How an Accidental Entrepreneur Built a Brand of Success

Originally posted on entrepreneur.com 

The following is the seventh in the series "Live Your Brand" in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.

You may not know the brand name Sticks, but there’s a huge chance you’ve seen their products. The brightly colored wood furniture, accessories and art pieces are beautifully designed to be unique, fun, imaginative and creative. And with this approach has come success. Sticks started out making ornaments and candlesticks but has evolved to creatiing clocks, dining sets, beds and armoires, among other items. 

While 2012 was the 20-year anniversary of Sticks, the company's roots can actually be traced back to 1985 when Sarah Grant, an artist, was commissioned to create a wooden nativity scene for Better Homes and Gardens. Shortly after her folk art-inspired nativity scene was completed for the publication, she began getting orders from friends and family. By 1992, she ended up an accidental entrepreneur when she decided to turn her passion into a business.

As Sticks grew, Grant found creating a successful brand took intense focus. The company produces a unique furniture line, and they are dedicated to bringing tailored happiness to their customers.

Learn how Grant turned her hobby into a successful company:

1. Hire the right people and keep them happy. 
Grant was an abstract painter and art professor, not a folk artist. With everything made by hand, Grant knew she had to hire artists who excelled at their craft with talents that fit the Sticks' style. 

All creative people were fair game -- from sprayers to painters and wood workers. While everyone is considered, everyone is not hired. Painters are required to have four-year degrees. Two of the three artists in the drawing department have a master's degree.

While the bar may be set high for hiring, no one is leaving. An unusually high-employee retention rate shows how Sticks has kept the focus on engaging and inspiring their people. Some of their designers have been with the company for 17 years with senior management having nine to 12 years on staff. 

"Although the pieces are Sticks-branded, it’s easy for employees to put their own personal touches on their work," says president Rachel Eubank. Besides allowing artists to be creative, Eubanks explains how Sticks offers compensation plans, paid time off and healthcare. "This isn’t typical for most artists,” she says.

After a few years of using facilities that created inefficiencies between departments, Sticks built an architecturally award-winning facility in an industrial area of Des Moines, Iowa. Within this long, tall structure, they wanted to keep everything flexible so the building could grow with the business. 

2. Create an inspired place to work.
Sticks’ products – everything from tables to chairs and calendars -- are 100 percent handmade in America, a process that requires a large warehouse. 

With a huge lean-to of sticks greeting you and floor-to-ceiling doors embellished with their branded artwork, this beautiful building is full of light and air. Two-story ceilings and open doors provide cross-ventilation for the entire building. It's an energy-efficient space set in natural surroundings and plenty of light for the painters’ area. They were so strategic with the location that only four trees were lost during construction. 

For a company focused on handcrafted work by artisans, this is the perfect place to get inspired while working.

3. Know your customers and cater to them.
Sticks is a strong brand name to its customers. Because each piece is handmade and fully-customizable, they are not inexpensive. For the company to be successful, it had to know its customers and where to find them.

Sticks only builds stores at tourist destinations and places people own second homes: Santa Fe, N.M., Scottsdale, Ariz., Bethesda, Md. and the like. Each location has its own flavor, but everything stays branded. 

For instance, in Naples, Fla. you'll find seashells, mermaids and palm trees. In Baltimore, you'll be surrounded by whimsical pieces, along with black-and-white checkered prints. Yet, all locations still have the same underlying theme of true American folk art.