E-Commerce secrets to scale

018 - Building a Referral Based Business with Todd Astill

018 – Building a Referral Based Business with Todd Astill

E-Commerce Secrets To Scale is a marketing and entrepreneurship podcast that revolves around hearing the stories and strategies of successful entrepreneurs and e-commerce professionals to uncover scaling secrets that will impact your online store.

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Nerve Park City (Website)

Tanner:

This week on the show, I have Todd Astill, founder and president of Nerve Park City, out of Park City, Utah. Todd and I talk all about building a business based on only referrals and how great customer service can make that a reality.

Tanner:

Welcome to the show Todd, I’m super excited to have you go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience.

Todd:

Hey Tanner, thanks for having me. Yeah. My name is Todd Astill. I’m the founder and president of Nerve Park City. And yeah, glad to be talking with you today.

Tanner:

Awesome, man. So how did your career get started? Can you kind of walk us through the timeline of everything?

If you’re going to keep spending money on it, maybe you should consider spending other people’s money on it.

Todd:

Yeah, so it’s an interesting story, like a lot of entrepreneurs. I actually started my first business, back in 96, I was in the mortgage business and originating mortgages and I’d seen an opportunity to kind of do my own thing and started a mortgage brokerage, which was a good business. You know, it didn’t require a lot of capital to get started and the market was really good at the time. So did mortgages for some time, but it wasn’t anything I was passionate about. I had always been passionate about photography and video production, and I’ll try to give you the short version here, but yeah, it started in 98, I guess it was late 97 photography and video production studio. So my wife actually worked with me and I did the photography and editing and she did video production from the shooting through the editing process.

It was a great business, but it required us to be away oftentimes in the evenings and on weekends. And we started a family and with young kids, it wasn’t it wasn’t ideal to be a way during the holidays or the times where most of the events that we were covering would take place. So I was also always very interested in audio visual, particularly. I love listening to music. I love the technology behind it. It was becoming a pretty expensive hobby me. So my wife pointed out one day she says, you know, you seem to be pretty passionate about this stuff and you know, if you’re going to keep spending money on it, maybe you should consider spending other people’s money on it. And you know, get into doing that for a living. And maybe it’s a little more flexible. So in 2001 we started that business in conjunction with, I had exited the mortgage business but we were still, you know running the studio. So we actually ran the studio concurrent with the startup of this business for about two and a half, almost three years, and eventually phased that out when this business you know, took off pretty quickly. And yeah, just been loving working with the technology, working with our clients you know, a lot of different experiences and adventures along the way, but it’s been a journey to get here.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, I can imagine everyone has their own journey and issues that they face along the way. And, you know, speaking of that, what were some obstacles that you faced while not only transitioning from one business to another, but just growing that into something that I could really sustain whatever income you were getting previously?

Todd:

Yeah, that’s a good question. As I mentioned, the mortgage business is kind of a low barrier to entry, right? There’s not a lot of capital investment required that the photography studio was the opposite. A lot of capital was required. We started out with film, on the photography side and, and that was pretty, you know, costly as far as the materials for that. Plus the equipment is extremely expensive. And then shortly after starting the studio, digital photography became a viable solution in the professional realm that we took on, or we started the digital division of our studio. We’re the first in the Salt Lake Valley to be shooting fully digital events and editing and producing, you know, the output, the prints and, and whatnot.

So it was a massive learning curve and it took me from an artistic mindset to a technology mindset very rapidly, because you had to be able to you know, actually envision the shoot and get the shots. But then there was a whole lot of work in post-production that used to be done by a lap, right? You could send your prints off or send your negatives or your slide off to a lab, tell them what you wanted. They could do all kinds of dodging and burning and editing and propping and so forth. And you know, what shows up for your client is a beautiful print and somebody else did the work on. We took all that in house and that transition from analog to digital in you know, in the photography world, that’s kind of what kickstarted my interest in or I guess it just ramped up my interest in technology. So that was the biggest hurdle was the time and the money investment on that side of the business. And then when we got into the AAV business, you know, finding clients was, I had no idea where to start.

Todd:

You know, we always had word of mouth referrals for the studio. I didn’t have a lot of connections per se, with people that would have the means to buy these more expensive, what we call big boy toys, you know, electronics and automation systems, you know distributed audio, home theater in particular at the time we’re talking about, you know, 2001 was not a cheap proposition. So I basically started pounding the pavement and that was a big challenge. I met someone that was kind of running a, essentially a design center with a lot of different trades in it. So they would have, you know, cabinet shops and tile people and appliance suppliers all under one roof. And there was a small home theater presentation area that had been built by another contractor who had basically just left it.

They didn’t want to continue making the payments on the space. So we took it over and it wasn’t an ideal space, but you know, we made the investment to update it, to make it presentable. And then I manned, that booth for months with absolutely no return on investment. And so finally, one day a gentleman walked in, he had just purchased a house with a unfinished basement and you know, was interested in the home theater and given the presentation we made, he was impressed enough to say, okay, let’s have you take a look at our house. And that was our first client. And from there, fortunately he was a well-connected and well healed man with whom we still do business to this day. And he was kind enough to share his connections after we’d done a good job for him. And you know, give us kind of a foothold into that market. And we just expanded and built from there.

