The Story of How Arc-Zone & Carmen Electrode Came to Be
By Jim Watson
The week after I got out of high school, my mom said, “Go to these places and get a job. Here’s the newspaper, I already circled a couple.” I went to a local shop, and they actually offered me a job. It was really good money, a union job with benefits, so I said, “Okay, sure!” It was a Production Silver Brazer position at ITT General Controls; we made thermocouplers. We took a copper connector & nickel, and we welded the two pieces together with silver; essentially, we brazed them. I worked the swing shift, so I had all day to work on my motorcycle which was perfect because I was racing at the time. From there, through motorsports, I learned how to fabricate tuned exhaust pipes and make hard-facing skid shoes (steel shoes for zipping around the track without burning through your boot).
The Racing Years
One of my racing sponsors had a motorcycle shop, and in the back he had a sprint car, which is a dirt track race car. I looked at it; it was a kit car, and the welds were horrible. My sponsor introduced me to the shop owner, Steve Howard. We were about the same size & age, and he was my sponsor’s driver. I looked at him and said, “Dude, you’re going to get killed driving that thing!” So I went to night school at Pasadena City College and took welding classes; then, I went back to the shop, ground out all the welds, and re-TIG welded the car. Afterwards, I became part of the team, we went to the track with that car, and I met the owner of Weldcraft. One thing led to another, and he asked me to come work for him. So I started working at Weldcraft and even built my own car, which he sponsored. After I built my own car, I left the company and went to the World of Outlaws where we formed a team and ventured out of Southern California. Our first race was in Florida. The team consisted of me, the chief mechanic, an assistant, and a driver who brought his motorhome, wife and two kids in diapers. We were on the road for eight months and raced in 21 states, as well as Canada. We won 3 races and finished 5th in points our first year. We were stoked!
Learning the Welding Industry
I was fully committed to being a professional chief mechanic, and I got an offer to work on an Indy-car team. So I came back to California to get all of my stuff from my parent’s house. When I got there, the owner of Weldcraft was waiting for me and said, “You’re never going to make a living in racing. You need to come work for me and be responsible.” My dad agreed, so I went back to Weldcraft. This was before ESPN really kicked in with all the other sports, so at that time it really was hard to make a living as a chief mechanic. It was brutally hard work, and you didn’t make a lot of money, so I joined Weldcraft and helped build it up to one of the industry’s leading brands before they sold the company to Miller.
I worked for Miller for a while and got to travel all over the world to meet different manufacturers like Lincoln, Hobart, and Panasonic in Japan. I was exposed to all aspects of the welding industry, from the manufacturers to the end users. Any time I was home in Chicago, I worked in my shop and did some fabricating on the side. While tinkering around, I came up with the notion that the industry lacked a purpose-built, specialty TIG torch with some different features in it. I made a prototype showed it to the President of the company at the FabTech show in Chicago, and he loved it. The team said, “Let’s do it,” and the Crafter Series was born. My name is on the Patent, but I don’t own it. I had to sign the rights over to Weldcraft since I worked for them. To this day, the Crafter Series torch is the most popular series torch ever made.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Now comes the juicy part. I started dating Gina, my wife, while working for Miller, and before long she wanted to move from Illinois to California. I thought her idea was perfect because the winters weren’t getting any easier, I wasn’t getting any younger, and I didn’t want to work for a big company my entire life.
I was looking for something new anyway, and it wasn’t until I got my first AOL account that I realized that I could actually sell supplies on the Internet. Once we moved to California, I went to UCSD Connect, which had an entrepreneurial program for starting and managing a high tech company. It was a three month accelerated course that I took at night. During the day, I took another class through the Small Business Development Council which was focused on starting your own company. In both courses, I learned how to develop a business plan, but both instructors said my idea probably wouldn’t pan-out because welders weren’t on the Internet. Regardless of their opinion, I believed welders were on the Internet, and it was the best way to reach them. Plus, I hated the idea of driving to each town to find them.
