David and Christiane Erwin, of Austin, TX, founded Mid-Century modern door company Crestview Doors to provide other design-conscious homeowners with an alternative to the colonial-style front doors you can get at a big box store. The Park house proudly sports the orange “Burbank” pictured below! They now sell DIY Doorlite Kits so you too can build your own dream door. Read on to find out how this maker couple does it.
How did you make the leap from renovating your house to starting your own business?
David Erwin: We remodeled our house in 2006. When I went shopping for a new door for our house, I honestly thought I’d just pick one up at a big box. When I didn’t find a simple three-square window door on the shelf, I tried a local custom door shop. When I didn’t find one there, I looked on the internet. It really bugged me that I couldn’t buy a cool retro door for my house!
Christiane Erwin: We honestly thought remodeling our house was a ton of fun, and we were itching for a new project to work on together. David mentioned that he was interested in making the leap from graphic to industrial design. I was ready to launch another startup, but I wanted to go retail this time.
DE: It was February 2007. I was finishing up some details around the house, and when I went to the big box store, I noticed all the other people grimacing at the ugly doors.
CE: Plus, we saw all of the traffic our post about our retro door was bringing to our houseblog, so we knew there was some potential there. It was really David that took the plunge while I stood back to see where it was headed.
DE: I suggested to Christiane that we could make a few doors for fun and a little extra folding money.
CE: I didn’t think it would take off. At best, I thought it would be a fun little side-business. We were both shocked when the 12 doors we thought it would take a year to sell were gone in just six short weeks!
DE: Those first 12 doors might have sold in a few weeks but it took nearly four months to make them. I was hauling them around from the mill to a neighbor’s garage to the shipping docs all in our minivan, regularly leaving the car’s seats in the driveway to do a delivery and then re-installing them in time to take the kids to soccer practice. It was the rainiest spring in decades and the seats were often soaking wet.
CE: Yeah, and our neighborhood carpenter really didn’t have room in his garage workshop for 12 doors. And the glass kept coming in all kinds of wrong. It was kind of a logistical nightmare.
DE: But we had tons of leads coming in – more than 80 requests for doors by June 2007. We decided to hit pause and look for a better model. We interviewed mills and designed a turn-key solution for them. We put together a contract and Christiane programmed an ecommerce website from scratch to accommodate all the intricacies of ordering a custom door. We launched the new website in September 2007 and the sales started to pour in. At this point we thought we had made the leap, but we hadn’t.
CE: Not even close. The mill had promised a quick turnaround, but out of more than 40 orders, they produced two.
DE: The mill had our customers’ money, but stopped returning our phone calls. We had no backup plan and with orders piling up we had two ways out, spend our saving giving everyone their money back, or quit our day jobs and spend our saving setting up a workshop. That’s when we made the leap. We talked with family over Thanksgiving and when I got back to work, I put in a 4-day notice.
CE: We opened our own shop on December 3, 2007, just 10 short months from the time David first conceived of Crestview Doors. And saleskept growing during the spring of 2008… and then the recession hit! November 2008, just one year later, ant the phone stopped ringing, we had to lay off almost our entire staff, and David went back to work full-time in software. We were lucky – we had started test marketing a DIY kit as a more affordable option to our high-end, handmade products. During 2009, as custom door sales slowed and then stopped, the Doorlite Kits really took off.
DE: And now they are our primary product.
What kinds of current and past projects do you collaborate on? How do you divide creative and management duties on these projects? Does one of you get to be the other’s “boss”?
DE: We collaborate on nearly everything but there is some division of labor. I do research, design, copywriting, production, and shipping. Christiane handles financial, customer service, marketing and programming.
CE: But we overlap on everything.
CE: Of course, there are instances when we simply don’t have the time to go back and forth on something, like designing marketing collateral. Because we have overlapping skills in so many areas, if a deadline is tight, its understood there there’s a green light to forge ahead without one another.
DE: We disagree occasionally, but that’s usually a sign that there is a better solution, so we work toward that.
What sort of non-business projects do you collaborate on?
CE: No doubt, raising four children is our other main “project!” Our kids are 10, 7, 3 and 5 months, so there is a lot of family activity to manage on a day-to-day basis.
DE: Every day is a project to keep them learning, clean, safe and healthy. It doesn’t take too much of a disruption to have us buried under a mountain of dirty laundry and dishes.
CE: Their needs differ greatly, their schedules diverge, their appetites and sleep schedules are all over the place… it is tricky to keep it together. David does most of the laundry, I tackle meals and dishes. On weekdays, we rely on checklists and spreadsheets to keep everything running smoothly. On weekends, we divide and conquer, splitting them up by age or gender to attend birthday parties or run errands.
DE: And we designed and built the house we live in, which is a major inspiration. Every time a task seems too daunting we look around the house and think, if we can build this kick-ass house we can do anything. We co-chaired and ran a community festival. Christiane managed all the sub-committees and sponsors and I built the website and designed the t-shirts. Christiane was president of the PTA for two years and we designed the school logo together. She drew it on paper and I translated it to vector files.
Any tips for keeping a division between work and home life? Do you ban work-talk from the dinner table?
CE: I would say that there is almost no division between work and family. My “home office” is really a cluttered desk in the middle of the dining room, and David’s desk is tucked into one corner of the family music-room-slash-den. Our house is filled with our products (since we believe strongly in testing on ourselves first), especially the kids’ rooms.
