Very rarely does the same entrepreneur that founds a company have the same skillsets that are required to scale the company. When I meet entrepreneurs that have successfully accomplished this, I give them bonus points. I was recently introduced to Carey Smith, the founder and CEO at Big Ass Solutions, a Lexington, Kentucky-based manufacturer of ceiling fans and lighting that Smith successfully grew from $0 to $200MM in revenue over its 17-year history (1999-2015). He was kind enough to share his “sales and marketing playbook” for each phase of the company’s growth, which showed how it was accomplished and has evolved over time. Hopefully, there are some useful tips here for all of you to learn from.
$0 to $10 million
At the very beginning (1999), the company was founded as the HVLS Fan Company and had very little money. Only a few people were involved with the business and advertising budgets were less than $10,000 a year. The company wrote numerous articles and did a lot of public relations in the early days. And, they relied heavily on offering customers a “try before you buy” satisfaction guarantee, as many customers did not believe a large ceiling fan could actually cool a large industrial facility as well as an air conditioner could.
After gaining a small foothold with six initial products, the company tried working with some distributors. However, the company quickly recognized that its interests and the resellers’ interests rarely converged, given the heavy educational aspects required to sell a product they had never seen before. Once the company learned the distributors were not driving sales, they quickly shifted entirely to a direct sales process, which they could easily control. That’s when the business really started to take off, hitting the $10MM revenue market after around 5 years in business.
In 2003, the company overheard customers referring to their products as “those big ass fans,” so the company made the decision to rename itself to Big Ass Fans. This name easily became embedded into the consumers’ minds.
$10 million to $50 million
It took the company approximately 8 years (2004-2011) to grow from $10 million to $50 million. The growth was driven by big investments in people and product development, which included the company’s first mobile floor fans.
In 2004, the company released a new industrial fan that was 20 percent more efficient than what had come before, and the company was materially scaling up its employee base to keep up with the growth (where recruiting became a lot easier, after the company was seeing material growth and success). They moved to a new headquarters in 2006, which was able to house all 50 employees in marketing, sales, customer service and manufacturing under one roof.
Once he had more people on board, Smith knew he needed them to stick around in order to expand the company. As a result, the company offered better hours and more stability than other manufacturing businesses in town, which instilled long-term loyalty with employees. Also, the company made sure everyone got what they needed in terms of salary, bonuses, and equity ownership in order to attract and retain the best people.
In 2007, the company hired its 100th employee, effectively doubling in size in less than two years. The company continued developing, testing and adding products and in 2008 it released its first fan designed for non-industrial settings including churches and auditoriums. It also opened its first overseas office in Australia.
$50 million to $100 million
Getting to $50 million (216 employees in 2011) took 8 years, but the jump to $100 million (480 employees in 2013) only took 2 years. Part of this can be attributed to the investment in research and development as well as people during the 2008 recession, which allowed the company to recover quickly. But, the company believes its rapid growth—approximately 30 percent every year since 2009—is the result of its commitment to customer service, employee satisfaction and supplier relationships.
Looking for new opportunities, the company added even more overseas offices, where they work with various partners and resellers to deal with international logistics. These decisions led the company in a new direction in 2011 when they established a relationship with John Noble, the designer of a silent, energy efficient residential fan in Malaysia. The company then released a sleek Haiku residential line in 2012, which has been very successful. With the addition of smart technology and automatic operation, Haiku has forged a path into the burgeoning world of “The Internet of Things.”
Carey said “Any day somebody might contact you with a new idea that could save time or money, or lead to a promising new path. And, at the same time, you need to encourage innovation within the company by employing dozens of engineers, including a designated R&D group, whose sole assignment is simply to explore unusual uses for the company’s products.”
$100 million to $200 million
The company continued its growth from $100 million in 2013 to $200 million in 2015. Currently, the company is on its way to $300 million in sales in 2016 with an employee base of 850. Approximately $70MM of these sales are from the under the Haiku residential brand.
Part of this growth is a result of the company launching a new lighting division in 2014, Big Ass Light, which began with a focus on industrial strength LEDs, but has quickly branched into commercial and residential fields with the continued development of new products. The creation of Big Ass Light led the company to officially change its name to “Big Ass Solutions” in 2014.
The company also tested the big box store market with a few big retailers such as Home Depot, and launched ecommerce efforts for its Haiku residential division. In addition, the company reduced the number of resellers that it works with, replacing them with more strategic partners such as Amazon, Nest and Thread.
Big Ass Solutions now has sales offices in six countries, and its products are distributed in over 125 countries. The company has aggressive international expansion plans, planning to double its international offices to 10 locations in the coming year.
What an adventure! The most important thing to glean from this post is how Carey continued to pivot and grow the business in new directions over time. Industrial was expanded to residential. Domestic was expanded to international. Few products were expanded to many products. Fans were expanded into lighting. And so on. Not to mention, recruiting and retaining great talent along the way. Thanks Carey for sharing your great story here, and congratulations on all your amazing success. Let it be a lesson for all of us to learn from.
Image Credit: CC by BDO International