One of the best parts of the business is the people that I have the privilege of associating with.

Tanner:

Yeah. You know even for myself, finding the first customer, the first group of clients is probably the hardest part. And I think, that’s just how it is. It’s just the nature of big, large project based businesses. Right? But do you still rely on referrals to this day or how do you handle marketing and sales?

Todd:

Yeah, that’s a great question. To this day, the majority of our business comes from referrals, you know, work that we’re doing for past clients. But then referrals from past clients to do customers. And we often do, you know, every two, three years we do a showcase home in Park City or parade home in Salt Lake or outlying areas and you know, meet some new clients and expand our business from there. But yeah, we haven’t really needed to. Haven’t had the desire to market. Our target audience is very specific, very limited, right? I mean, first of all, you have to have people that have the means to purchase these kinds of more luxury items. And then second, they have to have an interest in and have a desire to spend that kind of money. So yeah, we’re fortunate enough to have a steady stream of business you know, from that early stage on.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty incredible that you literally just got really lucky on your first customer and just exploded from there. I think you’re incredibly fortunate for that. That’s for sure. So Todd, what would you attribute your success to?

Todd:

So yeah, that first chance meeting and I don’t know if I’d call it a chance meeting, but we were very fortunate to meet a client like that. But I understood from you know, my days in the mortgage business and the studio that referrals were 1. the most inexpensive way to find new clients and 2. would massively increase or significantly increase your close rate. So from the beginning of the business, we focused on customer service and put a lot of time and energy into making sure that the clients were happy with the services that we provided. So they would be inclined to recommend us. And sometimes that meant, you know, I was at the client’s home on a Friday night, Saturday night when they have family friends over, they have an issue, whether it was our issue or was just an issue with, you know, an unrelated equipment or things are out of our control. I always answer the phone. I always do what I can to solve the problem. And if I can’t solve the problem immediately, I always let them know what the plan is and follow through with it. It’s very simple. Because of that, we built a very loyal client base. So yeah, the initial meeting was key, but what we did with that relationship was ultimately what determined the trajectory of the business.

Tanner:

Yeah. I love that. And, you know, I think a lot of businesses really overlook the power of just excellent customer service because if you just blow away a customer and they’re just incredibly happy with the work that you’ve done and not only the work you’ve done, but you know, how you treat them and how you respond to them, they become a walking billboard for you. You’re just going to grow like wildfire. Because they’re going to tell every single person that comes to their house and their theater room and boom, you got referral after referral after referral, right?

Todd:

Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of businesses pay lip service to that mentality and talk a lot about how their customer service is superior. But you know, the rubber meets the road when you get the phone call at 9:30 at night on a Friday and your family is over or you have friends or you’re out to dinner, whatever. And I could share with you numerous stories to that end and just responsiveness is key. I mean, oftentimes a client wouldn’t want to interrupt what I was doing. They just appreciated that I answered the phone and I had a plan where we could solve the issue for them. And you know, like I said, that mutual respect is what we build. And for me, one of the best parts of the business is the people that I have the privilege of associating with.

I needed someone, even if they were less experienced in the industry, that just understood our philosophy as a business.

Tanner:

Yeah. And, you know, sometimes all you really need to do is just respond to them. Like, Hey, I can’t do anything about it right now, but let’s plan on talking on Monday. Small stuff like that really goes a long way. So Todd, who is your first hire outside of any partners that you brought on?

Todd:

So I was new to that business and, you know, I had had quite a number of employees in the mortgage business, but in the studio, 1. It was artistic right, 2. it was very, very customer driven customer service driven. You know, we were dealing with families we’re often dealing and we’re doing a lot of weddings and events and you’re dealing with very emotional people, I guess you could say. So, you know, their relationship was important. So I didn’t really build a large team in the studio. I hadn’t hired a lot of people and trained them. We hired a gentleman to do video production to take some of the burden off of my wife, you know, with young kids. And I found it challenging to manage him, to kind of meet the expectations of the client and for him to understand what our philosophy was and what we expected to deliver as a business.

So I was kind of reticent to hire people in the new business. I started doing most of it myself, with just laborers doing some of the menial tasks. But the first hire that I made was a younger guy, you know, he was probably just a couple of years older than me and had been in the business doing things. Probably knew more about it than I did, you know? And I appreciated that fact and I knew I was out of my depth sometimes. Right? I mean, I knew how to put together a good system, but there was a lot of, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about certain things. Right? So we worked well together, but I found out shortly after hiring him and into the relationship that he had challenges with being consistent, you know, like showing up on time, things like that.

And he had a real difficult personal life, you know, he’s divorced and had child support he’s supposed to pay. And I mean, really it was, it was kind of a mess. At work, he was extremely capable. I mean, the man, he could walk into a job and see what was going on with it and just knock it out of the park, the actual work that needed to be done. But you know as a time management person, or I guess you could say from client relations, he was a little rough around the edges. So I knew he had potential and we worked well together for quite some time. But I realized that he was not the kind of person I could build a business on because I had to make up for those shortcomings. So I kind of put him into a role that would make sense where I was always interfacing with the clients and he wasn’t.

