true WELLth Podcast: David Mawhinney Episode Transcript

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Stan Hall:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions, and your purpose. Learn more about how you can live a richer life at brightonjones.com.

David Mawhinney:

I think I’ve taken a little bit more holistic approach in contentment and it’s something I talked to people a lot about, who are like, “Oh, I’m not content. I should change my job.” And it’s like, “Your job is such a small part of that contentment.” And it’s really a larger picture. I don’t think you can be content with one large piece of your life like that. It’s got to be all these little tiny factors that add up to give you this one contentment. I definitely can say I wasn’t content as an accountant and it just, it wasn’t taking a lot of the boxes for me. I think it’s being in that position where you know you’re not content helps you find a little bit more contentment elsewhere.

Stan Hall:

Hello, and welcome to true WELLth, the show where we examine life through the four lenses of financial, emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Now to do this, we sit down with wellbeing experts and pivoters. And our guest today, David Mawhinney may just be the most eclectic pivoter we’ve had on yet. Today, David runs his own company, Franklin+Emily, that specializes in high-end sustainable, beautifully designed, and perhaps most importantly, sturdy children’s furniture. However, his path to becoming the Herman Miller of children’s furniture is not one you would expect. Let’s dive in.

David Mawhinney:

I got into my current career, which is if we’re counting a number three, my wife is always interested in to see what four through nine will be like. But I studied economics in university and then I left economics and moved into accounting. I had the opportunity to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers or PWC as it is now in their audit. I was with their high-tech audit division. And then I moved into financial services. And the only really good thing that came out of that is I found my wife. We were both working at the same firm together. And I think after our first date, I left the firm, but I left accounting because I really feel, felt the need myself to be creative and to do something with my hands. And it took a little time off, I hate to say I had that quarter life crisis, but the term fits.

David Mawhinney:

So I kind of left and I was going to do writing, photography, or food. And there was a little restaurant up the street, I worked there for a couple of nights and I think I was picking herbs or something all night long and just really fell in love with it. I loved the atmosphere, I loved the creativity, the camaraderie, everything. And I got that creative outlet. So worked at the bottom. I was a prep receiver at the restaurant, which you’re receiving all the raw produce. Then they let me make the bread and kind of moved on from there. So I spent several years in Toronto and Canada there at different restaurants and was able to work my way up to one of the better restaurants in the city, if not the country.

David Mawhinney:

Kind of personal life at the time, my wife and I decided to just go away for a year and live somewhere else to get that experience. And it was a coin toss, we were either going to go to Paris or New York. She had offers at both and both were great food cities for me. So I was kind of covered with my new burgeoning career as a chef. And we ended up in New York and it was great. And a good friend of the chef that I was working for at the time was at the James Beard Foundation here in New York. And we met for coffee and it was just so one of those typical New York things where you just… you’re sitting down and he’s like, “Well, where would you like to work?” And I’d say, “Well, I’d love to work at Danielle, Per Se or, Le Bernardin.”

David Mawhinney:

And he said, “That’s great. What do you think of these cookies?” I’m like, “The cookies are great, but let’s focus more on that career.” And he’s like, “Well, I’ll sort that out. Don’t worry about it.” So two days later he’s like, “You started Danielle in two days from now, Per Se’s in a week from now, let me know what else I can do if you don’t like those two, I’ll get you into the other one.” And it was amazing. I worked at Danielle for a while. And then when all that kind of came through, start at a Per Se, if you’re not familiar with the restaurant, it’s a three Michelin star, the creme of the creme. So I got the job, stayed there for three years, spent the last year in the bakery there. And kind of after that, moved on, opened a couple of different restaurants as a consultant. Spent the last six years of my culinary career in a place called Haven’s Kitchen in Chelsea.

David Mawhinney:

It was a cooking school cafe and event space. I really enjoyed teaching people how to cook and taking that kind of restaurant quality, all the tips and tricks and bringing them down to a more homey level. Really had a focus on sustainability there for the last little bit, really focusing on food waste and how to make all those systems better and pairing with really talented partners and our purveyors. And then kind of, that’s where we start to make pivot number three. At the time, my daughter Francis was two. She would come into our bedroom every morning and kind of wait for us to wake up and she’d sit on our printer. And it was a little HP and a month into this little routine, she had broke the feed tray, broke the exit, the whole thing was just destroyed.

