With the rise of the Internet has come a new breed of business, spawned online and existing only online. Often they have names that incorporate their ‘dot com’ appendage, a further indication that there is no mortar and brick parent. Just as often, they are very specific companies known as ‘niche stores,’ for only via the wide audience of the Internet could a company exist that sells many brands and types of only one sort of product, all aimed at solving one specific problem.
Imagine, for example, that you are in the market for whatever you need to sharpen your various cutting tools, but would like to “visit” one shop with a wide range of such products, and nothing else. Done imagining? Now click on the link for SharpeningSupplies.com, and you can do just that sort of shopping.
John Carmona, the owner of SharpeningSupplies.com, has created an online store that offers all sorts of sharpening stones, hones, strops, steels, grinding wheels, sharpening guides and electric sharpeners to put an edge on kitchen and hunting knives as well as your woodworking tools. There you can comparison shop or buy just about any imaginable type of sharpening gear offered by a variety of manufacturers, but please don’t ask if they sell other things.
“People ask us all the time if we sell knives,” explained John, “but we take a different view of the market. The only product outside of sharpening we carry and plan to carry are a couple of Hock blades. We are more interested in offering different sharpening choices to our customers than in offering other products to them. In the woodworking industry, sharpening is one part of the business, but we cut across a number of trades – woodworkers, butchers, chefs, knife makers and collectors and so on. We are horizontal in the sharpening field, rather than vertical in the woodworking or cooking field.”
Horizontal is putting it mildly. Not only can you get whatever gear you need for sharpening from John’s web site, you can also get all the information you need. One huge section of the site is dedicated to information, all freely shared. There are answers to frequently asked questions, step-by-step explanations of how to sharpen all sorts of cutting edges, guides for how to choose the right stones and tools and even videos so you can watch how to do it in real time.
At 32, John is admittedly fairly young to be such a savvy business owner, but the combination of his background and his approach to marketing makes him a perfect representative of this new breed of online vendors. “I always wanted to run a business,” John told me. “The only question was ‘which one?’ In my senior year of high school, I started a business with a partner mowing lawns. After majoring in marketing in college, I went to work for Gemplers as a marketing analyst, then in 1998, I managed their e-commerce web site called Gemplers.com. After that, an agricultural web site and then DuluthTrading.com.
“I opened my first adult venture as an entrepreneur in 2005 as Wingradirect, named after a small lake in Madison, Wisconsin, where I go fishing. We don’t do business under that name, but it in turn operates niche stores. The first in 2005 was The Rust Store, which sells rust prevention and removal products. Next came Sharpening Supplies in March of 2006. My wife, Coleen, who I met while we were both working at Gemplers, started working with me full-time in July 2006.
“I chose these niches from personal experience. Sharpening is such an integral part of woodworking or cooking, and there are a lot of people who have no idea what a truly sharp tool or knife even looks like. Well before I started the business I was interested in learning that. When we first started out, the reception was lukewarm, but once the web site was in good shape, we were very warmly received, especially in the woodworking area. This may be because of my woodworking slant (he has a woodworking web site as well). For hand tools especially, sharpening is critical. We initially geared the product line toward woodworkers.
“I started woodworking when we bought our home in 2002. I bought tools and dived right in both to make furniture for my home and as a hobby. I had never done any woodworking before but always wanted to. I did not come from a family of woodworkers or tool users. The sum total of tools accessible to me growing up would have fit into a grocery bag.
“As a woodworker, I had to do a lot of learning very quickly. One person who was very helpful to me was famed Wisconsin woodworker, inventor, and how-to author Mark Duginske. I went over to his shop, and he let me use some of his sharpening stones and wheels. He showed me the ropes, and I took it from there. Once I had the classic ‘aha’ moment, I realized that others have not reached that point and are still in the dark. I wanted Sharpening Supplies to be a place where you can find information along with products to help you achieve the goal of sharp tools.
“It absolutely started with woodworking. Before I started doing woodworking, I did not even have a good sharpening stone. Once I learned how to really sharpen something as a woodworker, I realized that other areas don’t have the wealth of information available. I felt that if I could apply the woodworker’s knowledge of sharpening to other hobbies, it would become as much of an eye-opening experience as it is for a woodworker when he or she first sharpens successfully.”
That personal connection shows in how he treats his customers. “When you buy from us, you get very personal service. If you have a question or concern, you will hear from me directly. I answer questions about sharpening as well as about our products, and will help customers with advice on buying decisions. We also offer same-day shipping from a centrally located state. Our competition is primarily stores and catalogs that sell many other things but do not specialize in a wide range of sharpening products. From us, you get more choice, quicker shipping, personal service and free advice. I buy and test all the products we sell myself.”
Frankly, I was also curious about John’s other site, The Rust Store, since many of us fight constant battles with rust on our tool beds and tabletops. “Woodworking is also how the rust store started,” admitted John. “I always had an interest in cars, and when I started getting rust on my woodworking tools, I realized that more than cars have rust issues. Woodworkers are a significant portion of the Rust Store customers. There you will find rust removers and rust blockers to help keep your tools in top shape, along with lubricants that help the tools work better. Perhaps one of the most mysterious of these products is the vapor corrosion inhibitors. Put one in a drawer with tools, and it emits fumes that microscopically coat tools with a rust inhibitor. The fact that it works seems almost like magic, but they do indeed work.”
Clearly, though, the one common denominator to all John’s web sites, and their greatest contribution, is all the good advice. “Come and take a look at the web site and browse the informational pieces,” John insists. “To me, the advice is the real advantage of the web site.”
We couldn’t agree more.