The Startup Story – Episode 8: Bryan Elliott, founder of Brandon "Monk" Muñoz, founder Monkwood Studio
You can listen to Brandon's Episode in it's entirety here: https://www.thestartupstory.co/monkwoodstudios
*Brandon Muñoz: * Hey, I’m Brandon “Monk” Muñoz, artist and founder of Monkwood Studios, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
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James McKinney: Before we jump into this week’s episode, I want to share a review that was left on Apple Podcast. It’s titled “Binge-able Podcast,” and it was left by Inspiro Brands. It’s rated five star, and reads, “I’m always looking for podcasts that are inspiring and relevant. I specialize in working with startup restaurants so this one hits close to home. The quality and content is great, and James has a great tone and interview style. I’ve only listened to the one with Zach Knickerbocker so far, but if you need a bit of motivation about business and life, be sure to check it out. I cannot wait to listen to other past episodes, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.”
Wow. Thank you, Inspiro brands, and I hope you will reach out with your thoughts on any other episode you’ve listened to since then. If you have found value in any of The Startup Story episodes, please leave a review. In fact, I will continue to read one review each week, so plug your brand in the review as well. Now, let’s jump into this week’s episode.
This is a special episode for me, because I’m an enormous fan of incredibly creative individuals, as well as people that have as gift of craftsmanship, especially woodworking. I am not a handy individual, so it is easy for me to admire the work of another. It’s a skill I hope to develop in my retirement years, but until then, I’ve got a podcast to develop.
Our guest today is Brandon Muñoz, the founder of Monkwood Studios. Brandon is an absolute artist of various mediums, but the company he has built develops some of the most beautiful studio desks and tables you will ever see. His Instagram account is one that you will find easy to scroll for days on end. You should check it out @Monkwood_. You are in for a great treat with this episode because, like many incredibly creative people, his storytelling is spectacular. In fact, in the editing process, we had to dial down my laughing a bit because Brandon had me in hysterics at moments.
In this episode, you will hear how hard it can be to leverage your creativity to make a living. You will see how critical it is to stay within proximity of others who are doing what you want to do, so you can learn from them and find the courage to start your own venture. You will understand that every founder’s journey has numerous points of restarting, and even resetting entirely, but that every founder’s journey keeps going.
Brandon’s story is one of exploration and self understanding, but let’s be clear. Brandon knew he was a creator from a very early time in his life. But what he didn’t know was exactly how far his ability to create would take him. In fact, Brandon has been commissioned to create studio desks for some of the biggest names in entertainment industry. People like, well, I’m not going to spoil this one. I’m not going to say anymore. I’m going to let Brandon share his journey.
*Brandon Muñoz: * Well, growing up in suburban southern California, it was different in the 80s like it really started with being an artist, it was about being an artist. Every kid I believe is an artist, but I kind of knew I was. Since childhood to now is a fight to continue that, get more into that. But two parents. They were really cool. They weren’t entrepreneurs. My mother was a social worked in an adoption and care, and my dad was a loan officer. Still is. Pretty good one, helping people get home loans. My sister, she’s an artist so both of us, me and my sister, just had the bug but they just fully supported it. Let me paint my room whatever color I wanted. I actually did a Jimi Hendrix mural that took up one whole side of it because I was really into him when I was like 13.
James McKinney: You were 13, you painted a Jimi Hendrix mural.
*Brandon Muñoz: * Yeah, because of my dad’s records, I got into Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Had a big impact, because then I got playing guitar and just started exploring all different types, but I wanted to be a painter. So just kind of staying in the childhood area for now, building dirt jumps on bikes, building ramps was my first woodworking experience. Just building some sketchy, real crazy ramps that hurt a lot of people. Yeah, just those adventures that we went on in the 80s when you can. Growing up and high school in the 90s, there was just a lot more… it was a different type of childhood. You’d go out. There was less monitoring. There was no social media so if you were bored, you had to figure something out. Spent most of my high school, a lot, in my room playing guitar and just creating stuff.
Now furniture maker. I’ll stay in childhood, but I started hacking desks when I was like 12. Like my brother’s art desk, started making it to fit my four track cassette recorder. I started drilling holes into it to route the wires and just kind of make it, putting speakers in weird spots. So I started making studio desks when I was a teenager.
James McKinney: So you’ve been a creator your whole life basically. I’m sure if you can go back to even before your teens, you can probably think of things that you were creating.
Brandon Muñoz: Well this shark that’s behind me in my shop, that’s the first thing I started drawing was sharks and whales when I was like seven. My parents took me to Sea World and that was it. I was just drawing sharks and whales all the time. Just getting books on them, drawing them learning about the different kinds. I wanted to be an oceanographer, but I think what’s crazy to me now is all the lines, I can draw different types of sharks by memory. But those lines, they find their way into the things I make all the time. Whoa, that’s a dorsal fin right there. It’s always there.
But the inspiration of it, and it’s coming back to me now. I’m starting to do paintings that have, I see in the wood sea creatures and different things. It’s all tied together. I think your inclinations as a child are a huge key to what your passion really is and it’s just repeating themes. You’ve just got to… it’s the fight to keep them alive is the tough thing, because adult life is all about responsibility and making it work for good reasons, but then you feel empty as being totally responsible and having everything. What’s the emptiness based on? It’s going to always be a struggle, but I think my childhood influences, I kept running with them and just seeing where they go.
James McKinney: That’s awesome that your parents gave you that freedom to explore your creativity a bit too, because it doesn’t sound, unless your parents had a hobby in creativity, their careers were not that.
Brandon Muñoz: No, no. they weren’t, but they definitely, they were very not supportive, but encouraging for it. My dad got me a Stratocaster guitar when I was like 10. I still have it. Gave it to my son when he was 10, but I still play it because it’s still in the house. But he was just always behind that. Whatever the next thing was, and it may have looked like I was jumping around, but I was always just… it wasn’t about the medium, it was just about finding.
