3, 2, 1… Lift-Off
Light the Bottom
David Ayling captures the key moments in time as fadequipmentstore.com was prepared for its landmark 2021 launch.
As the late American astronaut, John Young, said: “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they're going to light the bottom, and doesn't get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”
He was responding to a question, asking if he was concerned about making the first space shuttle flight in 1981. I can’t really pretend to know exactly how he felt, yet part of me understands completely. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with a number of company and product launches in my time, and each one builds to a point where you’ve got to “light the bottom” and see what happens. As the New Year dawns, this store reaches that crucial moment.
Like sending a rocket into space, though, the idea is that so much planning and preparation has gone into the project, that it has every chance of making a safe and successful trip into the stratosphere. That’s certainly been the case for this business, and it feels opportune to reflect on the last 12 months, picking out moments in time that we’ll remember but, more importantly, provide insight that others planning a new venture might be able to learn from.
Love at first sight
We all remember the occasions when we first met someone or heard about something. It’s amazing how initial impressions stay with us. It might be the night two lovers catch sight of each other for the first time, or the utterance of a word or concept that later becomes the focal point of an entire chapter of a career. At some point, a parachuter was asked, “Would you jump out of a plane?” Dynamometer. Straightpoint. Crosby. Portsmouth. fadequipmentstore. Guinness. They all resonate with me, for example.
Before FADE (as we call it internally), findadistributor.com’s standalone equipment store, there was (is) findadistributor.com (or FAD), the directory. As the former owner of load monitoring equipment manufacturer Straightpoint, I was familiar with it as we had a listing on the site since its inauguration six-and-a-bit years ago.
Like so many of life’s pivotal moments, this one came over a beer. It was early 2020 and FAD owner Mark Bridger, now vice president of business and product development at FADE, sought my counsel about adding an ecommerce / drop-shipping platforming to his site. I was happy to have a discussion but, at the time, I was still under full-time employment with The Crosby Group, which had bought Straightpoint in January 2019. (Things happen at the start of New Years, it seems.) However, the entrepreneur in me was only ever going to enjoy being a staffer for so long and upon my transition into a more consultative role, I reconnected with Mark—a beer was involved again—and we moved things along to the point where we explored investment options.
Why? Because I once again trusted my gut. The opportunity felt right and I’ve always been able to go with my gut instinct. Myron Jones, Straightpoint’s former U.S. operations manager once said to me, “You do well with gut instinct.” A serial success story himself (largely in the electromechanical components and aerospace industries), I took it as a compliment, and I knew what he meant. I don’t like to spend weeks looking at data or metrics before making a decision. That stuff is important but I would never take a plunge if the data looked good but it felt wrong. So there’s no point getting into it too early. Does that make me more entrepreneur than corporate robot? Probably.
If my gut says something is worth exploring further, I take myself all the way to the end of the journey and start working back. I wanted to establish with Mark what his vision was and why he wanted to monetize his site differently. From where I saw FADE in six (now five) years, I worked back through two- and one-year plans, to the first 90 days. Those first three months are everything to a new venture, yet, it’s a peculiarity that you can’t start there and expect to get the results you want. It’s all about knowing what the end destination is. Do you get in your car and drive aimlessly for a bit before deciding where to go, or do you program the sat nav and take the fastest route there?
Mark was keen for me to drive the new business as president so the next step was putting the rest of the team in place. This is an important part of any start-up. Everyone must have the same DNA, be clear on the plan, and want the same thing. They don’t have to be clones, but they do have to work together to achieve a collective goal. Mark’s business partner, Richard Howes, vice president of marketing and communications, was already involved in conversations, while Peter McGreal, also formerly of Straightpoint, was an obvious choice as chief financial officer. Peter has been my handbrake throughout many business ventures. Handbrake might not sound like a ringing endorsement but someone has to ask questions like, “Are you sure, Dave?” And, “Have you thought about this?” Or, “Wait a minute.”
If you’re ever in a position where you think someone might add value to a team, but they’re something of an unsung hero and might not be known by all parties, I urge you to get them involved. Further, don’t take no for an answer. In the case of FADE, I wouldn’t be here now if Mark and the team had rejected my request to recruit another ex-Straightpoint employee, Jeff Miller, who is once again alongside me as general manager (Myron introduced us, actually). Jeff is U.S.-based and knows what it takes to take a stateside business from zero to hero, or at least sustained, gazelle growth. Look at Straightpoint Inc. as proof. He’s a profit and loss wizard; keeps a calm head under pressure; and is obsessed with the nuts and bolts of a company that, I admit, might be overlooked by my other business partners. Jeff didn’t take a lot of convincing. In fact, I woke up to a bunch of emails from him before we’d even had a discussion about his compensation. That’s the kind of person you want on your side.
Once a team is in place that will manage the launch, it’s important to give everyone an opportunity to reiterate their reasons for getting involved. Assumption can be the biggest danger at this point. If Peter wanted to work 50 hours a week on a 15-year project (he doesn’t!), FADE might not be for him. Likewise, I acknowledge that this business isn’t about me creating another mentorship whereby I nurture a young team of professionals. I’m much more about strategy and product from the outset this time. Mark is always transparent as glass when it comes to telling you what he thinks, while Rich is harder to read, but he’s keen to work on a systemized, saleable business, different to the capacity-limited public relations company in which he cut his teeth as a business owner. He’s also happy to work to a mid-term plan.
