While Skagit County is known for large-scale manufacturing, from aerospace to shipbuilding, some entrepreneurs are running small manufacturing businesses out of their garages.
The Bath Bomb Machine
At his family’s home in a residential neighborhood in Burlington, Jason Denham manufactures the B-3 Bomber Bath Bomb Machine.
The machine makes bath bombs, a pressed mixture of ingredients that fizz in the tub.
Denham, who graduated from high school in Burlington and has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA, said he was working at a power plant in 2010 when he thought about starting his own business.
After some research, he saw an opportunity to invent a safer and more efficient machine to make bath bombs.
“(Bath bombs) is actually a pretty big industry,” he said.
Denham said he makes between five and 15 machines a month, and sells them on his website for about $1,500 each to customers from all over the world.
Denham said one of his customers uses 10 of his machines to make 1 million bath bombs a month.
“If I walk into Fred Meyer or Target, I can see bath bombs that were made with my machine,” he said. “(It’s) pretty cool. I like showing my kids that ‘that was made with my machine.’”
Denham is his business’ only employee. A Bellingham company manufacturers the machine’s aluminum frame, and he assembles the machines in his garage.
Compared to competitors’ machines, Denham said his is more lightweight and durable, and uses 300 pounds of force to create the bath bombs. There are also safety features to make sure operators’ hands are out of harm’s way.
When sales began to pick up, Denham left his other job in 2017 to run the business full time.
“I really like the time freedom,” he said.
He recently designed a prototype for a machine that can make up to 49 bath bombs at once. He also hopes to make a fully automated machine one day.
“I’ve had customers asking me about that for years,” he said.
Denham said his three kids participate in the business by helping assemble the bags of spare parts that are sent to customers. As a kid himself, Denham said he was more into building things and taking them apart than playing video games.
He said one day he hopes to move his business from his garage to an industrial space and to add employees.
In Birdsview, Steve Clay makes goose down pillows and comforters for his online business Plumeria Bay.
When he started Plumeria Bay in 2002, Clay was selling products online that were made by others.
It was only last year that he decided to start his own manufacturing business in his garage.
“We had a real challenge moving someone else’s product,” he said. “It was more expensive and harder to compete.”
By cutting out the middle man, Clay said he’s dropped the price and orders are picking up. The business, which makes a few hundred pillows and comforters a year, emphasizes high-quality materials and construction, he said.
“We only make higher-end stuff and we make more money,” he said.
The fabric is sewn in Germany, and the goose down that comes from Hungary is certified under the Responsible Down Standard, Clay said. The company employs a seamstress to sew the products.
Clay said he likes running a small business.
“I do so many different things — from bookkeeping to photography. It’s definitely not boring.” he said. “On the other hand, I think it would be great to have a job with a paycheck every week and benefits.”
Like Denham, Clay has aspirations to graduate from the garage, possibly to a building on his property.
“It would be nice to separate it a bit,” he said.
Clay said prospective entrepreneurs need to know how to manage a business, no matter how small. While he didn’t go to school for business, he said working his way up in the hospitality industry helped him learn management skills.
He said businesses also need to be passionate about what they’re selling.
“I couldn’t imagine trying to sell something on the web I didn’t love,” he said. “I happened to love down comforters and there happened to be a market for them.”
Starting a home business
Denham estimates that in 2010 it cost him about $5,000 to start his business.
For Plumeria Bay, costs were higher. Clay estimates he spent about $100,000 on equipment, materials and other items.
As the business grows, so do the costs, he said.
“Once you become a serious e-commerce site, that takes it to a whole other level,” Clay said.
Cindy Brooks, small business adviser at the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, said advantages to home-based businesses are that they can can avoid paying high fixed costs, such as rent, until they have a steady revenue stream.
“This coupled with the difficulty young companies have accessing capital if they do not yet have a track record can be disastrous,” she said in an email. “Starting up lean can reduce this risk.”
She agreed that lack of separation between home and work is a disadvantage, and home businesses can run into zoning issues.
She said these days more people are turning to home-based small businesses for additional income.
“Manufacturing is one of a number of industries that local people are exploring,” she said.
Brooks said for those interested in starting a small business, she recommends Startup Sedro-Woolley, a free business training program that allows participants to test ideas before investing time and money.
Applications for the 16-hour course are due Oct. 1.