Voss Babe Female Entrepreneur Series – Melissa Hillman, Owner of Plank and Plane

For many entrepreneurs and small businesses, social media can be an absolute game-changer! All it takes is one viral post and a business can suddenly take off.

At Like A Voss Social Media, we’re highlighting local businesses and entrepreneurs who are killing the online game. This week’s spotlight is on Melissa Hillman owner of Plank and Plane!

Plank and Plane is a small business operating in a wood-packed, dusty, music-filled garage located in Sydenham, Ontario. We specialize in handcrafted wood products for the home and kitchen including hand-carved kitchenware, cutting and charcuterie boards, and wood wall signs and decor.

Our CEO Mandi interviewed Melissa about her secret to success in business and in life. We also got some awesome insights into what they think makes social media such an effective tool in business.

A Little Bit About Being a Female Entrepreneur 

1: How long have you been in business? 

That’s a harder question to answer than you’d think! I’m still in the early stages of formalizing my business, it’s taken me some time to shed the burdens of imposter syndrome and to see my work from a professional lens. Plank + Plane has experienced organic growth from making pieces for myself and my family members to selling to people outside my circle and to the wider public over the past two years. I’ve been more seriously treating it as a business for about the past year though.

2: What made you decide to break away from the 9-5 and start Plank and Plane?

My professional background was in the field of children’s mental health in residential, community, and educational settings. In 2016 my husband was transferred for work from south-western Ontario to the Kingston area. It was a massive blow to me. I had been working for a number of years at a school board, in a role where I was respected and where I felt I had a purpose and was doing an effective job. When we moved we decided I should stay home for a while to make sure our two kids settled into their new home and town and school. While everyone was settling in, I was quietly floundering. I’d experienced some deaths in my family, I had left a job that was a huge part of my identity, I was far from my support network in my friends and family and found myself yet again in a new community with which I had no connection. I spent a good 18 months trying to figure things out, while in the meantime our kids were flourishing. During that time I did everything I could to fill my days with purpose. I volunteered in their classrooms and at their school, I took courses in writing and photography, I joined volunteer organizations and helped with my kid’s sports teams. I’d also started refinishing old furniture I’d find on the side of the road or for next to nothing on Kijiji. When summer came around I started landscaping our property, built a deck, and was trying to find some new patio furniture online. I couldn’t find anything I liked in the price I wanted to pay, but I did stumble upon some free DIY plans by Ana White. It looked simple enough. I figured I’d give it a try and the worst that would happen was that we could have a nice fire with the lumber if it didn’t turn out. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to make a pocket hole let alone know that you were supposed to use wood glue on all your joints. But I was in love. For the first time I felt productive, I felt like I was contributing something real and tangible to our family that had nothing to do with cleaning a kitchen or being a taxi driver. One outdoor couch became two, then a coffee table, then a console table, then a loft bed, then friends and family started requesting things, and before I knew it, I wasn’t shopping for 2×4’s in a big box store, I was in real lumber yards picking out beautiful hardwood species and they knew me by name and people I’d never met before were sending me emails for custom requests, and I was taking over our garage and I was using tools my husband had never seen before and chatting up the guys at Lee Valley and actually knowing what I was talking about. And I felt like me again, but a different me who had more control over how and when I work and how to balance our home life with my work life and how to be creative and take pride again in my work and the joy it brings those who take my work home with them.

3: What do you love most about being a female entrepreneur?

I had always wanted to own my own business. Through college, I had worked part-time for two female-run small businesses and I wanted the same for myself one day. It was the “if we ever win the lotto” scenario I’d replay over and over in my head. In my professional career, I’d always been frustrated with the lack of control I felt I had. I have never been one to give my work less than 100%. I crave the feeling of a job well done, I crave the sense of accomplishment I get from taking rough raw materials and making something beautiful with it. I don’t have to ask permission of others, or wait for input and edits to my work, I own it all, good or not. I love that I can balance my work with my family, without needing to make excuses or concessions, I can work when and where I need to and as many or as few hours as necessary to get any given job done. If it’s a success it’s because of the hard work I’ve put into it, and if it fails it’s on me too.

