Woven Greenhouse Plastic - Small Business Profile of my friends at Northern Greenhouse Sales
This small business profile is about greenhouse plastic, but it also has a bit of a personal note to it. As some of you may be aware, I build my own greenhouses so I can grow much of my own food. With our high winds and lots of hail, I have to use a strong product to cover the greenhouse structures.
My choice is woven poly that is sometimes known as ripstop woven poly. I get mine from Northern Greenhouse Sales where Bob and Margaret Davis are partners in business. They are also husband and wife, so I have to say that it's a very close partnership.
The ripstop woven poly they sell is strong stuff. You can't tear it. I know because I've tried.
This is a story about how a couple of folks had small business ideas that centered on providing greenhouse plastic to people in the interest of helping them grow their own food, and grow food for others. Now I can't think of a better reason to start an enterprise - help feed others.
Bob and Margaret specialize in providing woven ripstop poly (polyethylene) covers for both commercial and residential greenhouses. Whether you have a kit or build your own from scratch, they have a nice poly covering that you can use.
Standard greenhouse plastic is a mono-film material that is much like a very thick and slightly milky food wrap. The material known as "Bob's superstrong woven poly" is very different. It's about twice as thick as regular greenhouse plastic, and it's woven so you can't tear it. It's also UV treated on both sides so there is no right or wrong side to install towards the sun.
In addition to woven greenhouse material, Northern Greenhouse Sales also sells white, silver and black woven poly for use in farm and ranch applications. They also sell tools and materials to attach the poly to greenhouses and other structures.
To the left is a picture of woven poly greenhouse plastic being delivered to the warehouse at Northern Greenhouse Sales.
Click here and scroll about a third of the way down the page to see my homemade greenhouse made in part with their clear woven poly, and their white woven poly used to cover the telephone poles that form the sides of the sunken walkway. And, of course, hurry back to finish the story about Northern Greenhouse Sales.
It all started when…
Back in 1980, Bob and Margaret used a kitchen table as their office, and the backyard as their warehouse. They started their business slowly and worked other jobs until they knew their enterprise was going to take off.
That's a conservative way of doing it. The advantage is that you don't put all your eggs in one basket. The disadvantage is that you can't give it "your all" because you have other employment to attend to.
It's an approach that won't work for everyone, but it's the approach that I would suggest. I liken it to building a good lily pad to land on before you leap off the one you're on.
Part of their start up activities included lots of research into what would soon be their own mail order business. This included discussions with experienced individuals, and lots of planning. They went into this enterprise of selling greenhouse plastic with their eyes open, and that's the best way to do it.
How the business grows…
Bob and Margaret do quite a bit of advertising in classified sections of magazines that are focused on do-it-yourself projects and other matter related to self-reliance. They look for market segments that cater to individuals who would be interested in greenhouses, outdoor projects, and garden ponds to name just a few.
They also have an Internet presence that helps them attract customers that are primarily interested in greenhouses. Visit their website here and see all the ideas they have for the woven poly that they sell.
Their product offering is particularly inviting to those with a frugal mindset and a do-it-yourself attitude. I know because that's exactly what attracted me to their product line.
The photo right shows Bob as he prepares to drop off finished customer orders for delivery via UPS.
In addition to advertising, Bob and Margaret know that treating their customers in a friendly and personal manner will help make each customer a repeat customer. There is nothing like word of mouth advertising. Several people have written to me asking where I get my poly coverings for my greenhouses.
Not only do our featured entrepreneurs have greenhouse plastic to sell, but they have many ideas as to how to use it and an endless supply of enthusiasm for greenhouse gardening. They offer unique ideas about how to use inexpensive materials to make greenhouses and raised beds, and provide other thoughts on living a more frugal and self-sufficient life, especially when it comes to growing produce.
Some of their small business ideas are practical ideas for their own customers to implement.
The photo below is one of Bob's ideas - a greenhouse made from rebar and woven poly greenhouse plastic. Cheap, effective and easy to build.
If you're serious about doing something about your grocery bill without a large investment, then I suggest you consider some of the ideas that Bob has about building a rebar greenhouse using his woven greenhouse plastic.
Benefits of the business…
One of the many benefits of the business is that Bob and Margaret Davis get to spend more time with family, and that is very important. Working from home is a real treat, no matter what you're doing, but being able to spend more time with family is indeed wonderful.
In addition, this enterprise is centered around helping people be successful. Whether it's a small endeavor at a residence or a large commercial grower, Bob and Margaret are there to help. The idea of helping others in some ways makes their success a bit of your success too.
When you're considering an enterprise of your own, it's always a good idea to make certain that it will be personally satisfying. That will keep you inspired and enthusiastic, and your enthusiam will most likely be contagious to your potential customers.
