The sharpest knives in the drawer
Mandy and Steve O’Shea, owners of 3 Porch Farm, sat down with their old friend, David Van Wyk, co-owner of Bloodroot Blades, to discuss knife-making, Athens, and their lessons learned in running a business with a spouse + business partner. Bloodroot Blades is an Athens-based company, building artisan and custom kitchen knives. This interview is the second in a two-part interview.
Mandy: Do you want to introduce yourself?
David: I'm David Van Wyk, from Bloodroot Blades.
Mandy: And are you the sole owner?
David: My business partner, Luke Snyder, and my wife, Katy Van Wyk, are also part of the company. Katy is the one that holds the reigns for everything, and Luke and I are the horses in the yoke.
Steve: So what does Bloodroot Blades do?
David: We make knives out of many found and recycled materials. We also use some bought stock – we make knives out of personal heirlooms, that kind of stuff. A lot of objects from people that have passed on, like the grandfather's coat. Or things that kind of are meaningful to people that they want to have as a functional tool that employs a thing that is no longer functional. We found a big niche in that, but it's been a lot of fun to work with that.
Steve: So you mentioned something like a grandfather’s coat. I imagine a lot of listeners might not understand how a coat could end up being a knife. Could you explain that process a little bit?
David: It all has to do with canoes. Actually, we use a canoe resin that is used for fiber glass.
Steve: Okay, so resin will be put to use for making actual canoes?
David: Right, yeah. So you can actually do that with a fabric in a sort of way. We can laminate these fabrics together, and they sand like wood.
Steve: So more that the handle then the actual blade itself.
David: Yes. So occasionally, we'll use metal from a customer, but we have to send the metal out to get specked, so we know what elements are in it, so we can know whether it's a good knife of not. Whether or not that steel can be made into a knife.
Steve: You guys in the past have sometimes used auto mobile parts, right? For the metal, you do the same thing? You have to send that out for, was it Rockwell Hardness testing, or something like that?
David: Yeah, so what we do is there's certain parts that we already know what they are because of the manufacturers specs. So like a ‘50s, ‘60s Chevrolet springs are always gonna be a certain steel. And in that application, they are made for impact resistance like in truck leaf springs or flexibility. But they have enough carbon in them to where we can move that carbon around and rearrange the crystalline structure, so that the knife will be hard and hold the edge, as opposed to necessarily be more impact resistant. It's kind of a sliding scale as to what you want the material to do. And so we're looking for that window, how can we manipulate this in order to go further, push it?
Mandy: I know early on that y'all got some really good PR, and just award winnings, and that sort of thing. How did that affect your business as far as rate of growth? Were y'all ready for that?
David: As you guys know that kind of attention is a blessing from the standpoint of business. But it is a blessing that does have costs to it. I tend, and Luke tends to be a ... we tend to be pretty private in terms of our, you know, we work in our space. We're thankful to meet everybody and to get our work out there. And that's been amazing, so that has really established our business. That PR has established our business and gotten our stories out there, which was wonderful because that's kind of what you want to do as a business. You wanna get your story out there, but then as you kind of watch it turn into this thing that you had no idea that it was gonna do that. That was kind of our situation. We were doing Bloodroot part-time, and all of a sudden we both ... our waiting list grew close to a year. And we both had to make the decision – OK well, do we stay where we are?
Luke was getting his PhD and had finished all of his coursework and his defense for his PhD, all but his dissertation. I had 16 years in a high school English classroom, and we basically had to either ride the horse downhill or let it go. And I think the cost was we had to ride that horse downhill, and it was a lot like with you guys, you just bust it, you get so oriented towards our business and making it work because you got so much into it, that a lot of the things like taking care of ourselves, taking care of our families, checking in to see how we're doing, those kinds of things fell to the wayside while we're in the sprint. And it's only in the last couple of years that we've been able to kind of pull back and look at why we're doing this again. Reevaluate what we wanna do moving forward.
It's been really great to have our story out there, but it's kind of like what you guys were talking about. You can't have flowers for everybody. And one of the main decisions that we had to make that was very difficult, was not to move to scale into the demand but to let other makers move into some of that space. Because there was plenty of room in the market for other makers. It's so tempting to be the kid that has all the marbles, but that kind of a mentality will really, really hurt you. So, it's been kind of neat to see that space around us populate with other makers. A lot of different stripes, and to see those guys and those women come into that place where they're successful has been really gratifying for us.
Mandy: That's good, takes a burden off of it, too. You see both ways, you're a little bit like I want all of it, but then you're like no, I don't want all of it.