David Mawhinney:

So I built her a little chair just in my basement with the scraps of wood that were down there. And just to give you a little bit … we live in a co-op in Brooklyn. Any kind of stuff like that in your basement, is usually frowned upon, and so I got caught pretty quickly. But I had now four or five different prototypes of chairs, people would come over for dinner because we were still a hot ticket cause I could cook. And at the end of the meal, everyone would kind of, recline in these kids’ chairs that were built strong enough to hold an adult. And, “Where did you get these?” “Oh, I made them myself.” “Oh, you should really sell these.” “No, I’m quite happy.”

David Mawhinney:

Haven’s Kitchen at the time we had just launched Haven’s Kitchen sauces. And from concept to being on Whole Foods, shelves was about 18 months. So I was kind of really involved in that. I kind of wasn’t happy again. I had kind of lost that tactile thing. I was no longer making this stuff. We were working with a co-packer and I was kind of moving myself away from it. So looking for the next thing, and it was my wife who really just kind of said, “Just do it. Rip off the Band-Aid, you got to jump off the cliff and just do this thing.” And that’s how Franklin+Emily started.

Stan Hall:

We’ll get more into Franklin+Emily in a bit, but I’d like to highlight that though, David had the drive to pivot and innovate himself, he was very much aware that pivots of any magnitude for that matter don’t happen in a vacuum. In paramount to the pivot success, was the people closest to him. That they were supporting him and that they were bought in.

David Mawhinney:

I think we kind of took it, and she’s been very kind of open about this as well. And one of those things where like, “If you want to do this, kind of go for it.” And it’s not decisions we make lightly. I alluded to the fact that we had an offer in New York and Paris, and I remember being on the phone with her and she’s like, “I have to tell them today, I have to tell them in an hour.” And we made a coin toss and that was kind of it. But that coin toss was after a long period of consideration. And we kind of did the same thing with the cooking career, into my own thing. We ran a couple of numbers. She’s a CFO now. So we put together a model, “You’d have to sell this much, you’d have to sell that.”

David Mawhinney:

And at the end of the day it was just like, “Yeah, we’ll put a little bit of our money into this and see where it goes from there.” And so I think it’s just that role of a spouse or a partner, or your friend group, whatever that circle of your core, your tribe, I think is super important to kind of have on board. And I was very upfront with a lot of my friends. It’s like, “Let’s plug holes and all this kind of thing.” This is a crazy idea. This accountant turns to chef, turns to furniture maker, kids furniture maker? And then it was like, high-end kids furniture maker. Come on, there’s got to be something here.

David Mawhinney:

And so just getting a lot of people to kind of pick through that I thought was super helpful. But at the end of the day, Amy knew that, it was something important that I kind of had to do, and it was going to just continue gnawing at me until I tried it, win or fail. And I think you have to go into it that mentality, this could completely go bust. So I always made the joke, I kept my knife sharp. And so far I haven’t had to use that.

Stan Hall:

Franklin+Emily is not you’re one of the mill furniture maker. Like with everything David does, it is held to an elevated craftsmen-like standard. The company produces high quality, well-designed furniture and perhaps most impressive, is this furniture withstands, the battering that a child imparts upon it. And the rest of the design and furniture world thinks so as well. David’s furniture won bronze from the 14th annual International Design Awards. He was an honoree at the 2019 ICFF New York City Design Award, as well as a winner and excellent product design in this category at the 2019 German Design Awards. I like to think of David in the same way of when I see a magician, I’ve seen the, “Trick.” Of becoming accomplished in multiple seemingly unrelated fields. Now, as an audience member, I want to know how the trick is done.

David Mawhinney:

I’m going to answer that question on that kind of roundabout way. I had a call with a really good friend years ago, and I was talking about working at Per Se and how lucky I was. It was an authentic comment. I’m like, “I was really lucky to work there.” And he’s like, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Well, lucky I got in. Lucky I did that. Lucky I was able to stay there for three years.” He’s like, “Everything you did up to that point got you there. The concept of luck has very little to do with that if you think about it. You left your career in accounting, that’s a huge thing that was your choice. You worked at ABC restaurants to get to that kind of level. They wanted you to stay there. They wanted you to work there kind of thing, that really didn’t have anything to do with luck.”

