In 2014, Henry Burner started selling buttons online—the kind you pin to a shirt or jacket. Sales climbed quickly. Within a few years, his firm, Buttonsmith, had expanded into lanyards, magnets, and other doodads, and gross revenue crossed $1 million. It’s grown into the multimillions since.
So far, that’s a not-uncommon story in the era of ever-rising online retail sales. But it has a twist: Burner was 10 years old when he launched his company six years ago.
Burner’s mother, Darcy Burner, helped Henry incubate the business at home, encouraged its growth, and took the title of CEO as it outstripped a school-aged kid’s ability to manage day-to-day operations. At 17, Henry has remained strategically involved, including involvement in meetings with major retailers and patenting a new kind of badge reel that has a magnetically coupled, swappable front.
In this 2016 video, Henry tells Buttonsmith’s origin story:
As I wrote in 2017 when Buttonsmith was a $2 million business, the company isn’t just a maker of an assortment of geegaws. Rather, it’s a software and logistics company that acquires specialized manufacturing equipment and spreads products across its devices, fed by its understanding of customer demand and expertise in leveraging Amazon’s custom-ordering system. In normal times, customers can order items that use photos they upload or text they provide, and Buttonsmith can pop them out in under a few hours and have them in someone’s hands a couple of days later.
Buttonsmith had seen a steady growth as it’s expanded into printed eyeglass cloths, shoelaces, magnets, and dog collars, as well as custom-printed items such as business cards and signs. But in January of this year, Darcy Burner realized that a significant disruption was about to hit the business. “We pay so much attention to the manufacturing supply chains,” she says. She ordered alcohol-based disinfectants—still readily available—and reworked Buttonsmith’s compact manufacturing space in the small town of Carnation, Washington, to space people at least 6 feet apart.
It wasn’t until nearly two months later that the novel coronavirus slammed hard into Washington state. Schools sent students home, sports teams stopped playing, Emerald City Comic Con was postponed, and the governor issued orders progressively restricting everyday life and work. Buttonsmith had to stop making its products.
CEO Burner was ahead of the curve, because her firm tries to source every button, metal fob, and scrap of fabric through American suppliers. But even with that domestic focus, the global logistics chain is an interlaced web of raw and partially made materials, and both Buttonsmith and the companies with which it works with could feel the vibrations when large portions of the Chinese manufacturing engine shut down.
Buttonsmith CEO Darcy Burner
Being shut down is painful, but it’s so clearly the right thing.”
The pandemic has squashed Buttonsmith’s panoply of products for now. Like many states, Washington still allows only broadly defined essential businesses or essential employees to continue working except by telecommuting. The state will allow general manufacturing that meets safety guidelines to restart as part of a phased-in easing of restrictions, potentially as early as June 1. Some counties with high hospital capacity and a low incidence of cases have been given the go-ahead already, but Carnation is within commuting distance of—and in the same county as—Microsoft in Redmond and Amazon in Bellevue and Seattle.
Buttonsmith’s developers are still tapping away at new code. And a few weeks ago, Darcy was able to get state permission to start back up—but only to make cloth masks. “We have sewing machines, we know how to work with fabric, and we have suppliers—this is something we can do,” she says. She adds of the state’s business limitations, “Being shut down is painful, but it’s so clearly the right thing.””
Buttonsmith has worked with partners to develop and perfect mask designs. It can produce relatively small quantities in house, which it does intermittently, and contracts with other small manufacturers that lack its expertise in direct fulfillment. COO Jonathan Shapiro says between in-house capabilities and these third-party suppliers, Buttonsmith shipped just under 100 mask orders on April 25. Two days later, it scaled up to 1,500, most packaged that day. Darcy Burner says the company is constrained by how many it and its suppliers can make, not by demand.
The present and future of Buttonsmith isn’t a dispassionate business question for Darcy. The operation is a family affair beyond her and Henry. COO Shapiro is Henry’s stepfather; Henry’s father, Mike Burner, leads software development; and an uncle and other relatives are part of the staff of 13.
