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Starting a small welding and fabrication business during COVID-19 (Part Two)

Lesson 1: Be on Time, Even During a Pandemic

One of the biggest points of confusion during the first weeks of the pandemic was what made a business essential. For some businesses it was very clear, but for Crosby & Drumm, an aspiring vehicle upfitter with custom fabrication and mobile welding capabilities, it was about as clear as mud.

One day number one of the stay-at-home order, they decided to sleep in and get to the office around 9 am.

In hindsight, Jessica admitted, this wasn’t a great decision.

“Our normal hours are 8 am to 5 pm. When we showed up at 9 am, there was somebody there waiting for us. He was there to upfit his Jeep, but we didn’t know ahead of time that he’d be there. And he got on us for being late. He told us showing up late is no way to start a business and that we’ve got to make sacrifices if we want to make it. We were a little surprised because we thought we were all supposed to stay at home. We tried to explain that to him, but he said he didn’t care and he made sure to let us know he was disappointed in us.

“So Daniel, not knowing if we were considered an essential, started looking up the definition and decided that, yeah, we were essential and moving forward we would carry our regular hours. That was a huge lesson right off the bat,” Jessica explained.

Lesson 2: Ask for Help

While the upfitting work had pretty much dried up, a few custom fab jobs trickled in, though it wasn’t enough to pay the bills at the business or at home. To help make ends meet, Daniel took a part-time job driving a truck for Nutrien Ag Solutions while Jessica spent the time off from her full-time job to get the office side of the business set up and on solid footing. When Daniel wasn’t driving, he was in the shop working on the fab jobs that came through.

“We’d put a sign on the front door of the shop saying we were out of the office on a service call when we weren’t at the shop,” Daniel said.

COVID-19 had put their business partner in a difficult position to choose a fledgling business with no paycheck for the foreseeable future over a steady income. Being the sole provider of his household, he chose a steady income and bowed out of the business. Around the same time, three large jobs rolled into the shop. It was a critical moment for the new business that they needed to get right if they had any chance of making it.

“I told Daniel we needed to get these jobs in and out quickly, period. We needed the word-of-mouth to be positive, and it wouldn’t be if it was taking us forever to turn these jobs around. But it was an overwhelming amount of work for just him,” Jessica said.

Help arrived in the form of Daniel’s friend Carter, who he met a little more than a decade earlier when they were co-workers at a heavy-duty equipment manufacturer. Carter was working as a mason and laborer, a job he didn’t totally love, when he got a phone call from Daniel asking for help with a few welding jobs. He jumped at the opportunity.

They worked well together and each does different things well – Daniel’s strength is gas metal arc welding while Carter’s is shielded metal arc welding and gas tungsten arc welding.

So when Daniel and Jessica asked Carter if he’d be interested in sticking around for good, there was no hesitation, even with the knowledge that it might be a while before he got a paycheck.

Lesson 3: Just Say Yes

Custom fabricating and mobile welding were supposed to make up only a small slice of the pie, but COVID-19 changed all of that.

“Welding and fabrication have been our bread and butter. We thought it was going to be more of a side hustle because the money really is in the commercial upfitting. We haven’t abandoned upfitting, but we are leaning in hard to the welding and fabrication because the work is there,” Jessica said.

Added Daniel, “Around here in March the farmers were out planting in full force, which also means they’re tearing up their equipment and needed someone to fix it. So we jumped right in and started doing on-site welding and repair.”

Their motto quickly became “Just say yes.” Get the job in the door, do quality work in a timely fashion, and create positive word-of-mouth within the community. They literally said yes to welding anything, from a garden hoe to a semitrailer and outdoor furniture. They’ve even tackled several aluminum boat jobs.

Recently Daniel said that while they’ve seen signs that automotive manufacturers are picking up steam and hope that the upfitting will eventually come, they aren’t abandoning the type of work that has kept them in business these last seven months.

“We’re not going to forget where we came from, so to speak. We’re going to continue doing custom work because we are filling a need,” Daniel said.

Lesson 4: Embrace the Struggle

Quitting would have been the easy out, and while that thought crossed their minds from time to time, it was never a serious option. Jessica’s dental office reopened, allowing her to go back to work and bring in income. They stayed true to putting whatever they made from the business back into the business.

Most of the equipment they have is used apart from a brand-new Lincoln Electric TIG machine they bought to handle the aluminum welding work. They bought a used Miller Electric diesel engine-driven welder and mounted it to the back of a truck for mobile jobs, they have a 1972 forklift with a 12,000-lb. lift capacity, and they have a Miller Electric Millermatic 252 MIG machine. They’d like to get a plasma cutter next.

The company isn’t suffocating under massive debt, and they don’t have any silent financial backing. They’ve managed to stay afloat all by themselves. But, of course, they had doubters.

“We had a lot of haters when we started out. We had a lot of people tell us that we were going to fail. They said we had no clue what we were doing and suspected that we were getting financial help from someone else. There were all kinds of rumors going around, but none of them were true. We’ve done this 100% on our own without really any guidance. Other than asking other business owners for a quick word of advice, we’ve completely done this ourselves,” Jessica said.

The upside to the struggles, Daniel said, is the three of them have developed a strong bond that has made working together enjoyable. Their back-and-forth banter resembles a family gathering more so than a business.

That’s not to say there aren’t disagreements. There are. But Jessica said that their shared experience these last few months has given them the perspective to put those aside in favor of the work and their long-term goals.

This has been a turbulent year, but even through the struggles and tough lessons, Jessica, Daniel, and Carter haven’t forgotten why they got into the business in the first place.

“My ultimate dream is to eventually bring high school kids in here and teach them how to weld, work with machines, and get interested in custom and skilled work. And maybe one day a few of those kids will come back and want to work with us,” Daniel said.