After five years of hard work, Megan Duckett's Southern California-based theatrical-sewing business had gone from a kitchen-table operation to a well-known local supplier. But two years ago, the Australian-born entrepreneur felt her company, Sew What?, had hit a wall. Its highly specialized local market was nearly tapped out, and Duckett didn't know how to reach additional customers.
She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about the technology investment she made, including Web site redesign and search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. Such initiatives have increased her revenues by 45% and earned her the 2006 Dell/National Federation of Independent Business "Small Business Excellence" award. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
How did you start your company?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 when I was 19, hoping to start a career working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. I toured with a band called King Crimson and started sewing on my kitchen table as a sideline. An opportunity landed in my lap to upholster some coffins for Knott's Berry Farm at Halloween time, so I rented a sewing machine from a local vacuum-cleaner store and taught myself how to do it.
From there, the business took off. I got orders from entertainers, Las Vegas casinos, and party planners for table linens and custom slipcovers. By 1997, I discovered I was generating greater income doing sewing jobs on weekends and at night than I was in my day job working for a company that built stages for rock 'n' roll tours. My husband and I decided to give the business a go, so we took $1,000 in savings to rent an 800-square-foot space in Torrance, buy a sewing machine, and put used carpeting on the floors.
I started contacting previous clients and cold-calling new ones. In March, 1998, we incorporated and I hired my first employee. I think we did about $55,000 in sales that year, and most of it was eaten up paying rent. Thankfully, that employee—who's still with me—brought her own sewing machine with her!
You're now located in a 15,000-square-foot facility in Rancho Dominguez with 33 employees and plans for further expansion. How has the technology revamp that you initiated in 2003 helped?
The biggest challenge for us has always been reaching new customers. Two years ago, we felt like we'd hit a plateau: 80% of our customers were in California, 20% were in other U.S. states, and we'd sold to only two overseas clients. I knew there was a bigger world out there, but I didn't know how to make them aware of our company.
That's when I decided to pay for a professional redesign of our Web site, which I had created myself, and have it optimized so it would show up prominently in online search results at places like Google (GOOG).
What's been the result?
Over the last 18 months, our customer demographics have completely changed and our revenues are up 45%. Our customer makeup is now 33% from California, 66% from other U.S. states, and we've done 55 international transactions. We've made sales in every state except Vermont, and all these new clients are finding us through the Web site, which we now have in English and Spanish.
Keep in mind that I'm not doing any substantial advertising—online or off. It's all been the search engine optimization and some low-budget, pay-per-click ads I've placed on certain industry terms at Google.
Other than making the commitment to funding a technology upgrade, what else has contributed to your success?
I had to pick the right search engine optimization specialist and be willing to learn what she would do and how I could help. If I had just hired somebody to optimize my site and then wiped my hands of it, I'm not sure how great the results would've been. She had to learn everything about my industry in order to do her job right, and I had to stay involved with the process minute by minute.
It's been a lot of work, but when people in my industry search on "pipe and drape" at Google, there are more than 100,000 natural results that pop up and we're in second place. I'm pretty thrilled with that.
How did the award from Dell (DELL) and the NFIB come about, and how will it affect the future of Sew What?
I was surfing online for some new computers and I noticed a little blurb at the Dell Web site about the competition involving small businesses embracing technology. I thought they were talking about us! I wrote out my story and submitted my application, and I almost fell off my chair when they contacted me and told me I was a finalist.
The award comes with $30,000 in Dell technology and services, which I plan to use to continue being a customer-centric business. I'm hoping that the new technology will help us streamline our in-house operations, so we can remain a very productive firm as we grow. I'm also hopeful that our growth and profitability will allow us to continue to offer health benefits, paid vacations, and retirement plans to our employees.
It's unusual for a family-owned business of our size to do that, especially in California where our worker's-comp rates are very high, but we're proud to be able to do it.