My final story of the year is an example of what can be done when you follow a proven model. Shem and Melody Isaac, with twin daughters, are about as close as you can find to a model personal, family business. Shem and Melody operate the business with no employees, no store overhead and little advertising expense. Yet they have sales that are triple the amount of typical home-based businesses and higher than many retail stores.
Their family net profit far exceeds the norm. Why? It comes down to one simple thing: Shem is willing to go into the right neighborhoods, knock on doors, make friends and build a highly profitable business by using courage instead of dollars.
He could spend tens of thousands on advertising—$50,000 a year would not be out of line for his volume. He could get a store location and spend $30,000 on rent, plus $25,000 a year for an employee to sit in the store while he goes on appointments. Instead, he has guts enough to carefully select neighborhoods of high sales potential and then meet every potential customer he can. That’s the way Isaac wins friends and influences sales.
FREE ENTERPRISE DAY
Recently, Isaac reported an experience that will have you shaking your heads as mine still does. Isaac does not like the words “Labor Day.” He feels it was named in the 1930s for reasons not relevant today. Instead, Isaac likes to call it “Free Enterprise Day.” So, on Free Enterprise Day, Monday, September 3, while other business owners were watching football, Isaac knew he could find customers at home. He decided it was a great time to go canvassing a few hours.
The result: In less than three hours, he found two customers and sold $26,000. No advertising, no promotions, just plain foot and knuckle work.
Now you know the kind of guy Isaac is, let’s see what he told Cathy Guterman, my assistant, during an interview she conducted with Shem and Melody Isaac.
I got into the window coverings business in early 2004 by accident—basically out of desperation! I had been working as a salesman for a water purification system selling to wineries in Napa Valley [CA]. Business was drying up (no pun intended!) and I was slowly sinking into terrible debt, having a very hard time supporting my wife, Melody, and our four-year-old twin daughters. We were basically broke and I was pretty scared.
I knew a great guy who was a semi-retired shutter and blinds distributor. He believed in me and loaned me some of his old samples, and even advanced me $500 so I wouldn’t have so much stress on my mind. It was my intent to just make a few sales to pay him back the money. I did not see myself as a blinds guy and had no intention of starting a window coverings business.
Melody had a temporary job, so with no money for a baby sitter, I took my two cute little girls in tow and started knocking on doors. Boy, did I hate doing this! But you have to be brave in front of your kids, right? So I kept at it three weeks before making my first sale, on March 6, 2004. Then it was just five days till my second sale, four more till my third, and soon I was making several sales a week. Within two months—still going from door to door with my children by my side—the business became easy and fun and we were making some substantial sales.
In that first year, I went from earning absolutely nothing to selling $394,000 worth of window coverings at the end of a nine-month period. Pretty amazing!
The next year, 2005, however, was a total disaster! I’m very ambitious, so I hired several sales consultants and our sales skyrocketed. The problem was I tried to do everything on my own without having qualified mentors guiding me. I made the mistake of trusting sales associates who cost me tens of thousands of dollars. I really needed to re-think the business and get some help.
What have been your motives to change?
My main motive to change was to accept and embrace my personal philosophy of “constant, never-ending improvement.” As an avid reader of business journals and books on entrepreneurship, I always felt that I had a choice: to take action, to commit to improving my life and to develop the determination to build a world-class business.
What changes have occurred for you over the past five years?
At the end of 2005, I met and befriended Alan Robinette, the owner of Window-ology. Alan—who quickly became my mentor and kindred spirit—had developed his business into a national retail chain and manufacturer of the high-quality window covering products with franchises and professional sales personnel across the United States. He was a shining example of world-class business to me.
Alan, in turn, introduced me to Steve Bursten. Last year, in 2006, I joined his Exciting Windows! and created further opportunities for my business to grow. I learned how to make better decisions and how to build a loyal client following and a more successful business.
What were your feelings as you underwent the changes in your business?
When we started nearly four years ago, we sold only one line of shutters, one line of blinds and one line of cellular shades. I remember when I added a fabricated Roman shade and it felt like such a risky move. Today, we carry seven lines of high quality shutters, from entry level composite shutters to exotic specialty woods and everything in between. We carry four lines of fabric and design elegant draperies, distinctive Roman shades and unique decorative accents. We offer full service to our clients, including On-Site certified drapery cleaning and a repair service. We really try to WOW our clients.
Another important change occurred this past year when my wife, Melody, went into business with me—in a huge gender role reversal kind of way! Melody took courses to become a certified installer and does an incredible job at it. I’m so proud of her and her ability to take charge of this very important aspect of our business.
Our clients are sometimes amused at our partnership! Picture this: here I am—a very large, six-foot four-inch man—coming into their homes to design and sell window treatments and when my job is done, enter my cute-as-a-button, five-foot, four-inch wife who walks in with her ladder, drill and tool belt. And she does a fantastic job. Our clients are thrilled and continually refer us to their friends. Needless to say, we’re a unique team!
What has the transition of change been like for you?
We have a philosophy, a commitment to driving positive change. It's called CNEI (pronounced can I) and stands for Constant Never Ending Improvement. I can’t take credit for this idea. I learned it from a Tony Robbins book. But what it means is that we improve our business, life, family, everything really, by committing to always look for ways to improve and grow. And it doesn’t need to be a big deal. It can be using a better screw than the one your product supplier sends. It can be using ladders with deeper steps so we don’t get tired legs. It’s not change for the sake of change, but quantifiable innovations that result in an improved client experience.
Where has ‘Never Ending Improvement’ brought you?
The whole process of selling has been elevated to a higher level for me. Not only have I gained tremendous respect for my clients, but I now work to develop a real relationship with each one of them. It’s not about me . . . it’s all about them. Selling is not something you do to someone; rather, it’s something you do with someone. I really love this business. I feel that my job is to continue to raise my standards and keep learning all I can.
How do you see your future ahead?
Melody and I have worked hard to build a systemized business. And, we are very proud of what we have accomplished. Going forward we are excited that we can now offer a franchised business opportunity to others, based in part on our own business systems. We look forward to helping others build successful Exciting Windows! businesses.
If you were to go back to work for a large corporation, how much would they have to pay you to work for them, instead of working for yourself?
It’s not about the money . . . it’s about our freedom. After being in this business, no corporation could meet my demands. I have a great life today. I work 40 to 45 hours a week, spend quality time with my girls (who are being home schooled by Melody, me and my mother) and we don’t sweat the small stuff. I make more money than ever and the potential is greater than I’ve ever dreamed was possible. I wake up happy every day. That to me is freedom!
What would you tell other people about pursuing a career as a shop-at-home consultant?
I would make three points: 1) This industry is really a baby with enormous growth opportunities. There are so many changes taking place and a certain “sophistication” is evident in the products and styles we sell. 2) Choose your mentors carefully. They must have good hearts, lots of relevant experience and time to share their expertise. 3) Constantly educate yourself. Read all you can, learn about new products and re-invent yourself on a daily basis. Become the very best that you can be.
DOING THINGS RIGHT
I hope you are as inspired by Shem and Melody Isaac’s story as I am. Shem Isaac is proof positive of the old saw, “Successful people do what unsuccessful people do not like to do and will not do.” So why not overcome your fears and follow Isaac’s lead. Look at the results in the By the Numbers inset to see what the payoff really is when you do things right.
As some of you recall, earlier this year I promised to share stories about business owners who follow a model system and make it pay off. This is a great one to close 2007 and inspire you to make 2008 the best year in your business experience. Follow Isaac’s lead—you can do it!
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: email@example.com or call (888) 333-8981.