The Mini-Blind King in Anchorage, AK, is a one-of-a-kind business. As regular readers of D&WC know, I have been privileged to learn the inside stories of thousands of business owners in this wonderful industry, but I have never seen one before quite like this one. The owners, Tom and Barbara Miller, have an exceptional sense of personal connection with their customers. They put their hearts and feelings into running the business. They are lovely people you enjoy sharing time with.
While this combination of qualities is rare, they are not one-of-a-kind. What is unique about Tom and Barbara is the way they have crafted their business to reflect their personal values and lifestyle. Sales are at a modest half-million-dollar level; yet, with low overhead and excellent profit, they have added support staff to give themselves a lifestyle others only can long for. Today, they have the flexibility to work reasonable hours and to travel throughout the year—Hawaii; Washington, DC; New York; California and other places they find pleasure.
COMMON STARTING POINT
While their business today is unique, Tom and Barbara started nine years ago as many do: selling blinds at low margin. They fought for a toehold, built their reputation and steadily improved profit margins (read that: raised prices). They added draperies and soft products to be known for ideas and distinction, not just commodity products. Of course, they gave great service and built an excellent reputation. Along the way, whether from intuition, learning from other dealers on incentive trips or just good horse sense, they did the right things to build a solid, highly profitable business that is a role model example for others.
The Millers are the subject of my column this month because they made the right decisions as to whom to hire, how to keep overhead low and how to lift themselves out of the competitive rat race. I think you will enjoy their story. Here it is in their own words as told to Cathy Guterman, my research assistant.
How did you start your business? What were your first years like?
After spending seven years working as partners in a retail decorating and upholstery business, then four years with family in a furniture store, we decided we would rather shop during the Christmas season instead of work in it.
In l995 we made a pivotal decision to take an 18-month hiatus to figure out just how we wanted to live our life and professional career. It was a soul-searching experience. Finally, we decided to start a home-based business—one that was flexible enough to raise our two boys and give us the freedom we wanted to pursue our passion for travel.
We started our business, New Vision Enterprises, in March of 1997 by $700 in samples on our credit card. We placed a small magnetic sign on our family van and charged out to offer window coverings and other interior services. However, within a couple of months we sensed the opportunity was in window coverings and decided to limit our focus mainly to blinds and hard window products.
We started with small ads in the yellow pages and local newspaper. We promoted with inexpensive flyers delivered by a door hanging service. We presented our business at home shows where we offered up to 70 percent discount and free installation. We used the slogan: Need blinds? Call 349-MINI.
LOW MARGINS GOT THE BUSINESS ROLLING
Gross margins in the first five years were around 33 percent. Tom Miller did most of the sales, installs and ordering. In time, Barbara helped with sales. “Because we took quite a lot of personal time off for travel, within a couple of years we began hiring part-time installers. After about five years, we hired an administrative assistant to manage the office and handle our work when we were away.
“By 2000 our sales were over $400,000. Then in 2001 we changed our business name to Mini Blind King. We had our van embellished with a bright look that gets lots of attention. Our intention was to create a unique and memorable impression through our graphics and fun. We didn’t want an overly serious approach to window coverings. In fact, our slogan, which people love, remember and repeat, is: ‘If it weren’t for Mini Blinds it would be curtains for everyone.’
When did you begin to change, and why?
Just a few years ago we decided to reach a better client that is not so price-driven so we could increase our margins. We needed more profit to enjoy travels and a good lifestyle. We set our business apart from the growing number of “trunk slammers.” We didn’t even know we were “slammers” until we heard it on a trip with other dealers in Mexico.
We also wanted employees to create business value beyond our personal involvement. This would prepare for the day when we may want to sell the business. We especially wanted freedom and time to give back to others as we have been given to. This meant we needed employees and we needed more profit margins to pay for them.
What other changes have occurred in the past five years?
One of our first changes was to develop a stronger relationship with Hunter Douglas, our main hard treatment supplier. Our goal was to be a more important account with pricing and customer service support to help us become more profitable. In 2006, we became a Hunter Douglas Showcase Priority Dealer. We also started to look for a few specialty suppliers to address specific customer’s needs.
In 2002, we met Neil Gordon on a dealer incentive trip and became instant friends. We sat around a swimming pool in Los Cabos, Mexico, and swapped stories about the business. Two years later, Neil told us about Exciting Windows!, a network of independent business owners he had joined. After learning about this new brand of shop at home service, and the training and education that was provided, we decided this system offered us the kind of business transformation we needed.
