written by Amel Alyamani
photography by Grayson Frizzelle
Be honest, the news announcing the end of Fixer Upper left us all feeling a little empty. Chip and Joanna’s hilarious back-and-forth made for great television. But worry not. There’s a new couple coming out of Athens, Georgia who are positioned to fill their void and to take interior decorating reality tv by storm. At least that’s our 2018 prediction.
Sons of Sawdust, a woodworking company based in Athens, has a story that has embraced a community and engaged thousands of fans and customers. Brothers Ben and Matt Hobbs beginnings were humble, with the fabrication of a few tables made of reclaimed wood for friends to make financial ends meet. And as is often the story, a friend told a friend (and then they opened an Instagram account) and soon they had more orders. But it was the way the company shared their story during those vulnerable and lean times that captured the hearts of their followers. This was the brilliance of the third co-founder, Shayna Miller Hobbs, who is also Matt’s wife.
The Recipe for Press team took a field trip in late fall to the Sons of Sawdust workshop in Watkinsville, Georgia and also to their new retail location in Athens. We listened, we observed and we learned how they work together to build both furniture and a brand and how one social media channel in particular helped them grow this quickly and even secure a sponsored with Carhartt clothing.
Let’s talk pre-Sons of Sawdust?
Matt: We were living in Nashville and owned a photography business and it failed when the market tanked. We lost just about everything. When Ben and I started building stuff, Shayna began taking pictures. She wanted to get on social media and I was like, that’s for teenage girls to post selfies. I didn’t have any idea of the power of social media…but Shayna insisted. “I’m telling you Matt, social media is awesome. We need to be on Instagram.” She was right. Within two or three days of opening an account on Instagram, we drummed up almost ten thousand dollars worth of business. After that I said, “Babe. You were right, AGAIN! Keep doing what you’re doing, whatever you’re doing, it’s awesome.”
On the name: Sons of Sawdust:
Shayna: The boy’s grandfather taught them how to work with wood when they were little. There are old home videos of them building and their grandma is like “you better watch out, you’re gonna be a carpenter some day!” and they are about nine or ten years old in the videos. So that was inspiring to me, the legacy of Pa. He passed away nine years ago, shortly after we got married, and he was an incredible man. So we wanted to continue his spirit in his “sons”, or grandsons though sawdust, which obviously is around us everyday. The name was also symbolic of where we came from. We literally were coming from the dust; we were near homeless for about a year, it was really hard. So rising out of the dust and moving forward also inspired the name.
Did you intend, early on, to “build a brand?”
Matt: We really stumbled on to this business. We never sat down and came up with a business plan, but early on we realized that, for millennials, it’s really important to know where things are made, where it comes from. They don’t just want stuff from China anymore, they want something that has a story. They want to connect. We also connect with older people because they remember the way things were done back in the day, when things were made by hand.
Shayna: I think also, the makers movement is really big right now and the millennials are really engaged with it. So millennials may not be able to buy a table right now, but they will remember us and then five or ten years, they’ll come back once they get married and buy a table from us. So it’s cool because the younger generation that’s following us maybe aren’t customers yet but they are our fans. They become our ambassadors and tell people about us. Also I believe that the millennials are very passionate about finding something that you believe in that’s authentic and real; they’re tired of bullcrap out there. We’re not afraid to be vulnerable and share our story openly.
We see that you’re enjoying a sponsorship with Carhartt? What does an “awesome partner” mean to you?
Shayna: Years ago, before there was such thing as a sponsored post, I kind of created my own and I did it very organically. I started with the guys’ beards because it is such an obvious thing with the guys and I started using beard hashtags, and we started getting free beard oil and that’s kinda where it started and where I saw companies interest in connecting. We are valuable now to brands because we have 135k Instagram followers, which is a lot and they see how we naturally work things into what we’re sharing. We’re not trying posting for the sake of seling. And now, in a month, we’re flying out to Carhartt’s headquarters to speak at their annual sales meeting where thousands of their employees will be there and we’ll be hanging out with the owner, just sharing our story.
How do you “share” products outside of your own to grow your own following?
Shayna: Particularly for building Instagram following, tell people it’s about what fits under your umbrella. That’s what sets you apart as a brand, in addition to having good photography and a story. We understood early on that we are not limited to just being woodworkers. We wouldn’t be partnering with Carhartt if we were just limited to only woodworking. I saw the bigger image, that this is about family, lifestyle, everything that we enjoy as a company and then putting emphasis on those things, not just on us building tables.
Explain what “transparency” means to you.
Matt: With a lot of businesses you don’t know what’s going on behind the doors. But we’re constantly putting it out there, not only our personal lives and our struggles and how we overcame the odds. We also share the story of the buildings that we are deconstructing and the wood as it’s coming down from a house built 100 or 200 years ago. We show the process of de-nailing and cleaning it up then building the table, so they see every aspect of our business from start to finish. We also like to dance. And we share that too. They know everything that’s coming out of here. There are so many people that have written us from all over the world that say “thank you for your story,” “we’re inspired, I just lost my job today,” or “I’m a veteran and want to do something with my hands.” All these other people with these really hard stories connect with ours and then they tag us or tag their friends in our post or repost that draws people into us. The growth has been crazy. We were gaining anywhere from 500 to 600 followers a day.
How much of your focus goes to social media a day?
Shayna: It was really intense for a while because of how much growth he had. I definitely put 40 hours a week in it the first year or so, at least. On just the back-end stuff I would spend six hours a day.
How much time would you put in to one post when you were first ramping up?
Shayna: It took me about two to three hours of work. From taking a photo, to editing, to exporting, to composing what it will be about, to thinking about the tagging, there is a lot that goes into that.
Matt: Taking a picture and saying “this is a farm table we made” doesn’t really work. Shayna might take an hour just to take the picture to get the table in a beautiful place, to get the lighting right, to edit it. Taking the time to becoming a relatable brand is important to get an engaged following.
On moving forward from workshop to showroom:
We were getting so many folks showing up at our workshop for the first couple years, like nonstop, and that becomes a little dangerous! Matt would be making a cut then turn around be like “whoa!” and find there’s somebody right behind him. It started to really interrupt the workflow. These were just fans and people saying they wanted to just watch us work. So now we have a showroom in Athens that lets people see finished product and allows us meet them too.
Dreams for the future?
We would love for everything to be all in one space, to have something like Chip and Joanna Gaines have with the Magnolia Silos. They have this huge space with the workshop, storage, and showroom all in one space. Then maybe have a glass window where people could walk through and watch them working. It wouldn’t be dangerous or interrupt them but you could see the process.