According to many industry pundits, the future of retail is brands, manufacturers, and marketplaces. But don’t tell that to Blair Budlong. His company, DecksDirect, doesn’t own a brand, manufacture a product, or sell on marketplaces. And it thrives.
“We’re a pure retailer,” Budlong told me. “We don’t make any products. We buy from manufacturers and brands. Most of the products we sell you can buy someplace else.”
DecksDirect targets folks who want to build a deck. It provides plans, materials, and expertise to complete the task. Since its founding 12 years ago, the company has grown to an eight-figure (revenue) business, with designs to become even bigger.
I spoke with Budlong recently about the company’s launch, operations, and hiring methods, among other topics. What follows is our entire audio conversation and a transcript, which is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: When did you launch DecksDirect.com?
Blair Budlong: About 12 years ago.
Bandholz: You’re killing it. Eight figure business all online, right?
Budlong: Well, 99-percent online, all through our own website. We have a few local customers.
Bandholz: Give us a rundown of the business.
Budlong: We’re a pure retailer. We don’t make any products. We buy from manufacturers and brands. Most of the products we sell you can buy someplace else — through a lumberyard or a Home Depot. We’ve built a business that focuses on the higher end of architectural finishes. You might look at a backyard deck and say, “Hey, that’s super cool.” We sell the products that make it super cool.
We don’t sell lumber and commodity type stuff. We don’t get into foundations. We sell primarily higher-end composite decking, metal railings, specialty fasteners, and related items. And we stay exclusively to the deck. We don’t get into landscaping, or lighting, or house wraps, as examples. Everything we do is focused on deck construction.
So we bring in products and redistribute them. Our saying is, “Help people build better decks.”
Bandholz: How did you find this opportunity?
Budlong: I was in the industry before. I came out of college with an architectural degree. I worked in architecture for a while. After a few years, I started working in a family business that manufactured and sold a product related to deck construction, mainly through Home Depot and Lowe’s. So my two main customers were those stores. The product was a concrete pier block called Deck Block.
And through that, I had a lot of communication and contact with end consumers. Our marketing strategy was to bypass the stores and offer support and information directly to consumers, who would buy it through the stores.
That product and company were eventually going away due to the patent expiring. So the natural transition for me was to launch DecksDirect with a whole bunch of products that you can’t find in big box stores.
I love working directly with homeowners. And so I started DecksDirect. I didn’t have a big business plan. It was just another guy and me putting together a Magento store that was free at the time.
Our plan with DecksDirect was to get into Home Depot and Lowe’s stores with our marketing material to drive consumers to our website. From there, we would give away free deck plans. We had free technical support. So homeowners all over the country would call in and ask, “Hey, how do I build this deck?” Or, “What materials should I be using?” Or, “Do you recommend something?”
Bandholz: So you sell directly to homeowners?
Budlong: Yes. We have three types of customers: the do-it-yourselfer, the do it for me, and the general contractor, such as a remodeler who might build three to four decks a year.
Bandholz: Can you expand on how you attract customers?
Budlong: We do a lot of advertising. We typically don’t market to somebody that’s thinking about a deck. We target folks that have decided to build a deck. We do a bit of content marketing, and we spend a fair amount on search engine optimization. We don’t have a YouTube channel like Beardbrand. We’re more about the aesthetics and the how-to.
Bandholz: How has Covid impacted DecksDirect?
Budlong: We’ve grown a lot during the pandemic. That’s the best way to describe it. A lot of people across the country are working from home and looking outside. So we had a lot of volume this past year. It was hard to catch up, to keep employees safe. Hiring labor this year was very difficult. Our warehouse is in Indianapolis. We’ve struggled with getting everything out the door.
Bandholz: Your company is based in Minnesota. When did you move your warehouse to Indianapolis?
Budlong: About two years ago. We outgrew our warehouse in Minnesota. We looked at a couple of locations. We opted to be closer to the East Coast, where a large percentage of the population is, with a plan to look at a West Coast facility in a couple of years. So far, moving to Indy has been a great decision. Our administrative offices remain in Minnesota.
Bandholz: What’s your vision for the company for the next five, 10 years?
Budlong: We want to be big. We have 800-pound gorillas in our industry: Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards. We’re not going to catch them in five years. But our goal is to be number four behind those big three — the fourth largest decking dealer in the country.
It’s a huge market. Every house in the United States and Canada is a potential customer. Our product typically lasts from 10 to 20 years. So they deteriorate and need replacing. And most folks that have a deck will replace it versus taking it down and throwing it away. So we have repeat customers.
Bandholz: You and I met several years ago. You told me, “I love our ERP.” How does that happen?
Budlong: We’re on NetSuite, and I love it. Does it have problems and faults? Absolutely. But I love that it ties into our financials, our inventory, our human resources functionality. We can see everything that’s going on. And now that we have years of data and information, we make better decisions.
We use NetSuite as our main repository of data and information. Everything goes in and out of it. Again, I love it. It’s been invaluable during the pandemic.
But we still use Magento for ecommerce. Again, we’ve used it since the first day. It works really well for us.
Bandholz: How have you built your team out? You must have a data person, an analytics person, and warehouse leadership. Then there’s marketing. What’s your strategy for hiring?
Budlong: We are sales focused. So our largest department, outside of warehousing, is our sales team. They’re handling phone calls, working with customers. I try to keep our sales team happy. Nothing happens without a sale.
We have an operations team that’s responsible for purchasing and inventory management. We have a marketing team, but we outsource ad-network and pay-per-click management. We do photography and a bit of video internally. We do a lot of our content internally. And then we’ve got a finance department.
Bandholz: How’s it been to find knowledgeable talent and sales personnel?
Budlong: Not too bad. Our focus since day one has been helping customers. So bringing people in, getting them trained on the products, and then letting them loose. Hire the right people, and they figure out how to make it work.
We’re pretty good at hiring sales and customer service people that can fit in and help customers. And our customers are happy. It makes for a good culture.
Bandholz: I’m a former salesperson. Do you look for someone knowledgeable about the industry, or do you focus on sales ability?
Budlong: We focus on sales and people skills. I don’t think we’ve ever hired a salesperson that had building-material or construction experience. We want folks who can help customers.
But whether it’s sales staff or other departments, we’re looking for folks that hit our five core values. After that, we start diving into how they might perform.
I was once a terrible hirer. I did terrible interviews. I didn’t understand how to evaluate people. Somebody tipped me off to book “Traction.” At first, I thought it was gimmicky and looked like corporate stuff. But once we put together our five values, they’ve stuck.
They are: “Do the Right Thing,” “Service the Customer First,” “It All Begins with Self,” “Deliver Excellence Every Day,” and ” Maintain an Edge above the Rest.”
So the first thing we do in an interview is to evaluate the candidate against those values.
Bandholz: How can our listeners follow you and your business?