Matt Lebel was ready to quit college by the time he was 20 years old.
He had always been a good student and studied the promising areas of engineering and math, but he was miserable in school and hated being broke all the time.
“My bank account was negative and I couldn’t even buy myself something to eat one day because all my cards got declined at a fast food drive-thru,” he says.
A new retail job was the tipping point.
“I was already getting bitter about school, and working hard was giving me tangible results,” he says. “A few weeks went by and I at least had enough money to put gas in my car and buy food again.”
At the end of that semester in 2010, he quit school. He didn’t have a solid plan for his next steps. He just knew being in college wasn’t his path, and he was going to find a better one.
“I was convinced that I could figure it out and I had a ‘prove them wrong’ kind of attitude.”
Trying New Ideas
He spent the next few years working full time to continue paying down student loans and a car loan. And he started to experiment with creative ways to make a living.
“I really enjoy pushing boundaries and doing things differently,” Lebel explains.
He started a blog, from which he earned ad revenue that, he says, “wasn’t even enough to buy a cup of coffee.”
Like many creative entrepreneurs, Lebel has a notebook filled with unrealized business ideas, like an outdoor gear company and a nutrition bar company, he told Studenomics.
He even started writing a book at one point.
“I always found a reason to back off from them,” he explains. “Mostly I was afraid of the startup costs and failing. I didn’t have a lot of resources at the time, so I was afraid of picking the wrong idea and having it fall apart.”
Launching a Business That Worked
At 23, Lebel started making furniture for himself. He learned as he went and enjoyed the hobby.
When he built a dining room table out of old pallets, his friends and family loved it and encouraged him to do more.
“It took me forever and it was a huge pain, but I needed a damn table. When it was done I said I’d never do it again,” he says. But, “it did look pretty cool.”
He also had no woodworking experience, let alone any knowledge of furniture design. He used the dimensions from his parents’ dining room table to guide his early designs.
“You don’t have to be an expert to start something,” he says, “and you might have to fake it for a while, but eventually you get the hang of it.”
After about a year of faking it and learning the trade himself, he finally decided to launch a website and offer to sell custom items. This would make a nice side income, he figured, maybe an extra $1,000 per year on top of his full-time job.
He opened Back Burner Designs for business on April 10, 2014 and made his first sale on May 31.
“A year after that,” he says, “I was quitting my job.”
He became enchanted with the promise of freedom he could have working for himself.
“The change happened when I experienced what it was like to be an entrepreneur and I decided that I was going to do anything to live that life all the time,” Lebel told Studenomics.
“I was meeting great people, making money, going on trips and I wasn’t reporting to anyone – until I went to work the next Monday.”
Though he’d only made $7,000 that first year running his business on the side, he decided sales were steady enough to take the risk.
“Looking back, it seems kind of nuts to have quit my job when I did,” he says, “but it was just one of those now-or-never moments and I went for it.”
Another year later, he doesn’t regret the decision.
He earned about $44,000 in the 12 months since taking the business full time, and it’s growing quickly. The first quarter of 2016 was his best by a landslide, and he’s started hiring employees.
How Much Does His Business Cost Him?
Lebel launched his business on Etsy with very little money, no outside funding and no debt.
“I actually wanted to get a business loan right after I quit my job,” he explains, “but it turns out they won’t let you get a loan when you do that.” The business is still entirely self-funded.
He estimates he spent less than $50 to open the Etsy shop, buy a domain and order business cards.
He used deposits for orders to buy supplies. All the money he made went towards buying new tools for about the first six months.
He uses free social media to promote his business, jumping on Instagram, Facebook and an email list to connect with his audience. He has also invested in local print ads and traveled to trade shows to get in front of new customers.
“I drop business cards every place I go, and I tell everyone about what I’m doing.”
In addition to his growing Etsy business, he started testing a number of other side hustles.
“Making money became addicting,” he told Studenomics. “I found opportunities to make money all over the place. In addition to Back Burner Designs, I sold things on eBay, shoveled snow and did odd jobs.”
These various streams of income brought in more money than his full-time job, and he was working far fewer hours each week.
“I live well, and I don’t stress too much about money, which I was never able to do at my old job,” he says.
Out of the profits from his business, he takes what he needs to cover basic expenses like rent, groceries and bills, which are around $1,600 a month.
Everything extra goes back into the business for recurring costs like rent and electricity for his shop, insurance, payroll, internet, design software and blade sharpening, as well as miscellaneous costs for marketing and supplies that occur as the business grows.
Though his business expenses vary wildly month to month, Lebel estimates they’re about $1,400 a month now.
The Benefits of Working for Yourself
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and send emails while I sip coffee in my slippers,” Lebel says.
“Other times I’m driving to a customer’s house or photographing a table, and many days I’ll spend a whole day in the shop working. I’m sure it adds up to a lot (of hours), but I don’t keep track.”
What he does know is the business is enough to keep him busy.
He’d like to eventually build a stock of inventory, but right now he spends all his time keeping up with custom orders.
“The really valuable part is that I can choose when and how I work,” he says of entrepreneurship. “If the weather is nice, I can take some time to enjoy it. I could work outside on my computer or take a few hours off to go do something fun.”
Lebel also appreciates that entrepreneurship doesn’t discriminate. “I’m just a normal person who dropped out of college and spent a few years being broke while working at a retail store.”
Starting his own business, he didn’t have to prove to anyone — except himself — that he could do the job. He simply had to do it.
He accepts his earlier failures in stride, as any business owner must. He learned a little from everything he tried — from dropping out of college, to working in retail management, to launching and closing a blog.
“Brainstorming, researching and learning,” he says, “gets your brain in the habit of recognizing opportunities and developing ideas, even when it doesn’t feel like it.”
Because he was open to the possibilities, he was able to embrace his accidental table-making business. He wasn’t discouraged by quitting college or discarding earlier business ideas.
“I paid thousands of dollars for college classes that I gained nothing from, but the day I spent $60 making my first pallet table changed my whole life,” he explains.
“You might have to spend that $60 or $100 (to try something new) a few times, but eventually you’ll hit the right thing.”
Your Turn: Are you still searching for the right business idea?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).