In the most recent interview in our small business success series, we chatted with Jason Smith and Dustin Anderson. This duo started and run the business, D1 Design Group, based in Waco, Texas.
DI Design Group purchased acrylic signs and brushed aluminum signs to incorporate into their professional designs and displays for the athletic programs they work with.
Tell us about yourselves.
Jason Smith: I am originally from Chicago, Illinois, but moved to Waco, Texas, after graduating high school to attend Baylor University. I received my bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Performance and masters degree in Sports Management while working for the men’s basketball program. I was a 4 year manager for the team, 2 year graduate assistant, and was then hired full time as special assistant to the head coach for a season. At that same time, I got engaged to my wife Lauren and decided I needed to find a job with higher earning power.
I left Baylor in the summer of 2014 to sell life insurance. After a successful year of doing that, I had enough financial security to follow a career I was more passionate about so I called Dustin and asked if he was interested in pursuing D1 Design Group in a more serious manner. He was on board, so I left the insurance world and we began to form what is currently D1.
Away from work, I have a wife, Lauren, and three dogs. We live just south of Waco in a town called Hewitt. I am an avid sports fan and attend almost all Baylor events, never miss a Chicago Bears game, and watch the Lakers whenever they’re on national TV. In my free time (as rare as that is) I play fantasy sports with a longtime group of friends.
Dustin Anderson: I was born and raised in Lorena, Texas, a small town south of Waco, Texas. I bought into my father’s glass business after spending a few years in retail management. During the process of growing the glass company, my wife, Rebekah, and I also worked on growing our family. We have three kids, Hayley is 17, Hannah is 14, and our son Holden is 10. I’ve spent a lot of time coaching softball, baseball, football, and more.
After buying my father out of the business I worked very hard to have a stable company that would allow me to explore more creative avenues. When contacted by Jason, we brainstormed a business model that would feed my creative side. D1 was a perfect fit for my desire to create and it opened a door for two entrepreneurs.
Today, I am incredibly blessed to have Anderson Glass and D1 Design Group under the same roof. Our 15,000 sq. ft. complex is the perfect space to think tank amazing designs, bring those designs to life, and most importantly have fun at work every day. My dream of being a serial entrepreneur has become a reality.
Dustin mentioned he took over his father’s business. What state was the business in? Was it suffering or was it doing very well?
When Dustin took over Anderson Glass from his father (Earl), the company was stagnant. It was a three-employee company including his father. All the bills were paid and everybody received a weekly check, but the company wasn’t growing or expanding. Anderson Glass now operates with 15-20 employees at any given time and just had their highest grossing year ever.
What does D1 do?
D1 Design Group was originally created around the idea of doing large-scale renovations of college athletic program’s locker rooms and offices. It has since morphed into a one-stop shop for all athletic program’s needs. Our primary focus is still on the large-scale renovations, but we also build jersey frames, ring cases, wall signage, and any custom items our clients dream of.
We typically meet with our clients at their facilities, talk about what they’re envisioning, create realistic rendering proposals, and then install/renovate the space. We fabricate almost all of our items in-house at our office and have a small group of subcontractors that we use on large projects.
Over the past 6 months, we have worked with multiple Division I schools, the Division III football national champions, celebrities (such as Britney Spears and Chip Gaines), and several clients that have reached out to us for custom pieces.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
When I was still working for Baylor basketball, my focus was on recruiting new athletes to commit to Baylor. This included making our facility appealing to recruits while also separating the Baylor brand from other college programs. Dustin’s glass company, Anderson Glass, had done a lot of work on the Baylor campus. After a chance meeting at the Men’s Basketball offices, we brainstormed a way to make Coach Scott Drew’s office into a one-of-a-kind space for recruiting. We decided to put a custom tint on his office window that would allow the team’s highlight video to be projected onto the glass for recruit visits.
The space garnered attention from other coaches around Baylor and additional requests began flowing in. We decided that we may have stumbled upon a niche market with high demand. Almost immediately, we began working on paperwork and contracts to make D1 Design Group an official entity.
You both got together and started D1. What did you do to market the brand new business? How long did it take you to build a reputation and become profitable?
When we started D1, we were in a different situation than most start-ups. We built the window projector for Coach Scott Drew and that was so cool when it was finished it got attention from other coaches on Baylor’s campus. This led to people on campus talking about our work and they contacted me directly (since I was still working for Baylor men’s basketball) to come meet with them about their facilities. All of this led to us starting the company without any debt and no real need for early marketing strategies since we were in-demand from the start. Our reputation for quality and design spread rapidly throughout the next 3-6 months and Baylor Athletics programs kept our schedule full for our entire first year and a half.
What sets you apart from your competition?
The main thing that sets us apart from other competition is the simple fact that we have the ability to design our own concepts, manufacture all the custom pieces, and install them on-site ourselves. Most companies don’t have the ability to do everything from A to Z under one roof and that increases the final price for a client. Since we do all of our own work, and custom build most pieces, we are able to keep our prices lower and more competitive than other companies. We are also willing to work around the clock so we haven’t had to hire additional help, which has also kept our expenses lower.
What is one strategy for gaining customers that you have been successful with?
In our line of work, word of mouth is by far the best tool for customer acquisition. The college athletics world is a very tight group of people. We strive to create the best products possible and are perfectionists down to every last detail. Our finished products speak for themselves and our customers refer us to other people within their coaching network.
We also try to be as active online and in social media as possible. We use Twitter and Instagram to show our work and we have gained several new clients just from pictures they have seen online.
You said you try to be active on social media as much as possible. How often do you post? And other than finished jobs, what else do you post?
