The Smallwoods Story

When Josh Smallwood tells the story of how he turned a two-person, rustic frame operation in a tiny shed into over a hundred-million dollar custom art operation employing over 300 people in East Texas, he usually tells the short version of the story: He graduated from business school, tried accounting, didn't like it, and took a big risk to start his own company.

But the real story goes back much further. It's a story with struggle and triumph, once-in-a-blue-moon setbacks and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, with an unmistakable element of magic-meets-merit woven throughout. It's not an easy story. It’s a story where hard work and preparation matter, but often aren’t enough on their own. It's a story about a difficult childhood where family, stability, and basic necessities were often hard to come by. But it's these stories that taught Josh how important fairness, family and stability are—and the drive to provide that quality of life for himself, his family, and his employees is what makes Smallwoods so unique today.  

Humble Beginnings

If you'd told a teenage Josh Smallwood that he'd one day choose to build a home and business in East Texas, he wouldn’t have believed you. That’s because at the time, all teenaged Josh wanted was to get out.

Josh had spent his early years not really having a place to call home. Growing up in East Texas with his parents meant growing up fast and fending for himself, witnessing his family caught in cycles of drug abuse and prison sentences. They moved around often and for years the only person Josh could count on was his older brother, Dustin—now the General Manager at Smallwoods—who stood by Josh and protected him. Childhood for them meant the police finding you on the steps of your trailer while your parents produced drugs. Poor, neglected, abused and abandoned, Josh Smallwood's life at that time was anything but homey.

Life was difficult. But there was one thing Josh loved about his childhood--something that took his mind out of the grind of surviving and gave him moments of real joy. A farm. Josh didn't know it then, but the time he spent on his grandpa's farm would change his outlook — and his future. Looking back, his experiences on the farm laid the foundation of the Smallwoods brand: a love of East Texas, care of the land, the importance of family, and a lived-in knowledge of what every day working people are up against in their effort to provide for their loved ones.

Josh graduated high school, immediately went on to college to study accounting, began building a family with his wife Holly, worked several jobs, and attended night school. Holly studied nursing and graduated with a nursing degree, and Josh went on to earn his MBA. While going through the motions and trying to build a stable life for his family, he eventually realized he was living someone else’s life. It wasn't him.

Framing The Business

Josh knew he wanted to do his own thing. But he didn't know what that thing was yet—and he didn't have a ton of real-life experience. He knew he was a hard worker. So he worked. Hard. Josh's big break actually came in the form of a few small breaks—none of which looked too promising at the start. Then finally in 2012, he executed on an idea that would change the trajectory of the entire Smallwood family.

Josh started a small framing business where a newly formed team of employees would huddle up in a 12 by 20 foot garage stall, and cut up old barn wood to make rustic frames. They’d then slap an old John Wayne print onto the backing and sell them to western decor retail stores. It wasn't a glamorous beginning—and Josh had no idea where he was going with it. But he had a hunch that he could make this into something different—something big. From these humble origins, Smallwoods was born.

Like virtually all small businesses, things didn't happen all at once. Instead, Josh kept an agile business model, following his gut and responding from one market opportunity to the next. But he had noticed something. There was a void when it came to providing families with affordable custom home décor. People wanted to personalize their home with a product of uncompromised quality, and at an affordable price. The company first began stenciling inspirational quotes on wood and selling them through Facebook and via a self-managed website. It was 2013, and everything was very DIY across the company, from installing their own PayPal links on the website to processing hundreds of invoices one at a time. Eventually, Josh began hiring friends from high school to help with operations and grow the business with every opportunity available. But he didn't just see it as a growth opportunity for himself. He always saw it as a way to lift up his family members, friends, and community and make Smallwoods an energetic, thriving family business.

Trial By Fire

Business took off. Smallwoods was hiring more and more people, making new and exciting products, and investing in new technology and machinery. All of Smallwoods’ operations were finally consolidated under one roof—complete with a woodshop, a coating and stain department, printing, and shipping department. Even better, the location was a place for people to gather and enjoy each other’s company.

Outside of work, Josh’s family life was growing and thriving as well. He and Holly had long shared a dream of what they wanted life for their family to look like. A dream of building their own house—a special home on rural property just like the farm Josh’s grandpa owned as a kid. By 2015, that dream was coming to life. They had saved enough money to purchase 80 acres of land outside of Longview, and Josh began designing the property using Microsoft Paint. As a family they cleared brush, restored the land, planted trees, and dredged a big gurgling stream.

It had been a long journey, and everything was finally coming together.

But Josh didn't have time to celebrate—and many of the new machines he had recently invested in would never have a chance to run. One night, Josh got a phone call from the local fire department — the Smallwoods building was on fire. Josh rushed to the building, and when he got there, the building was engulfed. Josh knew without having to ask. His building was gone. And his dream—closer to being realized than ever before—had just gone up in smoke.

Faced with such a blow, most people would spend time licking their wounds. But as Josh stood in the parking lot that night, he knew his people needed him. No matter what happened, he needed them to know they still had jobs—and their future was secure.

The fire wouldn’t destroy Josh Smallwood or the Smallwoods team. It would refine them. Josh drew on the strengths he’d developed during childhood. He’d learned to project calm and stay calm, and that attitude was reassuring to his employees. With hard work, focus, and resiliency, the team was able to get all the departments running. The company was back in business in just three days, and not one order was missed.

The Smallwoods team took the temporary setback as a chance to be the tight-knit work family they’d always talked about being, using it to come together, to rebuild, but also to reimagine. What should have been an ending was instead an opportunity to rebuild bigger and better.

The fire had created an opportunity to take stock and make sure they were doing the work the right way. In 2019, the team invested in proactive customer service, more quality control, and began researching automation processes so customers could create unique, customizable artwork.

People Over Profits

With a resurrected business, stronger than ever after facing debilitating difficulties, it would be understandable for Smallwoods to slow down with a well-earned sense of pride. But for Josh, the dream was never just about the work, the revenue, or the business. He wanted to create a culture where his employees felt valued, inspired and supported—beyond just picking up a paycheck. He wanted to create a community where his friends, families, and co-workers could set down roots in the Texas land of his childhood, and—more importantly—make sure his employees had the stability and support he didn’t have growing up.

So Josh started buying up land around the home he and Holly had built. The Smallwoods family went from 80 to over 240 acres of beautiful Texas land to call their own. And in 2020, they broke ground on another dream: a 1-million square foot work campus with a beautiful glass building looking out onto the gorgeous landscape. Against everything he'd imagined as a kid, Josh was back in East Texas, creating a space for his employees to take in the beauty of the place he'd always sworn he'd leave.

Josh Smallwood is a firm believer that companies should support their workers both on and off the clock. He wants work to be human, to be fulfilling, and to be inspiring. With his interest in permaculture, he's building a working farm on the Smallwood’s property. The animals help restore the land, and employees get high-quality, farm-fresh food from the land where they will soon work and spend their time. It's a self-sustaining, all-around win for everyone, and is just one part of what makes the Smallwoods family unique in their vision and purpose. It’s an above and beyond approach to company culture, but to Josh, it’s worth it.

For Josh, Smallwoods is about a commitment to what is truly valuable—not just profitable. It’s about taking time to think comprehensively and long term about things of lasting value and meaning. It’s a commitment to taking rough starts and humble beginnings, difficult trials and unforeseen setbacks, and using them to think better, bolder, and with more humanity.