Henry devoured and aced Harvard’s infamous economics course in summer 2019. Unlike many students, he’s continued with intensive daily sessions and homework, as he attends a school with highly focused instruction. His role at Buttonsmith is tricky at the moment, because, as he says, “It’s much harder to do strategic planning when you don’t know what’s going to happen two weeks from now.” (Henry’s step-brother, Alex, is not a Buttonsmith employee but is currently plotting to study toward an early bachelor’s degree online during isolation—he’s 15. It runs in the family.)
During this time of unprecedented disruption, Darcy Burner says that Buttonsmith has managed to pull off a few key financial and employment maneuvers. It’s an all-union shop, a choice that arises both from her progressive political bent and from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades allowing management to join the union and work alongside employees at the same tasks when required. The union has been an ally through the company’s travails, she says. Buttonsmith provided some of its first masks to union members in essential jobs.
Buttonsmith was forced to lay off workers when the firm had to shut down its operations initially, but the company applied to the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance (EIDL). Some employees, such as programmers, shifted to working from home; she bought some of them accoutrements such as second displays for their computers.
She chose to continue to pay healthcare premiums and pick up employees’ share, which necessitated some discussion with the state over whether laid-off employees would lose the robust unemployment benefits offered if their employer paid that part of the bill. It worked out for everyone. “Everyone I’ve had to deal with at the state government level has been phenomenal,” she says.
The company was able to get white-listed by Amazon in late April to sell masks.
Floating payments to partners and suppliers has been tough without the EIDL help, and banks won’t provide the firm with typical lines of credit at the moment. “We give off a big partial payment to the teams we’re working with on the masks at the point we place the order, so they can afford to buy materials and pay their people,” Darcy says. So far, Buttonsmith is managing it with funds it had on hand for expansion.
The company was able to get white-listed by Amazon in late April to sell masks, which was aided by their multiyear relationship with Amazon’s customization program and Prime shipping programs. “If you’re not an Amazon seller with a good relation with Amazon and a long history with Amazon, you can’t sell masks,” explains Henry.
Even so, Darcy Burner notes that Amazon’s site is flooded with fraudulent mask listings. By her estimate, “close to 90% of face-mask listings on Amazon are fraudulent.” She notes that some Chinese-based sellers list deals as low as five masks for $10, accept orders, and mark them as shipped, at a time when China isn’t allowing much in the way of personal protective equipment—even cloth masks—to leave the country at all.
Darcy has sourced everything for Buttonsmith’s masks within the U.S.: “I would not want to bring stuff in from overseas,” she says. While this attitude is often associated with conservatives and businesses in deep-red parts of the country, she’s a progressive and a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. House. She and Shapiro believe strongly in establishing and supporting U.S. manufacturing for strategic and economic reasons, which Burner says the current crisis has laid bare.
During the present crisis, “the ability to get things cheaply and easily from China is severely disrupted or gone,” she notes. In her mind, the supply chain is “deeply broken” and the ease by which Americans could order cheap goods was always an illusion. Later this year, subsidized shipping of small packages from China—costing the USPS hundreds of millions of dollars a year—is slated to end after the Trump administration employed brinksmanship over long-standing international postal agreements.
When some kind of economic restart happens, Buttonsmith could be in an ideal position to regain its pre-COVID-19 cadence, because its varied abilities and rapid product development allow it to respond to a wide variety of consumer needs. Of course, as Darcy Burner notes, “We’re clearly staring into the face of what will be the worst recession in modern history.” And Buttonsmith currently faces competition from companies in states that didn’t shut down manufacturing, though many of those are facing outbreaks and rising infection counts. As Washington opens, other states may be forced to clamp down.
“The hard thing isn’t so much that the shutdowns have happened—they were clearly necessary—or that they have been fairly long,” Darcy says. “The hard thing is that small businesses were told that they would get help to get through this in the form of immediate money to keep everyone afloat, and those promises haven’t been kept.”
For the interim, however, masks keep revenue flowing, employees paid, manufacturing partners current, and programmers busy. Most of all, says Darcy, “We have created a product I feel very comfortable sending out to people and having them use.”