During the growth of a small business there are SO many challenges. Always a variety of issues going on and all at once makes an environment that is simply ripe for developing OCD behaviors. It is hard to be everywhere at once and everything to everyone on demand.
Between Human Resources, Health Insurance, Production, Processes, Branding, Marketing, Culture and well just keeping energized enough to keep it all going………….I feel that the first 3 years from 97 thru 2000 were really a bit of a blur. It was a matter of getting thru the day, the week, the month, and counting how many days in a row we had worked – rather than how many days we had had off.
OF COURSE you want to make money – be profitable – and GROW! Right? Who wouldn’t?
SO how fast to grow – how big to grow – how many products to sell – and how to decide whether to “niche” or “not.”
TO NICHE? – well, that requires RESTRAINT.
In other words – to decide what you will do, or conclude what it is that you do well, and then commit to doing only that. By the way – often what we think we do well isn’t in fact what we are best at……… beware the small business quicksand pit of doom, which is believing so completely in what you are doing that the voice of reason is lost.
Seems simple enough, right? Know what you do – do what you know! But it isn’t really that easy. Because no matter what, there will always be opportunities that present themselves to us as young companies, and it can be overwhelming to see “money on the table” and quite literally walk away from it.
An example. As a sewing business, it means that we have equipment in house to “sew” just about anything. But having the equipment and a general knowledge of textiles just isn’t enough to make a new related “sewn” product a good, productive or viable addition to the product line. If you have the ability to sew canvas boat covers, it doesn’t mean that you should sew canvas boat covers. For the three or four jobs you might get per year, you may, in fact, hamper your production line from being available to work on products that you make well and profitably.
Being niche also means selecting a client base and concentrating your energy and efforts on branding to, and listening to, that group alone. We have been approached on many occasions with lots of wonderful ideas of related (and unrelated) items that we could potentially sew. Here is a fun fiasco for you…………There was the “shower curtain” phase we went through early on, in the beginning when we weren’t sure who we were or what we were good at. Funny – because it seemed a good idea at the time – someone wanted shower curtains, and was willing to pay for them. Why not!!!?. We had people and sewing machines and knew where to buy light weight vinyl. So we got an order for 500 pcs of about 30 different sizes. Well – WHAT a nightmare. Not to mention that the client also expected them to the folded, bagged and labeled all within the quoted price. (ummmm. Packaging – certainly weren’t pros at that) In short, I didn’t ask all the right questions up front. The margins were impossibly lean while trying to compete with the mass market products being imported, and at some point I am certain that we had measured, sorted, remeasured and sobbed at least a dozen times before the shipment left the building. Never again. We had no business chasing work in a field that we knew nothing about.
That’s not to say that planned growth isn’t good. And that products added after adequate research and development aren’t a good idea. They can be. But ask the hard questions before you sign on the dotted line…. Not after.
Put simply, as a small business we are working too hard, too fast, without a balance of trusted decision makers in the mix, and often have to “jump” on opportunities when they arise. And within that 30 seconds the (often) bad decisions are made.
Relating this back to our growth directly – the decision to stay niche was one we ultimately felt most comfortable with. I came from a theatre lighting background. Adam, a touring pro, electrician and concert staging wiz. Without doubt the markets that we knew we could do well in were those that we “knew”. We knew the language, and the people. We knew the products and the requirements that the products needed to meet. It was a huge help to have hands on experience in the field where we wanted to sell. So for us it was to “niche” without any doubt.
TO CATALOG? Or not?
Killer shows don’t come from catalogs. That was always my opinion. Never wanted to be an order taker with people “calling in part numbers” to me – I always wanted to ensure that there was some creativity left in the product development AND the sales processes. A catalog to me always had this kind of dreamlike “Sears” effect. No connection for the buyer. Total detachment for the seller. It actually is a completely different sales skill set if you want to have a catalog company. The type of person you would hire who will thrive on selling in a non-creative environment will be a different type of hire to that which you would make, if you want the person to be involved at a design and development level. We were way too small to try and hire all types to run the business with such a broad stroke. So again – niche made the most sense. Catalog free. Unencumbered. Free to focus and explore as applicable.
Having read a plethora of business books on the subject of small business, I see we aren’t alone in the many challenges.
Once the decision was made that we would keep small, remain targeted, and under no circumstances would we chase the quick easy money of a related product without a full understanding of the potential negative influences it might bring – then things became easier. But we probably blew at least a couple of years making poor product decisions and trying our hand at too many products before we actually “got” there.
The ability to remain nimble has been due to keeping a limited number of staff, with the right skills and mind-set, and keeping ourselves to a limited specialty product line. Did you ever eat at Vince’s Spaghetti (Torrance CA)? They make and sell only about three meals – spaghetti, ravioli and lasagna. Red sauce – or meat sauce. Like it – or go elsewhere. Funny – but for 40 years now they have had a line in the lobby of people waiting. There is something to be said for doing just a few things well.
So we do drapes. Very well. But not any drapes. Drapes for Theatres and Concerts. Drapes for the Entertainment Industry. Drapes that will be lit, will travel, will tour, will rock and will roll.
You won’t be seeing any Sew What? drapes in our home windows any time soon. We don’t do residential drapery – not even for ourselves! It’s micro blinds all the way……..