David Mawhinney:

And I kind of took that. And that’s where I’m getting this kind of sense of just this marginal gain. It’s these little decisions along the way that kind of pivot you towards this ultimate thing. When I had started, I remember speaking with a good friend, Charlie, who’s a designer and had a kind of background in furniture as well. His whole thing, and it was really this concept of just one. He’s like, “You know what, just build one. And then you’re a furniture builder. Just sell one, and then you’re a furniture seller. Just ship one, and you’re, you’re into logistics.” And it was always this concept of just doing the first one is going to be the most difficult one you ever do.

David Mawhinney:

And then it gets easier like that. And we’re a couple of hundred chairs and I don’t know how many different other articles into it now. And all those little problems I had at the start kind of go away, because I got that one out of the way. And now I face a whole new kind of a line of problems, but it’s always like, it’s just that first one that you really have to focus on. And it’s that kind of working away from that is the harder part.

Stan Hall:

It’s not all marginal gains, right? Realistically, setbacks do occur.

David Mawhinney:

I think you have to accept that failure is going to happen. It might not be absolute failure, but it’s just not going to be to where you think you’re going to be. I think all too often, and myself especially, you have these really lofty goals. And I want to separate having lofty goals with dreaming bigger. I had a mentor when I was kind of doing these career shifts and his was always dream bigger. So what’s that thing that you can think about that, take it back a step. And what’s the bigger thing? Instead of making a children’s chair, why don’t you make a children’s furniture line? Instead of making children’s furniture, why don’t you own the children’s bedroom and with all that kind of stuff? So it’s taking back and having that bigger kind of approach.

David Mawhinney:

And I think that’s where a lot of this is coming from, where you have to be kind of prepared to fail. This is going to kind of go onto the physical side of things, but I started to get back into cycling about a year ago. And I was 190 something pounds I think, and very out of shape and was drinking too much, and my sleep was off and just not having a great time of it. And got on the bike, and we live in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, and so I could just do laps in the park and it started and it took me 14 minutes to go around and it was horrible and I hated it. And then the next day was a little bit better and the next month was a lot better. And I was prepared to fail in the sense that I’m not going to get that nine minute timer that eight minute time, and it’s going to take time and I have to be prepared that there’s going to be setbacks and there’s going to be all that.

David Mawhinney:

And now you look back it’s a year later, I’m in probably the best shape of my life and it’s all because this marginal gain kind of thing. There’s the English cycling coach, Dave Brailsford, who kind of is behind the whole marginal gains and chasing this marginal gains. Their cycling team, the British cycling team maybe 10 years ago was kind of a laughing stock. They had never won any of the major tours, but he took it all apart and he said, “Listen, we’re not going to find the 15% gain that we’re looking for, but what we’re going to do is we’re going to go and we’re going to change all the little things. We’re going to examine the different gels that the masseurs use. We’re going to paint the inside of the team truck white so that we can see all the dirt so that none of the dirt gets on the bike. We’re going to do all these little tiny, tiny things to get that overall kind of thing.”

David Mawhinney:

And that kind of has stuck with me now. When we’re looking at our costs and the revenue associated with the business, I’m not going to find that $15 cogs savings, but I’m going to find 13 savings that might be between 63 and 80 cents. And I’m going to take those, because those are really, really good. But I think people searching those kind of easy wins, it happens, but really relishing in the small wins and kind of taking it on the chin with the small losses, I think, is the approach. And it applies to financial, it applies to emotional, your social, your physical. We were looking at how can we save up to get a larger house?

David Mawhinney:

And you’re like, “Let’s look at the credit card and see what those massive reoccurring $5 spends are a month.” And you’re like, “There isn’t any.” You’re again, looking for that $5 coffee everyday kind of thing. That’s the marginal gain that you’re looking for there. And I think emotional, it’s just checking in with you and your friends, kind of all the time and it’s the little tiny things before it gets to this massive, kind of overarching feeling of dread. It’s just, pick on those little cues, both positive and negative and physical, social, it’s the same thing. It’s just doing those little tiny things daily that kind of will allow you to do the larger things a lot better.

Stan Hall:

David, to anyone considering making a major pivot or perhaps they’re in the those of one right now, what is some advice you would give to them about seeing the pivot through to success?

