IT Visionaries: How One Small Business Built a Connected System and Apps - Without Programmers
OREANDA-NEWS. April 11, 2016. The Merrow Sewing Machine Company knows what it means to evolve. When you’re a 180-year-old family business that’s had to evolve through the Industrial Revolution, you know that taking risks are sometimes necessary. Originally a gunpowder manufacturer, the Merrow family moved into the textile industry and invented the overlock sewing machine. Today, the company carefully balances managing their core business toward success, and finding new investments and opportunities to grow and stay agile.
In this latest “IT Visionaries,” Charlie Merrow, the CEO of Merrow Sewing Machine Company, shares how his team rebuilt the family company on App Cloud, connected all of their data to better operate in the modern global economy, and also found the time to invest in tech startups.
1. Tell us about how your family business has evolved over 180 years.
Over the years, we’ve repositioned ourselves from a sewing machine manufacturer into a diversified company that builds sewing machines that add value to sewn products and also invests in textile and technology start-ups.
Our core business is the Merrow Sewing Machine company; 10 years ago we refined our mission to focus on building value into textile products. We understand that stitching matters when producing textiles, emblems, garments or any sewn product, and we have developed machines that deliver such a precise seam that it can be advertised as distinctively better and differentiate sewn products in retail. Merrow now allows brands (not just factories) to upgrade, update and create new products with a new aesthetic and superior technical story. In essence, our flagship brands — ActiveSeam and Merrow Stitching — have evolved to allow companies to build proprietary value into the manufacturing process using our equipment and IP licenses. We’re also helping companies effectively communicate that value to customers while creating product differentiation in the market. A terrific example of this is ActiveSeam.
Our story is very much an entrepreneurial one as well. In 2008 we made a strategic decision to diversify the company’s interests, and began making investments in technology-based startups, with the common theme of being able to support these businesses with our technology and fulfilment center. The flagship successes of our incubator program include WoolPRO, a 100% Merino wool apparel line manufactured with custom build activeseam sewing machines; The Hyde Store, a retail experience for Hyde Tools; Patchlight, an ultralight, waterproof safety light system; Sewcat, an online ‘superstore’ for sewing products; and Boston Thread, a shopping experience for purchasing thread by color.
So really, Merrow in 2016 is a sewing machine manufacturer plus other startups, not unlike what our great (great-great) grandparents managed in the mid-1800s. Merrow is a story of reimagining our core business and diversifying over 180 years.
2. What were some of the business challenges you faced when became CEO?
When Owen and I took over the company eleven years ago, we knew changes were necessary to modernize and grow. We had many of the challenges of a major multinational manufacturer, with the resources of a small or medium-sized business. Merrow needed to rebuild to operate efficiently from a central location in order to sell projects globally, and we needed to update our capacity to communicate seamlessly to customers around the world. To be successful, the way we approached customer service needed to fundamentally change, and we knew that we needed technology to do this. Customers have a lot more information now, and they span the globe. We needed automation to help us; auto responses, issue responses and so on. We conduct business in 87 countries now.
3. How can other small-business owners benefit from being as tech-driven as Merrow is?
Small-business owners need to embrace and leverage technology to its fullest. Running a small business is already challenging enough. Our focus on building a great company, growing revenues, and innovating was constantly undermined by unhelpful and difficult-to-manage technical tools. So far this year, we have deployed a technical infrastructure that allows us to spend more time on revenue-generating processes and develop great employees who enjoy working with us. We’ve done this with Salesforce and the apps on App Cloud like Kenandy ERP which allow us to spend our time communicating with our customers and growing our business. This liberates us to be creative and try new things, not focus on the backend technology running the show. We’re able to support resellers and end users in 87 countries around the world because of our technical infrastructure. We’ve gotten rid of sticky notes, and developed reportable data on almost every facet of the business. Our agents in other countries might think we have 1,000 people working for us, but the frequent, active communication we deliver via Salesforce is handled by roughly six people. Besides being more efficient, it’s cost-effective as well. That’s key to any business, large or small, but especially to small businesses that don’t have large budgets and need to spend smartly. We funded everything with working capital, and bootstrapped it. We reinvest everything into innovation and growth.
4. What made you choose to team up with Salesforce?
We tried the free trial and were hooked! First we tried the CRM for a year and then we picked up Kenandy from AppExchange. Now we run everything, soup to nuts, on App Cloud, including our engineering department. There was no need to program anything—that’s a huge distinction for Salesforce. It was out-of-the-box ready and very straightforward to use. We hired a smart guy to be our Salesforce Admin. He doesn’t have a tech background, but does all the day-to-day stuff, and we also get help from the admin community. It’s great. Technology allows you to scale, without adding headcount.
5. Tell us about how you use App Cloud.
We run our entire company on Force.com—ERP, accounting, shipping, CRM. When we realized what we could do with App Cloud, we built everything on the platform. Custom objects allowed us to push all data to Salesforce. Now we can truly get a total, clear view of what’s happening within the company. The reporting changed how we ran this company, overnight. We make decisions based on solid information, rather than assumptions or with questions. We can adjust strategic programs based on performance in a moment. We’re more agile than we ever thought possible. With a more agile, connected system working for us, we were able to launch 11 startups. It’s difficult to make a startup succeed, so you have to be very strategic in your investments; it has to be able to scale both up and down. Some worked, some didn’t, but that’s OK. We’ve killed off more than we made work, and cultivated three superstars: WoolPRO, ActiveSeam, and PatchLight.
6. What kind of results have you seen since moving the company to App Cloud?
Overall, we’ve doubled our growth since implementing Salesforce in 2012, and it’s all IT-driven growth. We’ve built up an opportunity funnel and can work on cultivating customers. We can spend more time managing our business process and customers, instead of IT operations. Some of our startups use Salesforce as well, so now we’ve got five businesses on App Cloud. It’s awesome. We also get a lot of use out of the Salesforce1 Mobile App. We’ve been very proactive about making it available to all staff since everyone needs to see information in real time. In fact, our sales team aren’t the biggest users of the app—that would be the purchasing team and the team that manages repairs.
7. And what has app building been like?
We build everything ourselves and iterate through failure. We’re creating long-tail apps for many of our ad-hoc business processes. In the long run, they’ll improve our customer success. Best of all, our employees are empowered to build apps. We don’t have any programmers. Instead, we look toward low-code solutions and leverage information through citizen developers. We think of it as “failing responsibly,” and we learn new things all the time. But in the end, we still produce terrific, valuable apps that that are fully-mobile. So far, we’ve built apps for: stitch samples, repairs, engineering, marketing, brand ambassadors and more. Being able to create these apps ourselves, without programmers, is our ‘special sauce’. It’s been a huge differentiator for us that’s created huge value. For instance, the Brand Ambassador program for WoolPRO effectively launched the brand. We weren’t expecting that and so we built out geo-mapping, product reporting, social media tracking and more on the fly in App Cloud. That all happened in 30 days with no programmers.