How I Started A Niche Headsets-For-Loud-Environments Rental Company
My name is Rick Farrell, and I am the owner and president of PlantTours Communications. I started this company in 2005, after previously owning and operating a business in the racing industry for 12 years.
PlantTours sells and rents both one-way and two-way communication headsets, mainly used in loud and large environments. Typically, our customers inquire about our products for events such as plant openings, factory tours, employee training, executive tours, customer tours, corporate events, and trade shows.
Over the years, we have served many different types of industries: manufacturing, food, and beverage, automotive, construction, healthcare, higher education, marketing/advertising, HVAC/plumbing, government/security, agriculture, electronics, military, financial, etc. (not limited to these).
We have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s leading brands, such as Coca-Cola, Ford, Nike, Nestle, Amazon, etc. 18 years later we are thriving, serving customers all across the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Take ownership and keep moving forward. Always stick to your plan, but be able to adjust your plan when things aren’t working.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I attended the University of Georgia and obtained my undergraduate degree in Economics. From there, I began working in the hotel industry, working with Marriott Hotels for 10 years.
My primary role within the hotel business was sales and marketing; essentially, I worked closely with businesses to book meetings, conventions, and conferences. The goal was to service both small and large groups of people at a time.
After 10 years with Marriott and the hospitality industry, I ventured on my own and began working in the racing business. What started out as an idea in my dining room, eventually became a business of renting headset equipment for pit tours. I saw firsthand the impact of people not properly being able to hear and communicate in large and loud environments. I thought, “There’s got to be a better way” - leading me to the business.
I realized and understood that other industries faced this challenge; the common denominator being that people need to hear where there’s high noise.
I took the same factors and applied them to a new industry: manufacturing. I saw that within the manufacturing industry, factories have their employees working in large, loud, and what can be an overwhelming environment, without proper equipment. My goal was to provide radios and headsets that could be used to serve large numbers of people.
I tried juggling both ideas for four years but quickly realized that there was so much more growth and potential with PlantTours, so I decided to advance the business. I took the fundamentals from the hospitality and racing industries and applied them to PlantTours.
However, unlike the racing industry where I only rented products, I knew that moving forward, plants would be the best market for countless opportunities and applications. Thus, I identified an underserved market and a niche that needed to be able to hear and communicate in large and loud environments. My goal was to create a simple and affordable solution to solve an age-old problem.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
After getting my ideas on paper, it was time to proceed with manufacturing and designing our first product. I went to two electronic trade shows in Hong Kong, where I found suppliers and manufacturers.
It was an extremely difficult task as I was unfamiliar with the product manufacturers in Asia, making it a challenge to gain trust. After selecting the right suppliers, I worked closely with manufacturers to create samples based on what I thought our customers wanted from the feedback I had received over time.
Our first products were the PT1000, and the PT5100, a receiver and transmitter. It took a lot of time and patience. Trial and error played a huge role. We had multiple samples and tests to weigh out all of our options.
I worked closely with engineers and designers who helped manufacture and design our two products. Many of our samples were thrown in the dumpster because of poor quality or low durability. There was a strong learning curve during this process – it’s important to have good inspectors and auditors.
The inspectors I had throughout this process did not have my best interest in mind or these products. Due to this, we went through several inspection companies to achieve our goal.
For these products to be successful, they needed to pass pre-production and production. Essentially, this was to examine all parts of the product and make sure they were to spec, and then have spot checks and inspections throughout the process as well.
Then, there’s also the packaging and shipping element. I believe that the way you package a product is just as important as the product itself. Thus, more trial and error occurred as I tried to find the best way(s) to pack and ship my products transcontinental.
This process was very slow as there was a language barrier and working in the opposite time zone. Throughout that time, I traveled to China three times. Nothing ever stays the same, and I encountered several instances of supplier failure; instead of dwelling on it, I went in search of other suppliers.
As the years went on, it took time to develop new products and obtain mutual trust with our suppliers. However, fast forward to today, and we went from just those two products to now having dozens of options, all in stock and shipped out directly from our warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Start-up costs were extremely high. I had to go through the process of obtaining patents and trademarks. Even with that, however, over time I’ve still faced encounters with companies trying to copy our logo and website. It is crucial to have trademarks to ultimately protect your company.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The process of launching the business was not quick; it was long, arduous, and ongoing. I decided that when launching it was important to have a thorough business plan that included PPC and SEO marketing – which took time to build. Good digital marketing agencies are difficult to find.
My entire career was in direct sales, so I was very familiar with the talent and skills I knew I needed. For my launch, I had no set deadline or date; I was moving as fast as I could, but knew it was going to take some time. It was quite a balancing act.
To start the business, I utilized capital leases from banks. This helped me pay for the equipment purchases. At the time, the lender I chose was a regional bank. Most banks were not interested in startups, thus leading me to research the right people to help.
At the time, PPC wasn’t a widely utilized concept for small businesses. I took a chance with it and found a freelancer to help. This individual was a webmaster for a large consumer products company; he helped me part-time on the side. He built my website to launch the business.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
First and foremost, to gain new customers and then be able to keep them, you have to have the right product, and it must be easy to use. Most people are using the product for the first time, so they don’t have the time or patience to try to learn something complex. I learned that keeping my products simple and user-friendly appealed to our prospects.
The most effective way to reach consumers today is via the Internet and social media. SEO and PPC teams for digital marketing are beneficial in helping learn about your customers and what they want, but also to address and satisfy their needs.
