Chippewa Valley Business Report Cover & Article - October 2006
Menomonie couple enters world of Internet sales
Sherri and Scott Yukel are up to their elbows in packing peanuts - and customer orders - at Big Dot of Happiness. The Menomonie-based Internet sales company has shown phenomenal growth since Sherri started it as a stay-at-home mom just a few years ago. Photo by Joel Becker.
By KAY KRUSE-STANTON
Maybe this sums it up best: Every customer who orders more than $100 worth of products from the Big Dot of Happiness Web site receives a hand-written thank-you note.
Every one. And every day, employees at Big Dot of Happiness write about 100 of those personalized notes.
And that represents only about half of the orders the company processes each day.
Customer service is that important; the volume of business is that large. The two are linked, say company owners Sherri and Scott Yukel of Menomonie.
Keri Kockendorfer, left, original Big Dot employee Karen Hurtzgen and Judi Utphall fill orders at Big Dot of Happiness' warehouse in Menomonie. Photo by Joel Becker.
"That’s why we’re willing to invest in a larger facility, so that we can give the ultimate customer service," Sherri said. “That’s our mission. No one else can do it. That's why we made the jump from a few employees to several employees in a short time. We have original products and we mail them out to customers on the same day they’re ordered."
For "from a few employees to several employees," read "from one to more than 20 and still growing." And that "short time," is three years. That’s how fast the Yukels' Internet-based company has grown.
BigDotofHappiness.com. is the online address. The physical address is in north Menomonie, in a nondescript warehouse. That’s where employees assemble the orders, rushing to meet the UPS pickup deadline. Boxes contain bridal shower announcements, party favors and games; baby shower packages, from announcements through table centerpieces; clever surprises for bachelorette parties; and gifts for the father-to-be. All go out the door the same day they're ordered, whether the items are stock or personalized with names and dates.
Big Dot of Happiness is in the business of making life's occasions fun, especially for people who have little free time. By shopping one Web site, people planning parties can get just about everything they need to make the day a success, with the exception of the guests, food and appropriate weather.
The company's been at the current north Menomonie facility about 18 months.
"When we moved in I thought — it’s huge!" Sherri said.
It was — with the six employees then on board. Now two customer service representatives are crowded into an area designed for one; people assembling orders dance around each other in their efforts to gather materials, and even the warehouse addition is crowded with product ready to be personalized or packaged.
The Yukels are working with the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation to build a 15,000-20,000 square-foot building, with construction possible next spring, according to Bob Bossany, director.
Not bad for a company that had its start, literally, on a card table in the Yukels' home.
In 1999 Sherri was a stay-at-home mom with a desire to make her own spending money and a need for an outlet for her creative talent. She had been an art major in college until she met Scott. He convinced her that there was no economic future in the field. She switched to hospitality.
Her first customers were her own children. Relatives and friends were asking her to make things. She taught herself how to create a Web page and constructed an online presence to widen her customer base. The orders started coming in.
"I figured there had to be other at-home moms who were making things to sell but didn’t know how to build a Web site," she said. "So I created a nationwide group."
Soon, the at-home mom was having trouble juggling caring for her children and taking care of the at-home business. She needed help.
Her first employee was Karen Hurtzgen, who, three years ago, reported for work at the Yukels' home and has since moved her work space three times: to a two-room office, to a building near the current location, and finally, to the present facility.
"It’s been an adventure," Hurtzgen said. "They talk about their projections for two years, and I tell them — raise that. The growth has always been a lot, lot faster than we expected."
The first Web site’s success was its downfall. As the orders came in, the at-home moms couldn’t keep up with the demand. Sherri was devoting too much of her time to providing customer service and not enough of her time to realizing a profit. She made the tough decision to move on, and Scott supported her.
"In the middle of last year we made the big decision to go to selling everything in house. It allowed us to have ultimate control over the quality and how fast items went out the door," Scott said.
At the same time, Sherri set a goal to offer all-original materials. Until that point, she had been the creative force behind all of the company's products. She wasn’t able to keep up with her own brain, and hired a graphic designer to help put her ideas into physical form.
When the company expanded into the current facility, Scott took a chance and resigned from his job in the corporate world to work full time at Sherri’s business.
"I had a good job and I liked what I did, but I knew that financially the business was doing well and we could afford to make that leap of faith," he said. "It was hard to give up that security, but it’s turned out."
One of the people the Yukels credit for the continued growth of the company is David Brier of DBD International in Menomonie. They assigned him the task of branding the company and developing marketing tools.
