In a retail storefront about 45 minutes east of Seattle, in the small town of Carnation, Washington, you can walk in to Buttonsmith and find a wide selection of refrigerator magnets, brightly printed lanyards, and those retractable reels commonly used to attach employee badges. But that’s mostly just for the locals and tourists, who drop by on their way to a nearby farm to pick pumpkins or strawberries.
That tiny retail façade sits at the front of a 3,000-square-foot workroom filled with a mix of oldfangled and newfangled machinery: a ribbon-cutting device, a super fancy sewing machine, a PC-controlled “slicer, creaser, cutter” (which, when you glance through a glass-covered top, looks like Edward Scissorhands stuffed into a photocopier), a large motor-driven letterpress, a high-volume heat sealer, and so on.
And then there’s the factory you can’t see. For all the buttons and lanyards it produces—to an estimated 150,000 customers this year—Buttonsmith is also a software company, linking Amazon third-party seller APIs for custom- and mass-produced products, Adobe Creative Suite, and the inputs to the various machines they own, to create a unified workflow. Walmart’s APIs will soon be added to that mix, as Buttonsmith becomes one of the first companies to offer customized goods to the Arkansas-headquartered behemoth’s customers.
While Buttonsmith does sell some items manufactured identically in large quantities—like their best-selling Van Gogh “Starry Night” lanyard—it’s the orders that they make one at a time that have accelerated the company’s growth. “Custom name tags in a variety of styles, pictures of people’s pets, country flags, symbols like peace signs and environmental symbols, doodles of cats, school mascots for local schools, adjectives people could use to describe themselves,” says CEO Darcy Burner.
In fact, Buttonsmith is something of a customization powerhouse, one that’s used the leverage of geography and software efficiency to mount a defense against wholesale Chinese knockoffs. The company can turn around an order from Amazon’s customization ordering system in only eight minutes. As a result, Buttonsmith expects to earn $2 million in revenue by the end of this year, up from $250,000 in 2014.
And the whole operation was founded in 2013 by Henry Burner, when he was 10 years old.
In fourth grade, Henry Burner came up with a terrific idea. His class had a trading-post unit–focusing on “whatever the frontier happened to be at the time we had a frontier,” he says–in which students would use beads to buy goods made by their classmates. Henry’s mother, Darcy, had some hand-operated button-making equipment, the result of three failed runs for a House seat. Henry says, “I proposed, ‘Let’s make some buttons,’ because I had fond memories of when I was really good at making buttons for my mom’s campaign.”
Most kids brought in baked goods and almost no one made durable items. Henry’s buttons–with messages like “I ❤ Minecraft” and “Fall City Elementary”–were a smash. “Almost every kid bought one, meaning I ended up with like half of all the beads in the entire school,” he says. He asked his mother if this might be a real way to make money, and with her support, he started to sell buttons at farmer’s markets.
Even then, he had a unique spin: He brought a battery-powered ink-jet printer along, and would produce custom buttons on the spot. He grossed about $1,000 that first summer. That led him to wonder how well he’d do outside the farmer’s market season, and he started to distribute to local businesses and online via Amazon.
“We looked up one day and we had sold a quarter million dollars’ worth of stuff on Amazon, and we were like, uh, it’s a little bigger than we thought it was,” Darcy Burner says.
Henry, a shy 14-year-old with a quick and sharp intelligence, just received his first patent for the Tinker Reel customized attachment system that’s a cornerstone of the company’s business. Most of these retractable style badge holders have one label on the front, and that’s it. Henry worked with a manufacturing partner, Key-Bak, to make the front magnetic and interchangeable, and thus infinitely customizable.
“We have a lot of nurses who wear scrubs all day that buy our badge reels,” says Sarah DeNike, the head of marketing and business development. “They love them because they’re more interesting than just the black or the pink colored ones.”
The buttons also double as refrigerator magnets, allowing multiple markets for the same product. When I visited, Henry was working through the tedious task of attaching preprinted patent labels to thousands of his Tinker Reels. Henry spends a lot of time at Buttonsmith doing a combination of scut work–“It needs to be done, but it’s not very hard and it takes time and we don’t want to actually pay people to do it”–and deep business strategizing. But he also attends school during the year, and his mom only pulls him out for important trips–to meet with Walmart in Bentonville, for instance.
