Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Kyle Cox and I am the Founder and CEO of Blindster, one of the largest eCommerce retailers of custom window treatments in the country.
Since 2010, I have made Blindster's core mission to show people how easy it is to order and install custom window treatments and save a lot of money. To accomplish this the company offers products that are simple to install, including our no tools line that is installed without any tools!
In addition, Blindster has a team of experienced window coverings pros ready to assist our customers every step of the way.
We’ve been successful in our mission as Blindster has experienced tremendous growth. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Blindster achieved record sales of $39MM in 2020, an increase of 60% over 2019.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in the Cypress area of Northwest Houston with dreams of playing professional football. Those aspirations took me to Troy University in Alabama, where I played college football and received my degree in Marketing. As the prospects of an NFL career grew slim, I explored other opportunities and wound up returning to Houston with a job at Black & Decker. Within five years, I earned four promotions with transfers to Albuquerque, Tampa, and then back to Houston in 1998.
Upon this last return to Houston, my wife and I purchased our first home and found ourselves arguing about what type of window coverings to buy. After some back-and-forth, we finally settled on blinds. Now keep in mind, this was during the early days of internet shopping. After some searching around, I found a custom blinds website that had some basic information on measuring and placing an order, but it wasn’t a full eCommerce experience like you see today, so I had to place the order over the phone.
When the order arrived at my door, I realized this website was simply managed by a middle-man who took the orders for a factory that shipped the product. If this method was making them money, then surely a true eCommerce experience that gives the customer complete control could be even more profitable.
In 1999, with limited knowledge of the industry and no eCommerce or business ownership experience, my first custom window treatment website was born. I had an idea of what I wanted to build but I didn’t have the money or coding experience to do it myself and website building tools didn’t exist like they do today. So, I found a programmer, paid him $3000, and he built me a simple website with basic eCommerce functionality and no database. Orders and payments were manually placed by myself and organized via Outlook.
Steadily, what started as a one-man show in my garage exploded into a full family business. From my wife to my in-laws, I hired every family member I could to keep up with the growth but we just kept getting bigger. We experienced triple-digit growth every year and brought in $2M per month in revenue but, for personal reasons, I sold the company in 2005, and today that business is a Home Depot company and a competitor.
5 years after my non-compete expired, I decided to build the same business in the same industry, but this time bigger and better. In 2010 Blindster.com was born.
If you want to start a successful business, don’t just copy somebody else. Find a niche and improve on it. Returning to the same industry as a competitor wasn’t my original intent, I simply saw something that I could make better and took the opportunity. Zappos’ business model at the time was a big influence for me to focus on over-the-top customer service and led to Blindster being the first custom-made window treatment company to offer a satisfaction guarantee, our Fit-or-Free Guarantee.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I didn’t do any of that. We don’t make anything from our mainline but instead, we buy from fabricators that make blinds for us and we put our name on it so they’re private label. We curate the line and decide what material and colors we want to carry, but that’s it.
A crucial aspect of the business is relationships. When choosing my fabricators, face-to-face meetings were the key because we were nobody at the time and I needed to make them believe in what I was doing. Custom blinds also weren’t commonly sold online at the time so getting a good price wasn’t easy. So, I did something that wasn’t common in the industry and offered to pay full price on the condition that I would receive a rebate upon selling, for instance, $50k in one quarter. Sure enough, I hit my goals and now the entire industry is rebate-based. Without that relationship with my vendors, this company wouldn’t be where it is today.
I did, however, design our No Tools line. For years, it was common practice to hire a professional when installing new blinds which created a hesitancy to do it yourself despite it not being a necessarily difficult thing to do. With the No Tools line coupled with our Fit or Free Guarantee, we take away the fear of measuring and installing. We can’t make it easier than taking away the tools!
The process in developing this line was a bit more lengthy, with it being a brand new product that’s never been made before. This included securing a patent and extensive safety testing and it wasn’t until over one year after starting this process that we finally had our first No Tools product on-site.
