How I’m Building My Business
Ever wondered what it takes to start and grow a business? At an AF-Milwaukee event last week we heard from fellow millennial business owner and founder of Sustar Woodworks, Ian Sustar. Ian gave us a tour of his shop and spoke on how he decided to start his business, some challenges he’s faced along the way, and what he’s learned in the process. I spoke with Ian following the event to get his insights.
Julie: You mentioned that you knew you wanted to pursue this woodworking career full-time while you while you were in college in 2011, but you still got a full-time engineering job and worked there until last year. Talk about why you chose to wait a few years before doing this full-time.
Ian: Early on I decided that I was going to finance the business myself. Having a full-time job allowed me to put the money I was making back into the business. It allowed me to purchase the building in 2013 and pay cash for all the machinery.
Julie: When you first bought this building in 2013, it looked much different than it does today. Can you talk about how you’ve transformed it into such a cool space and shop we saw?
Ian: When I purchased the building, there were abandoned railroad tracks and deteriorating asphalt in front. The parking lot was gravel overgrown with weeds, and the roof leaked. The interior was empty. The first step was installing lighting, building workstations, and running electrical to the machines. It took three months to make it functional as a shop. In 2017, the City of Milwaukee removed the railroad tracks and replaced the road. I installed the parking lot and replaced the roof in 2017.
Julie: Someone at the event asked when you plan to hire people and eventually how many you’d like to employ. You said the goal is not necessarily to employ a lot of people, but to ensure that the quality of your products is always upheld. Can you expand on that?
Ian: My mission statement is: “Produce handcrafted heirloom quality wood furniture that provides value to the families it serves.” Consistent growth has been the consequence of a quality product as customer service. My goal is to build a business that at some point is functional without me.
Julie: In May we did an event with your mentor, John Stollenwerk (founder of Allen Edmonds Shoes). How has he helped you throughout the process of starting your business?
Ian: John has been a friend and personal mentor to me my whole life. When I started selling furniture my sophomore year of college, I had no idea about the furniture business. John encouraged me to reach out and talk to other furniture makers, manufacturers, and retailers to learn about the business. John introduced me to Thos. Moser and encouraged me to apprentice with Thos. Moser in Maine. The principles of quality and customer service are the same principles that John built Allen Edmonds on.
Julie: You’re a regular at most AF-Milwaukee events. How do you see some of our core principles (free markets, liberty, responsibility) at play as you’ve started and grown your business?
Ian: I am a huge proponent of free markets and personal liberty. When I purchased the building in 2013, not much was happening in the area. Over the past six years I have seen over 30 small businesses move into the area and invest their own money into the neighborhood. It has totally transformed the area with almost no help from the city.
Julie: What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own business?
Ian: When starting a business, it is easy to get sucked into the day-to-day tasks and lose sight of the big picture. Find a mentor that can challenge you and keep you on track.