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Tony Lamb jokes that he drives an ice cream truck for a living. As understatements go, that one’s a whopper. Lamb leads one of the nation’s fastest-growing franchises, Kona Ice--the shaved ice company he founded in 2007 after a subpar experience with the ice cream man.
Last year, Kona Ice generated $166 million in system-wide sales and $26 million in annual revenue across more than 1,000 franchises in 49 states. Lamb supports the business with a surprisingly lean team. He credits his efficiency to the smart deployment of high-quality technology.
Lamb recalls the worst ice cream truck experience he ever had. “It was a broken-down Chevy covered with stickers. We paid the derelict driver $20 for four freezer-burnt popsicles. It felt like someone had taken an iconic institution, the Good Humor man, and run him into the ground.”
Over the next few months, Lamb began to wonder, “What if?” What if the truck had been beautiful, the driver had been in uniform, and the products had been fresh and affordable? Lamb answered his own questions. The answer was Kona Ice.
How’s that for understaffed
Lamb runs the back end of the business from a 27,000-square-foot office in Florence, Kentucky. Recently, Kona Ice built two warehouses, increasing its footprint by 44,000 square feet. A consulting company once described Kona Ice as “woefully understaffed.” That was in 2014, when Lamb was supporting 400 franchises with 35 employees. Today, Kona Ice has 1,050 franchises and 45 full-time team members. While its franchisee count has almost tripled, the support team has only increased by less than a third.
Lamb doesn’t agree with the “understaffed” assessment. An independent survey by Franchise Business Review has ranked Kona Ice No. 1 in franchisee satisfaction for the past five years. Lamb says this explains his company’s steady growth -- he and his team provide exceptional support to their franchisees. “How can we be understaffed if my franchisee rating is so high? It goes back to technology and how efficient my employees are. We don’t need 300 employees, because everyone here is extremely well-connected,” he explains.
The Kona Ice support team uses Intel-powered computers and on-site servers to support reliable and fast communication, to back up business-critical data, and to power software and tools for its accounting, sales processes, and franchisee training programs. In fact, the company is almost entirely paperless.
Lamb says one of the best decisions he ever made was to bring a video team in house. They have created almost 500 video tutorials. They host them on Litmos, a learning management system, so franchisees can access the training they need, when they need it. Additionally, Lamb built a searchable franchisee training database, reducing the number of phone calls the support team needs to field. Kona Ice also runs weekly webinars that their franchisees join from all over the country.
Tech on the trucks
Kona Ice trucks are equipped with GPS and mapping technology, cameras, and high-efficiency battery systems. Franchisees use Square to process payments. Lamb is also working with Intel to develop digital menus for the vehicles.
The trucks are designed to be “a party on wheels,” with tropical-inspired music and interactive components. Customers add their own flavors and toppings. Now Lamb wants to turn the trucks into wireless hotspots and roll out an app-based system so he can communicate with nearby customers. “My customers are young, and they are heavy mobile phone users. I’d love to be able to send them coupons and engage them as they get closer to the truck,” he says.
Lamb is always looking for the next efficiency improvement. He attends conferences and reads voraciously to stay up on technology and marketing trends. He handles marketing in house, relying on Google AdWords and, most recently, paid Facebook campaigns to drive awareness for the Kona Ice brand. “When it comes to tech, we are adoptive, but I don’t over-complicate,” says Lamb. “It is not about using technology for the sake of it.”
Rather, it is about using technology to do a whole lot more with less.
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