The Drapery Company, Asheville, NC, would like to grow. Owner Katy Garrett, a 14-year veteran, already has two showrooms and a workroom in the area, but would really like to open more showrooms some day and do more high-end window coverings. The problem is, she’s been right up against the wall.
Up until just recently it was taking all of her time and effort to sell, design, manage the business and make her retail and wholesale clients happy. She needed help. She found it from two sources. One was business consultant Michael E. Gerber who advises on systemizing workflow to free up business owners from daily operations to work on strategic plans. The other was her husband, Mike, an independent computer software consultant. His contribution has been more specific to Katy’s business and sounds like a godsend.
“Like somebody sent me a life raft,” Katy Garrett says.
BUYING BACK TIME
A full-service window treatment business planned as a one-stop-shop for retail and designer wholesale clients, The Drapery Company has been in the Asheville, Black Mountain area for the past five years. Even longer than that, Katy Garrett has turned to computer software to help run her business. Conceding that design software and business accounting software do a fine job, Garrett found they just weren’t the best for her business.
As it happened, Mike Garrett had some free time at the end of last year and was able to focus on software he had created earlier. “I created a simple version of the software for her years ago and I took some time to really ramp it up quite a bit with a lot of ideas we’ve had over the last few years,” he says.
Most of Mike’s work has been in what he calls the middle of the process: the job tracking. “I’m a process guy. I was amazed. This is very much a detailed, high-touch industry. To provide the level of service and deal with the kind of changes you have to deal with I don’t know how you can do it otherwise,” Mike says.
“Of course [the industry] has done it for a long time without any automation, but for all the time you spend tracking these things manually, if you added that up over the course of a year you’d be shocked at how much time you spend doing these things. It’s all about buying back this time.”
Mike explains that it’s all those time-consuming details that can stop a small company from growing. “You hit a wall if you want to reach a certain level and get beyond that. Everybody we know hit that wall and still does. So now we’re trying to figure out how to get past that without generating too much overhead to where that doesn’t make it worthwhile,” he says.
“You can’t grow . . . not today,” Katy says. “One of the things that we started thinking—about a year and a half ago—was if we were franchising this business, if we were standardizing and making a prototype for other models to follow, then we have to break things down into bits and pieces and standardize as much as we can.”
Mike Garrett began working on software that would work the way Katy does—with vendors, with a showroom, with clients who need to see proposals and make changes, with lots of note taking and details to track. “We wanted to standardize every piece from the pre-sale process all the way to follow up with a thank-you card,” Katy says.
Mike’s software follows the entire process with check boxes to mark a project’s status. The designers input everything into the proposals and present them to clients, the clients can make changes and the designer can input the changes and double-check everything. The proposals then can be printed for the clients, who most often see a different version of the proposal than what stays in the system. There are options depending on how much information the designers want the clients to have.
Once the clients sign off, the designers can push a button to create a purchase order for every vendor used in the proposal. The purchase order screen follows the orders step by step with a series of check boxes: Were the purchase orders created? Were the fabrics ordered? Etc. Most of the work gets done online. “If it was input correctly—which were pretty good about that now—then the purchase orders are generated automatically and you can check off when they were received,” Katy says. “It’s a pretty cool thing, actually. I was so impressed!”
“That’s just one example, but to me that was the biggest,” Katy adds. “That was like somebody sent me a life raft. We were getting busy, and then we opened the second store, and I was already taking up just hours late at night putting purchase orders together so we could order all the stuff we needed for a job. And with all the little add-on custom stuff, it was just taking me forever.”
“We can handle a considerable amount more volume since last fall,” Mike says. “We definitely saw an up tick in what we can handle with the people we have which has a direct effect on the bottom line.”
Besides Garrett, The Drapery Company includes two showroom employees, two full-time and one part-time sewers in the workroom, one full-time and one part-time designer. Business is divided 75 percent retail and 24 percent wholesale, although when she first moved into Asheville Garrett started as a workroom only with a 50/50 spit in retail and wholesale customers.
Garrett finds the area is a prime location for her business. It’s mainly a resort area featuring the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Biltmore Estate and Village, which is drawing a lot of high-end shops, she says. In the summer about 75,000 cars drive right past her doors.
“I meet people from Florida, New York, California, Georgia, Charleston, SC, on a regular basis. These are second and third vacation homes. Some are people who are retiring here,” she says.
It also helps that the biggest market is Atlanta, more than 100 miles away. “We’re not near a design center. That might be a model for us to follow. We bend over backwards to get really high-end fabrics,” Katy says.
“We’re the Arts & Crafts Mecca. What’s popular here are fabricated roman shades and really beautiful panels. Having said that, I don’t think that’s where the money is. I think that’s what magazines like to show because that’s what makes our area real different. I still think the money is in really beautiful panels, trims, Kingston valances.”
Garret has been very busy working on the Southern Living Idea House in Whisper Mountain, 17 miles northwest of Asheville. “Everything in there is going to be in organic fabric—not just recycled product fabric, but a truly organic, green fabric. We’ve had three customers in the last six months walk in and ask for organic fabric. It’s hemp, linen/cotton blend, wool . . . a kind of neutral, toned-down look.”
Helping to make these kinds of projects possible is the decision to find a way past that wall a growing company hits. Underlying everything The Drapery Company has been going through is Michael Gerber’s busting of the entrepreneurial myth (E-Myth). “Our whole thing is standardizing what we can standardize in a custom industry so that it makes life easier,” Katy says. “Necessity is the mother of invention. Having our time continually gobbled up, we’re always looking for ways—books, articles, experts in the field—to kind of help us figure out what can be standardized. We have figured out that there are a lot of things in this industry that can be.
“We’ve broken it down. With the software—if everybody who works for us keeps up with it, which we’ve been pretty good about—there’s a status for every single job. Within every status are standard features, and if they’re followed it makes everyone’s life a lot easier. You might have a lot to do, but don’t necessarily have something come up and catch you by surprise.”
Katy Garrett took Gerber’s advice about business in this way: “How would this work if I had five companies working and I had to train five people? If I tried to grow The Drapery Company and I don’t have something in place that standardizes everything and makes it simpler and makes more money and saves more time and keeps track of everything, I can’t do that. I can’t grow.
“So whether we grow our business and add more stores or not, it sure is making our life a lot easier. So by always thinking about this prototype franchise—what would we have to do here in this store if we had other stores—is helping us run really efficiently.”
A WORD ABOUT E-MYTH
Michael E. Gerber is a best-selling author and founder of E-Myth Worldwide, a business skills training company based in Santa Rosa, CA, aimed at the small business and entrepreneurial community. He is known for his E-Myth (the entrepreneurial myth) series, which began in 1985 with the book The E-Myth. His most popular work is The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It.
E-Myth refers to the fact that most businesses fail because the founders are technicians who were inspired to start a business without knowledge of how successful businesses run.
The assumption is that people who are experts regarding technical details of a product or service also will be expert at running that sort of business. Many small business owners eventually realize that just as they had to learn their technical skills, they have to learn business growth and management skills.
A means to overcome the E-Myth is to build internal systems within a business that control processes, similar to what is done in a franchise operation, so that results are predictable. By systematizing workflow owners are freed from most daily operations to spend more time on strategic issues, according to this method.