You Gotta Believe
I started an eBay store and sold the welding encyclopedia that I got from the American Welding Society. I showed my instructors that I sold something online to an actual welder and they said, “Well, look at that! Welders are actually online!” Once that first sale happened, I began to lay-out the design of a website and knew I needed help because I am a fabricator, not a wordsmith. I hired a professional technical writer, and we met every day for lunch to write the website page by page. Once everything from the About Us to the checkout page was written, I hired a fellow student from one of my classes who was completing a degree to become a web developer. I gave him the written pages, and we built the entire website from scratch. Then I contracted a husband and wife team to build the eCommerce store. He was from England, and she was from Germany but they lived out in the high desert. I had never even met them, not even to do work. We did everything over email. It took about a year to complete the Site. We started in 1997 and launched in 1998.
When the website launched, I was working out of my bedroom. I had all of the inventory at my house and shipped it from there. I was living in a subdivision, and it was illegal to have a business so I never opened the garage door. For three years, my wife supported us financially, so I could get my business up and running. After a period of time though, she would write me notes that would say, “You’re going to sell this much today” and leave it next to my coffee so I would see it. She taught me about goal-setting, because otherwise, I would have just bounced along. There’s a lot to do as an entrepreneur, and sometimes you just don’t want to do everything but she kept me in line. She would come home from work and ask what I did that day, and if it wasn’t what was on the note, she would say, “No, you need to sell something.” I would say, “Come on, give me some time,” and she would just encourage me to work harder. She started writing me notes with goals on them everyday to keep me on task and focused to launch this company.
In order to grow the company, I needed some help so we hired a friend of mine, John, and he came to work in the house with me. He worked in bedroom #1, and I worked in bedroom #2. This is kinda funny; I wanted people to think that Arc-Zone was this huge company, so I recorded the sound of telephones and background noise and would play it while I was on the phone with customers. Sometimes, you gotta fake it til you make it.
Anyway, after John came to work for Arc-Zone, we finally were able to move into a building which is actually just two doors down from where we are now. We moved here in 2001 and 10 short days after we moved in, the horrible attacks on the Twin Towers happened and everything came to a screeching halt. There was no business, so it was really challenging. I felt pretty bad for John because he was hired on as a non-compensation employee; I was not paying him. We made all these plans to grow the company and earn paychecks for the both of us, and it just did not happen. And before things really started growing, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and had to quit in order to live a less stressful life; the entrepreneurial lifestyle was definitely not recommended by his doctor. He is doing well now, but I feel bad that I was never able to pay him for all the hard work he did. After John left, Gina and I would spend nights and weekends packaging up all the orders, building torches and getting things ready to ship.
Luckily, we didn’t have to do this for long because we continued to grow as the trend was moving toward e-commerce companies. We were strictly an e-commerce business, the market was moving toward us, and it just kept coming. The challenge during this time was that we couldn’t gain any access to capital because the banks seized up.
We were constantly struggling to keep our supply intact while the demand grew, which doesn’t seem like too much of a struggle because that means we were making sales, but it was tough to keep up. Now we are doing pretty well. We’ve even opened a storefront which has been the most fun. We get to connect with our customers on a super personal level and hear first hand what they like and dislike, and where we can make improvements.
A Family Business
Starting my own business was a lot of hard work and long nights, but I knew that this was something that I needed to do. Working at the union job and then for Weldcraft, I noticed that there was something missing and the local weld shops could not supply it. Most of the guys who worked at those shops were simply salesmen, they barely knew anything about the welding industry or the products they were selling. I thought that since I know how to fabricate and weld, and even know how to make torches, that I could offer something people in the industry needed. I wanted to create a solution and that is where the idea for Arc-Zone came about. I knew that going door to door wasn’t gonna cut it because I used to do it and I’d hear a lot of, “dude, beat it!!” I decided a website would be better and two years after launching in 1998, I was featured in the American Welding Magazine as an emerging eCommerce company and invited to the FabTech show in Chicago.
Before the show, we had a little party and had friends come over to help with ideas for the company mascot’s name. We had a giant white board and everyone was shouting out. My friends used to have this nickname for me, Joe Welder. This was before Joe Boxer and all that, but they would just say, “Hey, there’s Joe Welder.” It was that or “Easy Money,” so it was pretty obvious which one would stick. But I also thought it would be cool to have a persona other than myself, which is also where the idea for Carmen Electrode came from.
