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B2B: Jacob Lefton, Belchertown metalsmith

NAME: Jacob Lefton

JOB TITLE, COMPANY: Owner and blacksmith, Jacob Lefton|Metalsmith

WEBSITE: www.jacoblefton.com

AGE: 26

WHEN THE BUSINESS STARTED: 2010

WHAT YOU DO: Ornamental metalwork, such as railings, fences, gates, lighting fixtures, furniture, art and sculpture.

EXPERIENCE: I took basic blacksmithing classes at Hampshire College. After I graduated, I found myself in Europe, where I relearned most of it in a professional context. I traveled between workshops while there.

THE MARKET: I work directly for individuals looking to invest in a large art piece. I also maintain relationships with architects and designers who bring me in on projects. Lots of architects have a “once-every-few-years” call for the work I do, so I need to collect enough of those for it to be a constant stream of work on my end.

HOW YOU REACH OUT TO IT: In every way possible. Ninety percent of my business is word of mouth, so I make sure everyone knows what I do. I do direct marketing with postcards to architects to break the ice and follow up with a phone call later. I offer a continuing education presentation on the possibilities of blacksmithing because many people are unfamiliar with it.

WHAT FINANCING HURDLES HAVE YOU FACED AND HOW HAVE YOU HANDLED THEM? I keep my basic overhead low. Even so, last year I didn’t make rent one month, and then I landed a six-month project. It’s a boom-and-bust cycle. I’m still learning to adapt to it. I market heavily when I am most busy and try to keep a cushion of a couple of months. Failing that, I resort to more craft-oriented sales of smaller items to make rent.

KEY TO SUCCESS: Doing what I love and being my own boss are key. I’m not afraid to ask for help.

CHALLENGES: Someone told me a successful business has an entrepreneur, a manager and a technician. When you’re self-employed, you need to be all three.

MISSTEP YOU LEARNED FROM: Not charging enough. I routinely put in 25 to 33 percent more hours than I actually charge for.

WHAT OTHERS COULD LEARN FROM YOU: That I put forward a professional front, and I try not to turn away anyone who wants to learn from me (as my mentors did for me), though it can be hard to balance teaching with working.

WHO HELPED MENTOR YOU PROFESSIONALLY? My dad built his own consulting business while I was in high school, and he gives me advice. There are half a dozen blacksmiths who I contact on a regular basis. Often I ask, “Is this a reasonable price for X?” or “How do you do this?” Advice on how to present a project and talk about money has been invaluable.

TOP GOALS FOR 2012: I’ve achieved my 2012 goals: Earn more than last year, and obtain a few essential tools. Current goals are to: Cultivate relationships with individuals, architects and designers. Land work in galleries. Practice my craft. Build a strong community. Travel more.

ADVICE FOR OTHERS SEEKING BUSINESS SUCCESS: Follow your dreams. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Don’t say “no.” Be professional, responsible, never stop learning, and do your best.

PARTING THOUGHT: Blacksmiths have this old tradition of apprentice-journeyman-master that still informs our relationships. When I first traveled in Europe, at the height of the economic crisis, no one turned me away when I asked them to take me in and teach me, despite my lack of experience. They gave room and board for help in the shop. I wish more disciplines had this type of community. I hope to be in a position where I never have to turn away a journeyman.

B2B ID is compiled by Janice Beetle, owner of Beetle Press in Easthampton. Beetle Press offers writing, editing and graphic design services. www.beetlepress.com. To suggest a subject for B2B ID, email Beetle at beetlepress@charter.net.

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