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Daily Inspiration: Meet Meagen Farrell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Meagen Farrell.

Hi Meagen, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
I am an author, woodworker, and trainer in Northeast Ohio. My organization’s mission is to help families grow in love, faith, and charity. The name Mustard Seed Training came from my vision in 2017 to promote literacy with a workshop series about Little Mustard Seed Books. It didn’t really take off, but I had set up the business already when an opportunity came along to make materials for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). There are only a few people who are approved to make CGS materials in the U.S. One of them was retiring but lives right here in Northeast Ohio! CGS is a hands-on form of religious education inspired by Montessori principles. CGS is a niche community, and I love being a part of it. It involves making booklets, prayer cards, figures, and dioramas by hand to teach children about Bible stories like the Good Samaritan or prayers such as the Our Father. However, not everyone has the tools and skills to make specific CGS wooden materials. I have used CGS with my kids and at church for 10 years, and have been a hobby woodworker since middle school. From the retiring CGS woodworker, I was able to take over the existing inventory, website, and get training on how to make the most popular items. CGS materials making is seasonal and busiest in the summer so I started working with other local artisans to share the work. We make small batches to build up stock, and promise to fulfill orders within six weeks. Having worked remotely for years, I set up digital systems for us to track orders, inventory, and fulfillment. That worked out really well for us during the pandemic. Also, being artisan parents, we have experimented with a lot of original materials for praying with children at home. My next big project is to develop the “Training” part of the business with materials for churches to support families, especially in a crisis. Like a mustard seed, we continue to grow organically and aim to be a place of nourishment and rest for those we serve.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Such a bumpy road! Mustard Seed Training started with a vision for promoting literacy with Little Mustard Seed Books, but I could not nail down a product or service that folks found really met their needs. I spent thousands of dollars and hours pitching my ideas at education conferences and entrepreneurship bootcamps. This process taught me that I am a skilled presenter, but I didn’t really have a viable business plan and that my mission is not inviting to venture capital investors. I struggled with day jobs that did not work out. I left them to return to Mustard Seed Training with an idea for faith-based out-of-school programs which also didn’t launch. It started to feel like failure upon failure. Woodworking was my third attempt at the business. Taking over an existing CGS woodworking business enabled me to secure a bank loan and a private loan to purchase the business assets. This has worked out really well, and I was able to pay back those loans within 18 months. That part of the business has developed into a whole artisan team. In 2019, I secured a contract with The Literacy Cooperative of Greater Cleveland to develop curriculum and training, which ended in 2021. While the business is financially viable, I do a lot of working for free experimenting with new products and opportunities, writing grants, and submitting proposals, and a lot of them have not been worth the time. So, I’m at a point now where I’ve decided to step back and focus on a day job again and starting part-time Ph.D. studies at Kent State University while continuing the good things at Mustard Seed Training as a side gig.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Being a female woodworker is very interesting to people. Even among other artisans, I often hear “you made that?!” I loved shop class in middle school and just kept making wood crafts with my Dad’s tools. When I got married my husband Evan and I bought a lot of tools to fix up an abandoned house in Cleveland. For years, we spent every Thursday night in the basement making things for the house or gifts for family members. So, when I started volunteering with this niche program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS), I saw the homemade wooden materials and knew I could have made them myself. Then I had the opportunity to take over Atrium Woodworks from retiring CGS woodworker Mike Kwitowski. I paid for him to train me in his methods, and also paid for woodworking classes from retired shop teacher Mr. Herrmann to help me transition from a hobbyist to a professional. His safety tips have probably saved several fingers!

What sets me apart as an artisan is that I decided right away that I was not just going to make everything to order. I wanted to have the most popular items in stock to ship quickly or make items within 4-6 weeks like other Etsy artisans I knew. This sets us apart in our CGS niche market, and I think it’s a great service to our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd community.

This process required setting up ordering/financial systems (Shopify), shipping and fulfillment processes (Asana), analyzing our sales data (Excel), and eventually hiring a dedicated part-time Shipping Manager. Unlike some people, I enjoy the math and technology end of artisan work and find it to be very creative. I am proud of bringing together a team of really talented local artisans to get our materials out in a timely manner. With the help of Larry, Ann Marie, Thomas, Curtis, Michele, and Joan, we have grown to $63,000 in gross sales in 2021. Most of that goes right back to the artisans, and we’re all doing this part-time along with other commitments. I’m only making 2-3% profit on sales at this point, but I don’t have any debt. It’s a viable, self sustaining business model and I am very satisfied to know that I’ve developed a system that really works well. We are providing high-quality products to folks around the country, building up our local economy, and praying for everyone who will encounter our materials to grow in love, faith, and charity.

Risk-taking is a topic that people have widely differing views on – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
I believe three things about risk: 1) There are enough apples in the tree if you know how to shake it right. In other words, when you find the right service or product, the money is out there. Whether it’s food or raw materials or disposable income or labor, people are willing to give generously when they believe it will benefit themselves or the world. But it takes an investment of time and willingness to get negative feedback before you will figure out what actually works and captures people’s imaginations.

2) You have to spend money to make money. Jesus told a parable about giving: don’t just bury your talents for later; share your talents to get a return. This doesn’t mean everything has to be corporate and polished, but there are a lot of fixed costs for a startup and it’s worth taking the time to learn how to do it right. Maybe that means buying a better tool, taking great product photos, making your products link to each other on the website, or spending that extra time with a dissatisfied customer until you get the product just right.

3) Only look at multi-year returns. Building a business takes risk, time, and discipline. Things are going to go up and down over time, and sometimes I would bite my nails when days would go by without a single order. If you look at the big picture and things have overall been going up, then in the downtime you just tighten your belt and make wish lists and only spend what you absolutely have to. Don’t give up when things are temporarily down, or you’ll be selling at a loss. At the same time, sometimes you discover that certain activities or products just aren’t worth it in the long run, so you have to have the discipline to get rid of them. Don’t fixate on the success of one project or product or time period. Look at the big picture to make your decisions about risk. Also, don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose. We made a calculated decision with our family savings, and set a time frame: either Mustard Seed Training was going to become a full time income by 2021, or I’d transition it to a side gig and get another job to pay the bills and build back our savings. I’m doing the latter and feel like I’m living the dream.

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