Steve Walton is a self-admitted “contrarian.” There are some things he just won’t do: He won’t open a storefront retail outlet, he won’t fabricate his own products, he won’t hire employees, he won’t mislead his customers into thinking he’s something he is not, and he won’t sell poor quality products or accept them from suppliers.
On the other hand, Walton will do what other window coverings dealers can’t,
or won’t. He’ll drive 30 miles roundtrip to level a customer’s
shade, he’ll work on large skylights and difficult motorization projects.
He’ll even work with clients across the country through his Web site. It’s
all part of the service he offers through Shades Of The Future, Beaverton, OR.
Walton sold his first mini-blind in 1979 and incorporated in 1991. He has done
remodeling and sold carpeting and alarm systems, but now concentrates solely
on window coverings and has been much happier for it. Shades Of The Future is
a full-service hard window treatments business that also includes Roman shades.
Walton is a hard treatments specialist. “I carry a couple of fabric books,” he
says, “but I’m not an interior designer, I don’t profess to
be one, and I tell customers I’m not. On occasions I partner with interior
designers. That’s their specialty. Many interior designers want to work
with me because I have my specialty.”
Walton operates his business out of a home office, a mini-van and on the Internet.
Except for contracted installers, he does it all himself and that’s just
the way he likes it. He works personally with very customer. “I’m
on-site from the sales call to the installation. I’m there with my installer
if I don’t personally install it. If there is a warranty issue, I will
go out and handle that.”
Shades Of The Future works mostly with residential clients, although sometimes
a big commercial job will come along and skew the percentages. Last year, for
example, Walton did one local commercial job that was highly profitable and made
“It’s an important part of my business,” he says, “but
it’s not a part that I can just count on getting so much commercial business
this year. They tend to be larger projects and they tend to be harder to close.”
IT’S ALL RIGHT THERE
In lieu of a retail showroom, Walton has his home and his home office. A low-key
sign on an outside entrance between his home and garage indicates the Shades
Of The Future office. Walton designed the space with his business in mind when
he built the house and did much of the work himself. For the few times prospects
stop in (by appointment) they can see 11 shade and blind product categories displayed
there with variant styles within each category for a total of 21 different mounted
What was designed as the two- by four-foot center section of a show booth is
there and serves as a display when not needed in the booth. It is backlighted
with a beautiful view of Mt. Hood and displays five layers of window coverings,
which can be operated individually.
Most of the time Walton meets with clients in their homes. He gets there using
one of his best marketing tools: a 2002 mini-van with “substantial” signage
featuring graphics supplied digitally by his major suppliers. The signage itself
was a $400 investment that quickly paid for itself. “I have a current appointment
with someone I’ll be meeting with later this week who’s mother saw
my van driving down the road after I left the Chamber of Commerce meeting,” Walton
explains. Potential customers also see the van in neighborhoods where yard signs
aren’t allowed when he’s working on homes there.
Other than that, Walton says only that he spends very little money on yellow
page ads—they’re too overpriced and all his competition is listed
In one sense, that pretty much describes Shades Of The Future, and it suits Walton
just fine. “I’m happy where my business is,” he says. “To
get the next employee I’d have to double my business. I’m not interested
in that. I’m not going to run a showroom that’s going have to be
staffed with uninformed people.”
CASTING A WIDER ’NET
But it’s not just the “what” that’s important. It’s
also the “how.” Walton’s style of business is to leverage today’s
emerging electronic technology with common-sense marketing to keep overhead low.
And Walton has done this with great success.
Maintaining a lean business is especially important in Walton’s home market
of Portland, Oregon’s Silicon Forest. Although a high activity area in
terms of building, with more going on in a 30-minute drive of Shades Of The Future
than anywhere else in the state, the greater Portland area is suffering badly
economically. Intel is the big employer here, and it’s no longer hiring.
As an example of the business climate, Walton tells of a job involving a $400
million-plus chip manufacturer moving into the area. He did all the blinds in
the large office space and motorized draperies with remote control in the boardroom.
The company got caught when the technology bubble burst. It never opened for
business and never produced a single chip (although Walton did get paid for the
job). “That’s an extreme, but real case,” he says.
That kind of situation, of course, dampens sales potential not only for Shades
Of The Future, but also for interior designers, furniture dealers and home theater
companies that often would refer business to Walton.
To survive this situation it helps to have a mature business, be somewhat cushioned
from these extreme cases and “cast a wider net,” Walton advises.
“If you’re all into one area, maybe you get 80 percent of your business
from the yellow pages, for example, if that dries up on you you’re dead.
You have to cast a wider net with your marketing efforts. You have to be a smarter
business and not have too much overhead.
“My theory is to keep my overhead low. I’m always looking for new
avenues. That means I’m branching out, and I’m starting to dabble
in this Web site thing I’ve had for about four years. There’s still
plenty of business, you just have to look further for it.”
The use of technology includes the Internet, e-mail, digital cameras, cell phones
and cell phones with video capabilities. Walton points out that the rapid, worldwide
embracing of these technologies, and society’s willingness to learn how
to use these systems and abandon old practices, has all come about in less than
a decade. “How can you not be in awe?” he asks.
