When she founded Hurricane Woodwork, EJ Duff did it to create quality items that were accessible to everyday people. Previously, Duff had dabbled in construction, and she also found work as a dog walker. But the Philadelphia-based maker says she’s never been happier than running her own business that creates high-end furniture with an emphasis on affordability and eco-conscious materials.
That’s not to say the work isn’t challenging. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon, and because her products are so labor-intensive, it’s difficult to find a balance between making a profit and ensuring her products are never too expensive for the average person. “I’m a socialist at heart, which makes running a business in a capitalist society quite difficult,” she says. “But there are always ways to kind of figure it out.”
Hello Alice recently spoke to Duff about following your passions, collecting unemployment for the first time during the pandemic, and why solopreneurship is the best option for her. What follows are her own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
What got you into craftsmanship and working with your hands?
I grew up in Vermont. At my high school, we had everything from farming and agriculture to fine woodworking and construction. It was awesome, and I just really, really enjoyed it. Then I went to boarding school, and we had woodworking classes available. I lost touch with it for a long time when I went to college, and I didn’t really get back into it until about five years ago. At the time, I was dabbling in construction — I think I only did that for six months — but I started randomly making things around my house. I had all these tools that I suddenly didn’t need for work anymore, so I just started making stuff out of pallets that I found on the side of the road.
Your mission is to make affordable, sustainable furniture. Where does that come from?
I started actually making stuff because I was so frustrated with the quality of furniture that normal people can afford. You know, if you’re a really good bargain hunter, you can go on Craigslist and find a quality piece of furniture. But finding quality furniture that’s new and doesn’t demolish you financially is very difficult. I get it — when you’re a maker, keeping your pricing affordable is really, really hard to do because you have to pay yourself, you have to cover your overhead, you cover the materials. Then you need to somehow find a profit margin. So it’s really difficult to do, but the way that I kind of mitigate it is to work with people on pricing. If someone comes to me and is like, ‘Hey, I really can’t afford this, is there anything we can do?’ Most of the time, we can figure something out. I offer payment plans. I offer discounts for people who work in nonprofits. There are always ways to work with people! There’s this old adage in our community that’s like, ‘Lesbians are always broke because we only work for nonprofits.’ [laughs] So yes, I am running my business, but there are always ways to kind of figure it out.
A lot goes into running a business. Did you have experience as an entrepreneur, or were you starting from square one?
I started pretty much from square one. My previous employer, a dog walking place owned by a friend of mine, was able to lend tidbits of information here and there. You know, don’t over promise and under deliver — just really helpful, practical things. One of her big things is, ‘Don’t say you’re going to try; you’re going to either do it or not.’ She would randomly offer these little helpful snippets. I’ve carried those with me into running my business.
So why did you choose the name Hurricane Woodwork?
Hurricane was a nickname given to me by that boss, the owner of the dog walking company. I started working for her when I was 22, and she got so frustrated with me one day because I was so excited and happy all the time. I had just moved from Vermont and hadn’t really worked around anybody in a year. So I would walk in and ask a thousand questions. Eventually, she was like, ‘Oh my god, Hurricane, sit down! You come in here, and you disrupt the whole flow. Just please do your work!’ I felt like I was going to cry. Almost immediately, she sat me down and told me, ‘Hurricanes are not terrible, they’re just disruptive. It’s a naturally-occurring phenomenon that resets the equilibrium.’ From that day on, she started calling me Hurricane, and it just stuck. She is one of my biggest influences and a very good friend. She still calls me Hurricane, actually!
Tell me about how the pandemic has affected your business.
The pandemic, for me, has been weirdly positive. I build furniture, and with everybody being home, it’s like they’ve collectively decided to renovate. Once the kitchen or the bathroom is done, then they want to redo the office because they’re spending a ton of time there. Right now, I’ve got four nightstands that are due and a dresser and a bed frame.
