Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Ben VandenWymelenberg of Woodchuck
It was after hours, and after a couple of beers, at the architecture firm where University of Minnesota undergrad Ben VandenWymelenberg was working part-time, when he got the idea to affix a razor-thin wood veneer—the kind used for building models—on the back of his iPhone. In that moment, his path changed and a company was born.
Within months of graduation, VandenWymelenberg had incorporated under the name Woodchuck. With capital he scraped together from family and friends, he purchased a laser cutter, collected wood scraps and sheets from local lumberyards, and started making wood skins for mobile devices (it’s about the look more than protection). He sweet-talked his way onto the shelves of the U of M bookstore, and that got him a meeting with a distributor who took Woodchuck to 750 college retailers around the country. VandenWymelenberg, who planned to become an architect, deferred a full ride to grad school at MIT.
And that brazen decision seems to be paying off. In just under two years of business, Woodchuck has sold to Target and Best Buy, created a higher-end boutique line sold at 50 stores around the country, and expanded its collection of wood skins to include laptop covers, headphones, and wood-covered journals that can be customized. Woodchuck has collaborations in the works with several prestigious brands including Chris-Craft.
Still, more than half of Woodchuck’s orders are online, straight from consumers drawn to the idea of their name, logo, photo, or design etched onto a real wood phone cover for $35. “I think the statistic is that most people are never more than five feet from their phone,” VandenWymelenberg says. “We’re creating a connection between that electronic device and nature.”
Woodchuck products are made in America—at a warehouse just north of Dinkytown—with 100 percent real wood. VandenWymelenberg, an outdoors enthusiast who has been working with wood since he was a kid, decided early on he wanted to create a brand with a mission, not merely a commodity. “Woodchuck stands for more than just quality American-made products,” he wrote for the company catalog. “It stands for bringing nature back into people’s lives, bringing quality back into products, and most importantly, being the face of positive change in the industry.”
Heady ambitions at 24. But the Woodchuck approach is perfectly timed, as consumers are willing to pay a premium for American-made goods, and companies that can’t manufacture in the United States want to affiliate with small start-ups like Woodchuck to show they share the same philosophy.
So VandenWymelenberg resists the temptation to manufacture more, faster, and cheaper overseas. The relatively higher price point of Woodchuck products meant most of VandenWymelenberg’s peers couldn’t afford a Woodchuck case, so he pulled out of most college bookstores to concentrate on an upscale market. He rebranded to match the company’s philosophy, and between talks with big-box retailers, he started connecting with other small American-made brands. He personally manned a booth at the last Northern Grade, a pop-up market of American-made goods that started in the Twin Cities.
Everywhere, in every object, VandenWymelenberg sees opportunity. “How can we Woodchuck a radio, a motorcycle? I’m always trying to figure out what we can Woodchuck next.” It’s generally a good sign when your brand becomes a verb.