James McKinney: What did you want to be in high school though?
Brandon Muñoz: Filmmaker, stuntman, magician.
James McKinney: These are real things, or just thinking-
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah no. I actually, what was it, I forget what they called that when we were seniors. Like you can go-
James McKinney: Like career day?
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah, something. I was looking into musician, magicians, and musicians. I wanted to go visit Mario C, the producer for Beastie Boys. This is still when it was analog. This was before like anybody can make a beat on their laptop type of days. So me and my friends, they would always come to my house and I had a studio. We would just make hundreds of songs, like literally after school just like… and then later on, just be like I’d set up a session. We’d record 20 songs, just improvised and I’d have all the mics kind of like this, just set up to capture something, and it usually would. Then we got into some crazy partying. But I wanted to pursue the art, so I went to art school. I finally went to Otis College of Art and Design, and went there for a year.
James McKinney: Where is that located?
Brandon Muñoz: it’s in LA. Now it’s in West LA, but it was in downtown LA when I went there at 19. It was before downtown was a safe place you could walk your dog at night. It was a different downtown in the late 90s. it was by MacArthur Park so there was… I had an apartment across MacArthur Park and Otis was on the other side of MacArthur Park. It was the foundation year, so you’re learning life drawing, you’re learning all the foundation years of how to compose. It’s intense. Then I’d walk home through MacArthur Park to my crappy apartment off of Rado. I’d put on this like limp and this crazy face, because there’s people huddled together, smoking crack. But I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
It was really cool to just be in a different place than Orange County. I was thriving on that. I used to go to Venice Beach a lot. Eventually moved to Venice Beach where it’s just an artist haven, a Mecca for weirdoes. I just loved it. I would just go hang out, talk to people that were doing the shows on weekends, or they’re doing the boardwalk entertainment. Tuesday would be practicing. There’s a chainsaw guy juggling chainsaws over this guy’s face, but he would pretend… on the weekend, it would look like he’s picking some guy out of a crowd to do it, but they were practicing on Tuesday. I was watching their routine. Just gleaning more influence. A lot of the spray can artists. In Venice Beach, yeah, I learned more about myself by bouncing myself off others, and I think that’s a way we really find out about us is meeting all kinds of people.
James McKinney: So did you go to Otis straight out of high school?
Brandon Muñoz: No. I went to a junior college for a bit. It was kind of a step because it was a private school, cost a lot of money, but I went there for a year. While I was going to Otis, I got a job at little, small furniture company. It was run by a friend from high school who was older than me. His name was John Green. He was a working actor in Hollywood, getting parts in TV shows and whatnot. But he decided to start building furniture because his family owned several furniture stores in LA. He’s like, “I’ll start making stuff. Instead of being a waiter, I should build furniture.”
So he was getting orders and it was going well, so he started hiring friends from high school to come and finish the stuff, like sand it. It was pine furniture built with nail guns and glue, so it wasn’t like super crafty. It was really strong though. It was real wood. It was really tough stuff. He would climb the bookcase shelves just to show how strong they were.
We would be finishing the rustic pine, so it was just sand it, through some Briwax on it. He didn’t even give us any gloves or anything. Just inhaling it. Our hands were melting. Then eventually he started showing me how to build some things, because he saw I had an inclination for it. But it seemed like magic to me at the beginning. So how are you doing this? I just saw him chopping away. He was listening to Rage Against the Machine all the time and just he had literally throwing knives that he practiced with. He’d just get really amped up and just start throwing the knives at an old bookcase. Yeah, he was an intense guy. We’d go on these Home Depot trips, supply runs. He’d give me these pep talks. He was like my Tony Robbins. He’s like, “This world is just producers and consumers. You’ve got to choose who you’re going to be.” I was just quiet, naïve, like oh my God.
James McKinney: you’re 22 maybe? How old ad this time?
Brandon Muñoz: I was like 19 or 20.
James McKinney: 19, 20. Okay.
Brandon Muñoz: it was the same time I was going to Otis. He’s just really out there, and really intense, and really hilarious too. He’d say some speeches based on the song on the radio, and he’s like smoking two joints on the way to Home Depot. It felt like Training Day, like I’m just sitting there watching him, and he’s telling me about life. He’s like, “Hear that song? I want a ton of hoes. What does that mean? What does that mean? How much is a ton of hoes? How much is in a ton?” and he starts breaking it down. “Well, you’ve got to know what kind of hoes you like.” I’m like what? But he was just talking about making, just don’t just aim for nothing, know what you want, go and get it. Okay man.
But he was like a big brother I didn’t have, because it was just me and my sister. I didn’t have the guy just telling me how it is. But he taught me how to build, and he taught me how to build I remember this speech he had. Let me show you how to build a nightstand in 15 minutes. He tried to do it in 15 minutes. It took 45 and he was getting mad. He was like, “Oh, yeah, my saw screwed up.” But it was just his enthusiasm just rubbed off on me. It’s a habit to this day. I have apprentices that come in now and I feel… I don’t give them the ton of hoes speech. I definitely give them some monologues that come from these experiences with John Green. To this day, I thank him for it because I would not be building furniture without it. He taught me how to build a bookcase. Taught me how to build a nightstand.
I eventually started doing custom orders and then it was kind of he left me on my own to try while he was going on audition. I’d get a call and say like, “Hey man, I need you to build this dresser.” He’d give me dimensions over the phone. Like man, I’ve never built this before. He’d be like, “What are you? Just build it, man.” Then he’d come back and I’d have it all wrong. He’d be like, “Aw, what’d you do?” But he just kind of broke the ice for me. Like hey, you can just try. He wasn’t building master crafted stuff, but he was building nonetheless. It was going out there and getting sold and bought. There were transactions being made.
