Before Vick Yau could even print his business cards, there were orders coming in for his company's product: an interior door that provides both ventilation and acoustic separation.
Mr. Yau, co-founder of VanAir Design, had the designs and materials needed to bring the company’s product to life, but costs were high and the production timetable was slow.
“We had outstanding orders for our product, but it dawned on us that if we wanted to make a real impact in the industry, we needed to fundamentally change how we planned to enter the market.”
After graduating from UBC, he and his business partner rented a workshop and we were able to produce roughly ten doors a week, he says. In contrast, large interior door manufacturers produce roughly 50,000 doors in the same time frame.
“This was clearly not sustainable for our future if we wanted to service commercial orders that were much larger in scale,” he adds.
VanAir Design needed access to manufacturing, distribution, sales, and marketing if the company wanted to make a sizeable impact in the industry.
Inspiration struck Mr. Yau, his business partner James Higgins and their teammates in Sept. 2012 while they were classmates in a UBC course called New Venture Design – an interdisciplinary program that brings together Sauder School of Business and engineering students to develop their ideas for products and services into viable startups.
“The concept we came up with garnered a lot of interest in the construction industry from architects, designers, mechanical engineers, facility managers and contractors,” explains Mr. Yau.
The VanAir team started by brainstorming ideas for the construction sector because they saw a growing demand for aesthetically pleasing, green and sustainable products. Mr. Yau and his colleagues recognized that people spend the majority of their day indoors – in office buildings, schools or at home – and air quality and circulation is an important health consideration.
"Half of the schools in the U.S. have indoor air quality problems and 60 per cent of homes are hazardous to their occupants’ health,” he says.
With sustainability, air quality and noise control in mind, VanAir’s doors combine enhanced function with aesthetic appeal.
“It allows air to flow through an enclosed space like a room or office while the door is shut, maintaining visual and acoustic privacy,” says Mr. Yau. “Building codes are changing to improve ventilation in buildings and we wanted to be there to provide solutions.”
Mr. Yau and Mr. Higgins’ first major break came when the pair won the Pacific Venture Capital Conference and Competition in 2013. It allowed VanAir Design access to investors, mentors and “with that, the opportunity became real and we decided to continue filling orders to see where it would take us,” says Mr. Yau.
The company decided to take on an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach to find a partner in the commercial door manufacturing business that shared their vision. This would allow them to fill orders, but also continue with product development.
In Feb. 2014, VanAir Design found its perfect match: Washington-based Lynden Door Inc. The partnership gave VanAir Design access to Lynden’s well-established manufacturing process that could yield higher production volume, quality control and cut down on overall costs. But it wasn’t all about the money. Lynden’s distribution networks and sales force, both in Canada and the U.S., could spread the word to a whole new group of potential clients.
“Price is one thing, the other is the reach and that’s something that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own,” says Mr. Yau. “These are established, mature channels that have been nurtured by this long-established company and we get to piggy-back off of their system”
“We’ve only announced our partnership recently and our footprint has grown significantly with Lynden Door’s presence in the industry,” says Mr. Yau, adding that queries from potential clients have gone up by more than 50 per cent since the partnership deal.
“People want to know us now,” he adds.
VanAir Design won the Prototype Design Award at the 2014 Interior Design Show West, which generated a lot of awareness and attention for their product.
“And now with Lynden Doors’ help with manufacturing we have the ability to fill any new orders and it makes us confident that we can sustain the growth ahead,” says Mr. Yau.
The cost to manufacture the doors has also dropped dramatically and the company is now able to make their product available at a more competitive price.
Negotiations are currently in the works with a major international hotel chain and Mr. Yau says his team feels confident more big players will follow once mass-scale production is up and running in the next month.
Paul Cubbon is a marketing instructor at the Sauder School of Business of the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Tuesday on the Report on Small Business website.
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