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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 7, 2015 3 years ago

Brand Reboot

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Sales plummeted in 2011 at Jim Miller's e-commerce business. His solution: Find, then tell everyone, about the why.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Jim Miller's million-dollar e-commerce Amish furniture business hit a crisis in April 2011.

The algorithms for Google's search engine shifted, and the Sarasota-based company fell from fifth to 15th in the pecking order on a search for “Amish furniture.” The virtual knockdown for the firm, which sells and ships Amish-made furniture to customers who spend, on average, $1,600 an order, had real-world outcomes: The company's online traffic, recalls Miller, dropped by 35% almost overnight.

A big decrease in sales quickly followed, and a few months later Miller was forced to cut the payroll from 13 people to six. “That was a dramatic shift,” says Miller. “It hit us hard, and we were really hamstrung to react.”

Miller didn't give up. Instead, he saw an opportunity to reinvest in the company and change the direction and approach, slightly. The result: JMX has essentially been reborn, and has grown rapidly the last three years. Sales are up 230% since 2012, to $6.04 million last year. The company has 25 employees, and was named a finalist for GrowFL's 50 Florida Companies to Watch list for 2015.

Miller projects the firm will grow at least another 40% in 2015, and surpass $8 million in sales. And more growth is forthcoming: The company recently bought an empty 12,000-square-foot building on Lockwood Ridge Road in Sarasota, where it intends to open a high-tech showroom/learning center later this year.

The facility will double as an office, and the showroom side will include iPads for customers to shop and create wish lists. Miller also plans to use the showroom for pictures and videos, something not easily done in the company's current cramped office space, just east of Interstate 75. The project to buy and turn the building into the showroom, says Miller, will cost at least $1.3 million.

“The showroom will give us credibility and tangibility,” says Miller. “We want it to be engaging and interactive.”

There are two keys to the JMX Brands turnaround. One, Miller went against conventional business wisdom and rather than have a diversified lineup of websites, like the company had for years, he decided to hyper-focus on one brand, DutchCrafters. The company maintains a portfolio of websites, but at least 90% of its revenues come from DutchCrafters.

The second step: Miller invested time and money on search engine optimization, online reputation management, social media and what he calls the storytelling of the brand. That last aspect is JMX Brand's version of the “why,” in that this is what motivates employees to connect with customers.

Storytelling included rewriting product descriptions and marketing materials for the products on DutchCrafters.com. The goal was to tell the unique story of how the products were made, by skilled woodworkers using tools powered by generators and their own hands. JMX Brands worked with several outside firms to tell that story at first, says Miller, and a year ago he moved it all in-house, seeking more control over content.

A onetime Mennonite pastor in Sarasota, Miller co-founded the company in 2003 with a business partner and friend from graduate school at USF, Miao Xue. The business started with ideas about how to sell things online. The products, and Amish furniture focus, came later.

Selling Amish furniture, says Miller, in many ways is a logistical headache. The Amish manufacturers, for one, while talented, shun technology and are usually 1,000 miles away in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. That makes communications tough. Shipping is also a highly complex process.

The good news there, says Miller, is those challenges also form a wide barrier to entry for competitors. That, in addition to the company's comeback, keeps Miller motivated to keep going.

“I never considered selling in a serious way,” says Miller. “We just had to have the resolve to make this work.”

By the numbers
Year Revenues % growth
2012 $1.83 million
2013 $3.8 million 107.6%
2014 $6.04 million 58.94%
Source: JMX Brands

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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