Without Women & Computers, Where Would I Be?
My wife is a hair stylist and always has attractive, female friends around that do hair modeling, so we had all these ladies come over and we came up with some clever welding related female names. We picked MIG Ryan, Britney Sparks and Carmen Electrode. We used the hair models and put a contest on the website, a poll rather, for customers to choose who should be Miss Arc-Zone and Carmen Electrode won. I’m going to be honest and say that we didn’t create Carmen Electrode as the face for women welders in the beginning. I was young and had been in the motorsports industry for a long time so I knew what caught guys’ attention. Simply put, by adding a nice looking lady, a lot more dudes were going to come check-out my site.
When we went to the FabTech show, we brought Carmen Electrode with us. Gina made custom clothes for all of us, the girls wore frilly pants and vests, which I still have hanging right here in my office. She went All-Out, making mouse pads and a bunch of stuff in tiger print with tassels. I still have every piece from that show, even the banner. Our booth looked unlike anything there, plus we had a computer and no one had a computer. Because no one had a computer, there was no Internet. I wanted to have the website running but it was impossible. So we ran the website off of a CD and people were lined up at the computer just clicking through each page. It was a pretty cool experience.
After the show, I realized that people have a lot of questions, and I could provide them with information through technical articles on my website. We started a blog as Joe Welder and decided to write one for Carmen Electrode as well. I wanted to create a space for women who wanted to do something in the trades; Carmen Electrode seemed to be the perfect platform. Growing up on the track, there were only a few ladies involved and I was amazed at the amount of verbal abuse they could handle. They were shoved out of the way and frowned upon, even though they worked just as hard or harder than all the men.
Women Breaking Down Barriers
I’ve always wondered, “What is the difference between a chef and a welder?” Not much, if you think about it. It’s hot, you’re working with tools, you can cut yourself or get burned, it’s dirty and you have to clean up greasy tools and wash unsanitary items. Some of the differences are that fabricators make more than most chefs and you see more women in the kitchen than men, and more men in the trades than women. When I was working at the union job, there were only two ladies. They weren’t very friendly in the beginning, which is totally understandable because they weren’t treated very well. We only became friends after I created this efficient tool to weld more pieces at a time. We weren’t paid by the hour but by the number of pieces we welded, so I wanted to find a way to make more money and had a machinist make me a tool to braze more pieces at a time. I shared my tool with them, and we got along pretty well from that point on.
My first experience with women in fabricating, the trades industry more specifically, was interesting and after I created Carmen Electrode, I wanted to find a way to mold the industry into an accepting and encouraging “space” for all women in the trades.
Carmen Electrode was classy. She still is, but she also doesn’t take any crap from anybody, kinda like Cher. Have you seen Cher lately? She is amazing and is still going! Cher is one of the women who inspire me, as well as Judy Woodruff and Ariana Huffington. Judy is a journalist in her 70’s who hosts a TV show every night and is super involved in politics. And Ariana, I mean her story is amazing. She was married and her husband ended up being gay so he divorced her. She was tossed out and barely spoke any English, so she reinvented herself and created the Huffington Post which she later sold for like $25 million.
I think women who make something out of nothing are amazing. Women who persevere through trying times and come out stronger than ever are who Carmen Electrode is based on. At Arc-Zone, nearly half our staff are women – strong, smart, empowered women – our Carmen’s behind the scenes & on the front lines. It’s Awesome! I also have a daughter, and I make sure that she knows she can do whatever she sets her mind to.
We want the Carmen Electrode blog, Instagram and brand as a whole to embody the empowerment of women and demonstrate all the diverse opportunities in welding, fabrication, and trades. Women produce technical videos, run purchasing departments, make jewelry, repair cars, build pipelines, write articles, and so much more. Women can do anything they can dream up, and the right tools along with a support network make the journey that much more enjoyable. Set your mind to achieve something great; our Team is here to inspire and support.