I remember I got some acting lessons from him too. He’d give the phone and he’d be like, “Pretend you’re Jose. You’re delivering this furniture. You don’t speak much English. You’re stuck on the freeway and you’re going to be there in two hours.” Okay. “Hola. It’s Jose. I’ll be there…” Eventually, it kind of, I felt the call to go on my own.
But before I did that, I got a job opportunity at Jim Henson’s creature shop special effects, House of Jim Henson in Burbank. This was around the same time, 20, and I decided to drop out of art school. It’s like partly because I was… I thought I didn’t need it. Part of me regrets not getting a degree. Part of me also is thankful that I took a different turn, but it felt like it was just time to just go for it. I was really into the movies and film making and thought yeah.
They were working on a movie called Jack Frost at the time with Michael Keaton. I helped make the snowmen in the mould department, and I was a carpenter. They’d just tell me to make some weird apparatus they were building moulds on. It was just another deep end experience in just not knowing what I’m doing, but having enough skills to get me by.
My supervisor at the time, his name was Phil Jackson. He was a British guy from Camden Town, London. Like, “Brandon, I need you to make this marquis de Sade fantastic unit, and we’re going to put a snowman head on there. I need to strap it down and I need it to be strong, mate.” He’d just draw this little sketch and I’d just build it for him. He’s like, “Brilliant, mate.” Then just on to the next thing. It was an intense environment. Those guys, the mould department especially. A bunch of mad hatters. Those guys were crazy. Shooting potato guns at lunch. So creative. They had a great niche and I gleaned from them too. Wow, these people, there’s all different kinds of ways to explore your creativity.
Then, even there, it seemed cool, I was going to do it, but then I still felt called to do my own thing. So I left that.
James McKinney: What was that do you think?
Brandon Muñoz: I don’t know.
James McKinney: Because it’s interesting when I hear about your childhood, the magician and all the things you wanted to be, but just creating. And you were creating. You’re 20, you’re with Jim Henson, you’re creating things. What do you think that was that… what was the difference between what you were doing then and the idea of doing your own thing, because you were creating?
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah. I think it’s just, well with creating people have different takes on this. Everybody does it for different reasons, but I think it’s always down to learning more about yourself and your work is like a mirror all the time. It tells you where you’re at this point, what you’re into. Whether it’s furniture or painting or whatever, your emotions are coming out. Your thought process is coming out, whether it’s an order or it’s an assignment, or it’s something that I think every artist ultimately wants to do exactly what they want to do.
That seems like that pie in the sky sometimes, but I’m still aiming for that. Getting closer and closer, but you find that as you acquire skills and hone your craft or crafts, and then what I find is that wanting to do your own thing, it’s just expressing yourself, just being you.
James McKinney: So it’s just another level of creating really.
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah. It’s just another level. It’s freedom. There’s a freedom to it, there’s a joy when you’re creating and doing, because the joy’s just taking you straight back to childhood when it didn’t… when it was just it didn’t matter. You weren’t doing it for an award, you were just doing it. It’s kind of just… and I believe a lot of who we were was already there at childhood. It’s just playing itself out. We grow and learn, and discover more about ourselves, but we ultimately just find out we already knew back then.
Also, a big thing that happened around this time was that I kind of got in this exploration. We’re doing a lot smoking a lot of weed, doing a lot of mushrooms. Just trying to find that next thing. I just kind of took it really far and almost went a bit crazy. Almost hit this… I was pretty much schizophrenic for a little while. I discovered a bible that was given to me when I was seven, and it kind of reawakened a lot of things in me and basically, yeah, became a believer in Christ around 21. I was basically healed from schizophrenia. I thought I was in a video game at some point. It got really intense, all this checking different things out. I took it to the point where it’s like wow, I’m grateful to not be working the earth in a straight jacket somewhere because it got pretty close to that. That’s where creativity can, it can kind of lead you.
James McKinney: no boundaries, it takes you to certain places.
Brandon Muñoz: Without guidance, without a vision. Just experiencing for the sake of. It can take you weird places and some scary places. So with that, I kind of moved back to Orange County. I was kind of regrouping. I’d lost a lot of money and it was kind of my parents, they let me restart again. It was like, “Hey, can I build furniture in your garage?” Okay. They let me do that for a couple years just to get back on my feet, and just start saying yes to a bunch of orders. Learned. Totally got a lot of more experiences, a lot of failures. This is where not just that failure of I think a lot of people go out and then come back home. That’s just normal now. It’s like you go out, come back to your parents and figure yourself out again.
In this new round, they were good failures of trying. Pricing something way too low and then making nothing. I built, saying yes to everything. “Yeah, I can do those kitchen cabinets. I can refinish them for you,” and just totally screwing it up. But also trying new things like building a door or just trying… this is where my woodworking really started to take off. I sought this mentor out in LA. His name is Steve Casey. He was building entertainment centers for rich movie stars and stuff. This was around now 2000, 2002. No woodworking... he was one of the only woodworkers with a website. I found him, like, “Hey man. Do you mind me coming for a day?” he just took me.
James McKinney: The second woodworker with a website, because Bob Villa, right?
Brandon Muñoz: He was in Agora Hills and he had this house in Agora Hills and a workshop right next to it that he built, living to me a dream life. He just walked to his workshop and just build all day, and then walk home. He was into motorcycles. Now, I started to see a vision of what things could be. He had this little drawing room and he was telling me about some of the projects he did for people. He spent one day with me, but that day kind of totally diverted. Totally gave me something to aim for.
James McKinney: When you think of that day, when you think of that one day, what was that day like for you?
