This is a follow up story for Diesel Laptops. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 5 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I am the founder and CEO of a B2B company called Diesel Laptops. I started this business in my garage and dining room table 6 years ago, and now we have over 180 employees and are still growing. Our company provides products and services to allow clients to repair diesel engines and equipment more efficiently. This mainly covers commercial trucks and off-highway equipment, but we dive into marine and automotive a bit as well.
Our company has been in the Top 15 Fastest Growing Companies in South Carolina the last 3 years, and this year we won the South Carolina SBA Exporter of the Year award. We aren’t letting our foot off the throttle anytime soon!
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Oh boy, 2020 was a really strange year! I went from feeling in March that the economy would collapse and our company would vanish to finishing 2020 with record revenue, record profit, and we added additional 40+ employees! Sales were up somewhere around 30% year-over-year, and that was with taking a huge sales dip in March and April.
Keep finding where there is friction with your clients and find ways to overcome that.
We’ve taken COVID-19 very seriously, as we implemented free weekly testing for all employees. We had a 0.4% positive rate, and zero cases of community spread inside our company HQ. We also hired an elementary teacher, created an in-house classroom, and made it a free service for our employees which we call Diesel Academy. They could bring their kids to work and have them educated at the same time. It took a ton of stress off the family.
On the business side, we paused for a minute in March and April but ramped it right back up again. We opened our first physical location outside of South Carolina, which is in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas. It is mainly for our Diesel Training division, as we bring technicians in to train them on real-world skills around electrical, hydraulics, and diagnostics in general. Our Diesel Training drove over $250,000 in revenue in 2020, which was really good considering we had almost zero in 2019 and we had a pandemic going on.
On the product side, this was the year we really did a lot of software foundational things to set the stage for 2021. We are trying to transition from a retail company to a software company, so there are a lot of things we are learning along the way. With that said, we did launch two new platforms. One is called Diesel Repair, which is a platform that contains everything you would ever need for repair information on commercial trucks. We also launched Diesel Parts, which does the same thing for commercial truck parts.
We have invested millions into these platforms over the years, and we are quickly approaching the point where we start to monetize them. That should happen around Q2 of 2021.
More than anything, our company is growing up. This is our 2nd year of having an annual strategic plan, and the first year it came from our managers. They had to present their 2021 plan to myself and the Senior VP’s, and you can just see the difference a year makes. They were confident, had well thought out plans, and their knowledge level of the market and products has vastly improved. This was also the first year I did not do the budget. Our accounting department has been totally overhauled, and they put together an annual budget, forecast, future cash flows, and a bunch of other great tools that we need.
We also really got into podcasting this year, and I do a weekly show called “The DL”. It has been a blast, and it has really helped grow our brand recognition and customer base. It also is great for creating a better working relationship with the vendors and partners I interview.
The other great thing that happened this year was caused by COVID. When lockdowns happened in the Spring, we decided to launch a virtual truck repair expo. We put it together quickly, had over 2,000 unique attendees, and decided to make it an annual event.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Another huge benefit to COVID and the lockdown was that our company all of the sudden was focused on expenses. We cut everything possible, as we didn’t want to layoff any employees. One of those expenses was Google Ads. Our company was spending almost $100,000 a month with Google and Facebook. We cut that down by 90%, and we had our best sales year ever. We saw no decrease in lead generation.
The other noticeable financial change this year was our travel and trade show expenses. In a B2B industry, trade shows are a large part of what we have historically done. In a typical year, we spend almost $500,000 across over 50 trade shows and events. For 2021 due to COVID, this went down to almost zero.
On the personal side, it was a great year to reconnect with my wife and my younger children. They are 7 and 9, and we had to find a lot of ways to keep them busy, have fun, and let them enjoy their childhood during a time when we had to also restrict their interaction with other people. I also lost around 35 lbs, and overall 2020 made me really think more about the future of the company and where we want to take it.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
The goal is still to get to $100 million in revenue over the next couple of years. We’ll get 75% or so the way there with our traditional business, so it's the other $25 million we need to create. Our company has spent millions developing tools that we really believe can change our industry and how the repair process works. We spent a lot of last years putting those pieces together and trying to figure out the strategy. This year is the year I really think we can start generating revenue on these new products and services and start the path towards finding that additional $25 million in revenue.
What excited me most about the future is that I can now clearly see the path. I felt for the last couple of years we had been developing some new products and services, but they didn’t fit together very well. They were all built-in silos, and there was no cohesiveness. It created a complicated message to the users, and we had to fix that. As we were doing that, it allowed us to start thinking more about the next couple of years, and what that should look like.
Overall, our company is transitioning from that “shoot from the hip” mentality, and more towards strategic planning and using our own data to make better decisions. It is a really, really difficult thing to accomplish, especially as we are also trying to transition from a retail company to a software company. I totally understand now why companies get stagnant at certain revenue levels and have a hard time taking the next step. You need buy-in from employees on every level, plus the ownership.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
This was a really odd year. I’m usually an audiobook junkie, but with COVID, the protesting/rioting, the election, and life in general I really lost my mood for business books this year. I just needed to get my mind off of business so I could keep dealing with it. However, with that said, I did grab a couple that I did enjoy!
- Atomic Habits - Great tips and pointers for both personal and professional use.
- The Innovator’s Dilemma - How to keep your company at the top in a fast-changing world.
- Marketing Made Simple - I love Donald Miller, and we use his marketing techniques. This book expands on it more, and I also listen to his podcasts. Great for any business, especially smaller ones.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
My advice on this is generally the same: Keep it simple as possible, don’t take risks you can’t afford to lose, and bootstrap as much as you can. When I say “simple”, that covers everything from the marketing message to the sales process and everything in the middle. Keep finding where there is friction with your clients, and find ways to overcome that.
Is your price too high? Find ways to make it more affordable using fintech solutions. Create a good/better/best pricing structure. Find financing partners, or even factor your AR. Create options for your clients.
Can’t find customers? Go to where they are. We started on eBay primarily, but also Craiglist before branching out to more traditional. Don’t spend gobs of money paying people to help you, you need to help yourself.
I also see a lot of younger entrepreneurs out trying to raise money, because they think they need to do that to succeed. You don’t, it is quite possible to start and grow small. You’ll thank yourself several years down the road when you realize you didn’t give up all your equity.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always hiring! A lot of what we are looking for are very specialized skills, but they can always head to our Careers Opportunity board to see what is out there!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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