The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
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When Kent Southwell found out the Vancouver framing shop where he’d worked for more than a decade was being sold, he decided to open his own business.
The change from employee to entrepreneur took three years. During that time, he continued to work for the new owner, stockpiling equipment – mostly second-hand – in a storage locker and saving money until he was “ready to jump.” He opened Kent Picture Framing in late 2010 as a sole proprietorship with his own investment of $12,000.
“I named it Kent Picture Framing because people knew me by my first name,” says Mr. Southwell, 40. “My strategy was to provide great service, not to be the cheapest. I’ve built the business by word-of-mouth and turned a profit since the day I opened. We’re not 1-800-GOT-JUNK? in revenue but we’re getting there.”
With two employees and $320,000 in annual sales, the shop is busy, despite its second-floor location. However, it is centrally located only a block from Broadway and Granville Street, with street parking in front.
“The second floor is tough – I’m tired of lugging 50-pound boxes of glass panes up the stairs – but also very affordable,” says Mr. Southwell, who relies on Google for people to find him. “People don’t wander in randomly – they come specifically for a purpose. We don’t get window-shoppers.”
Mr. Southwell says he has quite a few corporate clients who require a large amount of framing and just found him online. He hired a professional to create a WordPress website for him – he had designed the first website himself – and found since then his business has a better ranking.
While he invested about $400 a month on Google AdWords in the beginning, he doesn’t spend much now.
“If it’s working, I don’t touch it,” Mr. Southwell says. “I’m on Twitter and Instagram and have a blog but don’t rely on those things. It’s really about old-fashioned service. I bend over backward trying to make customers happy. People send me customers so it’s been growing that way.”
Extras such as free pick-up and delivery, as well his hanging service, have made for happy customers and good reviews on sites such as Yelp. People also like to watch staff work in the shop, which is more like a studio.
“I think it’s important that people get to know you,” says Mr. Southwell. “Customers want to know the face behind the business. That can be both a plus and a minus because then they only want to deal with you.”
With the business growing, Mr. Southwell is trying to figure out what direction to go next. He wonders whether he should buy another existing framing shop – and just keep it as is without renaming it so it would seem like there are two owners. Or whether he should simply move to a bigger ground-floor spot or open a second Kent location?
“I built this business out of nothing,” he says. “Why can’t I do that across town or in Whistler or somewhere else?”
Brian Scudamore, founder and chief executive officer of international junk removal company 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, finds it odd that Mr. Southwell would buy another framing shop but not change it. He has built his own brands by having everything look identical with the same personality and feel. He recommends opening a second Kent shop so it could become the working prototype for a third, fourth and fifth.
“It puts him on his toes to figure out if he has a systematized business,” says Mr. Scudamore. “Are people coming to Kent because of Kent, the actual person, or does he have something special that he can systematize and teach others how to do? I don’t buy that somebody always wants to deal with the owner. If I go into a framing shop, I just care that I’m getting exceptional service.”
If Kent just expands by getting a bigger location on the ground level, Mr. Scudamore says that wouldn’t force him to test his system. It just makes him personally busier.
“You don’t want to be a genius with a thousand helpers,” he says. “You want to be able to replicate your success. Now, going into a new location, is Kent able to hire someone like him? Can he lead that person to build out a location in the same way he’s done with the great quality and personality of the first?
Too often businesses try and scale but don’t maintain control of their systems, Mr. Scudamore says. If they just hire someone and don’t really watch the business, things grow very differently and fall apart. The power of building a brand is the consistency of what customers would expect.
“It’s tough when you name a brand with your name because then people say, ‘Where’s Kent?’” says Mr. Scudamore. “You can’t clone Kent. I’d suggest it’s worth thinking about changing the name and doing it sooner rather than later.”
Brent Barr, a marketing instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says that if Mr. Southwell wants to replicate the same successful operational model in a new location, then extending that brand name makes sense.
But he also sees another option. If Mr. Southwell chose to purchase another framing business for the purpose of running that business, he could make the transition from the existing name to Kent Picture Framing in stages. Then he could take advantage of the goodwill that comes with buying a viable business.
He suggests making a new sign with the name of the existing business combined with his own. For example, the sign could say, ‘ABC Framing by Kent Picture Framing’ with Kent in smaller letters to introduce his brand so it’s obvious to their clients. Over the next year or two, he could make a couple of sign changes until it becomes Kent Picture Framing.
“That way the clientele looking for that business can be properly introduced to the Kent name,” says Mr. Barr. “He’s a cautious guy so that might appeal to him.”
Before expanding to a second location or moving to a bigger space, Berkeley Warburton, customer strategy lead for Accenture in Canada, suggests that Mr. Southwell get growth to the point where the numbers make sense and he’s at or over capacity to justify it.
She suggests he focus on leveraging strategic partnerships with schools or hotels within the area – or beyond in Whistler, B.C., and Victoria – to meet their continuing framing needs. For example, Mr. Southwell could cultivate relationships with the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University as their provider of choice for diploma mounting and framing, potentially giving students a small discount.
Also, Ms. Warburton suggests that Mr. Southwell be more active in getting others to share positive feedback about his services by making embedded Twitter and Facebook feeds obviously available to customers on his website.
“If people would post there, it’s great word of mouth,” says Ms. Warburton. “Our research shows that 47 per cent of consumers rely on others for their feedback in terms of their spending and buying habits. Kent Picture Framing has superior quality going for them so they should really exploit that and have people share and boast about their services. They don’t need to do it themselves.”
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