Brandon Muñoz: It was just kind of like I’d had all these collections of failures and ideas, still a bunch of ideas. I’m now in my early twenties, college dropout. Am I going to go back to college? What am I going to do? Is there something to this woodworking thing? Because for then, just so I didn’t have to go work at Starbucks, another regular job. It was kind of an escape at some point, but also is there something to this. He was proof that there was. He also told me it was very hard, and he was an artist too himself, but he was a trained woodworker. Went to some of those fine schools, but also very down to earth guy who just found a niche.
Then that’s where the idea about the niche came to me. He decided to just focus on entertainment centers. These were the ones that were like back when big screens were like six feet thick. So I started making those too, but what I learned through that, it’s not so much the thing you make, it’s how you make it. Now all those entertainment centers are obsolete. Who knows what happened to them?
I actually went into a thrift store in 2010 and I saw an entertainment center I made in 2003 at a thrift store for $250. I sold it for like $5000 back then. It was walnut and the wood alone was worth more than $250, but it was kind of like whoa, hit me like wow, you’ve got to really think about what you’re making, especially if you want it to last. It was in great condition, but it just didn’t make sense anymore. So that’s where I started really thinking about design. What’s going to make sense in 50 years, what’s going to make sense in 100 years? Start, because I want that thing of the artist in me, I want things to matter. I want things to last. I want things to be here when I’m gone.
So around this time was really just about can I be an artist? Then a leftfield kind of thing came my way. I decided to get married. There was an opportunity to go to England to be youth pastors, and we decided let’s go for it. We don’t have another plan. I was kind of scared of now having to be married and figure out how to pay rent, not just a truck payment, and really get that going. So part of it was, “Oh, this sounds like a great idea. I can just go out there and figure all this other stuff later,” but we went out there and seven years later, we’re church planting in an area called Camden Town, which was the Venice Beach. It is the Venice Beach of London and all the characters, all the beautiful mix of people from all races, all cultures.
Being in London really affected me because I just got to know just people from everywhere, and what that means. I was technically a minister so I was sharing the gospel, but I felt like a lot of these people just imparted so much more to me about what human beings are and God spoke a lot to me about what it really means to minister, and how it really means to be human. It’s not something you can just… you don’t just hit a switch in somebody. You’ve got to be completely you for them to… for you to have any effect on anybody.
James McKinney: You’ve got to be authentic, for sure.
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah. It’s also you’ve got to be transparent. You’ve just got to be, so I tried to do as much of that, but I also learned in the pastoral there’s a weight to it where you feel like you have to put on… I mean, we all do that some degree in adult life. There’s a persona to it. But we had just a small church all the time. It never got very big, but there was always, there’s people lives did get changed. I saw some miracles. Had a lot of heartaches, a lot of frustration. I would call it almost like my, apart from the garage business, that was kind of like a startup with training wheels. This was another startup experience because I was trying to start a church. You’re always trying to compare it to bigger churches, or better things, or more established.
We were always just kind of small and fluid, almost like guerilla style. We were always changing our meeting spot. I always felt like that was, it was so exhausting but it was freeing that we didn’t always… we got to be very fluid. It didn’t require a lot of overhead, apart from our living expense which we were being supported as missionaries. The randomness that could occur in a church service was just unreal sometimes. There’d be people who’d come in totally drunk, or people who’d bring in their dogs, or people just off the street. It wouldn’t be disruptive because everybody was used to this stuff. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” it’s just like, “Oh, another person. Go get them a cup of tea. Show them where to sit, we’ll talk to him later.”
We had, it was like north central London, so it was a lot of unique experiences with people. What’s cool about it too is I also had a woodshop at this time. Our landlord, he was a wealthy guy around town. He owned a furniture company. I just walked in and said if I could talk to the owner, if I could rent woodshop space somewhere so I’m building furniture, and this is in London. Eventually, I got to meet the owner. He’s like, “Yeah, it’s cool what you guys are doing out here. People need a message of hope. Do you need a… yeah, I’ll give you the keys to my shop.” He had a little private woodshop under a train bridge. Awesome tools. It was really weird because he also became our landlord. He’s like, “Yeah, you guys need a place to live? I’ve got a great apartment here if you guys are up for rent.”
He was like the open door to London for us. I know I’m not speaking very linear, but I think the thread is that it was the woodworking that opened the door there, while I was doing ministry which was really weird. I also brought people in to do… some church members to do some projects because I felt like building with them was, it’s just good. You’re not just sitting down talking with coffee. That gets old after a while, talking about issues. When you’re building something, you’re just doing something together. It’s creating together is a whole other aspect that’s healing.
James McKinney: It sounds like those years in London were incredibly transformative for you, so obviously we are not recording this in London right now. So what brought you back?
Brandon Muñoz: Just pure exhaustion. People exhaust. I’m basically an introvert and having to be an extrovert all the time just started to weigh on me. My wife, we had three kids. Being a new parent and she’s always been on the adventure with me. We came back. Decided to come back after seven years and we left… I gave away all my tools, sold some. A lot of music equipment, all the things we’d acquired in seven years. We just came back with suitcases and said, “We’re going to start again.”
James McKinney: How old were you at this time?
Brandon Muñoz: Now I was like 32, so most of my basically mid to late twenties were in England.
James McKinney: So 32, married with three kids and just suitcases with your good.
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah. Thankfully, my grandparents had a house that they had recently, had passed away so we could rent that house and kind of get started again. I was back in a garage, building furniture because no one was hiring ex missionary art school dropouts for anything.
James McKinney: That’s quite a resume at that point.
Brandon Muñoz: Great, you were in England, how was that? Well, that has no relevance to that is job. It was scary. Very scary because now I have to do it. Now it’s like I’m not being an entrepreneur by choice. I’m being it because I need to do this. There is no like… I tried to get other jobs.
James McKinney: Well let’s put a date on that, because if you’re-
Brandon Muñoz: This is 2010.