The advancements in adhesive technology were very important to developing the No Tools line. This allowed us to replace intrusive screws with a product that’s sturdy, easy to install, and doesn’t leave any damage if they’re ever removed. Next, we designed a bracket that had a surface area that would adhere and hold the blinds securely. This part took a lot of testing but once we got it figured out, we were able to expand the No Tools line to a wider range of products, something we’re still doing today.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Once I got the idea to re-enter the industry, I started by creating a business plan with the main objective of differentiating myself. As I mentioned before, this mainly consisted of finding something that could be improved upon and coming up with a plan to achieve it. For Blindster, it was the implementation of the satisfaction guarantee, something unheard of at the time in the custom window treatment industry. I estimated the costs of what I would need to put into the business and ended up pouring all of my earnings from the sale of my first business, plus some of my savings, into this launch. Overall, the initial start-up costs just to launch was $50k. It’s a challenge to start a brand from scratch because you don’t have any brand traffic yet. Until you start getting repeat and referral business to build your brand, your customer acquisition costs are extremely high, something I grossly underestimated.
If I were to attribute my success in business to one thing, this would be it: When I get a new customer, I do everything I possibly can, within reason, to make that customer happy.
In the first year, I probably spent half a million dollars in pay-per-click advertising, primarily through Google. Social media wasn’t as prominent yet so no one was marketing through Facebook or Instagram. Until about three years in, my ad cost was about forty percent of my revenue which means we were losing money big time. It wasn’t until about six years in that we got it down to where we were cash-flow positive. But that’s something you’ll face in any competitive industry; if there are multiple strong competitors, your ad costs will be extremely high. Fast-forward to today, those advertising costs are now about half a million per month.
I then hired a developer, who used to work for one of my main competitors. Being an eCommerce company, this was a pretty important component of the launch. We worked together for about six months building the website and when we were about eighty percent complete, he bailed. At this point, I had already signed the lease, my mother and sister-in-law, who were my first employees at my first business, left their jobs to come back and work for me, and now I had a website that wasn’t finished. With plans to move into our space and launch a few months down the road, I now needed to scramble to find a new developer to help finish the website. Fortunately, I was able to do that and on December 7th, 2010, we launched Blindster.com.
The website initially started as a very simple site, something that I liked. We had fewer products which meant fewer pages and less content. I also added some advanced filter options to the initial site to allow searching for products by size, something that wasn’t common yet, to make it more user-friendly. Over time, we put more focus on and built up our content, made speed improvements, back-end database improvements, and advancements in API with our vendors.
Then and now: The evolution of Blindster.com from Nov. 2011 to Nov. 2021;
Looking back on that experience, I think it’s important to hire people you can trust. With all the time, effort, and resources that I put into building Blindster, it would be incredibly frustrating to have it derailed by a simple lack of follow-through.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We are obsessed with customer service at Blindster. Customer happiness is greatly valued and this has led to a lot of repeat business, something atypical of niche products like blinds. This is because we understand that blinds aren’t easy for everyone to measure, choose, and install - it’s a complicated product to sell online. So, we spend six weeks training each of our customer service representatives one-on-one, then put them through another 12 weeks of in-depth product knowledge courses. At the end of it all, they have detailed knowledge to help every customer purchase and install their blinds.
If I were to attribute my success in business to one thing, this would be it: When I get a new customer, I do everything I possibly can, within reason, to make that customer happy, provide what they are looking for, and exceed their expectations if I have the opportunity. If I think there’s a chance that we can make one customer happy, I take it. A happy customer may only tell one friend but an unhappy customer will tell twenty friends. It’s vital to focus on the big picture and sometimes you have to be okay with losing a little bit of money to make a customer happy because that can in turn makes you more down the line.
Another one of our main selling points is our Fit-or-Free guarantee. This was unheard of when we first started, especially because our blinds are a custom product. You just don’t offer satisfaction guarantees for custom products because you can’t resell them. If you return a custom blind, all we can do is donate it because no two windows or window openings are the same size. By offering this guarantee, we remove the fear of measuring wrong and allow customers to feel comfortable with purchasing custom blinds online.
Marketing and PR are also important in attracting new customers. Radio advertising was a turning point for us when we started in 2015. Because we don’t sell impulse-buy products, brand building is more important and we were able to build our brand more cost-effectively through this medium as opposed to pay-per-click. We also use PR to make sure our expertise in blinds doesn’t go unnoticed. Thought leadership, blog collaborations, and podcasts have all been vital in positioning us as experts in our field.
