Putting a hold on most new orders so she could focus on optimizing customer-acquisition and product-delivery processes helped this SMB owner increase profits.
By Andrea Holved
Kelly Fallis started her career path in finance, and although she enjoyed working with numbers, she decided that what she really wanted out of a job was “some sort of real thing to touch.”
She went into real estate, and discovered that her true calling was staging homes. Many of her clients were so pleased with what she’d done to the home they were selling that they asked her to help them decorate their new home—a task that poses a particular problem for homeowners who are moving to entirely new cities, states or countries, and often can’t spend much time in their new home before arriving to live in it.
It didn’t take long for Fallis to realize there was a strong market for virtual home styling services. She started her New York- and Toronto-based company Remote Stylist soon after. She currently employs 15 people.
“It was a big leap for me, from offline to online,” she says. And with that leap came a whole host of new, unanticipated problems.
New challenges, old industries
For starters, her new business model was heavily reliant on two of the oldest industries out there: furniture and shipping. Neither made it easy for a startup to break in, and neither seemed particularly concerned with its user experience, Fallis says.
When Remote Stylist started out, Fallis relied on the manufacturers to ship their products. After one too many dining tables arrived broken or at the wrong address, Fallis decided to manage the shipping herself.
That’s when she realized just how much paperwork she had to deal with. Everything that crosses the border into Canada needs to come with duty paperwork listing, among other things, the product’s country of origin (where it was made). Getting that information from the manufacturers proved to be more difficult than she’d bargained for.
Worse yet, there was no digital option, so at first, every shipment’s paperwork had to be written out by hand and copied three times—a process that took about 15 minutes, Fallis says. “If we got 100 client requests overnight, we’d be filling out paperwork for the entire week,” she says. “I’m sitting here going, ‘Is that really an efficient use of my time?’”
It wasn’t only the handwritten duty paperwork. A new customer’s name and address had to be copied and pasted into every system Remote Stylist used: their customer relationship management (CRM) software, their payment processing system, their accounting system, their shipping system, their email marketing system. Not to mention the time that went into compiling the detailed customer design profiles that Fallis and her stylists created in the CRM and considered essential to their success.
“It was like, ‘OK, I’ve typed this address 5,000 times. Why wouldn’t we have a system where the information was just automatically passed?’” she says.
Taking a time out
It was in their second year of business, Fallis says, that Remote Stylist had to “turn the taps off” and stop accepting most new orders. “It was just at that point when things are starting to look really good financially” she says, when she realized, “This doesn’t scale.”
For about 2-1/2 years, she accepted the minimum number of orders—just enough to keep the business cash flow positive. “We could have kept going down the path we were going down, and figured it out as we went, but once I started to peel back the layers, particularly on the shipping side, it was like, ‘You know what? This is way more complicated than I thought,’” she says.
“We basically threw all of our resources onto the backend to figure this out,” she says. “We were like, ‘OK, automate everything that we can possibly automate.’ And that’s what’s really made the world go round.”
Getting all of her automations set up wasn’t easy—it required a significant time investment to map out what data needed to go where based on which cues.
“You kind of need to stop what you’re doing, because it takes so much brainpower to go through every step of the way and figure out what you need to automate,” Fallis says. Finding the tools and implementing the automations “is quite quick, comparatively.”
Which tools are right for you and your business is highly subjective, though Fallis recommends startups with good customer service and using an open API tool like Zapier or IFTTT to patch together any gaps in compatibility between tools.
“If there’s two programs that talk together, and that do 80% of the work on their own, Zapier covers the 20% that they don’t do,” she says. “It’s kind of our go-to Plan B.”
Now that she’s built a custom digital form for her border duty paperwork and set up automations for address and product inputs pulled from custom databases, she says, “the whole thing takes two minutes and it’s done.”
Figuring out the best shipping carrier for an order is similarly quick and easy. To get and compare shipping quotes, Fallis’s backend calls up inputs for the product box’s size and weight, as well as the customer’s address and delivery preferences (will it be dropped off at the door, or brought inside and assembled?), and then checks with the 66 different shipping companies in her network to see who can make the delivery at the lowest price in the shortest amount of time.
“It’s shaved years off of our lives,” Fallis says. “I shudder to think how much time we used to spend [copy and pasting]… I must have spent hours—collectively, I can’t even think of how many hours we spent.”
In the year and a half that Remote Stylist’s various automation systems have been in place, Fallis says, her profit margins have grown significantly. And also thanks to automation, the number of employees in Remote Stylist’s shipping department is just one-tenth of what her business model had projected four years ago.
Going forward, she sees no limits to growth potential. “It’s a totally different company now, and strong,” she says. “I’m so happy for it.”
This article was underwritten by HP: Introducing HP BusinessNow, the right technology to help your business grow.