As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mickey Fain, president and CEO, Stoneside Blinds & Shades.
Mickey co-founded and serves as President & CEO of Stoneside Blinds & Shades. Stoneside is a technology-enabled home improvement company that markets, sells, and installs custom-made window blinds, shades, and draperies directly to consumers across the U.S. Stoneside’s interior design consultants meet with their customers in the customer’s home or office to understand their needs and develop custom solutions that fit the customer’s design style. Stoneside then custom makes every window treatment to order and installs the finished products using their in-house team of professional installers. Since its inception in 2009, Stoneside has grown rapidly to servicing consumers across the US in 13 major metropolitan markets. Stoneside has been recognized as the fastest-growing company in Denver, the second fastest-growing company in Colorado, and recognized as a Colorado Company to Watch.
Prior to Stoneside, Mickey founded and served as CEO of the Colorado CEO Forum for 15 years, growing it to over 500 attendees, while he also served as chair for several Denver-based Vistage CEO groups. Earlier in his career, Mickey co-founded SmartScan, Inc, a digital mapping firm, and served as president and CEO for 17 years. Mickey has served on several boards and advisory boards including Silicon Mountain Memory, Magnolia Hotels, and Aardex. Mickey received his BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas, an MBA from Rice University and obtained his CPA certification.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Texas and received a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas. While attending UT, I knew I wanted to start a company someday. After graduating, I worked for a small engineering firm in Houston but soon realized I wanted to know more about business. So, after a year, I returned to school to get an MBA from Rice University. While at Rice, I heard a speaker that encouraged us to look for businesses that had not taken advantage of technology and sophisticated business practices. After graduating from Rice, I co-founded my first company, SmartScan, which built geographic information systems from paper maps for state and local governments.
After 17 years of using new technologies to grow SmartScan, I exited the business and started a consulting business, working with Presidents and CEOs to help them grow their companies. One of the people I met was the president of a successful window blinds & shades fabrication business. As I learned more about his business, I saw an opportunity to bring digital marketing and other technologies to this industry. I then persuaded the president, Rick Robertson, and his wife, Val, to leave that company and join me in starting Stoneside Blinds & Shades. Together, we saw an opportunity to create our own brand and use the internet and other technologies to sell window treatments directly to consumers.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Several trends and opportunities came together that led to the creation of Stoneside.
- Window coverings had been around for a long time and were likely to be around for the future. They weren’t something that were likely to become obsolete because of new technology. It appeared to be a stable and growing industry.
- Although there were a few strong window covering brands, most people could not name more than one or maybe two. This meant we could start our own brand and be as good as number 2 or 3.
- People were starting to use the internet to look for products, including window blinds. This meant we could market directly to customers across the U.S. without building brick and motor stores.
- Most of the competitors didn’t use technology. Many were still using fax machines.
- Most competitors had mediocre customer reviews.
- Although several companies started selling blinds online to the “Do-It-Yourself” customer, no one was leveraging the internet to market to the “Do-It-For-Me” customer.
Because of all of these factors, it seemed we had a great opportunity to create our own brand, focus on providing a much better experience than our competitors, and leverage the internet and other technologies to sell direct to consumers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s hard to come up with the “funniest mistake”. To be clear, there were many, many mistakes, and many of these mistakes were painful. Fortunately, we were right just a few more times than we were wrong. My biggest takeaways from going through everything we’ve gone through are:
- Understand how your business will serve a market that is not adequately served and how you are truly uniquely positioned to be the best in the world as serving those customers.
- Be clear about your core purpose and stick to it. Team members, customers and partners want to be part of an organization committed to a purpose.
