By Stephanie Finnegan
The story of an overnight success is frequently just that: a story, a myth, a fantasy. That’s certainly the case for Second Nature By Hand, a family-owned Wisconsin business that initially began as a husband and wife who were seeking to feather a retirement nest.
Dave and Jennifer Tubbin were both gainfully employed in careers that were satisfying and rewarding. Dave was a landscape architect and Jennifer was an elementary-school teacher. Having artistic souls, the couple viewed their business as a passion-fueled hobby — a way to potentially earn money for the future while feeding their creative talents. In fact, their early days in 1999 were all about spreading good cheer and having a few dollars left over by the end of a weekend show.
“We began with the goal of creating art that other people enjoyed. Our early goals were more about selling enough to cover our booth fee at each show, cover the expenses for creating product for the next show, and then have a little extra left over to put in our savings toward retirement,” Jennifer said. “We prayed for good weather and good crowds for our weekend shows. When a show went well, we booked another and just began building from there. Small business is really about putting one foot in front of the other and rolling one stone at a time toward the goal.”
A New Addition Prompts Change
When the Tubbin family gained a new addition — their second child, a daughter, born in 2012 — the couple was already 13 years into their “side hustle.” At that moment, the Tubbins decided to make a transition in order to hopefully simplify their hectic lives. “On a whim, we decided that we would move our business to a wholesale model where we could produce and ship product to wholesale customers versus taking the product to retail customers every weekend,” Jennifer shared. “We naively thought that would make life a piece of cake and allow us to be parents, have our careers, and continue our creativity through the art world. With only 10 days to prepare, we signed up for the largest wholesale market in the country. Off to Atlanta we went, only to find out that the real work would now begin!”
The Tubbins’ first wholesale introduction were hand-carved letters made from reclaimed books. Recycling, reusing, repurposing, and reimagining were core principles of their eco-friendly business model. Jennifer and Dave would scour flea markets and jumble sales to find beautiful vintage books that would serve their newly dreamed-up purpose. “We chose books with beautiful, artful covers and cut them into dimensional monogrammed letters,” Jennifer explained. “Anthropologie and Nordstrom couldn’t order them fast enough, and the purchase orders (POs) for them exceeded our available supply of books. There we were, two months before Christmas, combing every thrift store we could find for vintage books to fill our orders. Talk about boots on the ground!”
An Unexpected Face
Additionally, their first wholesale show helped to lay the groundwork for what would become Second Nature By Hand’s recognizable, identifiable product line. The Tubbins still didn’t realize that they were building a brand, but their handmade signs from reclaimed wood became the “face” of their company. The booth fee for their first wholesale show “was crazy expensive,” so they decided they needed to come to the event with more than just the book letters.
“We decided to pack up a few of our reclaimed wood signs to make the booth look nice, and to give the customers another product to consider,” Jennifer said. By deciding to expand what they were showcasing — moving beyond the letters, which had been their reliable inventory — the Tubbins were entering into an unknown and potentially overwhelming terrain. However, a belief in themselves, a hands-on approach to maintaining excellence, and a commitment to quality control helped them to navigate the uncharted course.
“Yes, we’ve proudly expanded our production capability and have now moved daily operations out of our garage. Thank goodness we can park in there again! Our production focus is now on building relationships with like-minded small businesses. As we develop new product ideas and design, we carefully partner with other small businesses that share the same views on quality and work ethic,” Jennifer said. “The blend of our artistic vision and design, along with their quality craftsmanship, results in products we are very proud to put our name on. These relationships allow Second Nature by Hand to grow and contract where we need to. We are proud to have such amazing partners in this process.”
Expansion and Teamwork
Since their first weekend art and crafts shows until now, 20 years have passed, and Second Nature By Hand has grown by measurable leaps and bounds. From a husband-and-wife duo, they have expanded to employing a staff of talented and integral workers: “We have eight people who manage all ‘office’ activities — everything from design, order placement and billing, marketing, and logistics. Roughly 10 more sets of hands manage product building and construction, order shipment, and warehouse activities. Every decision we make impacts our team, thus pushing us to be sharp and efficient in our daily activities.”
The Tubbins describe their business as “small but mighty,” but their evolving line of handmade products belies that tiny status. They currently compete with the big boys when it comes to innovation and expanding their offerings, while not losing the hands-on, handmade touch. Their current inventory includes kitchen towels, boyfriend T-shirts, stationery, journals, magnets, and so much more. Additionally, Second Nature By Hand is earning rave reviews for its Artist Series, which is a unique collaboration between the Tubbins’ company and some of the music world’s most celebrated composers.
“We’ve partnered with some amazing songwriters and artists and are producing product for them through a licensing agreement. Jeffrey Steele, songwriter for one of the biggest names in country music, including Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Montgomery Gentry, and Ed Roland of Collective Soul, have graciously entrusted Second Nature by Hand to create the product that their lyrics appear on. It was important to our artists to choose a company with authenticity in both product and personality. We are proud to be that company,” Jennifer stressed. “Lynn Sanchelli, an amazing artist and friend, has chosen Second Nature by Hand to showcase her whimsical artwork. We proudly partner with songwriters and artists in all types of media and sentiment. How lucky are we?”
Taking Large Baby Steps
Indeed, “luck” and “timing” have much to do with success, but so does approaching their onetime hobby with a strong commitment and a professional mindset. The Tubbins never gave anything but their complete energy and dedication to Second Nature By Hand, even when it could have been easily dismissed as just a second job or a dilettante’s moonlighting gig. The Tubbins were always receptive to clients’ critiques and were open to recognizing when it would be prudent to make a change or take a chance.
“Small business is all about baby steps. Well, ‘baby steps’ probably isn’t the right term, because when you take steps to improve your business, the steps feel large … big, scary large. I guess it’s about having the confidence to take the steps that move you toward improving what you do for your customers. We’ve scaled up our production capabilities to accommodate customer needs and expectations, while holding on to common sense and flexibility so that we make decisions that will be healthy for our company and employees. We’ve learned that bigger isn’t always better. We’ve also learned that it is important to take necessary steps to grow the company,” Jennifer revealed. “We try to keep our debt manageable and fund as much as we are able. This strategy helps us to stay sharp in our decision making because each decision is very real. That said, our business has periods of time that require heavier cash flow. We are grateful for a supportive banking team who stay very connected with our needs for periods that require increased working capital.”
Having an innate sense of when to act with a business remodel, how to react to market changes, and when not to overreact cannot be taught. It is an intrinsic mindset, and it came as first nature for the Tubbins. Second Nature By Hand has flourished because the Tubbin family has kept it in their hands and in their heart. The business has never been disregarded or disrespected by the pair.
“Our goal is to connect with our customers. We want our customers to know just how much they mean to us. They are our world. We have a Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram presence, but always seem to be short of the time necessary to manage the platforms as well as we’d like!” the couple stated. “We attend a large tradeshow in Atlanta two times per year. We publish a LookBook that highlights our brand, materials, and company. We communicate through email and our rep groups. We talk about Second Nature by Hand with anyone who will listen.”