KANDY Outdoor Flooring transforms lacklustre balcony floors into deluxe outdoor-friendly surfaces for apartment and condo owners. Owner Kelly Niessen took the business from concept to $2.5 million in sales in just 5 years. How? She wanted her product as badly as her customers did.
Kelly’s “Aha!” moment came several months into the process of trying to renovate the balcony floor of her condo apartment. “I wasn’t allowed to add anything that adhered to the floor or the building or that could trap water,” Niessen remembers. “Very few options met the condo rules, and I didn’t like their look. When I finally found flooring I liked, the minimum order requirements meant I had to buy three times more than what I needed.” She wasn’t alone.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t I find someone to come over to my home and show me some options like they do with closets and blinds?’ And then it hit me – this is the business start-up idea I’m looking for! I’ll make upgrading a balcony floor a painless, one-stop experience.”
Define your brand from the outset
Niessen knew what she wanted to offer from the start. She wanted to provide flawless customer experience when it came to quality, service and choice.
She and her cofounder, husband Doug Niessen, worked with a business coach to define KANDY’s purpose and core values. “We peeled back the onion until we knew what defined us and our brand,” she explains. “Now, every decision is weighed against expanding home experiences and our core values – be the solution, bring out the best in everyone, ever evolving and deliver on every promise.” Decisions are easy for the Niessens to make because they have their purpose and core values to guide them.
Early on, Niessen’s reliance on a third-party supplier limited KANDY’s product choices and risked unhappy customers. “They’d choose a style, but when I placed the order with the supplier, it was no longer available, or wouldn’t be for months.” Just two years in, she took a deep breath and started manufacturing her own flooring in China. “It was a huge learning curve, but it meant we could consistently deliver on quality and choice.” Then Niessen decided that, despite higher upfront costs, moving her manufacturing to Canada made sense. “I’m a proud Canadian and our customers really appreciate the made-in-Canada stamp. Plus, over time, the costs balance out because before, if we had a problem with a container full of flooring, we were out of luck and had to absorb the cost. Now, we can get smaller orders faster and identify any issues right away. When it’s made in Canada, it’s much easier to stay true to our values of quality and choice.”
Know your customers
When it came time to launch her business, Niessen could already guess who her potential customers were – people just like her, who wanted a nice balcony floor, who’d be willing to pay for excellence, full-service, and getting it done right the first time. To reach them directly, she debuted KANDY at the B.C. Home Show, a magnet for new homeowners considering renovations. The cost of participating in shows like this can be hard to justify for a cash-strapped start-up, but the investment paid off. Curious crowds filled the booth and produced KANDY’s first wave of customers.
Niessen’s challenge was to find the next wave of potential customers. She targeted new condominium developments and apartment buildings where “For Sale” ads suggested that suites were changing hands. Direct mail was her best conduit, putting her message in the hands of her most likely customers. KANDY still finds new customers by combining Home Shows and highly-targeted direct mail.
Now that the business is a well-oiled machine, her marketing strategy also includes building relationships with the influencers most likely to drop a word into the right potential customer’s ear, at the right time. She and her team reach out to building managers, key realtors, designers and building envelope engineers.
No matter the channel, KANDY’s marketing always targets a specific person – someone very much like Niessen herself – a condo owner who wants to make his/her balcony a beautiful outdoor space. The strategy works, continuing to attract new customers.
How to build a great business
When asked what she’d tell her best friend about building a small business, Niessen had three key insights.
- Make sure there’s a market
“Money HAS to change hands, or it’s not worth it for you to put your time and resources into the business. Anyone can say they like something, but do they buy it?” From the beginning, Niessen has relied on customer sales for KANDY’s operational costs, rather than personal or business lines of credit, so new products must quickly pass the “Are customers buying this?” test.
- Success is in your data’s details
Attention to detail helps a business thrive, rather than just survive, believes Niessen. “I’ve trained everyone in the brand to ‘document, document, document!’ It’s so important to track everything that’s measurable in the business. Analyzed together with anecdotal and non-quantified data, these details can reveal the true story of your business.”
Tracking what products customers actually buy, rather than simply admire, pays off in ordering and manufacturing decisions. Niessen’s consistency in collecting and tracking data delivered a big payoff when she was ready to franchise because, “successful franchises are based on structure and processes, especially in service based systems.”
- Life beyond your business
“Take time to recharge your batteries,” she urges. “When you’re running a small business, it’s incredibly difficult to take time off, but it’s essential for long-term success, or you risk burning out.” Niessen and her husband Doug love outdoor activities. They regularly carve out time for short camping and hiking trips. And the smartphones stay off.
Expansion on the horizon
With the first franchises underway, her floors soon-to-be Canadian-made, and with sales in the millions, Niessen is ready to expand KANDY across North America. She believes that success will come “by sticking to our primary goal of providing customers with a superior home renovation experience by delivering the service, quality, and choice that I couldn’t find 6 years ago.”