** I have to add the caveat that I am fully appreciative and aware of my privilege of being able to stop working full time and flounder for a while and then start my own small business. We are fortunate to have a stable main breadwinner in our household, and I don’t have the added stress of needing my business to thrive in order to provide for my family. It is a luxury I am aware that so many do not have and one that although we have worked tremendously hard for, I am none-the-less grateful for.

4: What is the hardest thing you have had to overcome as a female entrepreneur? Something you did not foresee when you decided to go into business for yourself?

I am not trained in business. A child having a tantrum? I got that. Teenager refusing to go to school? I’m your gal. Housewarming gift for your sister? Done and done! Beautiful one of a kind set of hand-carved hardwood cooking spoons? You betcha. Spreadsheets and receipts and wholesale contracts and business plans? Not so much. Learning to pivot from seeing myself as a hobbyist mom who is just getting dusty in my garage to seeing myself as a small business owner and craftsperson has been a huge growth experience and obstacle to overcome. I seem to be the last person to see myself as an actual woodworker, as an actual small business owner. I’ve been trying hard over the past several months to make the change however and to be more disciplined in my approach towards my business.

5: What is one thing about woodworking that people would be surprised to learn? 

I’m laughing because the thing that first came to mind was: women can woodwork too! I still get stares from men in the tool aisle and ridiculous questions like: does your husband know you’re buying that? (I’m getting better at responding to these ones). I guess one thing that I was surprised to learn was that tools, especially of the cutting variety, don’t have to be scary, just respected. And that working with a scroll saw is about the most relaxing thing you can do in a day.

And Now Onto The Social Media Questions!

6: Do you have a favorite social media platform? Why?

For my business, I’d have to say that Instagram is by far my favourite platform. There is a tremendously supportive woodworking and maker community on Instagram, and most particularly a strong and vibrant female woodworking community. I have learned so much through the connections to other woodworkers on IG, whether it’s simply through inspiration, specific tips and tricks, or connections with people in my local community, Instagram has made working alone in my garage far less of a solitary experience.

7: What made you decide to start using social media as a way to promote your company? 

Originally I had been posting my projects and builds on my personal Facebook account, mainly because friends and family were asking to see what I was up to and working on and it was a quick and easy way to show my work. In late 2018 my sister suggested I start an Instagram account for my woodworking as a way to connect with similar makers. I didn’t want it to be a personal account, but rather one just focused on my work, so I came up with a screen name, which is how Plank + Plane Woodshop was born.

8: How has social media impacted your business? Would you say that it’s an effective marketing tool?

Social media has been huge for me, especially during the COVID-19 shutdowns. I had been mainly selling my work through word of mouth and craft shows and markets. When the shutdown happened everyone turned to online, and I saw a massive boost in orders. I sold out of everything I had been stockpiling for my spring markets and have been working in high gear to fill custom and wholesale orders – all of which are driven through social media platforms.

9: What advice would you give to other businesses and entrepreneurs who want to use social media as a way to connect with customers?

Take some time to search out and follow similar businesses to yours. Note the things about their feed that speak to you as a potential customer as well as the things that are off-putting. Craft your online presence to be reflective of your business and overall brand. Some businesses prefer to only show perfectly coiffed and edited product photos, others like to keep it real and have a more behind the scenes less manicured look, I try to have a mixture of both. Some areas I’m trying to work to be more comfortable with is putting myself in front of the camera – I almost never show myself-  and using a combination of video, still photo, and IG stories in my feed. I know this type of content drives more followers but it’s still an area I need to work on.

A Little More About Melissa

Originally from London, Ontario, I now live in the beautiful, if not small village of Sydenham, just north of Kingston, Ontario. I share my house atop a steep hill with my awesome supportive and hilarious husband of 18 years, and my two wonderful kids, as well as our resident snuggler, bunny herder and shop dog Fozzie, and an old grey cat named Doc who happily mooches from the neighbours. In non-pandemic times when I’m not in my shop, I’m usually found at a ball diamond or hockey rink, or volunteering in the community at our children’s school or with local children’s mental health initiatives. I’ve been known to sing too loudly with my headphones on, to drink too much tea on road trips which force frequent stops, and to fall asleep with good books on my face – all of which I’m perfectly ok with. 

Connect with Plank + Plane Woodshop

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