David Mawhinney:

I think discouragement comes up a lot. And I think it’s very easy to do. And three years ago where I made the switch and it’s like, I did that whole thing. It’s like, “Oh, what are some classic kind of woodworking techniques that I need to use?” And of course dovetail comes up. I attempted the first ducktail and it was just horrible. It looked like you’d given a four year old a saw and just with no instruction. And it was horrible and I got really, really upset. I’m like, “What am I doing? What was I thinking? I’m a pretty decent cook. I can teach people, I can do this. Why did I really change because of all this?” We were talking to someone else and they’re like, “Yeah, but you haven’t spent 10,000 hours at that like you have with cooking.”

David Mawhinney:

You put me in front of a seemingly empty fridge and I can put together a meal kind of thing. But back then you put me in front, with a saw and with a jig and all that, I had no idea what I was doing. So it was really, I think that people with career changes, you have to really set your sights a lot. You have to set your sights high, but you have to realize you’re not going to hit them for a long time. And you’re not going to have the proficiency at the one immediately into the next one. I was sadly, probably as sufficient as a chef when I first started as I was an accountant, but that’s another topic entirely. But just getting into the aspect of Franklin+Emily, it was like, “Oh, this production. There’s going to be issues there. There’s going to be a lot of problems.”

David Mawhinney:

And I just didn’t feel like I had the technical leads. And that kind of grows, and you put those aside for a second and you’re like, “Okay, we’ll get there.” And one of the ways you can do that, I didn’t know a lot of photo editing for the website. So we went on Fiverr, which is this freelancer site. And I was able to get all the product photography for our sites in all our different cushion colors within two days with having no knowledge of Photoshop or anything like that for our website. And we’d only made one chair at the time, but if you went on the website, it looked like this whole big thing. So I think there’s little tweaks around that, but it’s really this understanding of you’re not going to get everything right off the bat.

David Mawhinney:

There’s going to be a lot of stumbles and you have to, again, kind of use that other lens and look back and you’re like, “These stumblings, they’re going to make a really good story kind of later on. But right now I just need to put my head down. I need to talk to someone who does know this.” And really, I think people, naturally are kind of out to help. So it’s finding again, that new tribe that can kind of help you with that, really helps you when you do stumble. And it’s super easy to get discouraged. And today was a pretty rough day for me, but I know that looking over it in the month, I’m actually probably not going to remember it at the end of the month and just keeping that in mind. And it’s very tough to do and you have to continually remind yourself of that.

Stan Hall:

I’m curious, I would imagine that you haven’t arrived per se, but rather you have more pivots coming up in your future?

David Mawhinney:

Pivots that are coming up for me, that I’m acutely aware of are right now is just how to pivot with … and it’s not so much a pivot, but just how to adapt to growth. And what that means, where we’re no longer at I can’t produce all this stuff anymore. And it was one of those, and again, like my wife’s LinkedIn profile is probably going to get hit up after this because she’s so amazing. But it was one of those things where I didn’t realize at the time, but she was like, “You know, you’re not making all of these when you become the Herman Miller of children’s furniture. You’re not going to be making them anymore.” I’m like, “Oh, what are you talking about? I’ll still …” and she’s like, “No, there’s so much more to do. You’re going to be going back and relying more on your accounting and that kind of thing to work on it.”

David Mawhinney:

It was like, “Oh, yeah.” So now we’re not at that point yet, but we’re dealing with that production and that growth issue now where we’re starting to hire a lot of people, which is great. And we’re specifically hiring people in the restaurant community because that’s been hit so hard with COVID. But it’s been a challenge just figuring out what’s next for us production wise. And again, it’s looking at places that are in companies and friends that are on the periphery of that. I’ve got a good friend who runs a very successful bike company Affinity. And he was like, “I went through the same thing where I just couldn’t do this anymore and you need to move to a distribution model or something like that.” So again, I think going forward, I’m going to use the same tactics that have kind of got me here. It’s relying heavily on that friend network and kind of making sure that I’m looking at stuff at the detail level, and then again at the 10,000 foot.

Stan Hall:

David, a note to end on your kids are obviously very important in your life and are very influential in your company. How do you approach raising them with this knowledge, and I think what I would like to call the skill of pivoting?