The Amazon Way
Buttonsmith first ran out of the family house, and as the business began to scale, Henry’s dad, Mike Burner, became the lead software developer. Mike developed the Wayback Machine for the Internet Archive in the mid-’90s, spent a decade at Microsoft, and then another decade building software for political campaigns. He wrote the Buttonsmith code that pulls information from the Amazon Custom API, passes templates through intermediate software, and then sends the results to a human being to inspect before passing on to a high-end printer.
For instance, one of his early tasks was solving how to create a simple ID card and have it come out of one of the firm’s printers. “It was a really tricky multi-step process to do by hand,” Mike Burner says. He connected Amazon’s data with Photoshop, which he instructed to create and lay out the card, but Photoshop lacked the required output options. His code passes the card to Acrobat, where it’s composited into a single PDF, which is then passed to the printer as a job.
This sort of workflow sounds familiar to anyone who has worked in a print shop or other production environment, only with people handling and handing off those tasks, introducing time and error, while also constricting the ability to scale to higher volume. Mike’s software has allowed Buttonsmith to keep a small staff while remaining efficient. As new print-shop hardware arrives, he extends his software to talk to it, too, or at least remove labor from one task to another.
Having created that first workflow, Mike can now slot different inputs and templates to create an ever-widening variety of printed goods. “Over time I developed the ability to simply bring up a new product just by adding something to a configuration file.” That ability to expand in breadth while retaining efficiency is part of how Buttonsmith grew eightfold in four years.
Time is of the essence, of course: Buttonsmith is part of the third-party Amazon Prime option, in which sellers have to meet Amazon’s brand promise for two-day shipping, which includes shipping orders the same day that are received up until 2 p.m. Pacific. Some days, dozens of orders pour in right at the cutoff.
“We may have 40 orders between 2 and 4 o’clock,” says Jonathan Shapiro, the company’s COO. UPS pickup is at 4:15 p.m. The company relies almost entirely on UPS rather than the U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail, because “the biggest problem with the postal service is that it’s not guaranteed, and Amazon actually has some fairly strict metrics around getting it into people’s hands in that two-day time period,” Darcy Burner says. “Any missed shipment counts against us.”
Carnation, where Buttonsmith is based, falls just barely within UPS’s primary urban delivery zone. Shapiro notes that when they were setting up their move from a home-based business to their current space, “They were all set to apply an out-of-urban-area surcharge. Until we pointed out that it’s the same driver on the same route that goes to our house where they don’t charge that.” Shapiro was able to negotiate a two-day rate given the company’s volume of orders.
Burner would like Amazon to offer a greater set of customization options for existing products and more flexibility for customers to submit a wider variety of data and imagery, all of which would let it offer more products and almost certainly increase the order volume.
Now he’s adapting the workflow to communicate Walmart’s upcoming custom-order system as well. Buttonsmith will be one of the few companies at launch offering customizable products (the official date has not yet been announced). Darcy Burner, and Henry, got in early on the new program by attending a Walmart vendor event last year. “We found the right people, and we were like, we really want to do this with you guys,” she says. “Here are the people that we have to build the backend. We can do this.”
Modern Family Business
One thing you won’t learn from Buttonsmith’s org chart is that software lead Mike Burner—Henry’s dad—is also Darcy’s ex-husband. She is now married to Shapiro, the COO. “Young Michael, who does a lot of our customer service, is Henry’s cousin,” says Darcy Burner. “Francis,” she points to an older fellow rapidly making buttons, “is Henry’s uncle.” Henry then points to an employee working on the sorting line and deadpans: “Carleen is totally unrelated to us.”
But most of the employees really are treated like family in this union shop. Buttonsmith joined the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, part of the AFL-CIO, in part because it allows both management and workers to be union members. “We’re small enough that if we have a busy day where we have 30 or 40 or 50 orders that need to go out in a relatively short period of time, it’s all hands on deck, which we wouldn’t be allowed to do if we weren’t all unionized employees,” Darcy explains.
The union membership stems from her progressive politics, but it’s also a strategic move, letting them put a union label for those who may like left-of-center labor policies alongside a “made in America” tag for those often further to the right who prefer domestically produced goods. The company also emphasizes that it creates local jobs and works with domestic manufacturers.
“The goal here is to build a business that is sustainable and adds value for our customers, but also to protect ourselves from competition from overseas,” she says. Fast turnaround for all orders, custom and otherwise, is a big part of that, but the marketing message also helps.
Their next order of business may be moving out of the storefront workshop in Carnation’s business district, which seemed far too large to them just a few years ago, and find more square footage outside of town. They’ll probably end up nearer to one of the surrounding strawberry or Christmas tree farms–as long as it remains with UPS’s primary delivery zone.