James McKinney: Okay, 2010 so after the worst recession.
Brandon Muñoz: It’s right in the middle of it really. This was who knows when the worst part of it, but it was still, there was no upswing yet. Around this time, there were a lot of people who lost jobs and were starting to become makers because they had to. There’s a lot of people that were doing this, building stuff out of pallets because it was free. I know a lot of these people. This is what we did. It was a lot of people found something new out of this, out of this voice. Eventually, as things started to turn, I had to decided at this point I knew how to build things, but I didn’t know how to build them like in a way that… I always thought that being a woodworker and building furniture was just a means to an end, like I could make a living. I could always do something new.
Then I started to think about what would it be like if I actually did this very well? How would that look? What could that bring? That’s where I started really digging into the craft and not just slamming it together, getting a nice sanding it pretty well, and all the tricks I learned in nightstand days. It was now like I’m going to really think about which kind of wood I use and start exploring different things. That’s when I started using poplar, which is a very, like right behind here. It starts green and it’s called paint grade. I always see it, and I started seeing a beauty to it. By accident, I discovered that it tans when you put it in sun after you put a little oil. It’s just a natural thing it does over time, but I was like wow. So I started selling polar pieces. Now it’s the most ordered thing I do is suntan poplar.
A lot of woodworkers kind of look down, it’s a soft wood, it’s crappy wood. But because it’s not as hard as walnut. I totally believe I want to make things that look better when they get older. They’re supposed to get old. They’re supposed to tell a story. They’re supposed to not look new in 50 years, but they’re still solid, they’re still well made. They’re still beautiful. They’re actually more beautiful. That’s why I like poplar. I use walnut, I use mahogany. I use all the nicer woods, but I started to build up my wood vocabulary. Started using reclaimed a lot more. I started mixing the different things. Started coming up with my own way of doing things in woodworking. It takes a while to figure that out.
At this time, I started to fuse things. All these experiences start to come and I always thought I was a random guy just bouncing around lily pad to lily pad. Now I had to really, I still, you have to really focus now and figure out what’s your thing. I don’t want to just say yes to everything, because that’s exhausting. That’s totally exhausting.
James McKinney: You’re married, you have three kids, so the idea of saying yes though that means there’s money on the other side.
Brandon Muñoz: Yes, yes, but that’s where it’s risky. Now it’s like okay. I started saying yes because I had to. I built this Murphy bed, I almost chopped myself with that one. The bed that folds down. I couldn’t just chalk everything up to a learning experience as a way to make myself feel better. Everything is learning experience, but I need to get paid now, so what can be my specialty? I designed this studio desk. There was an acquaintance I had in LA. He was like, “Hey, can you build me this desk for my apartment?” He lived in downtown, a guitarist. I started putting some thought into it and looking around. You know what, there’s a lot of these studio desks out there but no one’s really making them out of all hardwood, like really nice. There’s obviously using wood elements and they’re very cool looking, utilitarian, but I wanted something like classy. What would that look like? I started and made my first prototype. Sold it to him, and then learned a lot from that one. Now, my learning experience, now I was changing it a little bit every time I made it.
James McKinney: Refining it.
Brandon Muñoz: Now I had a design. Now I have several designs, but they’re all based on things I learned when I was 14 hacking my desk. In design, you have to tell people you’re thinking about them. Like when they look at that, they go oh, they’re answering a question. they have an answer for the question that I have. How do I get all this over here and… you have to just speak a different it’s a visual language. That’s what design is. It’s got to be inspiring. I think wood is, for humans, it’s a very inspiring material. We’ve made instruments. We’ve made utensils. We’ve made weapons. We’ve made houses all throughout history. It always keeps coming back, even though we have plastics and steel, all these composite materials now. Why can you get an iPhone holder made out of wood? Because people just want… it’s a presence to it. It’s something about it.
So my wife encouraged me. Basically I started making designs for our home that became the dining tables that were the first orders on Etsy, then these studio desks. I just started specializing in dining tables and desks, and benches, and stopped saying yes to everything. No, I’m going to make this, put it out there. Do you want to buy it? That I believe caught on because it was coming from me. It wasn’t oh that’s going to be a hot seller, let’s do that. That doesn’t inspire me. That doesn’t wake me up in the morning. Doesn’t keep me going for a 10 or 12 hour day, this is what’s hot. It doesn’t matter.
James McKinney: It sounds like that time is when you really started discovering your own personal brand.
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah, yeah. It’s based on all your inclinations, your personalities, the music you like. The colors you like.
James McKinney: So now when people are buying your product, they’re buying really a piece of you. They’re buying your creation and the thought that goes into it, right? They’re not buying something… or are they buying something by specc, saying I want this piece?
Brandon Muñoz: I’ve definitely offered that. The studio desks I design, I started breaking it down, started getting more thoughtful about which parts, how do I streamline this process. I’m still in that process because I want to learn how to hand it over and get other people to help me do this, and get it out of my head. But it’s a flexible design. It’s like a car. You can order a corvette. You can get it red, what kind of wheels do you want, what kind of engine, that type of thing. You can get it this way, that way. That’s what the studio desks have become. It’s a flexible design that can be personal to the client, but also it’s very unique to what I do. You don’t just see it anywhere.
James McKinney: That’s one of the reasons I reached out to you is for those on Instagram, which is pretty much almost everyone in the known universe, Monkwood Studios is your Instagram correct?
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah it’s Monkwood_, because somebody with Monkwood who doesn’t use it has it.
James McKinney: So Monkwood_, and you can see some of Brandon’s pieces, but they’re absolutely beautiful, and they’re so unique and so stunning. You can definitely see the art side of your woodworking. There’s definitely an artistry to it. Is that the case across the board for woodworkers?