David: And there's a lot of cross pollination that happens because those people are innovating in their own ways. And it took us awhile to learn that that was not a threat. That us, of deserving that, and being thankful that people are able to do that as opposed to us thinking, "Oh, my God, we gotta be able to do this. Let's go now."
That was a really tough thing. Especially when you do have a lot of stock set in your business. That's kind of a traditional mainstream mentality, is like grab it all while you can. And it's interesting as we have let go of that mentality, if anything, we've become more known and more desired. As opposed to trying to grab all the attention. But we've had a lot of really good press, and we've had a lot of really good stories that have made us reach out globally, which is again, a really strange place for us to be in, having people contact us from like Qatar.
Mandy: It's because I saw y'all on Delta, too. I mean all the passengers, they watched your video on Delta.
David: Right, yeah. Well, it's weird for us because we're just like a couple of folks in Arnoldsville and Athens, Georgia, that were not used to being known. Now you know, because our business is an internet oriented business, it's not something that even crosses our daily view anymore. We're just OK, well we gotta make these knives and send them out.
Steve: So, I've seen at fundraisers in Athens when your knives are available for silent auctions, that they are a hot ticket item. People just hover so they can keep upping their bid if anybody else comes after them. There's arguments between friends over your product. And I know you guys have had to ... you've got so much demand, like you said from places like Qatar. How much does Athens factor into your work these days?
David: Athens is the, forgive the metaphor because it's what you guys do, but Athens is very much the soil that our business grows out of. And no matter how big a tree gets, its root structure is what kind of keeps it moving and keeps it growing. And if my understanding is correct, the roots grow down and the bough and the branches grow up. And I think that it may seem as though we are kind of moving into this like larger and larger market space, and that is true, but it is also true that we are growing more and more deeply rooted to this community.
This community is what made our business possible. We were a couple of folks making knives in our back yards, and thought, "Gee whiz, we really ought to have a website." And our good friend Eric, from Trappeze, sent me a link to a website. He over heard a conversation, he built us a website, just a little like, "Hey, what do you guys think of this?" And that website was how we interfaced with a lot of other things. A lot of the customers that we have, that we never met. But that website was the face of our business at that point. And then John and Paige French, John built our new version of that website and Paige took the photography for it.
David: And as you guys know, photography ...
Mandy: Sorry about the train (train whistle sounds in the background).
David: Yeah, that's great. But the photography can tell a story without tons and tons of text. Which as we get more and more mobile, over half, well over half of our website users are mobile users. As we go mobile, that image being able to tell the kind of story that we wanted to tell and Paige’s kind of a unique ability to capture these images. Along with John's ability to represent those images in some kind of format that makes sense, that was from Athens. That's from here.
When we were first starting to make chef's knives, we went over to the Four Courseman. (train whistle sounds in the background) … I'll give it a second. I may restart that sentence.
Steve: Yeah, that's probably a good idea. It's a slow moving train.
David: So when we were first starting to make chef's knives, which is 90 percent of what we make. We met with our friends, The Four Courseman, at their house. Patrick from Seabear, and Damien Shaffer, and Matt Palmerlee from everywhere… (Branded Butcher), most recently I think he works with Hugh Acheson (Matt is now at Root Baking Co. in Atlanta), and Eddie Russell who is now in Atlanta. Nancy Palmer (now at Georgia Craft Brewers Guild) was there, Eric was there for a while. And we just gave them what we were making, and said give us feedback.
And from that starting point, we kind of moved on. But they gave us the initial push out the door. OK, well this is what a chef's knife is and what it needs to do. From there, the local community, guys like Andy Flage and Mike Harboldt over and Saint Udio, helped us build tools, helping us really kind of think about what metal can do. We went over and used their power hammer, they had an open shop. It was wonderful.
Hank Hambright over at Heavy Friends Furniture makes absolutely world-class boxes. And one of the things we've run into is that, who knew, but steak knives are a really big thing. And they're a really big thing for us now, oddly. It was something that we never expected, but a lot of times people want a presentation box. And so we've been able to go to Hank, and Hank, just every time, blows our doors off every freaking time. Like go ahead and hit the parade while I'm at it. Zach at Character Built and Oneta Woodworks, they give us their drops, their cutoffs. So when they're doing big projects, or whatever, they have a piece of maple like 18 inches long or something that they can't use for anything, they send it over to us. And that's a knife handle. It's a cool ecosystem in Athens, where we can each have a kind of an expertise where that expertise bleeds into and forms other people's thinking.
