Small Business: Why Ironclad Pan Company co-founder believes his products will last 100 years

Few businesspeople are bold enough to guarantee their product for more than 100 years, but Ironclad Pan Company co-founder Joe Carter is so confident of his that he trademarked the claim under the tagline “Three Generation Guarantee”.

Making sturdy pans wasn’t a natural career path for Carter, who has spent most of his working life in the creative industry. But he recently left his gig as the head of communications at one of the nation’s top creative agencies, Colenso BBDO, to focus full-time on the side hustle he runs with his business partner Kate Slavin.

What does your business do?

The Ironclad Pan Company makes the only cast iron cookware in Aotearoa, New Zealand, with a “three-generation guarantee”. Every family heirloom is hand-poured and hand-finished in our Avondale foundry, delivered unseasoned so we know there’s nothing nasty in the production process. We had it right once, and so this return to the traditional craft and methods of making cast iron skillets really excites us.

Really? A three-generation guarantee? That’s a bold claim

Totally agree it’s a bold claim. Offering a genuine 100-year replacement guarantee is almost as difficult as making a product that will last long. But we’re proud to say that we did it, so you never need to buy or throw away another pan.

How long has your business been around for?

We registered the company in September 2019, but didn’t start trading until around April 2020. Five thousand pans in the world later, we’re confident in the quality of every piece. As people started cooking even more at home last year, the business started to take shape.

How did your side gig become the main course? Was it scary to take the plunge?

I’ve always had a tendency to get distracted. This distraction has been a lot more meaningful than any other project I’ve taken on. It wasn’t scary to commit to a business that I believe in. It’s a company that’s doing good for people, and the planet. It’s scarier knowing that you’re directly responsible for your own paycheque. But mentors have frequently told me that the biggest risk is often not taking it. This is somewhat of a guiding mantra for me, in my work and personal life. It’s how I ended up in New Zealand nearly four years ago, met some phenomenal people (including my fiance), and explains why I decided to go full-time on Ironclad.

Did your day job prepare you for the chaos that would come from entrepreneurship?

The people I’ve worked with over the past 12 years have prepared me for most things in life. Can you ever really prepare for the chaos of entrepreneurship? One minute you’re preparing a business plan for the next 12 months and analysing market expansion. The next minute you’re advocating for your products at the Southern Hemisphere’s largest agricultural event on a 3x3m stand. As someone who’s quite structured with most things, chaos doesn’t come naturally to me – it’s all part of the learning process. Fortunately, having worked with corporate clients for a wee while now, there’s certainly a familiarity of how to manage a business. But when the business is partly yours, and you’re responsible for your and other people’s livelihoods – well, that’s a different story.

What are some of the toughest lessons you’ve learned running your own thing rather than working with another company’s budget?

Bootstrapped in trainers. I’ve had the same pair of trainers for nearly a decade. Someone told me over the weekend that it’s never too late to learn how to take control of your finances. That is, until you run out of money. From a business perspective, HR, marketing, infrastructure, customer and supplier management, product development, IT, culture, recruitment, personal development – this and more are all part of a co-founder’s job. But the number one priority has to be to never run out of money. That way, everyone gets to continue doing what they love.

Secondly, having co-founded a company that’s built on creative rather than financial capital, I’ve learned that people will tell you everything if you listen. When I say people, I mean customers first, and then everyone else. As a small, scrappy start-up, company culture is everything. Our values of family, sustainability and quality have to show up within and beyond the workplace. They’re not just written on a wall somewhere and forgotten about – they’re communicated in everything we do.

Finally, with no outside money invested in the business, every dollar has to work harder than the last. Building a brand that people wish existed doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t get me wrong, there are some quick wins. But when you’re making something for generations to come, we decided to take the same approach to the business, our brand and our products – with a long-term hat on.

What are some of the logistical challenges in making something so niche?

There are several reasons so few people make cast iron cookware. To be sustainable and profitable in this country is really, really hard. To make every single product unique, we don’t use machines, which means we can only physically make so many products on each pour. And over the past few decades, Teflon-coated pans have become a popular part of almost everyone’s kitchen – so explaining why cast iron is the most durable, versatile and good-for-you-and-the-planet material to use comes with the challenges of creating behavioural change at scale.

Was it hard to get things off the ground?

I think if it was easy, more people would be doing it. There are so many things that are often not considered when starting a business. Blogs will tell you that starting a business is more accessible than ever before, but starting a sustainable and commercially viable business for the long-term still requires certain superpowers. The first sale that comes in from someone you don’t know is a highlight in any product owner’s journey. Then making sure that the second and third sale come in is a real challenge.

How big is your team now?

At the core, there are four of us. But in any given week, we bring in several people we trust, each with their own superpowers. Then when you look at the network of suppliers and partners who work with us every day, the number of people who touch the Ironclad business starts to grow pretty quickly.

What are your long-term plans?

It’s a good question. Over the coming months, we’re looking to introduce one more “three generation guaranteed” core product that will become an essential part of every Kiwi kitchen and family camping trip. Taking the business to Australia, rather than exporting, is also on the cards. The Ironclad Pan is the last pan you’ll ever buy, and so our focus is to continue raising awareness about why we exist and to get an Ironclad Pan into as many Kiwi homes as possible.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs with a side hustle simmering away?

Ask for help. I cannot emphasise enough how important mentorship is to an entrepreneur, at any stage of life. We only see the world and, therefore, our side hustle through our lens, our experiences, our viewpoint on life. Find someone you trust in the same field as your side hustle, the furthest field from your side hustle, and a personal mentor. And then stop thinking about what to do, put the work in, and share your creation with the world. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

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