A lot of the entrepreneurs we’ve talked to have cited the economic downturn as a reason for the resurgence in American craftsmanship. Mike Cheung has lived it. He wasn’t unfulfilled in his role as an industrial designer, but when he got laid off, he turned misfortune into opportunity, forming Tinkering Monkey with fiancée Paula Chang. We caught up with him to talk fine wood goods, working from home and turning a hobby into a career.
If you have a passion for something and it can be turned around to make money for you, then really it’s just about going for it. Getting laid off was a great kick in the pants to make me do it.
MADE MAN: How did you get into woodworking?
MIKE CHEUNG: It happened in college. I studied industrial design at San Jose State. You have to learn how to work with your hands and work with the shop tools because we do a lot of model making. We start with foam, but it’s a pretty easy step to go from foam to wood. The shop closed at 9, so I bought a lot of my own tools to work out of my garage, and that’s how it started. I’d never worked with wood at all until college.
MM: So what’s the path from there to Tinkering Monkey?
MC: I worked with Smart Design. I started there as an intern and took care of their workshop. When I got hired full time, maintaining the workshop was one of my responsibilities. I was there for four years doing that. At the same time, I was growing my own personal workshop. Getting a better table saw here or a band saw off Craigslist for my personal hobby work. On the weekends I’d make my own stuff. My fiancée started a blog for my projects called Tinkering Monkey. As it got more popular, I decided to start selling products. The lamp was first. In spring of 2011, I got laid off, and instead of looking for another job, I just ramped things up. My fiancée is now a full-time employee and it supports both of us.
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MM: Where do you work from?
MC: I’m in a live/work loft in Oakland with 74 units. There are a few different workshops here: metalworkers, painters, musicians. A lot of different people work here. It’s a balance between a decent place to live and a place where no one cares if I run a table saw during the middle of the day.
MM: What’s your workday like?
MC: We try to have a morning meeting every day, even if it’s for 10 minutes, to talk about what needs to get done and what needs to go out. Living and working in the same space makes it easy to get things jumbled up. But if I have a hard list of things that need to be done, I can plan to get things done by 4 and go for a bike ride. I try and keep it as much like a regular job as possible.
MM: What’s your design process like?
MC: A lot of things just came out of necessity. There’s a quarterly open house/open studio event in the building. The first time we did that, my fiancée was just holding an iPad and using Square to sell our products. So I decided that we needed an iPad stand to make things easier. The last place I lived in was kind of dark, but I couldn’t find a lamp that I wanted at a price I wanted to pay. So I just made one. I sketch what I want, then solve all the problems that it might have. After that I make a prototype and maybe post pictures on Facebook to see what people think. If that works out, we look into producing it in larger quantities.
MM: What would you say to people who are looking to throw off their job and make an extracurricular activities their ticket out of the rat race?
MC: It’s been slow growth with Tinkering Monkey. It’s not like I got laid off and the next day everything was going like gangbusters. But the ball was already in motion. We had the name, the website, some branding. That said, if you have a passion for something and it’s something that can be turned around to make money for you, then really it’s just about going for it. Getting laid off was a great kick in the pants to make me do it.
MM: Why made in America? Why is that important to you?
MC: Being a perfectionist with my work, it’s just a lot easier to keep your finger on it and make sure things are being done just right. People pay money to get something, so I want to make sure they get it.
MM: Why do you think there’s a greater interest in American craftsmanship?
MC: Sometimes, but not always, things made outside the US are low quality. There’s also the horror stories about working conditions outside of America. Finally, with the downturned economy it feels good to spend your money and know that it’s going to help out your fellow Americans.