- Be honest. This is rarer than it should be, it will set you apart, and you’ll sleep better.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we started Stoneside, we understood that it was important to clarify our purpose or our “why”. We spent several days in a conference room with our founders and one of our board members to discuss what was truly most important to us. After several days, we determined our purpose was to deliver a five-star experience to our team members, clients, partners, and community. We believe we needed to provide a great experience to our team members before expecting them to provide a great experience to our customers. Being clear on our purpose and sticking to it as we evolve has been critically important to our success. This has allowed us to be ranked the #1 national window covering company in America for customer satisfaction.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I interview every employee we hire to let them know how important they are and to see if their values align with ours. Once they are hired, I meet with every employee for up to two hours to discuss our purpose, values, and their role in keeping these alive. Then at almost every meeting, we start the meeting by reviewing our values and sharing some recent feedback we received from a customer that demonstrated one of our values. Finally, our values are listed on our website, and we share these values with our customers as part of our sales process. We make it a big deal because we believe it is a big deal.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our number one most important value is honesty. We are committed to being honest with our team members and our customers even when it’s hard. If there is bad news to share with our team members, we are transparent and tell them the truth. If we make a mistake or a problem with a customer’s order, we take responsibility and tell the truth. We believe that we can best deal with every situation by being honest, straightforward, and dealing with facts. Today, I believe everyone we work with knows they can count on the truth. This has helped us get through many difficult challenges.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Many times, particularly early on, one or more of us questioned if we should continue. Many things were harder than we thought, took longer than we thought, and consumed more money than we thought. During the first or second year of the business, we had to lay off a few employees right before Christmas, which was tough. On several occasions, we had to pivot or refine the business model. At one point, we had to ask the management team to take equity instead of paychecks. Our tenacity was fueled as much by a drive to succeed as a fear of failing. We didn’t want to let anyone down by giving up and, we had done enough work upfront to know there was a need for what we were doing.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great today. As I said earlier, we are the #1 rated window covering company in America based on customer reviews. Better Homes and Gardens recently rated us the best overall window covering company in America, and we are a finalist for the Better Business Bureau Large Business of the Year award.
As I mentioned earlier, shortly after starting Stoneside, we met together as a team and aligned on five values that we believed separated us from other companies. These values were honesty, positivity, generosity, continuous improvement, and passion. By genuinely living these values for the last twelve years, we’ve been able to attract and build a fantastic team of people, navigate some tough times, differentiate us from our competition and become recognized as #1 in America.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Don’t’ chase the competition. Be different. Don’t compete by trying to do what everyone else is doing, just better. Research your market and your competition and figure out how you can be the best in the world at filling a need that others are not addressing. In our case, we saw that our competitors were not leveraging technology and were not providing a high level of customer satisfaction for the “Do-It-For-Me” customers. As a result, we decided to focus on customers who wanted us to come to their homes, measure their windows, install everything and show them how their new blinds and shades worked. We also leveraged the internet and other technologies to market directly to our customers and manage every step of the process. As a result of this focus, we are recognized today as the #1 provider in this space.
2. Learn to say no. As you grow, you will have many tempting opportunities, and many of these will not align with your core purpose and strategy. When you are short on cash and scrambling to succeed, it’s hard to say no to an opportunity, even if it doesn’t align with your strategy.
When we started Stoneside, we initially allowed customers to order online and install our products themselves. After about a year, we realized that if we didn’t measure the windows and install the product ourselves, we couldn’t guarantee the five-star experience we were committed to. Therefore, even though we needed the sales, we decided to stop selling to customers who wanted to do it themselves.
3. Get clear on a purpose, core mission and values that truly inspire you, your team members and your customers. I believe that many companies write down a purpose and values but, because this purpose and value don’t truly inspire them, they are quickly forgotten. They are just words on a poster, and no one in the company can tell what they are. At Stoneside, we truly believe in our purpose and our values. Many team members tell us they joined Stoneside because of our purpose and values. We review our purpose and values in our meetings and continually provide examples of how one of our team members followed one of our values in dealing with a challenge or solving a problem.
4. Pivot, pivot, pivot. Almost every company I know of had to adjust their initial business strategy from their initial plan. My experience is that you must continually evaluate what is working, what is not working and make adjustments or pivot. At Stoneside, we started by using independent contractors for installers and designers. Although we had some cost savings by using contractors, we soon realized that we couldn’t deliver the experience we were committed to providing. As a result, we replaced all of our design consultants and all but one of our installation technicians with new employees. Also, initially, we manufactured all of our products at our headquarters in Denver. As we started to grow, our internal manufacturing capacity was unable to keep up with the demand. As a result, we decided to find third-party manufacturing companies that could manufacture our products to our quality specifications. When the COVID pandemic hit, we had to pivot again. Instead of having our design consultant meet with customers in their homes, we switched overnight to working with our customers through video meetings.
5. Leverage technology. Today, every company’s success is highly dependent on its ability to leverage technology to improve its service and productivity. For example, when I order a pizza today, I am informed when the pizza is being made, when it’s coming out of the oven and I can see it move down the road as it approaches my house. At Stoneside, we use technology to automate our marketing, configure complex products, track our orders through every step of the process, communicate with all of our vendors and serve our customers. Our technology allows us to provide a five-star experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When we started Stoneside, we created an advisory board to help guide us and hold us accountable. Two of my board members, Lee Woodward and Brad Brandt, later became investors and have continued to offer support, guidance, patience, encouragement, friendship and advice along the way. They have been a part of our advisory board for over ten years and continue to provide invaluable support.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would focus on honesty. I believe we could achieve more, solve more problems and create a better future if everyone, especially our leaders and politicians, were committed to the truth.
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