A major way we retain current customers and attract new ones is through mediums like Google Ads, Bing Ads, SEO/PPC marketing, email marketing, cross-selling marketing (to other plant locations and other departments of current customers), and remarketing (to existing customers).
On top of this, our sales staff does a wonderful job with constantly listening to and following up with our customers. Our team is always working to find out what their customers need and guide them along their buying journey via emails, phone calls, and chats. We focus on delivering proactive, friendly, and exceptional customer service (a rarity in today’s business world).
Understanding your customers will allow you to see what works and what doesn’t, and can help you make changes along the way.
First and foremost, we strive to put our customers first and help them in any way possible. We offer demo calls, where potential and existing customers can hop on a video call with one of our tour and training consultants to be guided through the best ways to use our equipment in their facility.
Building strong customer relationships is the best way to retain their loyalty and lead them to recommend our company to others. In turn, this creates trust, brand loyalty, and credibility for PlantTours.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
PlantTours is extremely successful and profitable. I am a tight operator; we do not let anything go to waste, we run lean. Our current volume is increasing, and we’ve realized that the more we invest in our company, the greater results we see.
Over the years, our ad cost has gotten much higher. We have determined and proven that we can gain greater market share when we pour into our digital marketing. The size of our market has been dramatically expanded, so to be able to reach that market, we must provide advertisements and information that are directed to the appropriate targeted audience.
Currently, we are far exceeding sales compared to last year. MoM and YoY we continue to grow and excel. Not only have we done great financially and continue to do so, but we have also doubled the size of our team. We are currently operating from an office and warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina.
With such rapid growth, we are beginning to outgrow our spaces. In the upcoming months, we plan to move our sales and marketing departments to a new location, while allowing our current space to be mainly used for our operations and logistics. We have high goals for the future moving forward as we have had high double-digit growth.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
During my process of starting this business, I have learned that you have to be careful who you trust. As I started out working with folks overseas, I had to be very diligent with my research on my suppliers. I learned that just because someone may do a good production run once, doesn’t mean they will do it forever.
I learned this the hard way, but now know that without these bumps along the way, the company would not have had nearly the success that it currently has. You have to maintain very high-quality inspectors and develop personal relationships with your suppliers overseas to ensure that consistency and component specifications are maintained. They greatly value personal connection and friendly business relationships.
It’s also extremely important to identify a high-quality marketing agency that knows what they’re doing, should you choose to work with one. They must be able to properly allocate your marketing funds to help reach potential and existing customers. You must also find the right staff to properly prepare, pack, and ship your products.
Having the right leadership allows you to find new markets and the best ways to reach them. Finding proper talent also allows you to create a team bond with mutual respect between your employees.
For any business, you must have excellent customer service. This is our number one company value. In our business, you have to be an expert and know how to take care of groups of people. It’s important to show your customers that you understand their needs and can relate to them. Understanding your customers will allow you to see what works and what doesn’t, and can help you make changes along the way. Your customers always have to come first.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use many different tools to help our business in different departments. We use a custom platform to track leads, customer contact information, opportunities, invoices sent, any notes we have, etc. We also employ another tool to view data insights regarding the inbound and outbound calls we receive and make. This helps us gauge where our calls are generated from, such as Bing Ads, Google Ads, or Direct.
Our office uses Microsoft Outlook/Teams to communicate internally between our employees. This also helps with any virtual meetings we have with clients. We use a marketing agency to help our marketing department with our PPC and SEO campaigns, using Basecamp for communication. The agency works alongside our marketing team to collaborate on paid and direct marketing strategies and campaigns.
Another platform we use helps us produce campaigns and ads. We utilize Google ads and Bing ads for exposure as well.
A few other tools we use that help our business in different ways are Google Drive, Adobe InDesign, Canva, and Microsoft PowerPoint/Excel/Word. We are very active on LinkedIn, as well as constantly posting on our blog/updating our website. We find it important to always relay new information to our audience about our company, products, services, and employees.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone who is starting out is that you have to be independent. If heavy collaboration and meetings are important to you, it will be difficult to take forward steps to start and grow your business. If you have trouble making decisions and moving on one quickly, it’s going to be hard.
You have to look at yourself and decide if you’re the right type of person for this. If you are someone who prefers to work an 8-hour day and you want a balanced lifestyle, this likely won’t be the path for you.
If you have great ideas and know how to sell, you are going to have a good edge. You have to be frugal with expenses and not care about appearances when you’re starting out. Climbing the ladder quickly cannot be a thought, it will take time to build something strong that will last.
Above anything else, you have to be a hard worker. You must have thick skin, and not take things personally – always remember it’s a business deal. As long as you’re providing a good quality product or service that there’s a demand for, you’ll do well. You must establish credibility and gain trust in the marketplace to see progress. There will be times when you make mistakes, and that’s okay. However, you must always make it right with the customer.
Balancing a small business takes a lot of sacrifices, and you have to be ready for that. In most cases, you’ll find yourself questioning things because you simply cannot do it all. There will be times when you’re going to fail. Without that failure, you won’t get the learning experience that leads to success.
One thing that I stand by, is that when bad things happen, they always turn out to be a blessing and help you improve in the long run. Most people have a negative worldview; when things go wrong, don’t blame others.
Take ownership and keep moving forward. Always stick to your plan but be able to adjust your plan when things aren’t working. The bottom line is to be flexible, have a positive attitude, and work hard.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, we are always looking for good, strong salespeople who like to listen and who present very well. Presentation Skills are critical because customers and prospects need to be heard. Friendly, outgoing individuals with a strong work ethic are always encouraged to join our team. If anyone is interested in applying, they can email our General Manager, [email protected].
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