There are so many faces of entrepreneurship; some more colorful than others. Let’s just say Joe’s interview contained a lot more colorful language and side stories than any I have conducted so far. Maybe the only thing more interesting than talking to Joe was touring the staircase facility.
Walking around his massive warehouse-like metal shop down in Pilsen, the gritty nature of the work and large machinery everywhere screams “Chicago.” We are the “City of Broad Shoulders” because of companies like Milk Design, where men toil in cascades of sparks from blow torches, and metal forms loom so large they would crush a dozen men if they toppled over.
The beauty of the simplistic nature of metal work isn’t lost on Joe. The art of forming concrete, glass, steel, and ceramics into usable forms is a passion that shines through so brightly it’s a wonder he ever did anything else.
Like so many I have interviewed, Joe’s story wanders across a dozen different paths before landing on his true passion. It turns out growing up in Niagara Falls isn’t as wonderful as the iconic images we have all seen.
“It’s a pretty tough place. Pretty seedy and honky-tonk. Kind of traveling circus feel to it intermingled with chemical plants, Love Canal, and cancer.
“It was chemicals, gross, bad stuff… No good education. We had gangs before it was even ‘cool’ to have gangs. You just don’t think that when you think of Niagara Falls. Everyone thinks of the Canadian side and the falls. I count my blessings that I got out of there.”
Even though there were no other entrepreneurs in the family, Joe found an early inkling to make his own money. He didn’t think of it as being an entrepreneur, he simply viewed his work as a logical means to an end.
“I never really thought it about it that way. My family never really could buy me things, like name brands, like Levi jeans. So, they said if you want these things, we understand, but you have to work for them. So, I thought, ‘well shit, if I want things I’ll work for them.’
“I had a paper route starting when I was 11. I used to clean law offices on the weekend with my grandmother. I had a little business where I would go to the local golf course at night with waders on. Go in, dredge the balls out, and then sell them back to the golfers. I fashioned my tool out of a broom and an old bicycle basket.”
You can see a lot of that same spirit in his work today. If Joe doesn’t have the right tool for something, he will fashion it. Something breaks, he turns to the internet for repair instructions. Joe’s confidence in his ability to personally overcome obstacles is heavily ingrained and seems to derive from his family’s outlook on life.
”My parents have always said that everything has a way of working itself out. You can think about it in a negative way or a positive way, and the end result will be roughly the same. So, no matter what, I always figure things will work themselves out. If I am meant to lose everything, then so be it. Keeping a positive mental attitude is worth it.”
His family would also be the reason he ended up in Chicago. After his father took a job in Chicago and moved the family to the western Chicago suburbs, Joe soon followed after leaving SUNY Brockport.
“I got accepted to one of the SUNY schools at Brockport. The only way they would take me was if I took this summer program. It could be the worst model to get into a school, because they are taking all the worst students applying to SUNY schools and sticking them together for a summer. We had a blast. That summer was one of the best times of my life.
“So, I went to college there for about a year and quit right before St. Patrick’s Day. I just didn’t want to go anymore. My family was pretty cool about it. They have been completely supportive of everything I have tried in my life. They are pretty amazing.”
Through a series of events and odd jobs, he would make a connection that would change his life forever.
“Through a family friend I ended up getting an interview at the East Bank Club. Got a place with five of the guys I worked with and moved into Little Italy. It was a little bit rougher back then, one of my roommates got jumped.”
For those who have not heard of it, the East Bank Club is a massive health and fitness facility in the River North with five restaurants, an indoor driving range, and dozens of other over-the-top amenities. The more successful people I talk to, the more the East Bank Club is brought up. On a side note, one of the Technori interviews has even been conducted there.
“I worked at East Bank three years. I went from the front desk, to reservations, to customer service, and then to business sales. At 23, I held this position that was selling large blocks to big corporations. I would meet with CFO’s, CEO’s… Way above my head kind of stuff. I would bring clients in and play whatever sport they wanted.
“I shattered the sales record within 11 months. Made a lot of dough. Crushed my quota. Then they raised my quota to double after it hadn’t been raised in years. So, I spent two more months there and left. Bought a Harley Davidson and had the best summer ever. Had a place on Lake Shore drive, bunch of girlfriends…. I had a very Playboyish life for a little while there.”
As Joe would find out, working at the Club would bring far more than a paycheck.
“My whole life has stemmed from East Bank Club. My entire existence [in Chicago] and network came from that place. Eight years later I told my friend, go to this health club, get a job there. He went on to work for MTV and owns his own company now.”
Realizing that his bachelor-on-the-town days would have to end sometime, Joe needed to figure out the next big step in his life. Being a very outgoing guy and having worked as a bouncer before, Joe got invited to be a part of a new bar opening up.
“I started working for this bar, and I was going to be the manager after all the construction was completed. The bar failed miserably. Then later on, these two friends approach me and they are like, ‘Hey man, we are opening this bar, can you come help out?’ I was like, ‘here we go again….’ I became the leader of the construction. I had pretty much no construction experience. We were all scabs, so none of us were union guys. I rose to the top of these scabs and sort of ran the construction.”
