Advice for a start-up shop

Ideas for winning clients. March 20, 2001

My husband and I are starting a cabinetry shop. Our problem is getting clients. I'm finding it very hard to even get in front of a general contractor to show him our portfolio.

How do we get in with the general contractors if all I get are answering machines or a secretary that screens well?

What are some good choices for advertising?

Any other advice?

Forum Responses
Advertise in the yellow pages, talk to designers and contractors, go to home shows, and expect to make no money the first year. Give discounts to first time buyers. You could build a small showroom and sell hardwoods on a retail level.

You may want to consider hiring a professional salesman. When starting out on your own as a two person operation, you're required to wear a lot of 'hats' but the most important part of the equation is having the jobs to work on. A 'real' salesman can make a dramatic difference.

I realize that with zero cash flow, hiring a salesman full- or part-time can't happen. There are some 'freelance' salesmen out there who sell on commission-only basis for multiple clients. Or perhaps you could find one who'd be willing to defer their commission until the job was completed and you were paid in full (his commission would need to be higher as incentive).

We do a monthly mailing to general contractors (just a letter on decent stationary).You can get a list on cd or d&b. We also do a newsletter every other month.

Be on time with your bids--that is often a button with generals. Follow up the mailing with a phone call and be persistent. And SELL--don't just turn in bids anonymously. Good contractors are basically looking for someone they can trust at the price they have budget for and compared to the other bidders.

I wouldn't try to hire a salesman at first. I have found it very difficult to get a good salesman. I also haven't had much luck with advertising. I think you will find your money is much more effectively spent with a monthly mailing and a web site that you advertise in the mailing.

Join your local building association. Generally, they have monthly meetings and rotate the meeting among members. You can hold a meeting in your shop.

In Indiana, we have a newsletter that puts out construction market data (CMD). It lists all the jobs that are being bid each month. It lists the contractors who will be bidding the jobs. Get on the list and use it as a resource. Initially, people will call you to price check other cabinet shops, but may eventually accept one of your bids.

You could also join the chamber of commerce and go to their weekly and monthly meet and greets.

I don't think the yellow pages will bring in much business for you. I used to put an ad in the newspaper just below the weather report on Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays. That worked well for me. I did pay a premium for it.

A good way of being known is by bidding jobs. If your pricing and scope are right, the contractors may take your calls. Then you can build a long-term relationship with them.

You may have to bid on a lot of projects at the beginning, with a hit ratio that will be less than 10%. Hiring a salesman who knows the industry players is a smart move. Using the builders' exchanges on the Internet is a good way of searching for jobs bidding in your area. They're usually not too expensive and really easy to use.

Look for construction market data (CMD) or the dodge report owned by Mcgraw-Hill. They both will give you a free issue and in it will be all of the fax numbers for the general contractors bidding work near you. Don't limit yourself to fabrication only in the beginning. I started out with subcontract installation of millwork and cabinets--this built relationships and exposure to the issues that can make or break a job.

What worked best for me was getting the contact list of the local custom homebuilders association. It has business name, contact person, phone # and fax. For my cold calls I developed a faxable one-page flier that described my company and gave all the info the contractor or designer needed to get in touch with me.

If you want to jumpstart your business, go to the agency that issues the building permits in your area. You can get a list of all the permits that have been issued including the addresses and the phone numbers of the owners and contractors. Remember that all the people on the list are going to purchase the item that you’re selling. When I first started I used this system and it generated all the business that I could possibly handle.

I'll try to speak to the "free advertising" question. In a word (O.K., *two* words!): Press releases.

Your newspaper, along with trade magazines, may well be interested in doing a story about your new business, especially if you're changing careers to start it (lifestyle editors love the "chuck it all, go in a new direction" kinda stuff). A brief, well-worded press release giving basic info, accompanied by a cover letter and followed by telephone, is a great way to spark some initial interest. Send along a picture or two of special projects if possible.

Much depends on your area, but another *almost* free kind of advertising is outdoor markets, to which you take some small craft items and your portfolio. If the market is in an upscale or destination kind of area, you might be surprised at the interest you'll get. When I was just getting started, I displayed helixes (those stepped, wooden whirligigs that spin in the wind) at such a market in trendy Bucks County, PA, and wound up building bookcases for a client in NYC.

Cheap advertising is also good: regular visitors have heard me beat the drum often for classified ads in magazines or newspapers that cater to upscale audiences or are delivered to higher-end neighborhoods. Offer a free initial consultation and portfolio review (not "free estimates" which makes you sound cheap).

The main thing about marketing is always always always keep your eyes and ears open, and don't be shy about trying different, even offbeat, approaches.

Anthony Noel, forum technical advisor

For no up front cost, try one of the Internet-based lead services like ImproveNet if you're looking for residential consumer business. You only pay for what you use.

Also, get a copy of the book Guerilla Marketing. Good guide for getting free or low cost advertising.

If you're contacting contractors, spend some of your time tracking them down for a personal introduction.