Creative control

Published On: March 1, 2023Categories: Features

Mike Charlton begins most weekdays with a leisurely cup of coffee on his back porch with his wife and business partner, Rachel Charlton, in Yorktown, Va. They typically leave for work by 9 a.m., where they fabricate custom marine canvas projects until 5 p.m.—at the latest. 

Mike and Rachel Charlton have prioritized flexibility in their lives and in their business. Article photography by Brian Newson Photography.

If they’re a few minutes late, no employee (or employer) is taking note. If one of their two daughters has car trouble or gets sick during the day, they don’t think twice about leaving the shop to help her. And if their projects are on schedule and their family boat is calling, they lock up early and set sail for the rest of the day.

Flexibility like this doesn’t come without risk, determination or time; after years of working overtime for others with little to show for it, Charlton crafted the lifestyle he dreamed of when he founded Charlton’s Marine Canvas in the summer of 2016. And he’ll never take it for granted. “What we love most about our business is the freedom it gives us,” Charlton says. “We control the business; it does not control us.”

Less is more

Charlton grew up working for his parents’ business, Charlton’s Mobility Center, adapting vehicles for people with disabilities. When they sold the business, he pivoted into a role at a local marine canvas shop, inspired by his lifelong passion for sailing. These experiences helped shape Charlton’s definition of both personal and professional success as he determined which aspects to preserve and avoid in his next career move—opening his own marine canvas shop.

“It was one of the hardest and scariest decisions I’ve ever made but also one of the best,” Charlton says. “I burned myself out working for other people, and I knew I didn’t want to live the rest of my life like that. Before making the jump, my wife and I had to adjust to the mindset of being OK with losing everything. And once we did, everything got easier. Now, I’m making more money and working less.”

“One of the biggest strengths of our business is the fact that we keep it small, allowing us to truly customize each product.”

Charlton Marine Canvas opened as a full-service canvas shop, but boat enclosures comprise at least 75% of the business today. To allow for more creativity and attention to detail, Charlton is intentional about which projects he takes on and unafraid to turn down business he doesn’t deem profitable or unique enough to pursue. 

Decreasing his hours and projects has increased the quality of his work. “One of the biggest strengths of our business is the fact that we keep it small, allowing us to truly customize each product. People are often scared to turn money down, but if you’re four or five months booked out, you shouldn’t be; you should start picking and choosing the good jobs—the ones that make you happy,” Charlton says, noting that his location near the Chesapeake Bay is also a contributing factor to his success. “There’s more work to be done in this area than any of us canvas shops can handle.”

Better is possible

An optimal address can only carry a business so far, however; Charlton’s boating expertise and creativity set him apart from the surrounding competition. [See pages 30 and 37 for Charlton’s Marine Canvas’ 2023 MFA Excellence Award-winning projects.]

Sailing every weekend since he was a child helped Charlton develop a level of knowledge—and enthusiasm—about boats that surpasses the knowledge base of many customers and local canvas shop employees. “I know exactly how a sailor is going to sail their boat, where the lines are going to come through the enclosure and how they’re going to use it, so I design based on that,” he says.

There’s also the fact that Charlton is never not thinking about boats. “I’m constantly dreaming up new ideas that have never been done before; my mind does not seem to rest. Money is an important part of having a business, but I really care about the work itself. Every job is an art piece to me. I am always asking, ‘How can we do this differently?’ ‘How can we make this look better?’ Sometimes I’m even more excited than the customer about all the ways a project can enhance not only their boat but their experience on the water.”

The skills he honed while working for his parents kick into overdrive here. “That job taught me that no matter what challenge you are presented with, there is always a creative way to solve it. We made sure every customer could drive, no matter what disability they had,” Charlton recalls. “I have taken this attitude into my business as well. We don’t give up, no matter how complicated a project becomes.”

Happiness is key 

Charlton and his wife typically design, construct and install two to five projects a month. They build flexibility into a specific time frame for each one to ensure they don’t feel rushed and the customer has clear expectations for a completion date. 

If a job takes three days, for example, they’ll book it for five days. If they finish early, they get a jump-start on the next one and the customer gets a pleasant surprise. “I’ve never been late on a job using this strategy,” Charlton says. “Plus, I keep my freedom and prevent the stress of customers continually calling to ask if their project is done yet.”

Less stress is the ultimate goal for Charlton and his wife. “The happier and less stressed we are, the more successful we feel,” Charlton says. “Money’s great, but what makes me happy is having time to be present with my family.”

Charlton emphasizes this point when he talks with other business leaders, and he encourages them to rethink what they’re compromising. “I’m not driving a BMW or living in a four-bedroom house on the beach like some of the people who tell me they’re struggling. Instead, I am living more moderately and focusing my time on the activities and people I love,” he says. “I urge others to think about what makes them happy and how that aligns with their definition of success. For me, success is achieving your goals by working less—not more. And every risk I’ve taken to attain it has been more than worth it.” 

Holly Eamon is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

SIDEBAR: The secret stitch

When it comes to marine fabrication, Mike Charlton, owner of Charlton’s Marine Canvas, Yorktown, Va., has no greater pride or pleasure than designing one-of-a-kind projects that pop. His favorite to date is a 25-foot Parker center console enclosure he and his wife and business partner, Rachel, installed on their personal boat.

They incorporated a padded diamond pleat into the enclosure panel, which was unlike anything they had seen before. The project took a week of practice to complete because stitching a diamond pleating causes the fabric to shrink.

“If you were stitching diamond pleating into a 12-by-12-inch piece of fabric, it might be 11 by 11 inches when you’re done,” Charlton explains. “But the enclosure had a surrounding border that had to remain flat. And it’s all one piece of canvas. So, after a lot of trial and error, I used a secret strategy I’m not ready to give away. People still tell me it looks impossible.”

A local Parker boat seller saw the design on Charlton’s boat and requested it for his own boat—and the marina owner who saw that boat then asked Charlton to make him one as well. “Now everyone buying a boat there is going to see this unique design on his boat and consider paying us top dollar to achieve a more exclusive look,” Charlton says.
“It’s like the Louis Vuitton® bag of enclosures.”

SIDEBAR: Business marketing advice

Although we maintain a website, 100% of our work comes from social media and word of mouth.

Facebook and Instagram are the big ones; they make it really easy for me to showcase all the work we’ve done—and really easy for people to view and share my content.

To gain traction, I tag people in the boating community—the charter fishing groups, for example. A lot of customers (and potential customers) are following their accounts, so I post the photos of the boats I work on, add a fun description and tag them. They think it’s really cool and share it on their accounts too. Then their followers share it and it spreads like wildfire.

I’ve paid for targeted advertising on both platforms in the past, but I get more reach with the personal touches from tagging people—and it’s free!”