Builder makes most of two tragic situations

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Mitchell Dillman, who has many burned logs in his yard from Mountain Shadows, brings them into his shop to sand them down and eventually shape them into pieces of custom furniture, with a portion of sales going to local firefighters as well as Colorado Springs Together.

Mitchell Dillman, who has many burned logs in his yard from Mountain Shadows, brings them into his shop to sand them down and eventually shape them into pieces of custom furniture, with a portion of sales going to local firefighters as well as Colorado Springs Together.

Colorado Rock ‘n’ Logs

Number of employees: 1

Address: 2700 Robinson St.

Mitchell Dillman is combining two tragedies — one professional, one personal — to create a business out of the destruction caused by wildfires.

Dillman was a framing contractor who built custom log homes in the mountains, but when the Great Recession hit the construction industry, he lost his business.

Then one day while cutting in the Hayman fire area west of Colorado Springs, he realized the wood he was cutting from dead, burned trees could be used to make furniture from designs he created decades ago.

At that time, he also was studying how businesses use the Internet to reach customers.

“I’d never been on the Internet before,” he said. “But I’d lost my business — the only thing I’d ever done since high school, the thing I loved. I was in shock, and my dad gave me a laptop. I took it real seriously and studied what other people were doing.”

Just as the new business was getting off the ground, the Waldo Canyon fire swept through Mountain Shadows and property near Green Mountain Falls and Cascade along the U.S. Highway 24 corridor.

No stranger to personal devastation, Dillman wanted to help, but he also wanted to extend the reach of his fledgling company. So he negotiated with the property owners, and is taking down trees from private property in the burn area to create his coffee tables, benches and rocking chairs.

In return, he gives a portion of the sales to the Colorado Springs firefighters and to Colorado Springs Together, the nonprofit set up to help families who lost homes in the fire.

He also created wooden pyramids to serve as reminders of what was lost in the fire.  He plans to give one to each member of Colorado Springs Together, and there are pyramids on display at the Pioneers Museum’s Waldo Canyon exhibit.

Once he started selling products online, Dillman realized he couldn’t ship the furniture around the country. It was too heavy and too costly. So he did the next best thing: He started selling do-it-yourself kits to woodworkers.

“And then I realized that very few woodworkers knew anything about welding,” he said. “And I knew that my designs included welding. So, I set up the You Tube videos.”

Those videos have gotten about 6,000 hits so far, he said.

Dillman entered and won a contest to get small business mentoring from Google.

“I entered this small business contest, just on a whim,” he said. “Basically, I wanted some help on where to go next. But then it turns out it was more of a ‘cattle call’ to small businesses that they want to mentor. I’m lucky to have their help.”

And his Google advisers have good news — at the rate the business is growing, he’ll soon be in the top 1,000 You Tube views worldwide.

Meanwhile, he works both his virtual business and his physical job with equal fervor. His website invites people to learn more about drought, flooding and wildfires, all issues facing Colorado Springs.

But what he needs now is capital.

“I’ve been to the banks,” he said. “And I can’t get a loan right now because of what happened [to him personally] during the recession. I have a checklist of things to work on, and I’m plowing through them. But capital investment is something I really need.”

He’s also talking to local retail stores for places to sell his one-of-a-kind furniture.

“Right now, I’m selling them at festivals, places like Territory Days this weekend and the Pikes Peak Arts Festival,” he said. “I’m booked up every weekend this summer. But a retail place would be perfect.”

Also on his wish list: employees.

“Right now, I’m doing it all — and really, the YouTube videos alone are a full-time job,” he said. “I’m constantly going. I’d love to hire someone to help out. I love the woodworking, and the Internet stuff is fascinating. If we get any bigger, I’ll have to hire extra people.”

But the challenges facing the new businesses are many. After spending seven months moving from a storage room and his garage into a working facility in the lumber yards off Robinson Street, Dillman found out he might have to move again.

“I’m looking for a permanent location,” he said. “I’ve heard that the new owners might tear this all down. I want to stay on the Westside. It’s where home is, where my heart is.”

But despite all the challenges, Dillman remains optimistic.

“I know this is going to take off,” he said. “I can feel it.”