So like Hank's making our boxes, he’s never made steak knife boxes before. But hey, how can we do this? And he just did it, and that made us think about how we made our knives and pairing handles to wood. That's been a really neat situation for us. I think that even as, and you guys too, as maybe you become more widely known, you do become more and more tied to a particular space. Like this is your farm. So I think that for us, Athens and our community in Arnoldsville, is very much the place from whence, if you wanna go Shakespeare. It's been really our genesis in the thing that sustains us.
Steve: You mentioned Oneta Woodworks. Some of the siding that I've put on this bar that we're right next to, I got from them. Paige French, she came out and took some of the first photos that we ever had put out in the world. All the chefs. That’s who we used to sell our vegetables to after the farmers markets. Saint Udio, we were just looking at Instagram. We sent a couple thousand dollars worth of vines to this florist, who is doing this humongous amazing install in Arkansas. And saw it on all their tables, they were holding a bunch of the flowers. The pieces were made by Saint Udio.
Mandy: It was pretty cool to see so much Athens in Arkansas for this big event, even though they're just going out for the piece. Still we were like fist bumping – Athens!
David: Rules! Yeah. Well, it's funny that no matter where we end up, Athens is some place that is known.
Mandy: Yeah, yeah. Always.
David: And not just known as a rock and roll town.
Steve: It's a creative, it's just a swamp oozing of good creative juices out of this place. There's a nectar.
Mandy: It's a safe place to explore your creative passion. That's how I’ve always felt about Athens. Like it is a safety net in its own. Everyone's trying to figure out their craft and everyone's small business and how to sell their passion as well. And yeah, there's not many places like Athens. And you see people leave and explore Portland or Brooklyn, and they always come back.
David: Yeah, in Athens, it's small enough to where at least within the creative community we can all know each other, and that's really helpful. Because if we have needs, whether it's in the website or whether it's more photography, or whether it's some expertise on how to deal with something. There's always somebody out there you can reach out to. That's a neat opportunity.
Mandy: So in the creative field, small business ownership, we have definitely found that of course farming, I wanna be in the field all the time. But the reality of that, owning a farming business, is all the actual business work. How has, I guess from the beginning of starting off your business until now, how have y'all developed a space to where you can still be creative and not get bogged down by the business aspects?
Steve: Katy, isn't she?
David: Gosh, she's a genius. She's smarter than everybody else by half. So, one of the things that we had to do, and this was difficult, was we had to take a look at what we were good at and at what we were the only people that could do. And then we had to learn – all right well, we're really the only ones that can make the knives. Every email is important to me, but I have to learn how to trust somebody else to go in there and do it. And Katy, she's done it so much better than we do. So, she handles all of our initial emails, she controls the work flow, so no matter how long the waits gets for knives, we always have a certain number of knives we need to do a month. She kind of manages that aspect of the business. She manages the finances, so we don't have to worry about that.
We hired an amazing guy to come in and work four days a week, he's retired. And he's retired from one of the local banks. And he runs around and gets coffee bags for us, which we use as our packing. He gets corks, he drops stuff off, he's just ... he's been amazing. But what that's allowed us to do is really confine our interest to those kind of things that we are singularly interested in and good at. So finding the time to get ... you've gotta make knives in order to have a knife-making business.
And so it's real easy to lose the forest from the trees in that – you're answering emails and not making knives. And so what we've been able to do is find that balance of letting go of some of those things. The other thing that we did, and this is really counter intuitive and kind of plays into the work, rest and life balance that we had talked about, is that we took a hard look at how much we were working. And we were working five and a half days a week, and it was tearing up our bodies. We were working long hours on many days. And so we sat down and we said, all right, we gotta have some rest time. We gotta build it in. We've gotta orient ourselves around this rest time.
And so we went from working like 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 8 to 5:30, 8 to 6 on the grinding, which is grinding and forging for every day, and a half a day on Saturday. When we dropped back, we moved all of our admin to the morning, before we got into the shop. We dropped back to a 9:00 to 4:00 day with an hour of lunch. And then we spend most of our admin time on Fridays. And as we have done that, our productivity has actually increased by about 20 to 25 percent.
David: It was like letting go of the thing. You're like, "Oh, my God I gotta work harder, I gotta work faster, I gotta work better." And what we realized was improving our efficiency is what we've done. We haven't necessarily scaled, and we bought so many tools and it helped us make knives better. But what we've done is take a hard look at how we were spending our time, and realized that if we spent our time more efficiently then we would work less. And that has been a really rewarding thing because that means we can spend more time in the garden and more time on our relationships with one another. And more time with our community. And of course, there's that formative period in first five or six years of the business, where you're just duking it out to make it. And I don't think there's any way around that.
