Sew What? is a theatrical drapery manufacturing firm situated in Rancho Dominguez, Calif. For the past few years, it has used technology to grow its business. By adding a couple of Dell PowerEdge servers and developing a Web presence, Sew What? expanded its presence from local to a national.
"Our revenue grew 45 percent in 2005, and this year we are growing at a rate of around 65 percent," says Sew What? President Megan Duckett. "That will put us at over $4 million a year and nearly all that growth came from Web-driven sales."
Rock Star Clientele
Sew What? provides custom theatrical draperies and fabrics for stages, concerts, fashion shows and special events worldwide. Along the way, it developed an A-list of clients. Its drapes have been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and have been used on stage by the likes of Sting, Elton John and Madonna.
The company began in 1998 on Duckett's kitchen table. Steadily rising demand necessitated a solid computing foundation. Several years ago, the business suffered rejection on a bid to make the event draperies for a U.S. car manufacturer's car show.
"They said our price and product were great and they'd love to work with us, but without a Web site they just couldn't get a sense of our credibility," says Duckett. "I ran home that night and started to build my first site."
With its Web presence established, the company immediately grew. It coped for a while by housing vital administration, such as stock forms and sewing plans, on one user's desktop. But growth in the number of employees soon made it impossible to continue without a networked system.
In mid-2005, the company acquired a Dell PowerEdge 500. This is a Pentium 3 model with 1 GB RAM and 80 GB of disk space. At the same time, it upgraded from Intuit QuickBooks to QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions Manufacturing Edition. QuickBooks, says Duckett, is the cornerstone of her entire operation. Most of her employees access the system repeatedly as they carry out their duties.
"Being networked and manipulating or storing files efficiently has changed the way we do business," says Duckett. "We are able to offer better customer service and process data faster than before."
When Sew What? outgrew that server, it added a Dell PowerEdge 860. This model has a single Intel Xeon processor and 146 GB of internal storage. In addition to QuickBooks, it runs Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition. It acts as the central file server for anyone in the office accessing the Quickbooks database, or any of its thousands of drapery and fabric image files or PDF instruction files.
"The PowerEdge 860 is much faster than our previous server," says Duckett. "We can have all our employees accessing the server at once, and it doesn't miss a beat."
The company transferred most of its business applications and data files to the PowerEdge 860. It retained the older Dell server to host custom drapery manufacturing applications and its flame-retardancy certificate software. Dell OptiPlex GX520 and Dell Dimension 5150 desktops are deployed throughout the facility, along with one Sony Vaio laptop.
As for storage space, Duckett says the 146 GB server is not even close to being used up.
"We're expanding rapidly, but we still have plenty of room to grow," says Duckett.
From the moment this Southern California drapery business decided to harness computing to expand, it has sought outside help. Its Web site, for example, is hosted by Network Solutions of Herndon, Virg.
"As we became networked and our office grew, we realized the need for some assistance," says Duckett. "Our budget does not allow for a full-time IT person, so we chose to utilize a couple of talented local freelancers."
One freelancer helped with network setup and continues to provide telephone/network support. He assisted the company in deploying a basic Ethernet network using a Linksys router by Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif. He also recently added a wireless network to allow customers to patch in to the system whenever they pay a visit.
The freelance programmer collaborates with Sew What? on the development of in-house applications. He is in the process of implementing a Microsoft Access database system, for example, and is assisting in the creation of new Web-based marketing campaigns.
Moving forward, the company plans to run exclusively on Dell gear. As a result, it decided to take advantage of Gold Technical Support from Dell Services.
Its next move is to bring Web hosting in-house. This will not happen, however, until the middle of 2007. Once again, the PowerEdge 860 will handle this task.
"I would like to have greater control, without the limitations put on us by our host," says Duckett. "It will allow me to have our digital backdrop files, which our clients upload to us, essentially already in our system, and will eliminate the need to move files around for storage."
When that time comes, she anticipates buying another Dell 860. One server will probably be used exclusively for the Web, and the other will handle the accounting and management systems.
Finally, the custom drapery firm plans to implement a complete inventory management system with bar code scanners in the coming year. The idea is to make shop floor management more efficient while isolating manufacturing processes that must be upgraded. Three software packages are currently being evaluated.
Artisan to Entrepreneur
Having made the transition from artisan to entrepreneur, what tips does Duckett have for others who wish to capitalize on technology? Her first piece of advice is to upgrade incrementally. By formulating a technology plan in a manner similar to a traditional business plan, she outlined what she wanted to achieve via hardware and software, and how much she wanted to spend. Instead of trying to have the benefits now, she asked herself where she wanted to be in five years and what IT infrastructure would be required to get there.
"Don't be dismayed if it takes a while to streamline processes," says Duckett. "Adding a hardware or software component is like adding an employee it can take a while for everyone to learn to get along."