We all learn valuable insights by hangar flying—listening to colleagues who have walked the walk and earned the right to talk the talk. In continuing efforts to bring real live stories of window coverings professionals who have built a classic, successful business, I am pleased to bring you one of my favorites this month, with thanks to Cathy Guterman for conducting the interview. I first met Judy Wilfong, Winchester, VA, some years back. She started business in the 1980s after reading articles in D&WC as research. Steadily over the years she has taken risks to move her business to the next level, again and again.
If you are looking for more profit and more time in your business, there is no better model than Judy Wilfong. As you read the story below, watch for the critical factors that led to her success. (They are summarized in the sidebar.)
HOW DID YOU START YOUR BUSINESS?
Before starting my own home-based business in 1984, I worked for a small drapery workroom and learned how to construct and sew window treatments. After three years, I left that job to become a decorator and assistant manager in a shop in my community that sold window treatments, carpeting, wallpaper and paint.
During that time, I discovered a stack of Draperies & Window Coverings magazines that were hidden under the cash register . . . and I started reading all of Steve Bursten’s articles about running a small home-based business. They were written in a very clear and straightforward manner—and gave me a great deal of valuable information. I remember thinking . . . I can do this, and the seeds were planted.
I also utilized a great service in my community called SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), a non-profit program that paired people seeking business advice with retired upper management executives. The wise gentleman who counseled me kept telling me to do my market research and make sure there was a niche for my products and services. As it turned out, the timing was great. There were only two interior designers in town; one was JC Penney and a small window treatments store that sold ready-mades. The “hole” in the market for my kind of business was there and I jumped onboard!
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST YEARS LIKE?
They were thrilling and scary at the same time! I was thrilled to gain my customers’ trust, but frightened that they wouldn’t be pleased with the finished results. It took me a few years to really gain confidence that I could deliver all that I promised. The learning curve in this business was pretty scary. I needed to keep educating myself about new products, designs and selling techniques, so I’d read all the literature I could on the subject of window fashions and really focused on learning the business. I devoured D&WC each month from cover to cover—ads and all!
In my first year, I turned my upstairs attic into an office/workroom, bought a $50 desk, spent $200 on samples, took out a weekly ad in my local newspaper, rented a billboard and took to the road in my 1961 green Rambler! I was officially in business as a shop-at-home consultant selling window treatments and wallpapers!
WHAT HAVE BEEN
YOUR MOTIVES TO CHANGE?
A continued effort to hone my craft and develop as a designer has been major motivator for me. The ability to earn more money and create more time for myself was another turning point.
When I realized that I couldn’t sell it, sew it and make a profit, I had to make some changes. That was when I decided to get out of the sewing business and hire a workroom to handle this aspect of the job. I realized early on that when you start to sew, you cease to sell.
I’ve also found that my desire to really serve my customers well has been a catalyst for great change in both my personal and business growth. Today, 88 percent of my work is repeat business and customer referrals—and this to me is where I get my greatest satisfaction. I really love working with my customers to make their homes more beautiful!
WHAT CHANGES HAVE OCCURRED IN YOUR BUSINESS OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS AND WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS (AND FEARS) AS YOU UNDERWENT THESE CHANGES?
I hired my sister, Joanna, to be my “inside girl” and handle all the paper work. What a difference that made! We prayed a lot, asked for help and within a year, our business structure went from chaotic to smooth sailing! Joanna took the stress off of me and I was able to really get out there and sell.
Almost four years ago, I became a member of Exciting Windows! national network. As one of the company’s business advisors and an area manager, I’ve found it both humbling and thrilling to shift from seller to teacher—not only in the decorating area, but also as an advisor in the business arena.
Another great change occurred two and half years ago when my daughter, Holly, came into my business as a full-time decorating consultant. At first, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough work for the two of us. But with a master’s degree in mass communication, Holly is so good at communicating ideas to our customers and listening to them that our business continued to grow at a great rate. Before Holly came onboard, I have to admit that I was tired and running a little ragged. Her role now has exhilarated me, brought new life back into our business and I’m thrilled that she works with me every day.
WHERE HAVE THESE CHANGES BROUGHT YOU FROM THEN TO NOW?
Hiring my family members made a huge difference in my life! As we continue to grow the business, I’m constantly trying to get more organized and develop a consistent efficient system that allows the business to operate even when I’m not there. In these past few years, I’m pleased to report that my husband and I have been able to travel more frequently and truly enjoy life’s many pleasures.
Another big change was space! When Holly came into the business, there was no way that three women were going to be able to work together in one little attic office. So, two years ago, we added a 1,000-square-foot office space to my home and last year, built a 300-square-foot receiving and storage facility. Our new driveway also accommodates our two Windows & Walls vans!
HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE AHEAD?
Even though there’s a lot of competition out there now, we’ve got a very strong future because of our excellent reputation. We take great care of our customers by providing high quality work . . . both in the creative design process as well as our product workmanship, installation services and customer follow-up and follow-through. Although 2007 was a tough year in our market, we increased our growth and I’m very proud of that.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL OTHER PEOPLE ABOUT PURSUING A CAREER AS A SHOP-AT-HOME DECORATOR?
The most important element in this career is to be well educated—in three different ways :
1. Knowledgeable about the design and decorating field.
2. Develop skills and gain experience selling services and products through courses and online programs such as those offered at Window Coverings University.
Bone up on communication and human relationship skills to sell your ideas and create lasting bonds with your customers. For example, learn to express yourself clearly by taking a public speaking class, such as Toastmasters International.
I also feel strongly that anyone pursuing this career needs to know how to crunch the numbers and learn how to do profit analysis. In order to be successful, it’s so important for decorators to be able to balance both the creative and business aspects equally. So, basically, you have to do what you don’t want to do so that you can do what you want to do!
BUSINESS OWNER OF THE YEAR
Judy Wilfong’s story is one of the best models I have seen in working with thousands of owners over the years. Much of her success is from the steady hand of her sister, Joanna, who runs the inside operation and daughter, Holly, who is following her footsteps in sales and decorating.
You can see why Judy Wilfong was selected “Business Owner of the Year” at Exciting Windows! for 2006.
This article is based on Steven C. Bursten’s actual experience with sales and financial information working with hundreds of window coverings businesses. Whether you are a sole manager who aspires to higher sales, or you manage 50 window fashion decorators in a multi-million dollar business, this series will help you manage sales better and increase your profitability. Bursten is the retired founder of Decorating Den Interiors and author of a how-to book on new business start up, “Bootstrap Entrepreneur,” and is a leading expert in window coverings marketing, sales systems and sales management through his company, custEmers.com. Questions and comments welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (888) 333-8981.