Jeff Estes of 5 String Furniture Talks Change and Growing Pains

Jeff Estes, Owner of 5 String Furniture [photo cred: Caleb Chandler Photography]

I met Jeff Estes in late 2012 on a visit to Fort Houston, a maker space in Nashville, Tennessee. Back then, Estes was renting a workbench and building skateboards under the name Down Home Decks. He was hard to forget; between his good humor, sailor mouth and woodworking talent, he was an outstanding personality at the Fort.

Estes occupied a desk next to Nate Akey, founder of 5 String Furniture. A welder by trade, Akey had a tendency to cover surrounding workspaces with metal dust after a day’s work. Estes would retaliate by piling loads of lumber onto Akey’s workbench, and a friendly back-and-forth would ensue. It wasn’t long before the two became good friends and started taking on projects together.

The two partnered for builds in some of Nashville’s more well-known establishments, like Frothy Monkey’s downtown location and Black Abbey Brewing Company’s Fellowship Hall. In 2014, Estes and Akey moved into a 4,000 square foot workshop and dissolved their own companies, forming one partnership under the 5 String name.

Now, just two years later, Estes has assumed full ownership of the company and is working hard to build a team, a brand and a larger client base for 5 String Furniture.

According to Estes, the business was left to him when Akey realized he needed a change. “We were taking cash from our jobs and putting it right back into the company,” Estes says. “We barely paid ourselves.” Because of that reinvestment plan, however, the two were able to buy the majority of their tools in the first year without a bank loan. Things were beginning to look good for the business. “And then,” Estes say, “we kind of hit a hard spot.”

Rien Long [photo cred: Caleb Chandler Photography]

The winter of 2014–2015, Akey and Estes took on the biggest job they’d ever had. “It burned us out really hard,” Estes recalls. Late nights, early mornings, impossibly long hours. “We could not sustain what we were doing,” he says. Then, one morning at breakfast, Akey made the decision to step away and give Estes full ownership of 5 String Furniture.

Estes admits that he had no idea what to do at first. “I literally turned wooden bowls for 30 straight days,” he says. He was frustrated and didn’t know how to get the business back on track. But then he realized: to keep the business alive, he had to do whatever he could to generate income. So he started flipping lumber.

Together with Fort Houstoner and former Tennessee Titan, Rien Long, Estes flipped enough lumber to get 5 String back on its feet. And soon enough, three big jobs came in at once.

Estes remembers this as his defining moment. “That was my choice,” he says, “I could get rid of the company and liquidate all my assets or say yes and see what happens. I said yes.”

Cooper Collins [photo cred: Caleb Chandler Photography]

The same month that Estes accepted the jobs, someone came into the shop looking for work. Cooper Collins was from New Jersey and had never worked with wood in his life. But Estes took him under his wing. “He got on board,” Estes says. “He’s been super attentive and he’s come a long way. He’s learned. I can step out of the shop and trust that it gets done right. Hugely important… Cooper is like a rock of consistency.”

A few weeks later, Cody Bonnette — a musician and pipeline welder from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — got in touch. “We happened to have two big jobs that I needed a welder for,” Estes says. “He happened to be the best welder I’ve ever seen.”

Some more jobs came in, and Estes got yet another inquiry for work, this time from an experienced woodworker named Joey Mullen. “He brought in a level of execution that we were missing,” Estes explains, “If I wasn’t there, Joey was bridging that gap.”

Cody Bonnette [photo cred: Caleb Chandler Photography]

Over the course of a year and a half, 5 String had hired on 3 talented, full-time employees. As a result, the company has been able to accept more jobs, and Estes has been able to focus on customer acquisition, marketing, branding and other aspects of running a successful business.

Estes isn’t taking his team for granted; he makes sure each member is fairly compensated and will continue to be fairly compensated as the 5 String grows. “I don’t want them to feel like a year from now they’re not getting gains when the company does,” he says, “It’s a team effort. These guys, they care.”

Likewise, Estes wants his team to know when things are going well and when they’re not. “My number one thing is transparency in business,” he says. “If something’s going wrong with the company, my employees are the first to know it… I think it shows a level of trust… And it’s not comfortable to tell them those things. It’s sometimes embarrassing. If you run a small business, you have to let that pride and ego go. You can’t hold on to that. It’s damaging to your reputation and to your productivity.”

Joey Mullen [photo cred: Caleb Chandler Photography]

As for his clients, Estes’ mantra is, “Be accountable, be available.” As he puts it, “If you don’t plan on picking up your phone at 7:30 in the morning, don’t plan on having a business that’s going to grow.” And if you can’t own your mistakes humbly, you’ll never build client relationships that last. “If you’re building a small business,” he says, “you’re not building a one-time customer, you’re building a lifetime client who is hopefully a friend as well.”

5 String is planning a big move to a new workshop soon, where they plan to open a retail store and begin production on a new line of customizable bar stools, desks and dining tables. In the meantime, Estes is focusing on building new relationships and growing the business quickly and sustainably.

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