Pay Attention to That Woman Behind the Curtains

Friday Jul 21st 2006 by Lauren Simonds
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A company that makes theatrical drapes wins the Dell/NFIB Small Business Excellence Award. Owner Megan Duckett tells how they did it.

What makes it possible for a one-woman business that started in a kitchen to evolve and grow into a multi-million dollar company with 35 employees? Megan Duckett, owner of Sew What — a company that specializes in theatrical draperies for stage, concerts, special events and trade shows — attributes her success to hard work, quality workmanship and — technology.

Most recently, Duckett's commitment to technology resulted in Sew What winning the Small Business Excellence Award. Since 2004, Dell and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) have presented this annual prize to one small business in recognition of its innovative use of technology to improve its customers' experience. The winner receives $30,000 worth of Dell products and services, a lifetime membership to the NFIB and a day at Dell's headquarters with Michael Dell and other senior executives.


Megan Duckett, owner of Sew What
Megan Duckett, owner of Sew What, a theatrical draperies company that recently won the Small Business Excellence Award from Dell and the NFIB.

Home Economics
Sew What started in 1992 as a part-time endeavor with Duckett cutting and sewing fabric on her kitchen table. She went full-time in 1997 and incorporated in 1998. The important role technology plays in running a successful small business hit home when she lost a big contract. The potential client said that without a Web site, her company "lacked credibility."

"Before losing that contract I thought, 'I run a sewing business, a cottage craft. I don't need a Web site,'" she said. Duckett admits she was rather cocky, mainly because she had grown her business "quite well" by word of mouth alone. "I quickly learned the error of that thought process. You can't have that attitude and stick around," she said.

Losing the contract also coincided with a period of low growth between 2001 and 2002. That's when Duckett decided to embrace technology. Using Microsoft Publisher, she designed and built her own Web site. "You figure things out and learn how to do it yourself when budgets are thin," she said.

Duckett kept working to improve the site, to make it better for her customers. A year later, feeling that the site needed refreshing, she signed up for a 10-week course in Dreamweaver and again completely rebuilt the site.

Sew Local, Sell Global
Yet another Web site reconstruction helped Sew What grow into a company with customers around the world and a clientele list that includes the likes of Sting, Madonna, Gucci and Rolling Stone magazine. In 2005, Duckett decided she needed to improve the site's navigation. "I wanted it to be sleek and to provide a really good customer experience. That was beyond my abilities, so we hired a marketing company to build a custom navigation system for the site."

She worked with the hired guns on branding, search engine optimization, overall design and the site layout. Duckett still provides all the content — text and images. There's also a Spanish version of the site, and the pros tuned the main site's search feature to include spelling variants for different English-speaking countries. For example, you can search for the American spelling of "theater" or the British and Australian "theatre."

The site lets potential customers look at all kinds of color swatches, and it teaches them how to calculate accurate measurements for their projects, the difference between a scrim, a tormentor or a traveler curtain, the proper care and feeding of a variety of drape materials and a lot more.

The Contest
Duckettt was perusing the Dell Web site and saw a blurb about the Dell/NFIB Small Business Excellence Award. "The description of the kinds of businesses they were looking for perfectly described Sew What," she said. "Everything they were looking for, we'd done, so I decided to enter. My husband [and business partner] laughed and reminded me that I never win anything."

Screen shot of the Sew What Web site
The Sew What Web site lets you look at hundreds of different fabric swatches.
(Click for larger image)
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Writing the essay for the contest caused Duckett to reflect on everything she and her employees had achieved over the years. "We got to sit back and feel really proud of ourselves. Just that process was enough to invigorate everyone in our weekly production meetings."

Winning the award proved to be a very emotional experience. Looking at the caliber and achievements of the nine other finalists, Duckett figured Sew What would remain just that — a top-ten finalist. "I could not believe that a big company like Dell — so entrepreneurial and advanced in every way — would look at our little company and recognize it."

Like other small business owners, Duckett puts an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy into her work. "Winning this award is so flattering on a personal level," she said. "This business is ingrained in every cell of my body, and to have someone saying, 'Good job," well, in small business, nobody ever says that to you."

Continuing Technical Excellence
Duckett plans to use the winnings to add a bar code system to track the manufacturing process at the company's warehouse. In the drapery business, the fabric's on a roll in the warehouse and it moves through different stages: receiving, cutting, sewing, shipping, etc. The scanning process will let Duckett's team track how long the fabric stays in any given stage. The data will give them a better idea of costs, which will help them produce more accurate price lists.

"We don't need to charge an hour and a half for labor if the cutting only takes an hour and 15 minutes," Duckett said. Currently, the company uses a hand-written system of sign-in and sign-out sheets that she says takes too long and introduces too many errors.

"The new system will also let us track the progress of individual orders," she said. "We'll be able to provide better service by keeping the customer updated."

Duckett's been serving her customers ever since she sewed her first drape on that kitchen table back in 1992. Today, technology is making it easier and more profitable.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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