Brandon Muñoz: Woodworking is a journey. Any craft is a journey. Like I said, if I was… at one point in my life, it was a means to an end. At another point, it was just oh it’s a cool way to be creative. At another point, it was like I need to do this to make money. So everyone’s at a different point. Woodworking can be a great escape for somebody who sits at a desk job. Woodworking can be a lot of different things for different people. For me, it is art. I do see what it can be, the way it can speak to people, the way it cannot just be furniture but actually very functional but very artful at the same time.
It was around this time that yeah, it’s even the people I connect with who started buying these desks. It was more like, “Oh wow, these are kind of like my type of people.” We have such a different level of connection. It’s not just transaction. Some of these stories that I hear about even people who’ve bought dining tables, what it means to their family, or the desk. They’re making a jump in their sphere, in their realm. I’m, as a craftsman, making a jump too. We’re kind of at that same spot. I have what’s called a Legend of Zelda business theory. If you’re old enough to remember the first Legend of Zelda, and I think it plays out in the other games, but when you’re ready for the silver sword you have to burn the right bush to find the guy who makes the silver sword. He’s got it there for you, but you’ve got to be ready for him. You have to have gone through enough battles to burn that one. But you’re at the right point. He can’t make that sword, though he’s ready.
So you meet people. I’m basically making the silver or the gold sword for somebody who’s ready for it. I’m not trying to compete now. I’m not trying to bargain with people. I’m also not trying to… they cost much more than the other desks out there, but if they saw what went into these, there’s a lot of passion just as they put into their work when they’re making. A lot of musicians, film composers. I started, one of the craziest things that happened to me is I have built for famous people. Once in awhile I’ll get an email. Some famous people, “Oh, can you do it like next week because I’m famous?” I just go, “Sorry, I can’t.” But when they meet me on that level, it’s like, “I really like what you do. Can we somehow make it work?” One day I got an email from James Hetfield, one of Metallica’s sound guys. “Yeah James is building a studio. He really likes your stuff.” I remember, “Where did you see it?” he was on Etsy. I was like I can’t imagine James Hetfield on Etsy.
He went, this listing that he liked, I remember this desk. I was using poplar and it was a darker, it had these black streaks on it. I remember building going, “Oh, this is a bit too much, this is kind of crazy.” It looks almost like very sinister. I took some photos of it that were kind of dark and foreboding. I put it up there, like no one’s going to want. Maybe some goth out there is going to want it. But then James Hetfield calls up and he wants that desk. Well, I thought in my mind, then his assistant said, “Well, he wants to know if you can expedite it.”I said sorry because I had a bunch of orders already, that’ll just drive my life crazy. I didn’t so much said that. I said, “No, it’s going to be the same wait.” I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, and I thought this is a done deal. But then he called and say, “Yeah, James wants to wait, and he wants to talk to you about it.” So he called me up and says, “It’s James Hetfield.” I’m like, “Wow. How are you doing man?”
James McKinney: Were you able to play that off, like play it cool or did you totally fan boy it?
Brandon Muñoz: You have to. No, just like… he’s such a cool guy. After a while, you forget you’re talking to him. He’s just saying, “Yeah, just need something to write songs. Get my guitar; plug it in, hook in my computer.” Because in my head, I had this sales pitch for the ultimate metal desk in the world. I was like if I make a desk for James Hetfield, it’s going to be charred black with steel and look like a Gibson SG. I was trying to throw this pitch in there, and after he told me his speccs, it’s like, “James, I’m really glad that you like my stuff. Just so you know, I can make you the most metal desk you’ve ever seen in your life.” He just like laughed at me. He’s like, “No, just keep it classy, man.”
James McKinney: That’s awesome.
Brandon Muñoz: So that’s what I did. I made it and delivered it, and as far as I know he’s writing songs on it.
James McKinney: Just out of curiosity, have you reached out to him just to know what songs have been written on that desk?
Brandon Muñoz: No, I don’t want to… The thing is with him, he’s taken me back to childhood. I was 11 and I got my first Metallica tape. I learned I don’t know how many of his songs, so this is not just a famous person, this is like somebody stepping out of the storybook. It was really trippy. I just wanted to provide a good service, give him what he wanted. I didn’t deliver it. I was thinking should I deliver myself? But I had a friend of mine deliver it. He said he really dug it. I also sent a gift, this weird off cut, it looked like it was this… it looked like a goblin and I just gave it to him. Just thank you for his inspiration to me. Told him, gave it with a disclaimer if you don’t like it, you can just use it as a Halloween decoration. But I was told that he totally dug it.
Whether somebody’s famous or not, it really, that doesn’t matter to me. It’s just that there’s a connection. There’s a mutual appreciation because I’m appreciating what these people are doing on my desk. Hopefully, they’re appreciating what this desk can do. It just it’s a facilitator. In the end, it’s holding up your instruments. That’s what I’ve learned that furniture can do. It can facilitate experiences. The way I design certain things, where’s somebody going to sit like on a dining table, how is that arranged. You’re facilitating an experience just by the way you, because there’s going to be humans around this thing.
That’s why I like to make things that humans actually are either creating at or communing at, like a dining table. I don’t like necessarily, I don’t get much joy out of building storage, just plain where are you going to hide all your crap. Other people might enjoy doing that, but I’ve done that and I just like those type of things, I know they’re going to influence life in some kind of way. To me, that’s art, influencing life.
James McKinney: It’s just fascinating to me hearing your story, just how deep the creator gene just runs through you. As you’re talking about a desk for a studio desk, it’s a tool to create. You’re talking about dining room tables. It creates memories for families. Whether you are conscious of those decisions or not as you were thinking of those things to make, it is just a thread that runs through you from childhood to now, and it’s so incredible to see. I have to ask the question though, as you reflect back on your childhood, do you stand here today with a sense of awe and appreciation that you’re in your forties and you’re doing what you wanted to do as a kid?