Resources you’ll need…
For a business like this, you'll need a bit of dedicated office space, and a way to deliver packaged product to carriers like UPS. You'll also need storage space for raw stock of greenhouse plastic.
Most importantly, you'll need a place to put together customer orders that will include measuring and custom cutting, and sealing the material to make a single finished piece. Also, you'll need space and material for packaging the finished product.
To the left is a picture of the warehouse. Notice that there is a lean-to greenhouse attached that helps heat the building as well.
It can also be important that you have a means of handling raw stock that is shipped to your warehouse location. Rolls of poly will weigh hundreds of pounds each, and trying to move something like that by hand is just way too much for even a couple of strong individuals.
You'll also need storage racks and equipment that will allow you to "pay out" the material in a manner that is convenient for measuring, cutting and fabricating finished pieces. This isn't a business that can be run out of your garage, except in the earliest stages of start up.
To the right, Willie heat seals sections of the woven poly to create a greenhouse cover to satisfy a customer order. After measuring and cutting, the material is sealed together to make a single piece that is just the right size for the customer's structure.
Once you get a business like this up and running, the gross income potential could be in the range of $100K to $300K. Much of this depends on how robust your product offering is, and the breadth and depth of your marketplace.
Expect to invest back into the business heavily to provide for a warehouse, stock handling equipment, and adequate supplies of raw materials to meet customer demands on a timely basis. Also remember that employees will likely be necessary to keep up with any reasonable demand from the market. All of these investments will at first gobble up big chunks of whatever gross revenue you generate.
Challenges to overcome…
Two of the biggest challenges for these purveyors of greenhouse plastic have been building the business during the early years, and dealing with government red tape.
While trying to build a customer base that warranted full time application to the business, both Bob and Margaret worked other jobs during the day and worked the greenhouse plastic business at night. This was quite a drain on them, but it was a necessary investment to get the business up and running while keeping household bills paid.
You can probably imagine how difficult it was for two people to field product requests, keep track of administrative duties, manage stocking levels, fulfill custom orders for greenhouse plastic, prepare materials for shipping and deliver customer packages to carriers.
Personnel matters also consume a fair amount of time. Whenever you have employees, it is a never-ending cycle of hiring, training, coaching, challenging and retaining qualified personnel. In addition to the paperwork end of it, you always have to be mindful that employees might not have near the sense of "ownership" of the business as the entrepreneurs.
Photo left shows Margaret in her office with plants galore.
With this type of greenhouse plastic resale business, there are sales tax, payroll tax and income tax issues to deal with. Issues surrounding unemployment can also be a hassle. The burden of government can be frustrating for any enterprise, but it is especially frustrating for a small enterprise where "all hands" are often needed to meet customer demand.
The folks at Northern Greenhouse Sales see many of their achievements in the form of satisfied customers that have an an economical way to make their dreams come true. Whether it is a pond, a greenhouse, a gazebo, a boat house or a light diffuser for a photographer, it is very satisfying to hear enthusiastic comments about customer projects made with their special brand of woven greenhouse plastic.
Our entrepreneurs also find it very rewarding to have the flexibility to treat their staff in a manner that is very different from the typical "time clock" approach. Staff is allowed to take time for family matters and make their work hours fit their personal lives. That is a remarkable achievement by itself.
Whether it's accommodating an employee who is a parent with a child in school, or one that prefers to have summers off, Margaret says: "I love being able to let people have the time they need for what matters in their lives. It’s fun being able to let people enjoy their families and lives more, and still hold down their jobs."
Special message from our featured entrepreneur…
Bob and Margaret Davis want you to know whatever business you start, it's important that you like it and that you have special knowledge to bring to it. Whether it's life experiences, training, research, or talking to others, you'll need a solid background and understanding of the business to help keep you encouraged along the way.
Some of their knowledge base was acquired through personal use of the greenhouse plastic they sell. Owning and using your own products is a great way to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
The photo to the left shows Bob standing outside of his A-frame greenhouse that makes good use of the woven poly greenhouse plastic. Bob has also experimented with a "greenhouse within a greenhouse" to help create a moderate temperature for growing vegetables while the outside temperature is zero.
Using your own product is a great way to be more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it. It's one of the problems in the product and service world - many providers don't use their own products or services, but that isn't the case at Northern Greenhouse Sales.
Bob and Margaret also want you to know that running a business is not a 9 to 5 job. Long after the staff has gone home for the day, people may be phoning and emailing you, and you'll probably help them, because you want to serve them in a timely manner. You have to make choices about your hours because no one else will do that for you.
Bob and Margaret also advise that among all your small business ideas, there has to be room for your life as well. You have to think about your life priorities as a business person - making time for the people who matter most to you, but balancing that with business activities that are also very important for you and your future.
Done with Greenhouse Plastic, take me back to Small Biz Profiles