Steve: You have to put in your time.
David: It's what having a private business ownership start up is. But once you kind of get by that, I think you can choose whether or not you're gonna stay on that kind of break neck, or whether or not you're going to pull out and have different objectives. We've decided that we want to learn more rather than make more knives. We decided that we want to have more impact in our community than to improve our bottom line. And it's interesting that as we do that, our profits increase rather than decreasing.
David: But it is kind of a weird counter intuitive thing.
Mandy: One more, yes or no question. So you work with your wife? Are you able to talk about anything other than knives?
David: Oh, God. Well for the last two and a half years, Katy and I have been living in a house that we are building – two years I guess. So we've been building the house for almost three years, but we've been living in it for two. And so we talk a lot about making houses, too. But as we finished up, we actually just moved upstairs yesterday, so it was a huge, huge moment. It was kind of ... it was an amazing moment. But as our house situation and as our business situation has become more stable, we have been able to talk about other things. We have been able to like look up and say, "There are other people around us." And, "Wow, man. This is interesting."
Steve: So there's hope for us.
David: There is hope. Yeah. I think we've had to build in intentional time.
Mandy: We're working on that, too, and it feels good. It feels good to have the space to work on that. We're for the first time, kind of seeing that looking up. It's like, “Oh, my gosh, we went out on a Thursday for lunch?” That's insane.
David: Yeah, well you look up and you realize, this person that I'm with is a really cool person. Like we're doing this thing. And your life kind of tends to orient itself around that thing, rather than around each other.
Mandy: And our initial deal was to be with each other. That was the point, like we want to work with each other, we want to be together every day.
Steve: It could be fraught territory.
David: Yeah, it's dangerous.
Steve: You put everything on the line, and you're there in high stress, high stakes territory together, all day, every day. And especially if you add a bunch of Georgia heat on that, that can make somebody irritable. It's risky territory to get through.
Steve: I think also division of tasks seems to help with that too. If you're not doing the exact same thing at the same time, all the time. Much less potential for prickliness. The more that we've ended up in different roles, working towards the same goal, I think the more it's even easier for us to see each other at the end of the day and just be all smiles and looking for hugs.
David: It's interesting, one of the things we've worked hard on is the ways that we communicate. And our communication to ... and I guess it's another thing we've had to let go of is that communication, active listening, active curiosity, as opposed to kind of a defensive posture of thinking about what I'm gonna say next or how I'm gonna respond to this thing that might threaten me. We're all kind of hoarders when it comes to certain aspects of business or attention or that kind of stuff. That's been really tough to be vulnerable enough with each other and with the outside world, because you're out there. Like you're putting something out, when you put something out on Instagram, you’re like, “Here's a little bit of me. I've busted it on this, I hope you all like it.” So, you're kind of in an exposed position, and if somebody hits you sideways and says something that is hard to deal with, it's been a real skill in business ownership with a partner, but also a marriage partner. To have that kind of respect for one another, have the respect for ourselves to employ things like non-violent communication.
To really learn to interact on levels that dignify our conversations and that's something that we have to do. And that's something that we found is really important. 'Cause with Katy and I, we'd sometimes get caustic, we're always talking about business. And we don't always agree with stuff.
Mandy: It's hard to separate the passion with the person your passionate about.
Mandy: It's a hard one.
Steve: We don't have time to talk about this, but that brings up a really good point that I think that one of the most important facets of any small business, if there's a couple involved, is that couple’s relationship has to remain strong and like the central ... the main focus in order for the business to work. 'Cause if the core of that business is toxic and neglected and falling apart, that business is not gonna make it.
David: That was one of the things that influenced the way we organized Bloodroot with Luke, with his family. Our families live about 70 yards from each other, so our lives are pretty intertwined. And we made it like that on purpose, because if our families don't work, then our business won't work. If our personal relationships aren't up to speed, then our business won't be up to speed. And I think what we're saying there, and what we're trying to say there, is that our personal relationships are more important than our business.
Mandy: We agree.
Steve: We are really excited to hear that, 'cause we're in full accordance with that. And we just really love you guys and respect everything that you're doing. And it's such beautiful work and were so happy to have a small business like y'all in the neighborhood, in the community, with the focus that you have.
Mandy: The intention behind it all, too.
Steve: And the talent that you're sharing with the world. So, we wish you continued success and growth in the qualitative ways, in the ways that make y'all happy and thrive.
David: Thank you.
Mandy: And y'all come over for a cocktail on the porch whenever we get some of that free time.