"It was interesting, because Scott comes from the corporate world. Sherri is like a wild card, complete abandon," Brier said. "Going back seven months ago when we started, he was still wearing a suit — that’s how he approached things. One of the challenges was getting Scott to embrace the concept of branding."
So Brier, in turn, assigned the Yukels a task. He told them to visit a specific gift shop in Hudson, buy something, and tell the person at the register that the item was to be a gift. Brier knew the gift item would receive special treatment: fancy gift wrap, lots of ribbons, and a special bag for the purchaser. The experience, Brier said, would show Scott how important that special treatment is.
"Scott literally walked out of the store, got on his cell phone, and said 'I’m starting to get it,'" Brier said.
Brier started by changing the name of the company.
"It was 'Simply Stuff.' That was wrong," he said. "They offer a complete line of service. I liken it to a house of elves."
Big Dot of Happiness was born. The slogan reflects the service the company provides: "Making life’s occasions fun. It’s about time."
From the customer’s first contact with the company through the use of the products, the impression must be of top-quality service, creativity, and unexpected benefits, Brier said.
"The box arrival itself needs to be an event," Brier said. "Even the shipping box has to be fun."
Even waiting on "hold" on the telephone has to be fun. Instead of the usual music, customers hear four minutes of Brier's extemporaneous excitement about Big Dot of Happiness products and services. Some customers have requested that they be put back on "hold" so they can hear the rest of the routine, Scott said.
Beyond the creative products, attractive packaging and the on-hold entertainment, Big Dot of Happiness has to offer superior customer service to maintain its competitive edge, Scott says. Long ago, Sherri analyzed how a baby shower or bridal shower takes place, from planning through thank-you notes, to determine how to best help the planners.
"A lot of people don’t know until the last week or so how many guests are coming. They don’t want to over-order. They don’t want to guess and spend extra money if they don’t need to," she said. "If they can work with a company that can get their order just a week ahead of time and get it back to them on time, ahead of time, they save money. They don’t have to pay rush fees, they don’t have to pay for items they won’t use, and it’s personalized and they can order exactly what they need."
The Yukels made arrangements for special shipping, so customers in California, New York, New Jersey and Florida have products at their door in three days or less. Those four states produce the most customers, they said.
"That’s where the population is," Scott said. "We hear it all the time, how absolutely phenomenal people think the service is. They just love it."
Satisfied customers provide the best word-of-mouth advertising for the company, Sherri said.
"In the hospitality industry, you go above and beyond to provide good customer service," she said. "You figure out what your customers need, and then you don't just meet their needs — because that's what they're expecting. You go way beyond. They’ll love you and they’ll tell their 30 or 50 or 100 guests about your company."
The experience with Brier taught the Yukels an important lesson, Scott said. The company has grown to the point where he and Sherri can not and should not be doing everything themselves. As they work toward constructing a larger facility, they’re also restructuring the company. They’re relying on Nohre and Company, Eau Claire, for assistance. One of the goals is to free Sherri’s time so she can focus on product development.
"Sherri’s the founder of the company. It’s been her baby since Day 1," Scott said. "But she’s going to essentially take a step down, a step back, because it's gotten to be too much, too big. We’re focusing on getting people lined up doing what it is they really love to do. And Sherri loves the creative part. Her being caught up in the day-to-day issues of running the company is a misuse of her time."
With all the plans the Yukels have, Sherri’s going to be needing that time. One of the long-range goals is to produce those all-original lines for other life occasions, including birthdays. In the more immediate future are construction plans for the facility and introducing Big Dot of Happiness baby shower and bridal shower materials to major department stores.
"We get a lot of people who wait until Friday to call us, and the shower’s on Saturday," Sherri said. "They want to know where they can get a game in a local store, or favors, and right now, we can’t help those customers."
The company has had some international business, and Sherri would also like to explore those markets.
Running through all the plans is a promise to maintain high standards of customer service, the Yukels said.
"As companies grow and expand it seems that one of the things that slips is the customer service," Scott said. "So we’re making sure we put even more emphasis on it."
The new, larger building will help, Sherri said. She envisions a place with enough room for an expanded customer service area, and more space for product storage and package assembly. She and Scott both are looking forward to working in a facility that reflects the fun image the company has in its products, packaging, and on-line presence. No more brown carpeting and white walls, they say.
"We sort of have trouble sitting still," Scott said. "We have this philosophy that your business is doing one of two things: it’s either slowing, or growing. We want to be growing."
Kay Kruse-Stanton is a freelance writer from Menomonie. Contact the Chippewa Valley Business Report at (715) 723-5515 or through www.chippewavalleybusinessreport.com.