Sunday, November 29, 2009

Growing like Topsy

Frankly, we never expected what happened to happen. When we started out it was a little service for like-minded artists. We made black oil, double mastic and imported some hard-to-find materials…always the same high quality materials we demanded for ourselves. Basically, it was an artist’s co-op. We never expected to get so big. But here we are with ninety products and customers all over the world, so how do we handle that sort of growth? Oh yes, something else grew out of it…the Cennini Forum. The forum is devoted to offering solid advice based on experience, not conjecture or rumor.

One of our customers used to make paints ground in our black oil. He offered them for sale. No one had made those paints since Ruben’s day and they were excellent. Then, one day, he unceremoniously closed his website and many forum members wondered where they could get this marvelous paint. That’s when everyone began entreating us to make paints.

Making paint is time-consuming and very expensive to set up. That’s when this “Only On The Internet” story began. One of the forum members said, “I’ll put up a thousand dollars to get it going.” Then another and another and soon, we had the nucleus of investors. These investors wanted only to be paid back in paint. And thus began our paint making operation.

A great deal has changed since when we dragooned into making paint. For one thing, we no longer grind in black oil (there are problems with shelf-life and with public perception of leaded paints) and after much testing we learned that we could match that quality and performance in the tube paint. However, grinding primer in black oil did make a big difference, so we’ve stuck with making oil canvas primers with Black Oil. We’ve also gone from a group of working artists making our own materials and sharing them, to something more resembling a business.

Suddenly we had to hire staff, see to shipping, ordering, P&L statements, W-9 form, import declarations, bills of lading, 1099s and all of the other numbered stuff best done by real business people. To be frank, aside from testing and developing new materials and tools, running a business is something for which we are ill-suited.

Unlike the Burger King, special orders did upset us. The original idea was to have an online business that was all computer-driven and hands off. Money comes in, products go out…ca-ching, ca-ching. That was the dream. In reality, that won’t happen because we are dealing with artists who have many different needs. Obviously, we are not about to become the sort of people we are not. What needed to be done was to completely change the business (business types call it the business model…whatever that means. Visions of a little factory made of balsa wood spring to mind).

Pasteur rightly said that ‘the milieu is everything’, so bringing in a new team to inhabit the same space would perpetuate all of the old problems. What was needed was a fresh new start with a new team…new and bright people capable of operating 1) a manufacturing facility and 2) an efficient online retail operation 3) rapid fulfillment of the orders. The new group had to have everything needed for greater more efficiency… 21st century efficiency we’ve all come to expect with online purchases, and which had frankly been lacking.

On January 8th of 2009 the trucks headed down to Athens, Georgia, to our new 6,000 sq.ft facility. We now have specially designed rooms for the formulation of mediums and paint, with controlled light and ventilation. There is certainly a great deal more space for storage, so we never have to wait for materials to arrive. We have our own shipping docks and UPS can just back trucks into the space. From my standpoint, the best thing is we now have a fork-lift truck. For some of you, this won’t be a big deal but for those among us who haven’t stopped being an eight year-old boy, that’s the frosting on the cake… a fork-lift! Whee!

As for the crew, Max and his partner, Craig, are handling the manufacturing and operations, Alicia brings what was sorely needed…real customer service. Max answers most of the technical questions and Jennifer cracks the whip…because that’s what bookkeepers do.

Studio Products is a good idea that has developed into a great idea. All of the bugs have been worked out and, with 90 products in the line, it’s about time to take it to where I never could have taken it. I’ll be overseeing some things but generally, I will be like the pedal notes on a pipe organ…more often felt than heard. As I said before, the company needs to adopt new ways of dealing with our customers…and no kidding, we really do like you guys and very much appreciate your trust. And that is what buying a product is all about isn’t it… trust! When you buy something from us, you trust that it will be exactly as we say. Usually, you are surprised that we haven’t oversold it and that it’s actually better than what we claim.

There really is a “philosophy” behind Studio Products. Even though I’ve been a pro for … (gulp) has it been fifty years… I never forget what it was to have the unbridled passion of the true amateur (on my best days I have that amateur’s passion). I also remember the needless blaming of myself I did when sub-par materials and paints didn’t perform. It was the junk I had bought, not me. Now I know that using the best materials help you grow faster and better. I wish that I knew it then.

I will be devoting more and more time to writing instructional material as well as producing more instructional videos. I feel a burden has been lifted and placed on able shoulders.

…Rob Howard