That said, the start of a pandemic was really, really hard for me. I really only made it because my best friend was like, ‘Cool, I work for Comcast, so I’m gonna help you out.’ She was able to commission a couple of pieces for me that she’d been thinking about for the last few years. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have probably gone out of business. My partner is a graphic designer, and I build furniture. Neither of us is considered essential, so while the whole world was going to hell in a handbasket, we were really expendable. The first three months, I didn’t make any money at all. Like, I had no income. I collected unemployment for the first time in my life. I’m certainly not the only one who’s gone through that experience, but it was hard to get through those early stages.
Where do your clients come from? Is it primarily referral?
I honestly don’t know where they come from. I like to think that it’s my sparkling personality, but I doubt that that’s the case. [laughs] I feel like my clientele recognizes who I am and what I stand for. Over the last few years, I have donated a significant amount of money to different organizations in the city and nationally. I stand very firmly with eco-responsibility and eco-consciousness. I stand very firmly with queer organizations and helping homeless youth and the homeless population of Philadelphia in general. So I’ve donated projects and finances to organizations, which kind of help let people know what I’m about and who they’re spending their money with, which I feel like is a huge part of business these days.
Especially in the wake of a pandemic, people are much more conscious of where their money is going, which I think is fantastic! I will very consciously decide who I’m going to buy from based on what they stand for and who they are as people, as much as their quality of products. Throughout the pandemic, I really tried to support other artists who I know or who I follow on Instagram. I feel like what you put out there, you get back. I’ve always felt that way, but more so now than ever before.
In another interview, you said that you never want to have employees or grow Hurricane Woodwork beyond yourself. Why is that?
For me, it’s about freedom. I love working by myself. I love getting to come into my shop and knowing that everything is going to be exactly where I left it. I’m a little bit of a control freak, and I was a terrible employee in the sense that I have my own way of doing things. I love having the ability to kind of come in here and set my own schedule and set my own day.
Of course, you have those projects where you’re just like, ‘Oh shit, I’m on a deadline!’ Today is a perfect example: I have two projects gluing on my benchtop right now. And while I was waiting, I had a half-hour between when I finished gluing up those pieces and this phone call. So instead of trying to start something new, I started carving a pride flag out of a piece of wood. I love having that freedom to do what I need to do to make myself happy and take care of my brain and take care of my own self but still fulfill the needs of my clients.
Again, I love what I do! I really, really love getting to work with wood. It all smells really good. I have a couple pieces in here that I’m just like, the natural smell of this wood is incredible! I just love all of it, I really do. I know that’s probably cheesy and almost everybody says that about what they do, but I really, really love it.
The most challenging part of running a business is typically the money aspect. How did you fund your business?
When I started, I had probably $200 in my bank account. Every penny that didn’t go back into my family went into my business. I haven’t, like, spent “fun money” in probably five years. But, you know, such is life — you make decisions.
The financial inconsistencies are the biggest challenge for me. I know I want to build furniture and I want to do this and that, but that’s not always in the cards because I only have 600 square feet of space to work with. I can’t build a huge bed frame and then sell it; I have to sell it first and then make it, which requires a lot of trust from people. The big items like that are only coming in, what? Twice a month, maybe? Maybe once every two months? So, what can we make in the meantime? There’s always something that you can do to kind of supplement what you really want to do, and you just have to be willing to do that to fulfill your need. If you’re not willing to figure out that side hustle aspect, then sole proprietorship is not for you. It’s grueling! I think I work like 12 hour days, on average, but I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Do not be afraid to fail. Understand that fear and anxiety are okay. You know, take that and really sit with it for a minute, but don’t let it own you, don’t let it dictate where you go or how you get there — just go. I know that that’s kind of wishy-washy or non-specific, but I firmly believe that if you put good things out there, good things will come back. There have been, I think, three separate times in the last five years where I was like, ‘I’m not going to recover from this, there is no coming back.’ Then the community rallied and made sure that I did. So don’t be afraid to fail — take control of that fear and walk proud.