From sales at East Bank Club to construction worker, Joe has a pretty amazing way of stumbling into incredible opportunities.
“One day, these guys come in and ask, ‘who designed this place?’ I told them that I didn’t design the whole thing but most of it, and I showed them around as far as what I did. It turns out these guys were huge operators on the East Coast. They asked me if I would be willing to come out east and do some work for them. I said, ‘Of course. That would be awesome.’ So, I left and took on this crazy huge Jamaican-style, village-like project. It was the biggest project I was ever involved in.”
After finishing the project out east, he returned to Chicago to once again try to figure out what he was going to do with his life. His love of living in very raw, loft-style apartments would end up being the keystone that would finally connect his passion to his business savvy. But, of course, not without falling flat on his face a couple times first.
“I started a curtain company while I was in my loft. My buddy had sewn curtains for nightclubs. I would bend conduit, and he would sew. We called it Acme Curtains, so we would be in the front of the phone book. I sold this amazing job to Lake Forest College for a complete blackout curtain. After that, the partnership wasn’t working anymore. He didn’t want to keep sewing, and I wanted to sell a lot more.
“So I went and sold another job and used this other seamstress. We went to install the job and the person was like, ‘Did you even sew these?’ I can’t even tell you how bad it looked. I decided that I couldn’t do something where I wasn’t in control.”
Finally, while fooling around in his apartment one day, he unknowingly would stumble upon a set of skills that would forever change his life.
“I had a white pickup truck. The tailpipe had sheared off from the support. So I thought, ‘I’m going to Home Depot and weld this thing back on.’ So I welded the pipe and came back upstairs and decided I was going to build a workbench out of the top of an old dresser. Within one week, I produced my first candle holder. I made three and took them to Waxman Candles on Lincoln and said, ‘Would you buy these?’ Within two weeks, I had sold all my candle holders.”
If Joe was ever going to have a light bulb moment in his entire life, this was it. The idea of being able to fashion raw metal into things that people would actually buy was one of those born-again type moments.
“I realized this is what I do. ‘I’m a fucking welder. I’m a metal worker.’ From that one bench, I have built this entire shop. Every tool in here I have learned on my own. I would go to the library and take out all the books on it.
The first big job I had was this gothic chandelier. It’s pretty killer. Scary looking.”
Epiphany behind him, Joe would set out once again to form a business around working with his hands. Just like before, he would again run into a major set of problems that would drive him to nearly start from scratch again.
“I talked to this guy and I was like, ‘You do the woodworking and I’ll do the metal work and we can build furniture.’ He was like, ‘cool,’ and we were together for seven years. We slowly realized that furniture wasn’t it. We were fucking poor. It was terrible.
“Every time we would go to a tradeshow, everyone would look at our book and go, ‘wow, look at those railings and stairs….’ Never a comment about the furniture. We ended up getting jobs for railings and stairs there. I left that show and I said, ‘there are a million cool furniture companies, I am going to be a really cool stairs and railings company.’”
Entering the staircase market seems like an obscure choice of industries. To be honest, prior to meeting Joe, I didn’t even know there were companies out there that built only custom staircases. At a glance, there are actually quite a few, and Milk Design is trying to carve its own niche in the market.
“For the last five years, I have been trying to build this brand. We advertise in Dwell magazine every three months or so. We have started to build this brand, but that doesn’t make you millions. It’s labor-intensive and marginally lean. There is no room for error. One mistake, and you have lost.
“At some point we are going to branch off with our name and build things that are more quantifiable. That’s when you start making profit. I’m 43 and nowhere near done.”
That’s what I love about the entrepreneurial spirit. At 43, Joe is still as ready to take risks and experiment with new business models as he was at the very beginning.
“As I got on in years, through working for a lot of people, there is a certain skill to being an entrepreneur. I think a lot of being an entrepreneur is being able to do almost anything and having the confidence to know you can. I think entrepreneurship has a lot to do with creativity.”
Our conversation veers off into a very interesting discussion of the role that art communities play in entrepreneurship. Joe is a firm believer that creativity plays one of the most important roles of all in building a successful and thriving entrepreneur community.
“There is a lot of cool stuff happening now. The art scene is really picking up and becoming more relevant. I think if you have a cool art scene, there becomes more of a relevance of being an entrepreneur here. From an advertising standpoint and branding. You can only build it based on your surroundings. Our city keeps getting better and better. I tell people, ‘this is the place to be.’ It’s like a hidden secret.”
As for the people themselves, the Midwestern charm we are all known for has rubbed off on him.
“It’s so livable here. It’s a small giant city. You can know a lot of people here, and you can get around and navigate the business world easily. I met a lot of the people I do business with early and still do business with them to this day. I had a great opportunity to move to NYC two years ago and I was like, ‘No way.’”
Thanks for staying, Joe.