And I was managing everything in the project so that you know, it went smoothly. So I realized at that point I needed someone dependable, reliable, and probably someone, even if they were less experienced in the industry that just understood our philosophy as a business. Which was the upmost respect for our clients, their home, their time and the kind of privilege we have to work with them. And, you know, from there we’ve searched and looked for those types of people and been lucky enough to find some.

Tanner:

Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, a lot of people say, always surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. And I think that really sets you up for success. So how do you keep your employees around? How do you keep them happy?

Todd:

That’s a good question. It’s funny. A lot of the people that are interested in this industry and get into it are less interested in the money and more interested and more passionate about the technology, right? They just love doing cool projects. They like working with cool people. They like feeling like they have done something impressive and also they’ve expanded their skills. So we’ve tried to give them opportunities to grow within the business. My next hire was a kid and literally a kid that was working at a TV repair shop and had no experience in a home audio. You know, he was handy enough and definitely had an interest in it. And it took very little support from me and encouragement from me, for him to start learning on his own. In fact, I gave him some leftover equipment that we pulled out of another client’s house and said, do you want to take this home?

You can play with it. Here’s some tips. Here’s the software you need to set it up. And, you know, within a week, this kid had figured out how to do basic programming for an automation system and how to control his lights at home, you know control whatever satellite box he had with the remote and things like that. And he’s just like wide-eyed and super excited to be a part of the business. And from there, you know, he’s taught himself so much. I shared with him, taught him what I knew, and then he’s gone well beyond that. And when there’s opportunity for him to expand his knowledge through formal training or even informal training and experiences, we always make sure that that’s priority.

Do what you’re passionate about to do it in a way that you can be proud of.

Tanner:

Awesome, man. So what’s one piece of advice that you could give any aspiring entrepreneurs listening to this.

Todd:

You know, I think every business is different in its operations, right? And even in the, I guess you could say, the goals. Some businesses, they like to focus on numbers, you know, whether it’s number of employees or it’s your top line revenue or whatever. I’ve found in my business, because what we do is so custom and so personalized to our clientele, that I focus more on the experience, both for our clientele, for my crew, my team, and for me and let the numbers fall where they fall. But the key to me is that you value what you do and by being you know, really kind of the best at what you do, your clients will value it as well. And we found that because of that, the top line numbers, aren’t always amazing.

They’re not the best in our industry, but I can say that our bottom-line numbers the actual you know, profitability of the company has always been very steady because we don’t chase kind of unnecessary business. We don’t chase business that might not make sense for our business, isn’t our core competency. You know, we’ve been privileged enough to work with some people that value what we do and they’re willing to pay maybe even a premium over what some of the other companies in our industry are offering because our service and our finished product is superior. Right? So that’s what I would caution entrepreneurs. And it depends on your business. Some businesses have very slim margins and you have to do a lot of volume, but I would encourage any entrepreneur to 1. do what you’re passionate about to do it in a way that you can be proud of and then let those numbers fall where they may.

Tanner:

Yeah, I think that’s really good advice. I think that too many entrepreneurs just focus on, like you said, top line revenue, but that doesn’t really matter. I mean, we should be chasing profit, but the most important thing is that we’re happy in our business and that our customers are happy. Right? So Todd, what would you say your secrets to scale are?

Todd:

Again, it’s the same answer. To some extent we don’t try to scale. Like I said to a certain organization size or top line revenue, we scale in a way that allows us to continue the same quality of service and to deliver the same experience for our clients. And the secret to that is hiring people that are as passionate and committed to what you’re doing as you are.

Enjoy the ride.

Tanner:

Awesome advice. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time. Todd, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think might benefit the audience?

Todd:

Yeah, I would say enjoy the ride. Really, if you’re in a business that you started because you want to be in it, just every once in a while, stop, look around at the people you’re working with your team with your clientele and you know, recognize how fortunate you are to be in that position, to be independent, to be able to create something you know, that you can be proud of and kind of enjoy that success. There’s no you know, if you’re always looking for the next and the next and more and more to feel successful I would absolutely recommend that you consider how successful you are, just having a business that allows you and your team to do what you enjoy doing. And bring some happiness and enjoyment to other people.

Tanner:

Yeah. I really love that. I like saying, embrace the struggle because when you’re living in the present, you’re going to be lot happier than if you’re living in the future, right? Like, Oh, I just got to hit this revenue mark and I’ll be happy and I’ll be where I want to be. But in reality, it doesn’t really happen. You’re always going to be chasing something. So I agree with you. It’s important to just, like you said, look around, be proud of yourself for where you’re at, because if you look back a year ago from now, you’ve probably grown so much that it’s not even funny.


Todd:

Absolutely.

Tanner:

So Todd, thanks again for joining me. What’s a good way for anyone listening to get in contact with you?

Todd:

They can check out our website nerve.tv or feel free to call me at 801-913-6404. Text is great as well.


Tanner:

Awesome. Well, thanks again then.


Todd:

Thank you, Tanner.

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