Walton built his original 13-page Web site in 1999 using Front Page 98. His current
30-page Web site was completely rebuilt in January of this year by a professional
using DreamWeaver. He does all the Web site maintenance using a software tool
called Contribute, which Walton admits is not terribly easy.
Doing business on the Web has its downside: there are just as many people looking
to shop you, and customers can be difficult to close. But Walton tells of several
good jobs he’s landed through the Internet.
“A Portland architect found a shading solution on a New Zealand Web site,
then found my site. He sent me the link and asked if I had the products pictured.
I do. I met the architect, then met his client here at the office, and will probably
get the job for April 2004.
“A Portland upscale loft buyer found me on the Web and phoned while still
on my site. ‘Did I have a sunscreen solution?’ Yes, just look on
my portfolio page at this certain photo and you will see a picture of a job already
completed (in his building). He sent me an electronic sketch of his loft, I bid
it, he accepted in principle, we set the appointment and the job closed.”
Other recent jobs thanks to the Internet include a BTX motorized skylight shade
in Vermont using verticals installed flat across the opening, manual skylight
Roman shades for a townhouse near Chicago, and Castec blackout roller shades
for windows in a California home theater.
Walton tracks visitors to his Web site using a statistical tool that costs him
about $5 a month. From it he learns where visitors come from, what key words
were used to find his site, when they visited the site, and what their search
page looked like when they decided to enter his site.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
Walton makes it a point to be as knowledgeable as he possibly can about every
product he carries or considers carrying. It’s important to his customers,
and it’s important to his business. He actively seeks out new products
and information from manufacturer representatives asking questions and willingly
giving his input—especially if there is a quality control problem. “Manufacturers
are going to have to start listening to their customers and we, as the retailers,
are going to have to reject inferior products, speak up and tell the manufacturers
we won’t accept poor quality. Would you as the retailer pay the price you
are charging for the window covering you are installing? If not, don’t
ask your customer to accept it,” he says.
One of Walton’s current quests is for a new, usable product for sliding
glass doors. Something besides either vertical blinds or vertical pleated shades.
An area Walton has become particularly well versed in is motorization. It’s
one of those things his competition can’t or won’t do. “It
not only sounds difficult, it is difficult,” he says. “Even if you
have training in it, every job is unique. You have to know the basics of how
the thing works, but you’re almost always going have to ask, ‘How
do you want this controlled?’
“They call up and say, ‘I want an electric blind.’ But is it
going to be controlled by the home theatre system? Is it going to be controlled
by a wall switch? Will it be controlled by a remote control? All these things?
Where are the switches going to be located? How will the shades be grouped? These
are all the things people don’t think about, but you have to get answers
to those questions because then they ask, ‘What’s the price on this?’ Well,
you can’t just give a price on this. It’s like going to a car dealer
and asking, ‘How much are your cars?’
“You have to ask the customer how they want it to work. Then you have to
understand what they are telling you. Then you have to decide which vendor is
best to solve this problem for the customer and present it to the vendor and
have them give you a quote. Then you have to go back to the customer and explain
Walton adds that in many cases he also has to work with the electrician on a
job. One project comes to mind: a gymnasium with windows very high up with a
complex wiring scheme to make it work as the customer wanted. The electrician
worked on a lift for a week on the wiring runs. After the wiring work began,
Walton visited the project with a pair of binoculars to see if the junction boxes
were in the right places. It’s not uncommon, it seems, for an electrician
to put a junction box right where a bracket needs to go. On this job, everything
was fine. “He was a pro!” Walton says.
One thing seems to frustrate Walton in the area of motorization, however. He’s
searching for more advanced training. He already understands the basics. “I’m
not that smart in this stuff,” he confides, “but I’m above
the entry level person, and they gear all these classes to the entry level.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT PRICE
Another thing Walton won’t do is get business by offering the lowest price—even
though he has to be price-sensitive. “If I wasn’t price competitive,
I wouldn’t be in business 22 years,” he says. “You have to
be price-competitive. You don’t always have to be the lowest-priced person
on the block. I’m not going to be the lowest price around because there’s
always someone who will be lower on almost anything you’re shopping for.
There are people who can’t pay today’s bills and they need that deposit
to pay yesterday’s invoices.
“I’m not that kind of person. I run my business in a proper way,
I make a decent amount of money and I will be business for you when you call
Walton takes price out of the sales equation by providing solutions and by being
an expert in what he offers. “You simply have to know your product line,
you have to be an absolute expert in it. If you go in to someone’s house
and hesitate, or waffle, or don’t know how to handle the situation or what
to suggest in every case, if you show any fear or doubt they will read you and
they will not buy from you.
“You have to understand. You have to pour over the books when they come
out. You have to go get training. You have to understand the system. Then you
have to convey this to the customer so that they will want to buy from you and
price becomes far less of an issue. They probably will have a couple other people
come in and they’ll see that lack of understanding, that I’ve-been-in-business-for-a-year
kind of attitude and they won’t buy from them.
“Then you have to deliver from that point on out. I drove on Sunday afternoon
to level somebody’s shade that was off by three-eights of an inch. It wasn’t
even a warranty thing. It was to keep them happy. You have to follow through
with all those steps. If you are really successful people will see that, they
will talk about you, they will refer you. It doesn’t happen overnight.”