David Mawhinney:

Yeah. I think it is you kind of have to allow them a lot of freedom and generally it’s a lot more freedom than I was ever exposed to as a kid. And I had a great, great job, had no complaints, but I think you have to let them try and you have to let them fail. And I think you have to be there for them on both those outcomes. My son was learning bike and we got him a balance bike and that never worked out and this and that. And you could see him just getting frustrated and kind of kicking the bike and not really wanting to ride it. And then it was one of his friends was just about the same age and she just kind of took off and didn’t have training wheels and she’s like, “Well, you know what? You just have to do it like this, this and this.”

David Mawhinney:

And he took off and I was like, “That could have saved like six months of my back pain if we just had that.” But if you kind of look at it, it’s the same thing that I do. It’s looking to your peers, looking to that friend network on how to get that help. And I think, as much as my kids can do new things, I’m all for it. And there’s episodes of television, the sitcoms where the kid starts guitar and then picks up drums and then picks up clarinet and then roller skating, yeah, it makes your house a complete mess, but I think your kids do need to go through that before they figure out what they really want and what drives them. Now cut to my son, he wants a road bike because he can’t go fast enough on his bike.

David Mawhinney:

He’s got clip-in pedals and wears Lycra and he’s eight. And so in just a matter of a couple of years, he’s gone beyond that for sure. But really just allowing them to fail and just being there for them and just like, yeah, I went through that. I couldn’t ride a bike or I wasn’t a good reader, I wasn’t good at math, and being there for them and just kind of exposing them to a lot. I think, just to kind of answer or just to add my own onto that, I think one of the worst questions that I hate when people ask my kids is what do you want to be? And I just tell them, “Just say happy and walk away.” I just think it’s such a … kids at that age have … I don’t know what I want to be.

David Mawhinney:

In five years, we could be having a completely different conversation or I could be the one interviewing you kind of thing. It could be completely different. So to put on a kid at eight, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You’re like, “Well, A, half of the jobs probably don’t exist already. So there’s that.” And they haven’t failed enough or they haven’t tried enough things. So I think it’s a weird question to ask them. But just being supportive and just being there, I think goes a long way.

Stan Hall:

My takeaways for this episode are one, pivots aren’t a single event, but rather more like a longer cycle. The ability or act of pivoting builds on from years of experience and door opening. Personally, I never would have thought as an undeclared classical guitar major signing up for a college radio elective class would have put me on a course to professional podcasting at a wellbeing firm 10 years later. And it’s important to constantly evaluate what the next revolution of that pivot looks like to you. And they don’t always have to be drastic pivots either. Two, you’re going to be bad at things when you start something new, and that’s okay. I’m sure plenty of us have taken up new hobbies or skills during quarantine. Or perhaps due to COVID, you were thrown into a pivot needing to learn a new skill. It is so frustrating to be bad at something new. But if you can accept that you’re going to struggle and stumble and take the long view that you will get better, you’re going to live a less stress life.

Stan Hall:

And know that your network of friends and partners are there to help you just as you would help them. And finally, adopting the concept of marginal gains, crushed her entire life. All too often, we strive to neatly pack in our life goals into distilled, singular events, but usually the magnitude of accomplishing them becomes overwhelming and we can struggle to make progress. But chipping away at the goal, and just trying to be a bit better. It goes a long way. Whether you’re paying down debt by tackling your smallest credit card bill first, or working on being able to run a quarter mile further than yesterday and training for that marathon, big, easy wins are rare. So take the marginal gains and celebrate them. To learn more about David, you can go to our show notes page. There, we will have his bio transcript of the show and so much more.

Stan Hall:

I also highly recommend if you have little ones who are going through homeschooling to check out Franklin+Emily’s new desk and chair set. Proceeds from every chair, go on to help the No Kid Hungry Foundation. If you liked today’s show, we would be much obliged if you left us a review on iTunes or recommended us to a friend. Those reviews and recommendations go a long way, and we’re sending you a big karmic hug in return. To get in touch with the team, you can drop us a line at truewellthpodcast.com. We always love hearing from you. And remember that’s W-E-L-L-T-h.com. Until next time.

Stan Hall:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, give back to the community or explore the globe, Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values. So you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at brightonjones.com. Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall, alongside the rest of our true WELLth team. Michael Stubel, Mark Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.