Handelsblatt No. 209 from 28.102022
Frank: After many years as the owner and managing director of a social enterprise, you dared to leave and became an artist. Now you make exclusive writing instruments by hand in your Hamburg studio workshop. Roughly how much did you earn before and what do you earn now?
I'm now in the black and by summer 2023 I'll probably earn a fifth of my previous manager's salary. I am currently investing all of my income in marketing and increasing awareness. But then my goal is to maintain sales on a healthy level and not to scale them up. My capacity as an artisan is naturally limited and I currently have no plans to hire to continue growing.
If your income has deteriorated, were you aware of that?
Yes, of course.
Why did you decide on the new career anyway?
I've found over time that I'm just not a full-blooded manager. I am better as a founder and doer on the road. I feel more comfortable when I can act independently and build something new and advance it. So I just wanted a fresh start - with a blank, white sheet of paper.
How are you coping with the new income?
I paid off our house and the studio-workshop with the proceeds from the sale of the company so as not to have any more financial obligations. The remaining part was planned for a break or reorientation phase of 2-3 years.
Did you save anything in advance?
Yes. My wife is also a teacher and therefore our "secure bank" for financing our livelihood. She supported my exit plans from the start.
When did you decide to switch?
This was not the first time that I've risked a break and started something completely new in my life. The appeal of change, the joy of reinventing yourself and, above all, a great, insatiable curiosity are what drive me.
At the beginning of 2020, I approached my business partner and told him I wanted a change. In autumn 2020 I sold my shares to him and left the operative business.
Was there a specific reason?
The company was well positioned and still is today. But after twelve years as amanaging director of a social enterprise with 40 employees, I felt like I was being controlled by others. For me, it was only about perfecting processes, filling Excel spreadsheets, and managing pedagogical topics from the meta level down. I used to be a passionate educator, but in my role as managing director I was primarily responsible for figures and the actions of others.
I think it's also quite healthy for a growing company if the founder eventually leaves and a manager comes along.
When was the moment when you realized that you no longer wanted to be the boss and instead wanted to make writing instruments?
There wasn't one moment. I was successful as an entrepreneur, so the company has grown, but the freedom has decreased and the constraints have increased. It was a long process before I admitted to myself that I no longer wanted to work as a managing director. At that point I really just wanted a blank, white sheet of paper in front of me. I left without any concrete plans for the future.
The lockdown then got in my way. As a family, we were inevitably housebound. I took care of our son's homeschooling and rediscovered my workshop - my retreat where I had started making wooden fountain pens in my spare time a couple of years ago. Before fountain pens I had built a boat - a 6.5 meter long dori boat made of marine plywood. After that, I needed a new pastime that would fit better into my studio which I had build next to our house. Inspired by seafaring materials such as mahogany, ebony and brass, as well as by the captains and the stories in their logs, writing implements came into focus. I had already registered the ELBWOOD trademark in 2016. At that time I had made my first ballpoint pens from fine woods in my free time and presented them in a showroom near the iconic Elbphilharmonie. Back then this was intended as a balancing and aesthetically valuable secondary activity.
In the lockdown of 2020/21, I finally got the idea to professionalize ELBWOOD. After only a six-month break after my exit, I registered the company ELBWOOD in May 2021 and launched my online shop in November 2021.
Does the new task fulfill you, or do you regret the step?
I am happy because I can work as a pioneer again and build something new - on a small scale and completely independently. In addition, I find it fulfilling to work with my hands and create something lasting. My first fountain pens were exclusively made of wood. In the meantime I have experimented a lot, so that I can now also process precious metals and ebonite (natural rubber). Each piece is a one-off production and therefore unique.
I can organize my daily routine completely freely. I can also decide for myself what and how I will produce in one day. And then I stand at my old precision lathes in my studio workshop and shape the material.
Meanwhile, I send my objects worldwide and have a small, constantly growing, international fan base. Collector's forums in the USA, among others, have given my work extremely positive reviews - sometimes enthusiastically. Next year I want to present Elbwood at the world's largest pen show in San Francisco, California.
I completely immerse myself in my role as the artistically crafting entrepreneur and just feel alive.
Do you have any other plans for the near future?
I am currently developing a master class - an individual coaching or incentive for people in positions of responsibility who face similar questions in life as I did a few years ago. I take the time to answer their questions, offer opportunities for self-reflection, suggestions for a change of perspective, or just listen. The studio workshop is a special space in our fast-moving, digital world. Here you are completely with yourself. The intensive focus on working with the hands opens many closed doors in the head.
Coaching of a special kind. One with tangible results. Under my guidance, you can build your own personal writing instrument. A fountain pen as a life companion and in the best case: life changer.
This is the complete and unabridged version of the interview given to the Handelsblatt.