Key to our success will be the store where people buy products, so the site-build eventually became our focus. What you see now represents six months of solid work to ensure that we can deliver what we promised each other—and our customers. The store has to offer breadth of product but every item provided by premium suppliers with stock held in the U.S. for quick delivery direct from the manufacturer. We want to target the corporate buyer with a credit card on their desk who’s been given a list of products to purchase when an immediate material handling-related requirement for them has arisen. They’ll likely know the stock keeping unit (or SKU; I wake up at night thinking about SKUs) and want to find the item as quickly as possible.
That means user-friendliness and functionality were priorities. I had worked with a company called Intergage before and was keen to introduce the designer of websites for engineering and manufacturing companies to the team. Their niche within a niche has always appealed to me and, moreover, they do so much more than talk about fonts and other aesthetics, unlike many other designers.
FADE, as I’m sure you’ll agree, looks great but at its core is an ecommerce platform that can (will) change the way material handling equipment is delivered to the point of use in the United States. Intergage takes its customers through an entire journey, from concept to the “light the bottom” moment—and beyond. They led a thorough opening planning meeting, at the end of which we produced the one-page business plan that has become our bible. In this sense, Intergage is part of the team, which is exactly where you want your suppliers—on the inside.
The real biblical task, though, was in the hundreds of hours we’ve devoted to inputting all the required information about each SKU within the site. At some point in time, every launch requires an incredible amount of labor. It’s almost as though the business gods don’t let you cross a certain threshold before you’ve given the required payment of blood, sweat and tears.
We worked—and will continue to work—to a Skills / Fun Matrix (credit: Action Coach) that allowed us to ensure each member of the team was either working on what they were good at or enjoyed doing—preferably both. If work isn’t fun, people don’t want to work. It’s not rocket science.
A degree of flexibility helps when planning launch dates. Eventually, there’s going to be a 3, 2, 1… moment, and the timing of that is different for every business. Sometimes this is cemented in placed by peripheral events (a trade show, for example) and other times, it can move around over time. We didn’t ‘have’ to launch FADE in early 2021, but it made sense and gave everyone a deadline. In fact, our natural timeline concluded in mid-December but it was sensical to introduce it to the market when everyone is settled back at their desks or workbenches after the holidays. Setting launch dates must be pragmatic, but agreeing to do something “tomorrow” might mean it never actually gets done.
Eventually, we had to set about approaching the aforementioned premium suppliers. It was clear who they were—Crosby | Straightpoint (load monitoring) and Crosby (shackles and rigging gear) were no-brainers—but I was honestly surprised that nobody rejected us, which says a lot about the team we’ve assembled and the concept we presented. Crosby | Accolift (manual and electric hoists), another Crosby Group brand, completed the set quite recently, after Lift-It Manufacturing (slings), SpaceGuard Products (protective guarding), Kroy Signs (signs), Intelligent Weighing Technology (scales), P&I Supply (Gripps; working at height safety), A-Safe (barriers and bollards), Caldwell (below-the-hook equipment), and OZ Lifting (davit cranes) all committed at the first opportunity.
It’s important that we only present this as a starting formation, however. And the portfolios offered by each manufacturer merely serve as opening gambits. Picture a launch control center as the rocket goes hurtling towards the sky; dozens of people stare at the screen and keep their headsets firmly on. This isn’t time to high-five each other and expect the thing to fly itself. I’ve seen too many exciting launches falter because people saw the moment they went live as the end of the journey. Instead, this is where you need to become more obsessed than ever with the project. This is the point where you dare even blink or you might miss something that shapes your future. I’m fanatical about Google Analytics, for example. If someone has picked up a shopping cart in my store but left it half full and not checked out, I want to know why.
Analyze, analyze, analyze
As previous launches have taught me, it’s important not to be too rigid. Our success rests in the hands of the material handling marketplace that will consume the products, so it’s therefore prudent to analyze the behavior of that demographic as they visit our site, move around it, and buy equipment—or not. In the short-term, it’ll be a case of gathering as much intelligence as we can, to see what products are working better than others and identifying those that are not so popular. In every case, it’s important to understand why.
Longer-term, we might be driven by things like legislation and standards that impact product. Who knows, we might also drive innovation ourselves and suggest to our manufacturers a product enhancement that may be tailored to our buying audience? I expect other providers to knock on our door too.
These early days and the feedback we get from the market will tell us how successful we were in marketing the project. Marketing a launch is a blog subject in its own right (press releases, interviews, social media, newsletters, etc.) but suffice to say you’ve got to know exactly who you’re targeting a product at and be sure that they’re going to want what you’re offering. If those boxes are ticked and they quickly associate the product with value and incredible customer service, they’ll come back. If the desired audience gives the launch a resounding thumbs-up, guess what, repeat business will follow and they’ll tell their friends and peers all about it. Upon such simplicity, success is built.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with some risk assumptions that we’ve identified. Perhaps one or two will also jeopardize your next launch: a website won’t need much work once it’s up and running; we don’t need any more product; with our contacts we can’t fail; we built it so they’ll come; our team is unrivaled so we deserve to be successful; our database and connections will make us fly; it is not about price; we stock what they want; our partners won’t let us down.
Remember what John Young said.
3, 2, 1… Lift-Off.