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah. It’s definitely there’s always I think in an artist, there’s I don’t know when the sense of arrival happens because I haven’t got a sense of arrival. I definitely have a sense of journey, and looking back. You’re climbing the mountain. I don’t think you’re ever… you get good views along the way and I totally try and appreciate those views, but you also know you’ve got a long way to go. If you’re always, I am, always looking back up and go, “Oh, crap, I’ve got a lot to do.” But looking back, I can definitely say yeah, there’s been hard choices and hard fought things just to keep that creative gene alive because it’s there and it’s going to nag you either way until you stuff it so far down that it just doesn’t have any fight left in it. But that’s where when I decided to build furniture again, it was there going, “Oh, yeah, here’s your chance to just make stuff, or are you going to actually…” That’s why I designed the studio is like how it is. If you look around, it’s not just, it doesn’t look like a normal woodworker’s studio.
James McKinney: No, it does not.
Brandon Muñoz: But it tells me I’m not just come here and make something normal. I’m going to put it all out here. That’s the shark, it’s just it reminds me of who I am as a kid. I need those reminders so I can keep that fight going. My wife is a great encouragement. My kids are a great encouragement because I’m doing this for them now. It’s not just for me. Getting out of that ego is part one of the hardest things I’ve been dealing with over the last 10 years, getting past that. I think that’s kind of turning 40 is about, for me, it’s just like getting over that. Getting over that need to be a name. Now, it’s like what can I get away with? What can I actually do? Now, I have this freedom. I know who I am and not have to worry about, care about what people think in that sense. I do have to still get the bread buttered, you know what I mean, but now I’m taking other bold risks of these paintings, and these things I’m coming up with. If I’m honest, I could stop here, but I would fail if I stopped here.
James McKinney: Why do you say that?
Brandon Muñoz: Or if I just started cruising from here, because I know there’s so many more things inside of me. There’s creatures in the wood hiding out there that need to get out, and no one’s going to ask. They’re asking me to do it. No one’s come in here and say, “Hey, you got any sharks in the wood today?” I have to put those out there, just like I did a studio desk. You have to kind of put that out there and then people see it. Then they ask for more of it. That’s part of a creative entrepreneur, is you have to take the risk to put something out there that people may or may not like.
Back in my early days, I remember going to swap meets or flea markets with these DVD racks and thought they were cool because I painted them red, and nobody bought anything. I’ve been through the failure. I tried to be a Venice Beach, sell stuff on Venice Beach. Nobody bought anything, but I thought it was so cool. You have to like get that feedback, get the failure feedback I call it. It’s not fun to look at, but that’s the only way you find the real stuff is because you have to get through those.
James McKinney: If you were to think back along your journey, I’m a big believe that if we lose sight of the people, the shoulders that we’ve stood upon to get to where we’re at, if we lose sight of the people that poured into us in any way, shape or form, encouraging words or guidance, mentorship, financial, whatever the case may be. If we lose sight of those people, then we’re going to fail because we can’t do this journey alone. So for you, if you look back on your journey, who are the people that you look back on with just such immense gratitude because of what a role they played to where you are today?
Brandon Muñoz: Yeah, definitely my mother and father for their unending, continued support. Just knowing who I was. They’re my parents, so they know who I am. They weren’t ever trying to, “No, you should be this.” They knew me and my sister were artists so they’ve… The parental, you don’t want to see your kids risk and fail. That’s hard to watch I’m sure, just like watching the soccer game. My wife is on the same boat even more, my second mom I call her, that she helped me to focus. Even when I came back from England, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be a photographer, do this, do that.” She’s like, “Honey, you should probably just be the wood guy, but do it really well. Do it really well, and then you can do a bunch of other things after that.” I was like, “Yeah, I think you’re probably right.” Because I didn’t own it. I wasn’t like be the wood guy. I didn’t just want to be a carpenter. I had to have this spin on it.
But I couldn’t have found that without the focus, without the guidance. So it’s the guidance and the encouragement from her, and the love. And John Green who taught me how to build a nightstand and a dresser, and blew a bunch of weed smoke in my face. I took a few hits too, but man, come on. His speeches are in me. I’ve had a lot of people along the way. My youth pastor, he took me around the world on those mission trips just to get that. I wouldn’t have had that perspective without his influence. I would not have.
The guy who started this art colony, Mike Magoski, he just decided to collect a bunch of artists together, and then the people I’ve met in the last several years here. The artists, we’ve reflected off each other and found more about us. It’s constant. You have to just have your eyes open and realize. I get very hermit like, just in my own world a lot. It’s much safe, like the kid in your room. This is kind of what this is here, just a kid in my room, but you need it to kind of see that your art makes no sense to other people if you don’t know other people, or what other people are going through, what the human experience is. I couldn’t design something that people would like unless I heard, like I said, those experiences had on the bus in London, getting to know other people. It’s taught me about how to be a better designer. I believe.
James McKinney: You had said that you haven’t reached the top of the mountain yet, which we’ll call that success. What does that look like for you? When will you know that you have reached the top of the mountain, you’ve reached the level of success? What does success look like to you?
Brandon Muñoz: It definitely means being paid well for expressing myself, and so I can also teach others. I love teaching apprentices, and I want to be able to employ people, and to take stuff out of my hands. To teach my kids that yeah, you can be an artist. You can make a living at it, so they can feel that’s an option. That’s success to me as well. It’s kind of cliché to say it doesn’t matter, the money doesn’t matter. You know what? It kind of does, because it signals that you are connecting with something out there, and you’re not just doing. It’s not the reason you make the art, but if you figure out something, you have to question yourself.
