One of the most appealing aspects of the Internet is the opportunity it gives us to reinvent ourselves. The virtual world—unlike the brick-and-mortar world, or even the face-to-face world of daily life—is nonjudgmental and neutral. No preconceived notions about your age, training or past experience will bar you from getting a fresh new start as an Internet entrepreneur. If you notice a consumer need that isn’t being filled—and you have the tenacity to figure out how best to fill it—the tools are there to help you stake your claim and start panning for gold.
Massachusetts resident Averill Bromfield had spent 25 years in the corporate world, managing voice and data networks, when the air went out of the Dot-com bubble, leaving him without a job. With a wife and three children, Bromfield couldn’t afford to sit around and sulk about the downturn in his fortunes. Thinking fast, and exhibiting the adaptability that seems to be characteristic of Web entrepreneurs, he started looking around for new opportunities.
He was helping out a former associate who had just purchased a cutlery franchise when the idea occurred to him to try launching a cutlery sales and sharpening business for restaurants in the greater New England area. Already possessed of a good supplier of professional chefs’ knives, he went cold-calling in Boston and beyond, restaurant to restaurant, working out of the back of his car.
Bromfield called his new venture The Sharper Knife. Using Yahoo’s site-building tools as a do-it-yourselfer, he created a website showcasing knives and select kitchenware, such as high-end peppermills, for his restaurant customers.
This worked for a while. “The business was growing,” Bromfield told us, “but not fast enough to support our family.” The transformative moment came when an executive chef at one of the restaurants he was servicing asked him if he happened to know a good supplier of the printed, baggy chef pants that are the preferred garb in restaurant kitchens.
From that moment on, Bromfield was on a mission. “I smelt an opportunity—there was a huge need there!” Diligently researching sources for the signature baggy pants, as well as for high-end French chef coats, the newbie to the clothing world was soon selling a full line of stylish kitchen uniforms, chef coats, chef pants, aprons and head gear. The Sharper Knife morphed into Averill’s Sharper Uniforms.
“I just fell into it,” he says.
Everyone Loves a Uniform
Bromfield had the smarts to capitalize on the truth behind the old saying. “I saw that everybody needed and loved uniforms—plus it’s a high repeat business.” Uniforms are worn hard and wear out. New employees come along who need to be outfitted. Suppliers existed in abundance. But restaurants—and, as it turned out, a lot of other businesses—wanted the ease of one-stop shopping on the Internet, combined with a large selection of products from diverse suppliers.
Hotels, resorts, spas and country clubs were soon added to Bromfield’s roster of customers, who warmed to his ethos of meticulous and highly personalized customer service. “When I came into the business, a lot of stuff was unisex. The women were wearing potato sacks. Men will wear anything!” Bromfield added by way of an aside. “Today women want uniforms that are fitted and nice-looking.”
The entrepreneurial spirit comes naturally to him, says Bromfield, who acknowledges that he’s also particularly good at sourcing. Sensitive to the changing esthetic standards of the industry, he sought out suppliers that made fitted uniforms with a fashionable flair.
He sold the accounts he’d established for the Sharper Knife to one of Boston’s family-owned knife-grinding businesses. And then he gave a makeover to the Yahoo site he’d created for the knives, pots, pans and peppermills he’d been selling.
The earlier domain name now leads directly to the repurposed site. When he first got into the French chef coats, Bromfield loaded those on, along with the knives. And then, after selling his knife accounts, “I wiped off the other stuff and loaded on uniforms.”
All that time, he was still visiting up to six restaurants and other possible clients per day, growing his customer base. “Boy, that was hard, hard work!”
One of the most felicitous things about Bromfield’s business model is that he plays the welcome role of middleman for the uniform manufacturers (who don’t sell directly to the public). Averill’s Sharper Uniforms is seen as an ally by them, rather than as competition. In fact, all along—and especially as he was finding his way in the uniform business—the wholesalers have been very helpful to him.
This allowed Bromfield to develop his company largely on his own, without hiring industry consultants, even though he had no previous experience—or even interest in—the clothing business.
Averill’s Sharper Uniforms exhibits at about three restaurant/hospitality trade shows per year. Bromfield estimates that the orders from these shows account for somewhere less than half of his receipts. In addition to the shopping their customers can do online, the company also mails out a couple of thousand print catalogues per season. The win-win of this is that one of the uniform manufacturers foots the bill for the catalogue. All of the fashion photos and videos on Bromfield’s website are provided by the manufacturers as well.
Since Bromfield wasn’t the first major player to enter the hospitality uniform business as an Internet entrepreneur, we asked about his strategy for distinguishing his company from the others already out there. “I’d say it was a matter of professionalism and attention to detail,” he told us, “especially when it came to the design of the web site. People want to find what they’re looking for. And get out.” Simplicity of the navigation is key.
The success of the site hinges on maximizing pay-per-click views and SEO (search engine optimization). “Pay enough attention to SEO,” Bromfield advises new Internet entrepreneurs. “It’s worth the investment! Keep those pistons firing all the time.”
The company uses “white hat techniques versus black hat techniques” for SEO, making sure the company “always stays on Google’s good side.” Bromfield has a developer who does the coding. He believes it’s definitely worth the expense to bring in experts to handle the highly technical aspects of ecommerce. “Don’t waste your time trying to learn it yourself!”
Bromfield himself spends a lot of time on the Internet, “seeing what works out there, and what doesn’t. I have a great team of six to twelve technical people, all in the U.S.” He hires college interns to do office work and add products to the web site. And what’s his main role? “I’m the orchestra leader!” He advises would-be Web entrepreneurs to keep their focus narrow. “Too broad a product line will kill you. If I’m selling uniforms, I’m not going to try to sell automobiles, too. People have asked me about sourcing name-tags—but I didn’t want to get into that. It’s important to find your niche and stay focused.”
What was one mistake he made along the way? “Shoes!” he said. “There’s a 90 percent return rate on shoes.” Referring to ecommerce providers of shoes, he remarked, “I don’t know how they make any money!”
When Bromfield started Averill’s Sharper Uniforms at the beginning of 2003, he had to put in long hours, many of them on the road. Now he has the leisure to delegate more—and to spend more time with his wife, their three children and two dogs. “I’m a family guy,” he told us. Although Bromfield wasn’t willing to share any figures about the volume of his business, he admits that Averill’s Sharper Uniforms has been “growing by leaps and bounds.”
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