A piece of wood the size of an iPhone changed Ben VandenWymelenberg’s life.
VandenWymelenberg is the founder of Woodchuck USA, a Minnesota-based business that manufactures wooden accessories, gifts, and fashion items. Many of the company’s products, including its signature journals, luggage tags, and flasks, can be found at Uptown Minnesota on Concourse G. The brand has garnered national acclaim. Most recently, its journals were named a 2015 Martha Stewart American Made finalist.
But it hasn’t always been easy for VandenWymelenberg. He had to sand down some rough edges before building Woodchuck into the creative success it is today.
While a student at the University of Minnesota in 2011, VandenWymelenberg took a side job building architecture models. During a break from work, he attached a spare piece of wood to his iPhone. “Some of my friends thought it looked cool and asked if I would make some for them, too,” says VandenWymelenberg.
He started selling the wooden iPhone cases for $20, “or a case of beer.” The idea soon grew into something larger and he realized it could potentially be a bona fide business. Problem was, VandenWymelenberg was still an architecture student—who had just won two Fulbright scholarships.
“I sat down and read How to Start a Business for Dummies,” says VandenWymelenberg, laughing. He recalls a serious conversation with his mentor, an architect, about whether to pursue architecture or start his own business.
“He said, ‘start the business. You’ll learn more there even if the business doesn’t work. You can always come back to architecture’,” says VandenWymelenberg.
VandenWymelenberg finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota in 2012 and launched into Woodchuck full time. His products immediately got attention from Target and Best Buy, which resulted in what he admits was an “epic fail,” only selling a fraction of the units throughout 2013.
But VandenWymelenberg never wavered in his belief in Woodchuck, crediting a 2009 TED Talk by Simon Sinek, “Start with Why,” for giving him the mission behind his company.
“I want to put nature back into people’s lives, and jobs back in the U.S.,” says VandenWymelenberg. “Once I watched that video, my mission became clear. I’ve never doubted it a day, and it won’t change.”
Since 2013, VandenWymelenberg has gotten a lot smarter about business strategy, his creative process, and his customers. He’s even patented his first product, a wooden pocket square.
Woodchuck now experiences 330% growth year over year. January 2015 was up 500% from the previous January. All products are designed and made in Minneapolis, at a warehouse in Dinkytown, and he employs approximately 20 people. Most of the wood comes from the Midwest and is reconstituted, meaning the pieces are created from wood that otherwise wouldn’t be used.
“Woodchuck products are extremely unique and great for traveling, either as gifts or souvenirs,” says VandenWymelenberg. “And we’re proud to make them right here in Minnesota.”