Many of these discussions originated with a Chamber & SBA workshop and then out of speed networking event – people seemed really interested to know just how it works. More that one person said they were impressed by how far one woman with a vision could take something.
Three years ago, I started a company called Carolina Web Development. Through our web sites, software kiosks, print and advertising collateral – We make Memorable Experiences With Style. My background as a professor for nine years was a dual professor in both graphics and computer science. After I became a CIO of a series of companies, I left to start my own. The business was started with substantial cash investment that I put into it. Florida Web Development is an expansion of that company.
Let’s talk about those companies first.
The first key partners in our equation are GoDaddy and Network Solutions (now Web.com). I have done business with Network Solutions for 15 years in a number of capacities and for a number of clients. Through a competitive markeplace, GoDaddy was eventually able to build really competitive products that also suited our needs. So when we need servers, domain names, VPS, dedicated servers, SSL certificates, email servers those have been our strongest two partners on that side of the business. Believe it or not, GoDaddy wasn’t really a player in our equation up until about 2 years ago. But we’ve been impressed by what we can get on the performance side and things that I consider added value to the developer side of the equation. They started providing expansive tools and resources that we needed as a company to grow.
Another strategic partner for us has been a company that we work with in California to create the social media aggregation software that runs on our kiosks. We were able to take their product and partner it with our engineering and design to get substantial results. And there have been other partnerships in the supply chain for the development of kiosks.
The next key area of strategic partners for us has been the Chamber memberships. We do business with other businesses and in many cases we help make the business. It’s not unusual for a business to show up at my door with just a name and a concept and then creatively, I create the web site and the products and services that allow the company to really grow. It’s a very rewarding thing to help spur economic development for your clients.
Our last major strategic partner has been in the startup and continuing evolution of the Laura Kerbyson designer line of cell phone cases and mouse pads. We went through two iterations of factories before we ended up with our current factory that was finally able to produce the level of design and quality that we require in a product in terms of the physical requirements. The design work is my work. Some of the products are made in the U.S. entirely and some are made with our international strategic partners. In forming those relationships, I had to navigate cultures, pricing, shipping, distribution, packaging in other country, etc. in order to get what I needed. Eventually we moved packaging and distribution back to the U.S. We started very small with selling the nine patterns at the top of the Lighthouse on Hilton Head. In store sales, actually exceeded my expectations of what we would sell initially. Then we expanded into Amazon. Now we need to take it to the next level and find vendors to purchase product for sale in their stores or large purchasers who are interested in new exclusive lines at large volume. This is a small idea that I am slowly feeding to grow into something bigger. Because when I look at the sales of one store and I multiply that by 10 stores or 100 stores. This could be much bigger. My challenge is to find the way where I’m not the bank for the stores and assuming all the risk. Initially, I did that and I think it’s risky. When the store owners have some kind of ownership into the product, I think it’s better for everyone. We are unique in that our customers can connect with us to get the patterns of the cases for the inside of the phone so that the design wraps through the entire device.
When I have overflow, I have contractors and other people with businesses like mine that I can call into projects and they are geographically located in very different regions. For everything I show in the gallery, I try to make sure it is my work because the majority of the time that’s what people want and I need for them to see what they are purchasing.
Our key activities continue to be Chamber events, workshops and networking events. On the development of the web sites – our key activities involve taking the products the server companies make and making a polished finished product. Our products are not “web site builder” products which from a technical standpoint are really inferior products and never serve clients very well. Our code platform is clean and responsive. We have a number of rapid development tools which allow us to build sites for our clients that are very polished and at a reasonable price point that delivers a lot of bang for the buck. We can maintain those sites for the fraction of the cost of an in-house employee at our clients location. Expertise gives us speed and cost effectiveness. Our animated sites, allow us to creatively convey a lot of message.
Right now I am in the process of beginning to tap into the vast Jacksonville market which is competitively trying to foster an entrepreurial community. The sheer amount of resources, groups, expertise, willingness to help and make connections and outright competiveness of it’s city’s leaders were big factors in choosing Jacksonville for the expansion. We have several obstacles that I need to overcome in order to adapt our model to this market. But I am optimistic that it can be done.
For example, I am grateful that in last night’s workshop in a room full of people – they pulled two of us out of the room that they thought were ahead of the game in terms of developing their companies and their business model. I was one of the two. They then went on to coach and mentor us privately. It speakes very well of the resources that the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce was providing to facilitate that happening. It is exactly what we need in order to learn this local market and grow the business.
– Style, Design, Cost Effective, Rapid professional development, deep expertise in making a superior product – the depth and level of the expertise allow all of this to combine to allow us to “Create a Memorable Experience With Style.” We make it easy for our clients. They tell us this over and over again.
Over the years, our customers have come from states such as Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. I would love to tell you that our best customers only come from the Chamber but that hasn’t been the case. Some of our best clients were people that found us on the web and really liked the look and feel of the products in our gallery. But for us, our chamber memberships have also been historically important because we are a business to business model.
