Joel Harris is passionate about coffee, fly fishing, making music and woodwork. Always up for some good banter, this dynamic 21-year-old is doing what many dream of – making a living from something he truly loves.
story and pictures katrine anker–nilssen
Hillcrest has always been home; the Harris family lived at Highbury for the better part of Joel’s schooling there and the great estate was his playground – along with younger siblings Seth and Annie. Parents Kari and Martin moved the family to Gillitts in 2007, and Joel spent a year at Westville Boys High before moving to Hillcrest High.
Joel’s late grandfather on his father’s side, ALP Harris, taught maths and woodwork at Highbury for 30 years. Fondly nicknamed Spook, he was a gentleman in every way, unless he had cane in hand about to issue six of the best. Spook also ran a furniture business for many years after retiring from teaching, and was known for his impeccable craftsmanship and wealth of knowledge. “He will always be my primary link to the art, even though we never built anything together,” says Joel.
“By the time I came along, he had given all his tools to my dad’s older brother. On occasion, we would visit my uncle’s home for Sunday tea and I would be allowed free reign of the scroll saw and disc sander at the age of five!”
Joel’s first workbench, drill and vice were a Christmas present from his parents, back in 2003. “Not the usual gift for a seven-year-old, but to say I was stoked is an understatement!” he laughs. From there on, every Christmas and birthday pretty much revolved around woodworking tools.
“In 2009, I was given a workspace by my late grandfather on my mom’s side, JHA Janssen – which has received renovations over the years,” says Joel. “As the years passed, I discovered I could make money from my hobby, so I started making everything from cheeseboards to free-standing furniture for friends and family.”
After matriculating, Joel took a job in a large-scale production factory, where he worked on and with massive wood processing machinery. Ten months later, he ventured on to follow a lead as a senior carpenter for a nationally-acclaimed furniture and kitchens company. “I absolutely loved my time there but, two years down the line, I suddenly found myself questioning a solo career. It was quite literally over a weekend that I made the decision. A month later, I rolled out of bed and into my shop, ready for day one.”
The idea of “life by design” inspired Joel to create Harris Creations (HC). “Credit must go to my mentors who have encouraged and challenged me from way before I even pursued his venture,” says Joel. “A question posed to me by one of my mentors was: ‘What is your primary function as an entrepreneur?’ Initially, I thought it was a trick question and spent some time thinking about it. Quite simply, though, the answer is ‘sales’.”
HC is a bespoke furniture company combining traditional joinery methods with modern technology. High-quality finishing techniques complete the construction of carefully considered, precision furniture. “I would like to see growth in the name rather than the scale,” smiles Joel – who aspires to gain the title of master craftsman through the work he produces. “I see us growing to a staff of four or five gifted craftsmen, in a 200m² local space – making dust and challenging the industry for a place at the top.”
Meeting new clients for coffee is Joel’s favourite element of running a business. “Networking is so much fun and opens doors. There is something special about the human connection – and coffee!” he laughs.
Lots of inspiration comes from USA’s Jory Brigham. “After watching the TV series Framework, I dropped him a mail and we have kept in touch. His humility, attention to detail and patience sets a precedent for the exquisite pieces that leave his incredible workshop,” says Joel. “The success he has found through the pursuit of his passion has been a strong point for my motivation during all the late nights and long weekends. The dream is to head over to his holding, where he has a place for me to stay and work alongside him for a few months.”
Joel has an alternative view on the need for tertiary education – encouraging the trades and the beauty of creation with our hands. “Not going to university does not mean you are stupid, lazy or a misfit. So many of our youth are shunned when they don’t fit the mould, but these are the kids who will one day be making the moulds, so encourage them to unlock the potential that is buried underneath 12 years of formal education.”
Good mentors are crucial for young entrepreneurs. “It’s easy for us millennials to think we know it all, with the world at our fingertips, but we lack those classic wisdom highlights (grey hairs!). They only come with many years in business and a few hard knocks. Take the time to learn from the folks who have done it already. The thing is, no matter what business you are wanting to start, there are a set of fundamentals you can’t ignore. Get that right and you can build the company of your dreams!”
Advice to aspiring woodworkers? “Mind your fingers! I can’t stress this enough! That and just go for it … who cares if you make a mistake? Measure twice, cut once. Don’t race – woodwork won’t give you a medal at the finish line, but when you take a step back and see what you have made, there are few better rewards in life.”Entrepreneur, Harris Creations, woodwork