We typically try to post only things that are interesting to our followers. Sometimes that leads to daily posts when we are really busy with projects and other times it will only be one picture every 2-3 days. I would say that we average 5-6 posts between Twitter and Instagram per week. We tried posting daily for a while, but it appeared our “likes” and followers were declining when we posted too often. Other than completed projects, we try to post behind-the-scene build pictures so people can see our machinery/fabrication process, funny pictures so people can get a feel for who we are, and some side small projects so people get a feel for the range of things we’re able to build. Basically we post things that look cool for followers, but also serve as a marketing tool to better our company as well.
Is there an area that you’ve struggled with in regards to customer acquisition that you believe is critical to future success? If so, how are you overcoming that?
The biggest obstacle we have to overcome is getting in with a new school/university. Typically, a coach from one school refers us to another school and that’s how we get our foot in the door. Once we are in with a new school, other programs within that school see our work and invite us to work with their program as well.
At the moment, we are exploring new ways to get in with different schools. One strategy we’ve implemented is doing small jobs for free or at an extreme discount. This allows us to show our capabilities while opening the door for larger future jobs. We have also made portfolios of our work and sent them out to prospective clients as well.
You said you try to give out free jobs or jobs at a discount. How effective has this been?
As a loss-leader, this has been very effective. Every client that we have given a free item or discounted item has led to a large install. We try to be selective when we do this strategy so we’re not just giving away free things to clients that have no interest in our work. We typically use it as a way to introduce ourselves to a new program or as a way to tip the scales in our favor during the bid process against other companies.
How do you compete with the bigger competitors that are similar to yours but have a recognizable brand and large marketing budgets?
As I mentioned before, we are able to compete with most of our competitors due to our ability to beat their pricing without sacrificing quality. We are giving clients a better product at a cheaper price since we do all the work ourselves. To date, once we have done work for a program, we haven’t lost them as a customer yet. Our biggest obstacle is getting in front of new customers, but once we are working with them they use us for all their jobs, big or small.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have had with your business and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges we face is trying to run the company, acquire new customers, build/install new jobs, and handle all the financials by ourselves. At times, things would be easier if we hired additional help, but it’s hard to find quality help that buys into the long term vision of the company. At the moment we don’t have the expendable income to pay a high salaried employee. We are both fortunate to have understanding wives that allow us to work late hours 6-7 days a week to make our long term dream a reality.
If you could rewind time is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what?
At the moment there isn’t a specific thing I would do differently. We have made simple mistakes that all growing businesses make and have found ways to become more efficient at our processes, but there isn’t a specific glaring mistake that I would change.
You said you wouldn’t do anything differently, but you did point out you’ve made simple mistakes. Could you give us an example of one that maybe another business owner just starting out could learn from?
I would say one of the things we struggled with early was trying to price our individual items and large installs. Since almost everything we do is custom, there isn’t really a true market to compare our prices to. We were always scared to price our items too high and lose job opportunities, but at the same time we needed to make enough money to keep the company operation while also paying ourselves a minimum salary. This is still a struggle today, but I think we have found a nice balance through trial and error and there was no way around it except experience.
An additional mistake we made was trying to hire additional help before it was necessary. Sometimes a specific install requires extra workers, but we weren’t financially stable enough to bring on additional full time employees. We hired some employees and realized it wasn’t financially responsible to pay employees between installs. Now we pay additional helpers by the job as day laborers instead of having them full time. The full time employees were a luxury, but not a necessity for daily operations.
If you had advice for other SMB owners, regardless of the industry, what would it be?
The best advice I have ever been given is “If something is worth doing 90%, then it’s worth doing 100%.” When I was a kid, I used to bring the garbage cans in from the road and leave them stacked against the wall. Then one of my parents would unstack them when they brought the garbage bags out from the house. One day, my dad pulled me outside and told me “If something is worth doing 90%, then it’s worth doing 100%.” He meant that if I’m already going to do all the work in the first place, I might as well do the final 10% and complete the job. This still holds true in business today. There are no shortcuts to success. Every job we do needs to be completed to the best of our abilities and if it’s not good enough, we need to start over. Our clients are the most important thing we have. We refuse to disappoint them and are willing to put in the work to create incredible final products.
How do you “WOW” your customers?
I think this goes along with everything I’ve already said. If we’re not amazed with everything that leaves our shop, then it’s not good enough for our clients. We try to stay ahead of design curves and give our clients cutting edge products that they can’t get from anybody else.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
We are going to try to continue to grow and continue to add more schools to our client base. I hope to find some additional employees that want to see D1 grow and be a part of that success. If we continue to produce high quality renovations and products, there is no limit to how large we can grow. There is a careful balance between growing our job list against hiring new employees, but we will continue to grow and hire people as needed.
Without sharing detailed financials can you speak to your growth to this point and why you think it will continue?
Over the past 3 years, we have tripled our gross revenue and have moved from a 1,200 sq. ft. office into a 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse. Our client base is the largest it has ever been and we almost never get complaints from any of our installs. I think it will continue because neither of us will accept failure. We are both willing to work as many hours as it takes to keep the entrepreneur dream alive.
Where can you be found on the internet?
Editor’s Note: We wanted to say thank you to Jason and Dustin for taking time to do this interview with us while juggling client satisfaction and family life. D1 Design Group is a prime example of entrepreneurial success. D1’s implementation of in-house design, fabrication, and construction of professional displays allows for low cost of operation and creates a personal connection with each client. Small businesses that take the time and effort to create a connection with customers and provide the highest quality product will open the door for business referrals, which D1 thrives on doing. Outstanding pricing and unbeatable service will set any business apart from the competition. Knowing when or when not to hire on full-time employees will allow owners to make the right decision that will increase profit without stretching the business. D1 exemplifies an honorable and trustworthy business with its focus on satisfying clients with incredible craftsmanship and designs. Jason and Dustin, we wish D1 Design Group and Anderson Glass the utmost success in the years to come!