Even as our world becomes increasingly digital, there s a movement afoot. We’re seeing a recent uptick in the amount of young people who are saying to hell with the 9-to-5, stepping away from the computer, and starting small businesses that allow them to make stuff with their hands.

But why quit a lucrative job to get your mitts dirty making leather goods? Didn’t our ancestors work in factories all of those years so we wouldn’t have to work in factories? It’s the type of thing you announce to your friends at a bar and the room falls silent, followed by a lot of sideways glances before someone pipes up with, “OK, man, whatever’s gonna make you happy!

We asked Mike Arnot, founder of men’s lifestyle brand Owen & Fred to give us some insight into why we need people to help us redesign our lives, even if it’s one small handcrafted good at a time.

“I would encourage anyone who wants to make and sell something unique that there are manufacturers in the US who would love to work with them.”

Do It Yourself

It all started with a wallet. Back in 2012, Arnot—who has had an illustrious career, working as a public policy advisor in the Canadian government, an attorney and a digital marketer for CNBC’s Jim Cramer—wanted to upgrade his.

“The only wallets I could find either weren’t interesting or were overly designed,” the New York-based entrepreneur recalls. “I thought that I should be able to have a wallet that’s nicely crafted and well designed, and unfortunately, I found that unless you do it yourself, you have to settle for what’s out there.”

And so he created Owen & Fred (named for Arnot’s two young sons) with the ethos of “if we can’t find the product we like, we’re going to make it.”

What Experience?

“When we started, I had no idea how to design a product, find manufacturers or sell a product,” Arnot says. “I’ve found that liking design and running a company that makes well-designed products are two different things.”

But after a few years of making a lot of mistakes and learning from them, Owen & Fred was able to find its footing, now boasting a catalog of 120-plus products, with more on the way.

Arnot credits a lot of the success to having good relationships with his manufacturers. “We ask them for their advice,” he says. “They’re excited to work with us because of what we’re doing and how we learn from them.”

And in the three years since the company’s inception, they’ve built relationships with manufacturers in 15 states, which allows the brand to experiment with different materials like leather, concrete, brass, copper, and canvas. Believe us: You wouldn’t think you’d want a set of coasters made out of concrete until you see them for yourself.

“I would encourage anyone who wants to make and sell something unique that there are manufacturers in the US who would love to work with them,” Arnot reports.

And after so many years of settling for less, more and more people want to invest in buying quality products, which might be responsible for the amount of small men’s goods brands cropping up on the Internet over the past five years.

“It’s an added bonus when products are made in the US, but I think people are buying [these types of products] because they’re high-quality, well-designed, and are offered at a price that’s affordable,” Arnot says.

Empire State of Mind

Starting your own company isn’t cheap, and there’s an on-going debate about whether New York City’s sky-high rents are chasing out artists and small manufacturers, which makes it all the more impressive that Owen & Fred has its feet firmly planted in New York while other companies are spreading out in less-expensive cities like Detroit, Portland and Buffalo.

After calling an old pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn home for years, Arnot says he has no plans of moving. “They were manufacturing pencils here up until the 1950s, and I think it’s neat that 50 years later, there’s still some manufacturing going on in this building,” he says.

There’s also something to be said for building a community in a big city. “When you move to New York, you can get lost a bit, and you really have to go out and find your community,” Arnot explains. “I think I’ve found my community in Greenpoint, so I’ll always want to have a foothold here, even though it’s expensive.”

Building a Brand

The good thing about the market shifting to include designers like Owen & Fred is that you won’t have to spend endless hours at the mall looking for a well-designed wallet or belt. But it presents a challenge for guys like Arnot, who needs to make sure his products stand out.

Since the beginning, Owen & Fred has positioned itself as a brand that’s playful and a bit whimsical. Leather luggage tags read “This bag is not yours” (and dopp kits that have “Hey Handsome” emblazoned on the interior transmit the message that the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The playful nature even finds its way into the packaging, which features a handful of aromatic cedar balls thrown into each box. Why? Because, why not?

“We wanted to add something to every package that was cheeky but also useful,” Arnot explains. Eventually, the cedar balls gained so much popularity amongst aficionados that people starting writing in, asking if they could buy them. In response, they created the “Box O’ Balls”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a box of aromatic cedar balls you throw in your sock drawer or gym bag to keep it fresh. It’s caught on. “We have literally 70,000 cedar balls on their way to us right now,” Arnot laughs.

All of the playfulness is working. Owen & Fred sells direct to consumers online, but is also available in over 250 retail stores like the Guggenheim, MoMa, J. Crew, and Nordstrom.

The Bare Necessities

When designing small goods, it’s important to create products that are actually useful (like the Box O’ Balls, for example). Owen & Fred’s goal is to take everyday products and make them better.

“We really focus on from the time a guy gets up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night,” Arnot notes. “What does his day look like, and what products could we make that would make his life a little bit better?”

For example, you can have a cheap bottle opener on your keychain, but what’s going to feel better at the end of a long day—cracking open a beer with that crappy piece of metal, or cracking open a beer with a bottle opener made of a half pound of solid brass reading “You earned it”?

So, as long as many of the items we use every day are still made without much thought, Owen & Fred will be there, tweaking the design, switching out the materials and making our lives a little bit better.

Join thousands of men and women who are dressing up for a good cause. Go formal with Made Man and Career Gear on Friday, October 9th to help empower men in need with resources, training and suits they can use to rejoin the workforce. Because for every photo posted to Instagram or Twitter and tagged #FormalFriday, we’ll donate a dollar to Career Gear. Learn more at mademan.com/formal-friday.

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