After joining in 2005, we began to offer full window fashion service, to include draperies along with blinds, shadings and shutters. After our first training, we returned home energized and confident that now there was hope for the real changes we desired.
What were the fears and feelings as you underwent the changes in your business?
First was our fear of can you teach an old dog new tricks? And will our customers accept, embrace the changes of adding draperies and increasing our price margins. And, can we? We were afraid of changing a system that worked OK for us before. We weren’t certain we could adapt to offering draperies and appealing to an upscale customer. It was a big question of uncertainty, but we believed it was right, so we took the risk and moved ahead.
What has the experience of change been like for you?
It has been a lot of fun getting back into the drapery and soft goods business. We really enjoy the association of the Exciting Windows! owners and members. The training and education we received has been invaluable in motivating and inspiring us to do better.
The biggest change is the renewed excitement we have about the window fashion industry and our association with other like-minded business owners. We all want to sell to better customers and get out of the blinds rat race. We still sell a lot of blinds and shadings, but it is combining blinds with the entire window that sets us apart from competition. Of course, we had to change our slogan. Today, we say: “If it weren’t for Mini Blinds it would be curtains for everyone . . . and now we do them too.”
Customers still appreciate the fun approach and are always making comments about the King and Queen of window coverings. Our customers also appreciate that we offer more ways to provide for their needs while working with a business they already know and trust.
Our profit margins have increased to levels that we could not have imagined before. We associate with the very best professionals in the window fashion industry who are willing to share and help us accomplish our goals. Before, we were uncertain and feeling stuck. Now we feel that we are on track and moving forward.
We have begun a graphic makeover of our business. In fact, we feel so strongly about positioning ourselves for upscale customers that we changed our business name to Exciting Windows! by Mini-Blind King. Our intention is to educate and inform our current and potential customers that we are a full-service window fashion business providing the very best products and services in the Anchorage area. In fact, we are starting now to develop franchised sales consultants throughout the entire state of Alaska.
How do you see your future ahead?
The future looks better and more hopeful than ever. We now know that we have the tools and support to create a business with value. We don’t feel like we’re walking around with a ball and chain. We love our freedom and find that our business can operate profitably with employees/contractors and managers under our supervision. Before, we had to do it all ourselves to receive the profit we needed.
We have recently been offered the right to develop Alaska with franchisees for Exciting Windows! It is another dimension of management and earning income as we share ideas and coach others to success. We could never be in franchising on our own, and under this system we receive the income from most all the franchise fees paid in Alaska. We love the network concept to develop Alaska and possibly help business owners in other states that we will mentor and support in their success.
If you were to go back to work for a large corporation, how much would the company have to pay you to work for them, instead of working for yourself?
I would need at least $150,000 annual salary with full benefits including three months paid vacation per year. (Smiling) You know, winters in Alaska are a good time to vacation, so we like the freedom of our own business to be flexible and travel as we like.
What would you tell other people about pursuing a career as a shop-at-home decorator?
There is not one business we know that we would trade for ours. We love our business, the freedom it allows us, the fun and satisfaction of helping our customers make their homes beautiful—and the customer’s friends as well. It is really more of a lifetime pleasure than conducting a business. I would recommend being a shop-at-home decorator to anyone that loves to decorate and wants to create a meaningful career.
GREAT EXAMPLE OF A GREAT BUSINESS
No question, Tom and Barbara Miller enjoy their business and their lifestyle. They are raising a fine family, enjoy flexible hours, a high standard of living, and more travel in a year than some may experience in a lifetime. I hope you meet them sometime.
Steven C. Bursten is the retired founder of Decorating Den Interiors and currently chairman/CEO of Exciting Windows! a national network of experienced window coverings professionals specializing in high quality shop-at-home service. He is the author of a how-to book on new business start up, “Bootstrap Entrepreneur” and is the co-founder and CEO of Window Coverings University and Window Coverings University—Online. Questions andcomments welcome: steveb@ExcitingWindows.com or
Although not the exact figures of Exciting Windows! by Mini-Blind King, the following are typical of a business similar to the Millers’ operated from home or low-overhead office
Typical Business Metrics
Annual sales range: $500,000
Monthly appointments: 25 – 35
Closing ratio: 75%
Average size of sale: $1,800
Gross profit range: 45%
Net profit range: 25 – 28%
Products and Service
Appointments: No charge
Products: Blinds only or balanced with draperies 30 to 40%
Business Location: Home based or office; no showroom
Employees: One office person