Sew What? may seem like a question, but it's the answer for many looking for durable, custom theatrical drapery. Founded in California by native Aussie Megan Duckett in 1992, Sew What? Inc. has grown exponentially and increased its customer base to reach all corners of the globe, thanks to an innovative marriage of new technology with a centuries-old craft and a lot of creativity and determination. Lisa Murphy finds out how Duckett became a successful small business owner in the soft goods industry and what challenges she's faced getting to where she is today.

LD: You left Australia at a young age to work as a theatre technician with one of the largest stage manufacturers in the US, but then you decided to move into the sewing aspect of the industry. How did you make the transition from technician to founder of your own business, Sew What? Inc., which specializes in creating custom theatrical drapery?

MD: The years I spent employed in the entertainment industry both in Australia as a lighting technician and then in the States in various capacities offered me a variety of confidence-building experiences. I am fortunate to have worked for top-notch companies such as All Access Staging, where I was given excellent training and many opportunities to better myself.

Deciding to make a break and embrace the unknown challenges of a small business is certainly not for the faint of heart. Had I not had complete emotional support from my husband, Adam Duckett, and good will from former employers, I might have hesitated. My strong determination to succeed combined with my Capricornian drive definitely seems to have been the right mix for success.

Like many areas of the entertainment industry, there is no school that teaches “Theatrical Drapery Manufacturing.” (Have you ever heard of “How to build a 60' turntable that will fit into a semi truck” class?) So it was, and still is, the school of hard knocks. By continuously trying to refine our procedures and systems, we have been able to build a business whose two key focuses are customer experience and employee benefits. Every member of our team, now 35 strong, is encouraged daily to embrace our culture and offer the best client relations and a premier product. In turn, we offer this amazing team as many benefits as we can afford, including paid school opportunities, health, retirement, and vacation plans.

LD: You were recently awarded the Dell/NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business) 2006 Small Business Excellence Award, which recognizes small businesses for their innovative use of technology. What specific technologies have played a part in the growth of your business?

MD: Our oldest customers and employees would hardly recognize Sew What? Inc. if they fast-forwarded to today with our new networked office system (utilizing a Dell PowerEdge Server) and the launch of our sophisticated and optimized web site.

Thanks to our recently installed server, our customer service managers can satisfy their customers' needs with blazing performance. Now they can deliver near-instantaneous responses, email product quotations (who needs fax?), send digital photos, or even videos of work-in-progress all at the click of a button. In addition, computerized integrated packing slips have streamlined our processes and brought the shipping and receiving department up to speed, which also means detailed and accurate content lists for our customers.

The implementation of a new user-friendly FTP site has taken days off the process of ordering digitally-printed backdrops, which, until recently, meant burning CDs and waiting for “snail mail” to deliver. It also gives us an easy means of delivering electronic previews of our work, assuring accurate and timely review and input from our customers.

It doesn't stop with our customers. Our vendors, too, are benefiting from our newly improved ways of operating. Our computerized purchase order system has checks and double checks in place to ensure accuracy of orders placed, as well as timely payment of received and approved invoices for goods and services provided.

Having redesigned our website to truly speak for us — our virtual receptionist — we are now able to reach more potential customers than ever. Heavy search engine optimization of the site delivers targeted customers to us each and every day, our specialized fabric sub-navigation system helps us share fabric color palettes with our customers, and the design of the pages lets us share portfolio images to each and every viewer.

These changes and more have allowed us to provide world-class service to a world-wide clientele from New York to Athens to Sydney, all at Internet speed. Our customers now regard us as their creative equal in the world of theatrical drapery and performance and have come to depend on us to deliver when others can't. All this has been made possible by combining traditional business values with today's newest technologies.

LD: How has your business grown in the last 18 months?

MD: Our revenue has grown 45% since our website redesign, and looking at the change of demographic for our customers is fascinating. Just 18 months ago, 80% of our customers were in California, our home state. Thanks to the redesign and our aggressive optimization, we now have a customer base that is 33% in California and a tremendous 66% out of state. In fact, we have sold to each and every US state except for Vermont. Embracing the World Wide Web has certainly allowed us to reach cities and communities that we might never have dreamt of reaching via other conventional methods.

Beyond our borders, we have also had over 55 successful international transactions in the last 18 months. Targeting international clients would be virtually impossible without the website.