Our customers are reached through the chamber memberships, through the web on our sites, by email marketing, by referrals, by networking events and by belonging to other professional organizations. The personal contact with me directly is what often facilitates the sale but not always. Some people have made a decision to purchase without ever meeting me. It does happen but it’s rare. It means that as a developer and designer, I have to make time to be accessible to build those relationships. It’s a total shift of gears from the role I play as someone who makes products.
We have different products that are designed for every level of business. We have site development tools for small business, medium and large scale capacities. Those tools allow us to hit multiple price points. In our designer tech accessory line we offer products for tourists, locals and then some that are for the people who just really love design.
The number one habit through the evolution of the companies that we have learned not to do is “be the bank.” When we first started, I extended credit and let other companies essentially finance the work through us. Over time, on new clients – we did away with that practice. We still have some existing clients who were on the “build first, pay later model.” Honestly, it’s been a very expensive and costly proposition for me. For example, I have three companies with outstanding balances that should have already been paid. It puts us in a very difficult spot when we don’t get paid and don’t have the cash for operations. We are slowing phasing this out but I’ll be happy when it’s all a prepaid model – the same that GoDaddy and Network Solutions use. Some of this was just my willingness to try to go the extra mile for our customers but like anything in life, people began to take advantage of it by taking their good sweet time to pay. It’s a burden we don’t need to have. So for me, this was the first major change I started instituting in the company. I hate paying out fees for credit card processing, but it’s necessary in order to be liquid.
Where are our costs? Servers, domain names, sometimes tools, professional partnerships, chamber dues, professional dues, travel, typical office expenditures, hardware for kiosks and cabinet materials.
For the designer lines – costs of making prototypes for the design lines, shipping for the product, packaging, web sites. Fees to resellers like Amazon and the commissions to the stores.
1) web sites
3) Advertising and print collateral for our clients – business cards, rack cards, flyers, ads etc.
4) Color palettes for real estate. Serving as designer for residential
6) Design work for yachts and real estate
7) New revenue stream that needs to be nurtured and grown – line of tech accessories and expansion into products that feature my designs.
Our revenue streams have been anything related to design and engineering.
8) Interim Services – We can provide our expertise to companies on an interim services basis.
Why so diversified and how on earth did you end up here?
My background was as a dual professor in design and computer science. I also had a strong corporate business background. I think that some of the first real “proving” if you will of knowledge and experience came when I was hired to help build Hard Rock Park. I was responsible for getting the web site up and hiring and leading teams to help make that vision. I created the animated advertising that ran on the electronic billboards. I did the email marketing. I wrote the newsletter and the “On this day in history.” I did the color palettes and sometimes I rode with Jon in the golf cart to give input on the architecture. I designed merchandise and shopping bags. It was a role that I was very comfortable and really enjoyed doing all things design.
Prior to the park in real estate I had purchased a 175-year-old Victorian and completely renovated it and brought my vision of a design to life. The house sold instantly when I put it on the market. I substantially improved that property and it started the redevelopment of an entire block of this little historic river town where I lived.
On a personal side, I got into a three year relationship with someone who is a real estate broker and developer and I learned a lot about real estate from him and he learned volumes of design from me. Together we did millions and millions of dollars in Hilton Head and Bluffton real estate (his money invested but both of our works). Then we did a yacht together. Now we are working on the second yacht because after we split up for a while, then we had a conversation that really hit the nail on the head, “Creatively – we work extremely well together.” That doesn’t mean that we always agree but it means that after three years we have real genuine respect for each other’s talents. And the stuff makes money. Buyers like it. Now it terms of the real estate investment – it’s his cash and his risk. G. has been in real estate over 30 years. And truly only the people who really know what they are doing will last that long in the real estate business.
Now, from my companies’ perspective, the real estate is not where I will see the growth. The real estate is grueling risking business. For me the growth has been in my original core of skills in technology and design. If I were a partner on a large scale development project, then it might be a growth area. So I have to continue to look for ways to feed that including new markets – like Jacksonville in the technology and design expansions. It’s a necessity that the original company has to expand. It’s also very, very expensive challenge to take on at this point in year three of the companies. I know what my obstacles to success are going to be. I know there are some definite challenges. But sometimes in business, your only real option is to tackle the hard stuff. In a career that has spanned over 25 years, I had to work hard to acquire the knowledge, expertise and develop the design talent that could get me to this point. I think the work is a reflection of that commitment and that discipline.
What is one of the things that I am most proud of?
That I can build an entire kiosk myself – from the hardware design to the software to the interface to the server system if it requires one. It’s a lot of knowledge to be able to go from point A to point B and have it be very polished. I don’t know a lot of people who can do the entire thing.
Who owns the companies?
For better or for worse – I do. Laura Kerbyson. I own 100% and there are no investors at this time. I wake up many a day wondering about how much further I could take something with more money. It’s terrifying to think about the amount of personal investment that went into all of this. But to have creative control of the business has been the thing that has attracted the customers.
What’s the Number One Thing I Need?
New customers in the Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina markets.
So in a nutshell, those are the companies. That’s where the business stands and that’s our business model.
I used to have people say to me, “Why do you always talk about ‘We..’ Because in business it’s always a “we” – whether it’s your customer, one of your partners or anyone in the equation, for any company – there will always be a “We.”