Mary Moore just wanted to continue selling her favorite rake, but the rake she adored, which was inspired by a shag carpeting rake, apparently had gone the same route as shag carpeting.
“We bought and sold the rakes for about 12 years,” said Moore, who owns Stone Cottage Gardens with her husband Dave. The rake had double rows of tines, was lightweight and handled acorns, walnuts, pine needles and leaves like a boss.
The mold was no longer available, the patent had expired, and the original designs needed some tweaking, so the Moores started looking into what it would take to make the rake on their own. Their education in manufacturing began.
They started working with mentors, including SCORE, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and Central Michigan University Research Council (CMURC). They conducted market research at garden shows and Master Gardener gatherings. “We asked, ‘Would you buy this?’ ‘Where would you buy this?’ and ‘How much would you pay for this?’” Dave Moore said. They discovered a wealth of future customers.
But first, they needed a mold. “I looked all around the state,” Dave Moore said. He found places that could make the mold for $250,000, which would result in a $400 rake, they estimated. They found less expensive options in China, “but we wanted to keep it local and made in America,” Dave Moore said. They continued their education into materials (thermoformed or injection-molded plastic), packaging, handles, assembly and storage.
And they continued to keep it local. They found a patent attorney and an engineering firm in Gladwin. The rake head is made at an injection mold facility in Kawkawlin. The handles are from a North Carolina woodworker and the assembling and storage are thanks to a partnership with the Arnold Center in Midland, a community rehabilitation organization that teaches life skills and provides employment to people with disabilities.
But there were still costs for production, inventory build, and working capital needed for the Little Black Rake Company, LLC. One night, while eating at Roz’s Diner in Rosebush, Dave Moore read the origin story on the menu, and it mentioned Northern Initiatives. They’d already been to several banks, including one on Halloween dressed as “The New American Gothic” and carrying a Little Black Rake prototype.
The next time they were in Grayling, they stopped in at the Northern Initiatives office and met with Commercial Lender Lucy McCraven. “I can honestly say I prefer this over any other rake out there,” she said. “I am so proud of these two and feel very fortunate that they came to Northern Initiatives for financing.”
Little Black Rake qualified for a Northern Initiatives loan through the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. The loans are designed for small businesses (10 or fewer full-time employees) that are located outside a city or town with a population of fewer than 50,000 residents. (Gladwin has fewer than 3,000 residents.)
With the working capital, the Moores were able to start production of The Little Black Rake. There were still a few hiccups, but the Moores received their first shipment of Little Black Rakes and got to work planning trips to trade shows and gardening events.
The pandemic threw yet another monkey wrench into their plans, of course. They scrambled to find suitable packaging and shipping (an ongoing process) and worked with Northern Initiatives on some refinancing. “They were very accommodating during COVID,” said Dave Moore. The Little Black Rake is for sale by phone and at hardware stores, nurseries and general stores throughout Michigan. Mary is looking forward to upcoming technical assistance to learn more about QuickBooks, since the couple is essentially running two businesses.
Throughout the startup ups and downs, the Moores have come to rely on a robust team of supporters, advisors, mentors and cheerleaders. “(Northern Initiatives) has been so much better than any other lending institution,” said Dave Moore.
Little Black Rake Impacts:
- Two working owners. The Stone Cottage Gardens employ 8 in seasonal, part-time jobs.