Growth is a priority for most small businesses, but finding the best way to scale can be a serious challenge. That's especially true when the business founder's unique knowledge and expertise are critical to the venture's prospects. Such is the case for Patrick LaMear and Urban Reclamations, a Seattle-based company that finds and reclaims old wood, then uses it as the raw material to create unique pieces of furniture.
Over the years, LaMear has developed a highly refined ability to scope out the most promising sources of this increasingly popular building material, but that's not a skill easily transferred to others. Nonetheless, he's confident that he can scale Urban Reclamations, the winner of the inaugural "Unleash Your Business" competition sponsored by T-Mobile, and he believes technology will play a key role.
Since the company's launch in 2008, LaMear has had almost exclusive responsibility for procuring the material Urban Reclamations uses to fabricate its heirloom-quality creations. Originally, he was able to find enough of what he needed in the Pacific Northwest, but as demand for the company's products has grown--and as other businesses have begun to search for the same material--his search area has expanded. Now it's nationwide, and even extends into Canada on occasion.
While the competition for his essential raw supply presents a challenge on one level, LaMear also sees it as an opportunity. He has begun to develop a new line of business, acting as a wholesale supplier to other fabricators; he already has half a dozen accounts in locations as far away as Texas and New York. "I see this as an important growth area for Urban Reclamations, and it's going to be heavily dependent on technology if it's going to succeed," he says.
Technology plays two critical roles in LaMear's plans to scale Urban Reclamations. First, it gives him the ability to actively participate in the procurement process from a remote location, something he wasn't able to do prior to winning the "Unleash Your Business" competition. Second, he is leveraging information technology to keep his company and his wholesale clients apprised of changing market conditions, in real time.
"Grading this material is a very nuanced endeavor. You have to be able to see the grain structure, the checks and twists in the wood," he explains. "You have to be able to assess the conditions under which it's been stored and what effect that's had on the material. In the past, I could only do that accurately on-site. Now, with the Galaxy TabPro S tablets (which were part of the prize package) and T-Mobile's network, we are getting the image quality and network reliability that make it possible for me to do this right from my office in Seattle."
The images are geotagged, and if it's a good find, LaMear can just send a truck directly to the location for pickup. "This capability is huge, since we'll need more inventory than ever before as we scale the wholesale side of the business," he says. "We've also cut our procurement costs by 30 percent since rolling out this new technology."
LaMear plans to use technology not only to help scale the wholesale side of the business, but also to drive growth in two emerging distribution channels for Urban Reclamations's finished products: retail furniture stores and e-commerce.
For example, by maintaining a two-way information flow with his customers he can make critical adjustments on the fly. "For example, maybe there's an uptick in demand for hand-hewn beams in certain markets," he says. "That will have a big impact on our product procurement."
Urban Reclamations recently added e-commerce capabilities to its website, offering tables and chairs in multiple sizes and finishes (it even accepts Bitcoin as one form of payment). "We're using video chat to involve our e-commerce customers in the process. It's kind of cool," he says. "They get to meet the team and see the product before we package it up and ship it out."
LaMear sees similar potential in using technology to forge stronger partnerships with retailers. In fact, he plans to involve them in his product-design process. "We're still sorting out what role different channels of communication, such as social media, will play, but one thing we know for sure is that technology-enabled communication is going to be key," he says. "Really, when you get right down to it, leveraging all the different components of technology is absolutely essential to growing and expanding a business like ours."
When their beautiful new piece of furniture arrives, customers may never guess at the large role technology played in making that special moment happen. But LaMear will.