He was marking his score with the first pen he made when a Toronto banker he was playing with offered to buy it for $50.
“And I actually said no, and then we continued around the golf course, and then by the 18th hole, he offered me $200 for it. So I kind of realized at that time that there might be people who are interested in paying for something like that,” said the owner of Elwood Pens.
“I didn’t even sell him the pen. I still have it actually.”
Thompson-Mackay is now working on building a business that involves making and selling pens, along with being a social enterprise. Made from local and exotic hardwoods, he sold them this summer at the Pictou Weekend Market and he’ll be at the deCoste Centre’s Christmas Craft Show. In 2016, he sold 150 pens.
The 21-year-old makes the writing implements in a baby barn in his New Glasgow backyard when he’s home from attending St. Mary’s University in Halifax, where he’s studying business. He recently had a Kickstarter campaign to generate funds to move into a real woodworking studio.
He believes people like his pens because each is one-of-a-kind. “One thing people typically enjoy about them is they’re all unique. Every single one of them is a special gift, typically. So my typical customer is somebody who’s buying a gift for somebody else.”
Thompson-Mackay made his first wooden pen when he signed up for a woodshop class at Northumberland Regional High School during his Grade 12 year. “I hadn’t taken woodshop since ninth grade,” he said. “I was honestly one of the worst people in the class.”
But he discovered a love for making pens, and then while enrolled at the Nova Scotia Community College, he learned about entrepreneurism. “I said, yeah, I want to do that, that sounds great, so I started working on a business plan…. I originally called it Pictou County Pens.”
He said for about a year and a half, he practised making them and improving his skill. “I would spend my Friday, Saturday nights down in my uncle’s garage in the Loch Broom Loop making my pens.”
He enjoys the art form, and turning a piece of wood into something different.
Along with the craftsmanship, Thompson-Mackay said people also seem to like his pens because of the story behind the business. “People really like what it’s about. People have been very, very supportive of the message of social inclusion and the message of celebrate your failures as well as your successes. I’ve learned more from my setbacks than I have from anything I’ve achieved.”
Elwood Pens is named after his paternal grandfather, who he said was a talented machinist who struggled with alcoholism, and eventually turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help. “Elwood was a man filled with a large amount of talent, but also had negative aspects to him as well.”
Thompson-Mackay, who grew up in Westville, said he chose the business name in order to talk about the positive and negative aspects of his grandfather. “It is important to me that Elwood Pens is open about what was good and bad about my grandfather, and to try and create conversation around issues that are important to me.”
He said he wants to help facilitate conversations around these issues, making them easier to talk about.
“I like to talk about mental health. I like to say this is an issue – how do we address it? I like to have constructive conversations and what I’m trying to do is make a business that is aimed to make constructive conversations around Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada’s issues, instead of saying this is a problem and that’s it. So I want to look at our problems and say… what can I do to help fix that?”
Thompson-Mackay has a lot of ideas and plans for the future, and said he loves business because he thinks it’s one of the best tools available to make an impact.
“Now I’m building this business because one issue that we have is the economy. So if I can employ people and bring talented people to the province, it will bring the economy back and we’ll be in a better place.”
Thompson-Mackay said the aim is to become a social enterprise that will earn revenue while addressing social issues and creating positive community change.
He would like to eventually have a portion of his sales directed to different non-profit organizations. “For whatever reason I’m given a lot of incredible opportunities, and because of that I always try to give back as much as I can,” he said.