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SMALL-BUSINESS MAKEOVER

Finding clients: Even great work doesn't sell itself

Word of mouth isn't enough to keep projects flowing into Design Models of California, an El Segundo model-making shop. The owner should start marketing and networking, a consultant says.

January 12, 2010|By Cyndia Zwahlen
  • Design Models of California owner Chad Takenaka holds a Buzz Lightyear mock-up he made for Mattel. He has avoided marketing, believing that it annoys people.
Design Models of California owner Chad Takenaka holds a Buzz Lightyear… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Chad T. Takenaka sees himself as a craftsman, not a salesman. So when he bought the model-making shop where he worked, he never dreamed he'd face the dreaded prospect of cold calling people to drum up business.

As an employee busy making prototypes and mock-ups, he hadn't noticed how the El Segundo company's previous owners pursued marketing or sales efforts to keep the phone ringing.

"I was really naive and thought, 'OK, I've got all my documents and stuff, I am in business,' " says Takenaka, 41, who bought the California assets of Design Models Inc. in mid-2006.

Even as downtime grew more frequent in the recession, his first thought was to invent a new gadget to sell to supplement his company's roller-coaster income. That seemed easier than looking for more clients in the aerospace, toy manufacturing, architecture or entertainment industries.

Takenaka, who has one employee and a cadre of freelancers, still counts Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Mattel Inc. among his clients. But the recession has meant fewer projects and smaller budgets. He's also affected by clients' mergers and the increased use of computer-generated virtual models.

Sales fell to $295,000 for fiscal 2009, which ended June 30, from $371,000 in fiscal 2007, the first year he owned the business. Takenaka estimates sales will slide to $285,000 this year.

Still, Takenaka has largely avoided marketing and sales efforts, which he views as bothering people and feels unprepared to do well.

His company's survival is a testament to the quality of its workmanship and the depth of its contacts, says marketing expert Bonnie Nijst. The company has relied on those longtime relationships and word of mouth to generate the three or fewer jobs it's been getting each month. But that passive stance doesn't boost sales.

"The fact that his phone isn't ringing off the hook is not because he didn't do something yesterday, it's because of what he didn't do in 2006 or 2007 or last year," says Nijst, president and chief executive of Zeesman Communications Inc., a Beverly Hills marketing and brand strategy company.

Even small steps could have big rewards, she says. Here are her top recommendations to get Takenaka started.

* Act like an owner. Takenaka describes himself as a full-time administrator and a part-time model maker -- and he'd like to reverse that ratio. Neither mix is right, Nijst says.

"He owns the business," she says. "He needs to see himself as the owner and a champion for its vitality and success."

An administrator just gets the rent check out on time. An owner also understands that to pay the bills, the company must generate cash -- which sales and marketing make possible.

Nijst suggests Takenaka stop thinking that calling potential clients is a nuisance to them. Instead, he could consider it a chance to solve a problem or to be a resource.

Takenaka says he is happy chatting about projects with clients, communicating constantly while on a job. If he can think of potential clients in the same light, he might find it easier to talk to them, Nijst says.

* Create an infrastructure. Takenaka has talked with marketing firms but didn't feel he had the revenue to hire them. "The bigger issue to me is he doesn't have any infrastructure in place to process or leverage inquiries that might be generated," Nijst says.

She suggests he take a weekend and set up a simple computer database consisting of his several hundred contacts entered into a basic off-the-shelf software package. He could then designate at least an hour a week to update the database and call five contacts.

Takenaka could use the database to send e-mail blasts with company news or other relevant information that would keep Design Models of California's name in front of key people.

* Get out of the office. Sole operators often get isolated, mentally and physically.

"You can get stuck behind your four walls and you don't know what other people are doing, and you don't have other people who know you and are a champion for you," Nijst says.

To breach those walls, she suggests Takenaka sign up for business and trade publications, online newsletters and other sources of information on topics that affect his business and his clients' industries.

She'd also like to see him get out at least once a week to network. That might be a breakfast with a client, a lunch at an aerospace group meeting or a networking event at the local chamber of commerce.

Takenaka should set a goal for each event, whether it's to collect a certain number of business cards or meet a key contact, the consultant says. He could follow up by contacting everyone the next week during his marketing time slot.

* Build relationships. Networking is important because building his business is not just about getting more projects, it's also about building relationships, Nijst says.

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