Shawn Moulenbelt is a veteran, Michigan native, and business owner. Always having a knack for working with his hands, Moulenbelt turned his knife-making hobby into a business he calls 51 Bravo.
By: Chad Howell
Being the first-born older brother, Shawn Moulenbelt always knew what it was like to have a sense of responsibility. Moulenbelt grew up in West Michigan and went on to join the military – spending a total of 8 years between the Army and National Guard. During that stretch, the values that come along with having responsibilities were solidified. He later attended Western Michigan University and earned a degree in Construction Management with a minor in business. After spending many years working in construction and remodeling, Moulenbelt fell in love with a new hobby: knife-making. Through the help of the MVE-Lab and his support system – 51 Bravo was born. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Moulenbelt and discuss his journey so far.
When did you know you wanted to run your own business?
A: I always knew it in the back of my mind the entire time. I was just too nervous to do it myself – too worried about the security, benefits, 401k, etc. that come with having a steady job. I always wanted to but it took me until my 40s to make the actual jump.
Can you speak on your time in the service and how that shaped yourself as a businessman?
A: Growing up I always felt a sense of responsibility to my family being the first-born – taking care of my brothers, making sure I had a job, and fulfilling my responsibilities. My time in the service simply reinforced all those habits of responsibility. The biggest thing it gave me was a point of reference. It was hard, there are always rough times I can point to in my Army days that I lived through with everyone else. I’ve been able to use that as a baseline to know that whatever hard times I’m going through in life, I know I’ve been trained for worse.
What exactly is 51 Bravo?
A: 51 Bravo exists to create heirloom quality knives worthy of being passed down for generations to come. Knife-making is a hobby of mine and as a sportsman we value tradition. Knives (or other sport weapons) are often handed down from someone in your family and you can always look back and value those times, while also looking forward to the next time. The passing down of the knife is a ceremonial thing, knowing that someone you love valued it. That’s a big part of what drives the knives I make. I want the knife to obviously serve a purpose, but I love when it has a piece of that individual.
51 Bravo started out as making and selling knives – but has led to instruction. During COVID-19, I turned my barn into my new forge and also became a certified construction apprentice instructor. I taught a few classes in underserved communities on construction basics, and I enjoyed that, so I translated that to 51 Bravo. I now teach knife-making classes (Knife University) which has been great for instruction and can double as a team building outing for the group. My business has also seen help from the MVE-Lab in connecting with other veterans, and I like that piece of my journey as well.
How did it all start?
A: My brother got me into knife-making, I’ve always been into construction. My brother was making knives and would bring them home because he knew I would always use them. After a few years, he began making the leather sheaths for knives to store in, because he found that nobody wants to make those – and if they do, they are usually poor quality. He’s a Marine veteran and is fully down the leather path now. So that led me to start making knives and improving with each new knife I make. To this day I still make changes, new designs, etc. I also started to make carving knives after interacting with the hand-carving community. I’m fortunate to have world class carvers give me guidance and advice on what changes to make in my designs to improve them. The knife world is so big, I still don’t feel that I’m at the tip of the iceberg with my knife business.
I’m lucky enough that my wife works full time and has benefits, which allowed me to pursue this. Once I began making a decent amount of money from 51 Bravo, I began to take it more seriously as a business while still doing carpentry on the side. I hope to keep building the business to a point where I can go full time. I was also fortunate to go on the TV Show Forged In Fire which put a spike in the business. It also gave me some credibility and added to my reputation, while also fostering a ton of great relationships. I’ve found many connections and friends within the knife community.
You’re very active on social media – can you elaborate on the importance that has on your business?
A: It’s simply the amount of people you can reach in such a short order. There is no way to reach that many people in a grassroots order. Facebook has become a little murky recently, but you can still use it for the intent of promoting a business and getting your information out there. Facebook is where I get a lot of business, but I am starting to do more on Instagram. I’ve found that Instagram is more about building relationships and spreading the brand, whereas Facebook has those who are on it for a reason, such as ‘I want to buy a knife’ or ‘take a class’. Both are very valuable.
With your history in construction and as a bladesmith, was there a learning curve for you on the business side of things?
A: I’ve been down just about every route – military, trades, junior college, 4-year degree, etc – and I’ve learned there’s no one way to get anywhere. I’m glad I had my construction management degree because I had to get a business minor. That has helped me a lot in running a business. So, I knew the business end of my construction work and that has been able to translate to 51 Bravo. It’s one thing to be good at what you do, and it’s a whole other thing to turn it into a business. It is also very helpful to build relationships and connections because you can help each other out with different aspects of your business – and I’ve learned that through MVE. The veteran community is great, I often run everything through MVE and Julie Cowie (MVE-Lab coordinator) to check with the veteran community for help. Organizations like that are important.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
A: In running a business, you have to be good at handling cash flow. The more creative you are with cash flow, you can get more things done, have more influence, etc. Also, I wish I would’ve done it earlier. Just have faith in yourself and know you can do it. You don’t have to work for someone. I used to think the guy in charge must be smarter than me, because he’s got his own business – but that’s furthest from the truth. If you’re good at what you do, go do it. And go do it for yourself sooner rather than later. But don’t be afraid to seek out counsel from more qualified individuals.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: I always say I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long to go on my own. So just do something. Don’t be frozen with fear. Don’t just say ‘one of these days’ because you just don’t know. I have a rule in my house called the ‘bus rule’: every time you leave or hang up the phone you have to say ‘I love you’ because next thing you know, you could get hit by a bus. You just don’t know. Don’t just think ‘as soon as I get married, as soon as I have kids, as soon as I do this, I’ll be ready’. You’re never gonna be ready – so just take a baby step every day. You can get a lot done without putting a lot on the line by seeking counsel. Just start having conversations, seek out resources, even just join a Facebook group. Start collecting information now, even while working your day job. Work your day job and keep learning for your own business – because your stuff doesn’t feel like work.
Relationships are key. As a veteran, I’m in my 50s now and I never looked at all that is available for a veteran. There are so many good and (often) free programs for veterans. So many people are willing to help. I can’t stress enough how important relationships are. I really felt that through the MVE-Lab. Julie Cowie has been the greatest mentor I could ask for. Not only should you ask for advice – but be liberal with yours. Pay it back, those people will always value you. And there will a come a time when you need them too.
Shawn Moulenbelt was a participant in the MVE-Lab accelerator which exists to provide Veterans with guidance and opportunities to launch their business. You can check out 51 Bravo on their website and through this video. Also click here to learn more about the MVE-Lab.