January 30th, 2019
From Manufacturing to Retail
I have always enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of our industry. As a result, I want to share a story of one of my old friends and co-workers: Brian Zimmerman.
Brian decided to jump out of the manufacturing side of the business and to dive into window retail sales. He started his new business, Zen Windows, in Charlotte, N.C., several years ago and has become a very successful retailer. In a question and answer (Q&A) interview, I asked him what he had to say about moving from manufacturing to retail sales:
Q: You spent many years in manufacturing, why did you decide to start your own business?
A: After spending 15 years on the manufacturing side, I left the industry for a few years. Then, after taking a job at a massive company, I realized I wasn’t cut out for “corporate life.” It became clear to me that I needed to start my own business.
Q: You have been around for several years now. As you look back, what would you do differently?
A: If I had it to do over again, I think I would have reached out to more of my peers throughout the industry to seek advice on where to advertise. I learned the hard way, through lots of trial and error, which were very expensive lessons.
Early on I assumed that, despite being in different markets, other window companies would view me as the competition. When, in reality, most window companies are very willing to share ideas with you, so long as it’s a two-way street.
Q: When you started your business, what challenges did you experience? What did you count on? What didn’t you count on?
A: The biggest challenge was in getting the ball rolling. You are trying to build a brand and reputation from nothing. You need those early customers to take a chance on you. It’s tough when they want a list of references, positive reviews online, or photos of your work, and you don’t have anything to show.
I knew it would be tough, but I think I underestimated how hard it would turn out to be. I think I naively thought that nice marketing, great products and a fair price would be enough. What I didn’t realize was that it was more important to show customers you were someone they could trust.
Q: Today, same questions: What challenges do you experience now?
A: It’s funny. Early on, my biggest concern was being able to sell enough. Today, my concerns are the opposite. What if we sell too much? Finding good quality installers is one of the hardest parts of the business, especially as unemployment keeps dropping. The installers spend more time with our customers than anyone else in the organization. Not only the quality of their work, but their interpersonal skills while they install can affect the overall experience for our clients.
I get concerned that we won’t be able to keep finding great guys if we grow too much, too fast.
Q: As a veteran of the industry, what has changed?
A: I’ve probably seen three major changes in the last 20 years.
We are seeing consumer design choices changing. We get a lot more requests for colors—both interior and exterior. We see less call for woodgrains and more requests for things like black or charcoal interiors. People are seeing windows as part of the design elements in their homes.
From an installation perspective, we are seeing a lot more installations where we are tearing out cheap builder-grade vinyl, new construction windows. Some of these are less than 10 years old. Each one of these poses a unique installation challenge. And this particular challenge is only going to continue as time goes on.
Lastly, we’ve seen a strong change in consumer behaviors. Homeowners don’t want to sit through a three-hour, in-home presentation anymore. They do all of their research online and want a quick and simple shopping experience. If you can shop for a car or home online, why not windows?
Q: How different is it on the retail side vs. the manufacturer side?
A: Business-to-business is more of a longer courting process. You build long lasting relationships between the manufacturer and retailer. You’re in this together. When dealing with homeowners, you are still attempting to build a long-term relationship, but you generally have a much shorter timeframe. Although some people take years to make a decision, others will literally decide in minutes.
At the end of the day, you are still dealing with people. People buy from people they trust and feel comfortable with. Be honest, keep your commitments, and treat people right. Good things will follow.
Q: Any advice for ‘would be’ entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses?
A: Know your numbers. You need to be realistic in your sales projections, and how much you are going to spend in order to generate those sales. After you’ve done your forecasts, do them again. But this time, assume your costs will be higher—because they will be—and assume your sales will be slower, because they will be, too. If the numbers still work, then go for It! If not, then go back to the drawing board.
Then, once you are up and running, find your lane and stay in it. I know lots of small business owners, in a variety of industries. Most get excited about any type of sale they can get their hands on, even if it isn’t a perfect fit. Not all business is worth chasing. Just like customers decide if you are the right fit for them, you should also be asking yourself, “is this the right project for us?” You want to tackle projects that you know you’re going to do a fantastic job on. If not, it’s ok to pass!
In summary, sale between window manufacturers and window dealers is a much different dynamic than sales between window retailers and homeowners. Both have some exciting opportunities while both also offer different challenges. Retail has a need to have much more real-time analytics, while manufacturing is more of a ‘long term’ play. The bottom line is—do what you enjoy. Whether it’s running your own business, or working for someone else, have fun, enjoy yourself and be the best you can be!