literally painted 12 axes, photographed them, and two or three weeks later, I built an e-commerce site, and they were up for sale online. That’s pretty fast.
It has been very slow to develop and craft some of the products that I want out there. That’s what’s been hard; it takes time and money, and that doesn’t come quickly unless you’re willing to sell half of your company or something, even if that were possible. But, I’ve learned a lot from my manufacturers. We work with a 140-year-old axe company that is still run by the same family. It is really inspiring to go down there, to watch them run machinery that was built 80 to 100 years ago, and see that they’re not anxious about growing really quickly. To them, it is about long, sustained growth. No one is thinking, ‘Let’s get rich quick.’
I’d say that’s the sad thing about a lot of products that I see out there that probably don’t last because people came to it expecting too much, too quickly. That’s the way we’ve been taught to think lately, that that’s the way the world works, and if you can’t make money, you can’t be happy any other way. Well, if you work with a 140-year-old axe maker, that’s actually not true. We’re developing the notion that you don’t have to have instantaneous, huge, obvious results all of the time. In the time that we’ve worked with this axe maker, we’ve only ever released two different versions of the axe, but it’s a roller coaster every day with them. It’s a roller coaster with all of our vendors, to just continue to develop the product, and to continue to try to sell it, that’s the excitement. You think of slow-growth business like what we’re doing, and you kind of just want to take a nap. But it’s anything but boring and slow; I think it’s fast and super exciting.
When you release new products, are you testing to see what is going to be well received, or do you have a pretty good idea of what’s going to sell?
Right now I have a really good sense of what is going to sell; what is going to sell really well is always up in the air, and it always surprises me a little. We are focusing on some long-term development products, and we are growing
into a business that’s got a real core to it. We’ve released a boot oil, a shepherd’s mouth whistle — it’s wonderful and wacky. I love these products, and I think they have a very important place in our catalogue, but along with other people’s products, we are really building up the Best Made brand catalogue into something that we believe is great.
How do you convey the backstory and the notion of optimism found in Best Made to someone in a few short sentences?
The slogan has become that, ‘We are making tools to empower and inspire people, to get outside and use their hands.’ That’s one answer. Another answer might be that we are trying to make the world a much better place. That sounds so earnest and righteous, and I feel like every company would probably say the same thing — whether they believe it or are doing it is another question. I have a firm belief that quality products with amazing stories, even though they’re material objects, and some of them are very expensive, can serve very valuable roles in our lives. At the very least, it’s nice for people to question whether that’s true. They can look at an axe, and they can say, ‘Oh, I’m kind of horrified by that, and I’m never going to spend more than $100 on anything ever again.’ Or, they can say, ‘ Wow.’
When I started Best Made, in the midst of a crazy economic crisis, I thought that if the shit hit the fan, and I lost everything, and I could only take one thing with me, that’s what it would be; it would be the axe. I have always seen the axe as a very inspirational tool in that sense. It’s the oldest tool known to mankind. It’s actually the oldest art form as well, known to mankind. It embodies so much; it’s a symbol of simplicity and virtue, but it also can be threatening and menacing. And I love that; it’s a very loaded symbol.
You built your model around emotional connection with physical products. Do you think we can connect with digital products in the same way? Should the designers of digital tools or products think about that emotional connection and story as well?
Yeah, I wish that digital designers would stop trying to think that they can do everything — that using an app will be as rewarding of an experience as going out and chopping wood with an axe. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that will ever be the case. To me, the best designs of anything, whether they are digital or physical, are made by people who understand the limitations. I think the digital world has gotten so overrun and cluttered with everyone out there trying to prove that they can do things that that medium simply can’t do. But again, I’m constantly surprised and amazed what digital things can do, but it’s always the simple things that amaze me the most. I feel like a company such as Google is always coming out with something that makes me say, ‘ Wow, they got it.’ And the reason it’s so good is because they understand their limitations, and they’re not embellishing it with stuff that we don’t need.