To keep up with the growth, we have incrementally added technology into the company infrastructure. Our server allows us to save data in a safe and centralized area; networking of all our staff likewise allows for faster and more efficient access to customer files. We have developed our own proprietary software to convert drapery orders into sewing plans which sets us apart, as we are now able to store sewing plans indefinitely for customers, allowing us to reproduce pieces again, months after the original order.

With the generous award from Dell, we plan to automate the warehouse.

LD: What high profile projects have you worked on? In what capacity?

MD: We've done sets for Sting, Fleetwood Mac, Dave Matthews Band, Stevie Nicks, and in May, our drapes were on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. (That was the celebrated 1,000th edition.)

We are currently involved in the manufacture of complex and unique stage draperies for the Toni Braxton show, which will be in Las Vegas.

Just last month, we stitched up over 1,200 yards of terry cloth into the world's largest beach towel (131' × 77') for Nabisco, which was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records on June 28, 2006.

We recently manufactured Ricky Martin's Kabuki drapes for his current tour and have been involved in several of his previous tours over the years, in differing capacities.

And at this time, we are in the process of manufacturing a complete set of stage draperies to replace those damaged by hurricane Katrina in the historic Rosa Hart Theatre in New Orleans, as part of the city's relief project to rebuild the devastated district. We are honored to have been chosen for this project.

LD: Can you tell us about one project that was particularly challenging and/or rewarding?

MD: Sew What? Inc. has leapt headlong into the international marketplace with our web redesign and a determination to understand the needs of such international customers. We had a specific customer scenario that, despite its inherent challenges, was a very rewarding project:

From the moment that we began redesigning our website, we knew that we needed to reach customers in the far corners of the world. This meant a much broader understanding of the international search market online.

By optimizing for common terms in multiple countries, Greek artist/producer Peter Young was able to find us on the web. Up until then, he had difficulty finding a US vendor of customized theatrical drapery services due to his limited technical vocabulary in English.

Thanks to our fabric sub-navigation system that allows customers to browse within a fabric category — much like flipping through actual fabric swatch samples while in a retail store — Young was able to look at each and every fabric available to him and see the entire color palette, even though he was 6,900 miles away. He was able to choose all the fabrics and linings necessary without needing to see a physical swatch.

Despite the great distances, we corresponded with Young daily in realtime. Detailed contracts were shared via email, and daily reporting was done by way of live video feeds, progress photographs, and installation diagrams.

In the end, Young's final product was exactly what he wanted, delivered when he needed it, as if he was in our shop to check on progress daily. Not only was it challenging, this project was also very rewarding. We came to realize that we are able to offer the same services to other nations, and with careful planning and some caution, such transactions can be very successful. When Young emailed us pictures of the draperies installed on the stage in Athens, it was an incredible thrill. To see our work hanging on the other side of the world was just amazing.

It took establishing a creative, information-driven Web presence to help us reach customers beyond our local community and provide customer service that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. And the icing on the cake? Young has just contracted us for another complete design and manufacture of a second theatre club in Athens.

LD: How do you see Sew What? Inc. growing in the next five to 10 years?

MD: It must be said that we definitely think big at Sew What? Inc. From the get go, our goals for the future have always been aggressive.

On that note, it is our plan to continue to pursue perfection in all areas of our business. We plan to increase the number of products available via e-commerce as well as introduce more targeted and unique products into the theatrical marketplace. Our goal to go global with a satellite location will undoubtedly come to fruition. Already registered as a foreign business in Melbourne, Australia, we hope to reach out to other locations as the opportunities present themselves.

As artists — whose palette is fabric — we plan to be the top-of-mind company for top-of-the-line artists. How will we achieve this? By combining today's technologies with some good old fashioned customer service.

LD: How has the soft goods industry changed in the last five years? 10 years?

MD: That is an interesting question. There have been many changes, but the soft goods industry seems relatively slow to embrace technology. Perhaps the concept that we are a cottage/craft business has been a factor in this. I think that this belief slowed our growth in the early years of Sew What? Inc. And though we have changed, thankfully, many others have not.

In terms of the physical manufacturing processes of touring and concert draperies, I think that there have been improvements and developments in the last few years. Sew What? Inc. works to be a leader in this area, developing stronger and more durable manufacturing processes, and trying to educate clients on the better, more durable, and safer, Inherently Flame Retardant fabrics that are now available to them.