Especially if you want to leave a day job, you have to figure that out. It’s not going to appear from the sky. You have to really focus. Even, the struggle I had, you have to start with something that is a little bit you, and then take the brave steps to make it more of you. So you don’t have to just go out there and make a bunch of paintings about your emotions that day and expect… you’ve got to start something somewhat marketable, then add your flavor to it. Add a bit more, like a recipe.
Then that process, because like I’ve said, I’ve had many just in learning how to get this business off the ground, the failures of learning how to ship. The failures of learning when it gets damaged. I try to do my utmost to make it right at the cost of me, but that’s the long game. The marketing, as an artist you could spend so much time comparing yourself to the successful people with more followers that aren’t as good as you, or not as talented. There’s so much energy wasted rather than focusing on what you need to do. These are the days I believe in the creative entrepreneurism you’re not trying to reach everybody, you’re trying to reach those few who are going to support you.
There’s too much noise out there. People want to hear something true, something real, something beautiful. They want to give money to that. People, there’s so much fame out there now that nobody’s famous anymore. It lasts for five minutes. They just want real people. Want to buy something from a real person. That’s why people I think buy from me rather than a desk that can come imported from somewhere that serves the same purpose at a fourth the cost. They’re going to be able to hand the thing I make to someone else, and they can hand to someone else. It’s not going to wear out on them. Success to me is just basically continuing the climb, and not stopping the climb really.
I’m aiming for Salvador Dali is one of my artistic heroes, just the way he was in the group of surrealists. I think they kicked him out. I think he kicked himself out, but it was mostly about he had a road to follow, a path to climb, and he did it until he was an old man, until the day he died. He didn’t stop. He was always Salvador Dali. Mine’s different than his, but it’s okay to bring the weird stuff out and don’t hide it.
James McKinney: So what do you, as we wrap up and our time comes to an end, it has been an incredible journey to walk with you from your childhood to now, and to see it all and to hear it all I should say. There are people listening that are waiting to start their journey. They don’t know what that is yet and maybe they do, maybe they’re just hesitant for it. There’s a level of fear that they have. Maybe they don’t know what it is or maybe they’ve tried it before and they’ve failed miserably at it. As we end our time, based on your journey, what are some words you want to leave those people?
Brandon Muñoz: It will be hard. It does add up, and it will multiple if you’re at it, if you keep opening the door to it. Keep making space for it, keep making room for it. Keep it alive. It may change what it looks like, whatever the “it” is, but the “it” is meant to benefit you and all the people around you. Because people around you who know you want to see it, what that “it” is. It’s there, it’s already in you. You know it. Just make space for it, and that can start with just putting a desk aside. Not any desk. Doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be any of them like I did in my room when I was a kid. Okay, this is where I’m going to put my four track recorder, and I’m going to start doing this, and that will become something.
But if you just think about it, it’s not going to happen. You have to actually, reality is only changed by doing something different, actually putting a physical thing somewhere. Not by clicking on something, not by investigating. That’s part of it, but you have to actually put other tings aside, and put something there. I think that’s a huge, that’s a powerful thing to do. Even if you have a little apartment, if you make one corner or one coffee table, it’s like but that’s for your “it”, it’ll become something.
James McKinney: Are you as self aware as Brandon is? See, Brandon knew at a very early age that he was creative. He knew who he was. It just took him a decade or two to figure out exactly how to make a living out of it. But during that time when he was trying to figure it out, he stayed very close to those who did have it figured out so he learned from them. There are so many narratives out there that will mislead you into thinking that finding success is a quick hit or overnight endeavor. The only truth to the overnight success it that all overnight successes were preceded by hundreds of overnights.
Last week, I posted a quote on TheStartupStory.co Instagram that read, “Know who you are. Stay in your lane. Be patient, and watch success come your way.”I know this quote has resonated with you because the response to it has been one of our top Instagram posts to date. The key to it all, though, is knowing who you are. Once you’ve identified your strengths, your weaknesses, and your passions, it will be easy to stay in your lane and be patient with the process because you won’t be deterred by the noise that surrounds us.
I have so much respect for Brandon because he has stayed the course for the last four decades, and it’s paying off for him now. But there’s still room for us to rally around him and support him in his endeavors. I end every episode with an opportunity for our founders to provide me with a way that I can enlist the support of all of you to support them. If you’ve been around The Startup Story for a few episodes then you’ve heard me say entrepreneurs support entrepreneurs. So when I asked Brandon this question, his response surprised me, but it really shouldn’t have because it’s so authentic to who he is.
Brandon Muñoz: I think what would be helpful for my business or any business, because as far as a handmade areas, why does it cost so much, why is it so important is because we have so many options. Part of it is there’s two things. One, look into my work and you could probably see on my Instagram that what it’s about is more than just making fancy furniture. There’s a meaning to it because it’s telling a story. My grandfather used to make things that are still around. It’s just something well made is going to last beyond, and we’re in a culture that wants to throw away once it looks old.
In a general sense, don’t throw away something that looks old, especially if it’s well made. At least pass it on. At least give it to somebody. At least try to fix it. Try to fix something. You would be amazed at what a little orange oil will do to something. So it’s not necessarily buy my stuff, it’s just look at things different. We’re such a throwaway society, so buy differently. I realize there’s times for IKEA. There’s times for that. I have IKEA hacks. You can’t just… we’re not in that position, but when you can be mindful about what’s going in your home, just do that and say follow some makers who are doing this and you will be inspired by that. Make something yourself, you know? Buy some poplar. You’d be amazed at how beautiful this wood is.
James McKinney: My additional ask is to help bring awareness to his business by following his Instagram @Monkwood_. Like some of his photos, comment on some of them. Even mention a few friends in some of the photos. Every founder I have spoken with so far in The Startup Story journey has talked about how challenging it is to get brand awareness out there. So let’s show Brandon some appreciation for his time with us on this episode. Let’s support a fellow entrepreneur.
And now for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.
Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate that power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.