Jim Kane of Cool Chairs Is Sitting Pretty

After working for 35 years as a high-school math teacher and soccer coach, Jim Kane retired in 2007, ready for a new adventure. “I was too young for Social Security,” Kane recalls, “and my retirement check wasn’t going to be enough.” So, he started his own business making and selling chairs in his Fort Walton Beach, Fla., garage.

By 2010, his company, Cool Chairs, had expanded to include ottomans, tables, children’s chairs, and outdoor bars (prices vary from about $300 to $600). He’d also grown out of the garage: He now rents a 2,500-square-foot warehouse that serves as both a workshop and a showroom. “My wife is more than happy to get the garage back for her car,” says Kane, who works seven days a week to fulfill orders from customers throughout the southern U.S.

GoPayment recently spoke with Kane about how he built his business and why he stopped taking credit cards — and then started again when he learned he could use his smartphone.

GoPayment: Why did you start making chairs?

Kane: I wanted to do something creative and work for myself. I was always good at building things, so I started making chairs out of cypress, which is a familiar wood in the south. It’s rot-free and very durable. I gave the first one to my sister-in-law and made my first sale to a neighbor.

How did you build your business?

I experimented. I would go to arts and crafts shows and festivals in the area. My most successful show is in Rosemary Beach, Fla., where a lot of people from Atlanta, Memphis, and Houston have summer homes. In the early days, I tried flea markets and selling wholesale to a small group of stores, including a high-end nursery. They marked up my chairs and made more money than I did. After about two years, I decided to deal directly with customers.

Do you advertise?

The graphic on my truck says, “Made by Hand, Created for You, Built to Last. Cool Chairs.” I have very nice colored fliers with beautiful pictures in nine locations around town, including the Corner Cafe, where a lot of people eat. I also have picture postcards that I hand out like candy. A lot of people know me from my teaching and coaching days in the area. You just keep plugging away and someone will call you.

How else do you market your business?

I always have one of my chairs in the back of my pickup. I call it my Chair of the Week. I’m the guy on the road who’s driving really slowly in the right lane. If the speed limit is 50 mph, I’m going 35. I want everybody to pass my truck. I often get a phone call from someone who says, “I saw your chairs in your truck. How much are they?” I don’t put the prices on my website, people have to call or email me to get a price sheet.

Does word of mouth work well for you?

Yes. When I start on a customer’s order, I send an email telling them I’ve started their project and I attach a picture. Then, as I’m building, I email more pictures. Customers will send the pictures to friends and relatives and that helps generate more business.

What sort of custom jobs have you built?

One customer asked if I could mount a flat-screen TV on one of my tables. He ordered six pieces, including two surfboard chairs. He picked orange and lime green for his chair, and his wife wanted lavender and hot pink on the front of the surfboards and, on the back, she wanted zebra stripes. I had no idea how to paint those stripes, so I bought some zebra-print fabric and just started practicing on curved wood until I felt I was ready. I think she’ll like it.

Why did you stop taking credit cards in 2010 — and then start again?

It just took too much time. I had to call a number and get an authorization, and the line would be busy, or I’d get stuck on hold. I lost customers. All that changed with GoPayment. I saw a commercial on TV about how you could swipe a card on your phone. I thought, “That’s what I’ve been waiting for!” Now people can just sign their name with a finger.

How do you use GoPayment?

When I’m at an arts and crafts show or a festival, I wear the little swiper around my neck. People ask, “What is that thing?” And I say, “It’s my credit card machine, and it works instantly. Buy something and I’ll show you how quickly you can spend money.” Nobody’s ever fallen for that, but GoPayment has definitely been a plus for my business.

About Kristin Ewald

Kristin Ewald, a former Time Inc. editor based in California, has written frequently for the SMB audience. She is also a small business owner who helps companies write and produce user-friendly websites.
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