DE: We don’t separate work and life. If anything, we integrate them.
CE: Yeah. Crestview Doors donates money to the kids’ elementary school, so their daily planners have our corporate logo on them, and they do their homework with pencils embossed with the company name and phone number.
DE: We didn’t start a business despite having children, we did it because we have children. I want them to understand they have the power to make their world. Not just take it the way it is. I’m not a “Thank-God-it’s-Friday” person, and I don’t want my children to be either.
CE: Is it weird that David and I don’t really see Crestview Doors as work? Maybe because we started it on a lark, it has always felt like a hobby… or a crazy experiment. Sure, there is risk and the economy has dealt us some stressful challenges, but in so many ways Crestview Doors is our other child. He sits at the table with us every night when we eat dinner. He requires frequent diaper changes. He’s difficult at times, but we know he’ll grow into a fine young man and do great things someday.
Not to alert the child-labor people, but do you find ways to involve your kids in your work?
CE: They are still a little young for actual work, although we’re definitely looking forward to the day that they can chip in for real! For now, David takes the oldest two up to the shop regularly to work on little projects and to learn how to safely use the tools.
DE: When we moved to a larger space a couple of weeks ago, I had my 10 year old disconnect the control box from the ShopBot. I showed him how to carefully write down all the colors and locations of the wires on the motherboard. When we hooked it up at the new shop, it worked perfectly.
CE: For Christmas gifts, they used the Shopbot to make little rubber-band racers for their cousins. Our oldest is using MIT’s Scratch to learn programming, and we’ve installed Photoshop Elements and Google Sketchup on his computer too.
DE: We’ve had serious family discussions about the meaning of brand at our dinner table. I feel it’s important for them to understand where media, marketing, brand come from to be literate in our culture.
What are your top three design/build tools?
DE: Adobe Illustrator, ShopBot, Canon 20D. My side of Crestview Doors practically runs on Adobe Illustrator. All specs sent to vendors, all print and web art, installation instructions, and all files sent to the ShopBot start in Adobe Illustrator. The ShopBot has been a versatile tool that builds products, prototypes, shop furniture, signage and packing material. It’s like an additional person working in the shop. We use the Canon 20D for research, and all of our marketing photography. It’s been a workhorse of a camera. Honorable mention goes to our DeWalt DW713 miter saw which has made at least 50,000 perfect cuts without a single adjustment.
CE: I rely heavily on Photoshop for our email and web campaigns, but I can’t credit good ol’ pencil and paper enough. We spend many late nights eating Indian take-out and drawing on the back of our kids’ homework sheets.
Speaking of tools, I heard you bought a ShopBot after seeing one at Maker Faire. How do you use it in your work?
DE: We first put it into production cutting holes in doors for windows. It was about 8X faster than doing it by hand. We switched from making doors to making Doorlite Kits in 2009, so now we cut wall panels and other custom millwork, and we make our own custom packing materials.
What one thing do you wish you’d known before you started the business?
DE: In late 2008 with the economy in near freefall, we found out in a hurry which of our vendors were saints and which ones were scoundrels. I wish we had known that before.
CE: I think we both wish we had prior experience in the construction or home improvement sectors. This industry operates very differently than, say, the software industry where I cut my professional teeth. We’ve had to learn the hard way about so many things, primarily how and where to purchase raw materials. We know how to market to creative DIY types (because that is us!), but we’re still learning about how to market to the professional building and remodeling market. If we had the money, I’m sure we could have hired a dream team of people with this experience, but since we bootstrapped it, we’ve really just had to learn as we go.
Any dream projects you’d like to work on, if money were no object?
DE: That’s a funny question. Money is just an integral part of doing business. So I don’t daydream about removing money from the equation. I daydream about universal healthcare, honest banking and strong math and science education.
CE: If money were no object, I’d love to work on another house with David, really remodel it from top to bottom using the best practices in both design and engineering we’ve learned over the last few years. It is hard to work in this industry while living in the house we remodeled prior to starting the business. We have access to so many more ideas and materials now than we did back then! I’d love to perform some kind of extreme makeover of an entire block or neighborhood of mid-century houses – but do it using authentic designs and materials.
DE: if you are the construction coordinator for “Mad Men,” call me!
CE: Ha! That sounds wicked fun.
What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made with your business? How about the happiest accident?
DE: I think we’ve been pretty good about turning our blunders into happy accidents. The whole business might be a one big happy blunder.
CE: That’s true of most businesses. You need your mistakes to push you forward, to do the next right thing.
DE: For example, we blew a lot of money on a magazine ad that tanked. It wasn’t the ad, it was wrong magazine. With a year-long contract, we got to replay that mistake over and over again. But without that deadline, we would have never launched the first ecommerce version of our website. And we’re a lot smarter about buying ads now.
CE: Also, we had almost dismissed the Kit idea when we first came up with it since it competed with our own custom door business, but we also felt like there needed to be a less-expensive (and fun) solution for people like us. And we felt a little like the custom door business wasn’t quite fulfilling our original goal, which was bringing back mid-century doors to little neighborhoods like ours–which often can’t afford high-end custom doors. I’m glad we spent a couple of years building doors – it may have almost bankrupted us, but it was an experience that we really needed to make the Doorlite Kits a success.