Although we have many different parts to the marketing pie, as you can see the largest chunk of our budget goes to digital marketing. This includes Google AdWords, Google Shopping, and the equivalents on Bing. Social media is the smallest portion right now, but we know how important social media marketing is and we intend to grow this. As you can see no portion is dedicated to Amazon. We don’t sell on Amazon due to the custom nature of our product.
This was one of our favorite collaborations we did through our PR company: Before and After: I Turned My Mom’s Office into a Colorful, Cozy Hangout for Mother’s Day
Here are two press releases we are especially proud of:
- Our Silver Stevie for Customer Service Department of the Year
- Our ranking as #42 on the list of Houston’s Fast 100 (the fastest-growing private companies in Houston)
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, we closed our office and I was very worried about business going down. Because we don’t make any of our products, we rely on our factories and they were all closing.
In reality, 2020 became our biggest year yet. With people spending more time at home, both the home improvement industry and eCommerce boomed. People who wouldn’t have considered doing window coverings themselves were buying our blinds. More people were DIYing and telling their friends to DIY, when 15 years ago custom blinds made up barely five percent of the market if even that.
In terms of revenue growth, we made $39 million in 2020 - an 80% growth rate - as opposed to $25 million at the end of 2018. I see us becoming a $100 million business in the next three years. We experienced a new record month from April through August last year and to the point where it became hard to keep up with the volume, not just with us but with our factories as well.
Supply chains were hit with shortages and still are to this day, causing delays in shipments and making it difficult to maintain our reputation of excellent customer service. We’ve expanded our small team to keep up with the growth, which doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon!
We built a website that is lightyears ahead of our competitors, everything from functionality, speed, and content. Now, we’re looking to capitalize on that with our new ability to build custom sites for other retailers that sell blinds and run their custom window coverings page. Right now, none of the large retailers that sell blinds, like Target, Walmart, and Amazon, have their custom blinds page because they’re a difficult thing to sell online. This is an area we’re exploring and looking to expand to in the near future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
A mistake I once made was buying a competitor because they sold brands, a different product than I’ve ever sold. With both companies I’ve owned, I always sold my private label because by selling brands, you’re building brand equity for a brand that anybody else can sell for a more competitive price. At the moment, I thought that the grass is always greener and that selling brands were a need that we needed to fill. I spent half a million dollars on that business but it never made money and we recently shut it down.
That being said, you can’t be successful without taking risks. Even deciding to start a new business is a risk in itself because it requires a lot for an unknown. Looking back on when I first started Blindster, I went through seven years of hell thinking I had blown all of my money. But it takes risks and persistence to eventually work through the struggles.
For example, our first radio campaign in 2015 we ran cost $220k for eight weeks and we only had $180k in the bank and probably half a million dollars in payables. I went all in and fortunately, the campaign succeeded and it saved the business. I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for my decision to do radio ads.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Because of the custom nature of our products, we can’t use the standard platforms to effectively run our business. Our first website was continually worked on for eight years and, after another two years and a whole team of developers working together, we just recently relaunched our current site to create an even more immersive eCommerce experience for our customers.
There are so many great tools out there for running an online business! Our customer service team uses Zendesk to stay on top of customer requests and emails. Yotpo is a fantastic marketing tool. We use it for customer reviews and ratings, but they have much more to offer. Right now we are implementing different features to our reviews to make it easier for our customers to search and find what they are looking for. If you have good video content, I highly recommend Wistia. It’s an excellent video hosting platform.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love Theodore Roosevelt. When we were going through some really tough times at Blindster and I was flirting with bankruptcy, I often thought about his “Man in the Arena” quote. There is no failure if you try your very hardest to succeed. The only true failures are those that never try.
I also read a lot of entrepreneurs’ accounts and success stories. It’s incredibly beneficial to see what others are doing right - and wrong - and apply those actions to your own personal and professional lives.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you have a product or idea, find a niche to fill that differentiates you. Find a niche that’s not being fulfilled and do your research in the industry to learn as much as you can about that business. Once you start building your business, make sure you believe in your product because others will too.
There will be tough times when you start so be prepared mentally and financially. Don’t quit at the first sign of struggles. Passion and persistence are important, as is risk-taking. But also have the awareness to know if you’re staying too long because you don’t want to stay aboard a sinking ship.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We aren’t hiring for any specific roles right now, but we are always looking for dedicated, hard-working talent to join our team. There will be upcoming opportunities in our marketing department.
If you are interested please send your resume to [email protected].
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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