Improvisations: A Dealer Forges His Way Into the Decorative IndustryFebruary 26th, 2009 by Editor
“Do you remember the Fibonacci sequence?”
This is not the sort of question you might expect to hear in the window film industry. But it is exactly the question Lawrence and Charlotte Streidel heard from one of their customers. The husband and wife duo own and operate several window film businesses in the Maryland/D.C. area and fortunately both recognized the sequence from their college studies. The Streidels are the type of couple that will not shy away from just about any opportunity.
“Two or three years ago, we went to the mathematics association in Bethesda [Md.] and they asked us if we could do a Fibonacci sequence, in frost [window film], on their doors,” Charlotte explains. “Remember what the Fibonacci sequence is?” she asks, laughing and underestimating the mathematical knowledge of the average English major.
Leonardo Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician, considered by some to be the most talented mathematician of the Middle Ages. One of his great mathematical discoveries and accomplishments includes the Fibonacci sequence. In this sequence of numbers, each number is the sum of the previous two, starting with zero and one. The sequence begins: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on. You can imagine how vast and intricate the concept is when made visual. And no one knows this better than the Streidels.
“We had to hand cut the lines—each and every one of them,” Charlotte explains. “So I sat there and cut this thing, one inch at a time.”
“We did it completely by hand using rulers,” Lawrence adds.
If this undertaking doesn’t sound tedious and complicated enough, there’s more. The Streidels agreed to create this pattern on 150 doors.
“We were there for about two to three weeks,” Lawrence says. “It nearly drove us crazy. We made more than a thousand cuts on that film—more, in fact.”
By this point, you might be thinking: “What a nightmare! I would run and never look back after that project.” While most of us would think and do the same, the Streidels did just the opposite. This was their first major decorative window film project—one of what they hoped to be the first of many.
Lawrence Streidel got his start in the window film business like many others. He began as a prep technician at a local tint shop in Maryland. Soon, he advanced to the level of installer and, as the story so often goes, shortly thereafter recognized an opportunity in the industry and began to consider it as a career. When he approached his employer and pitched the idea of opening and operating a second location, his employer wasn’t fond of the idea; so Streidel began tinting cars right in his driveway—his mother’s driveway, that is. And it wasn’t long before his mother gave her little birdie a nudge out of the nest, asking him to relocate his “business” to an official location. Streidel saved up $5,000 and decided to take his tint business mobile by purchasing and creating a branded vehicle. Then he got behind the wheel and never looked back.
Charlotte was working as a stockbroker at the time, but it wasn’t long before her husband’s business began to look like a more viable option.
“I said, ‘You know this little window tinting business of yours made more money than I did in the stock market,’” she explains. “’Let’s take a look at this and see if it’s a viable business to move forward.’” Charlotte studied business and economics in college and Lawrence says she has a keen analytical eye—something that’s evidenced by the couple’s decision to invest in the window film industry and their resulting success. Their next move was brick and mortar.
“We have a really good picture that’s of our first day at the shop,” Charlotte says. “We’re just holding each other with these really awkward smiles on our faces. I don’t know if they were as much smiles as they were [looks of] ‘We’re really scared! Now we have rent to pay!’”
The couple continues to smile to this day, but no longer out of nervousness. Their original business, Winners Window Tint, was established in Rockville, Md., in 1999. Since then, it has expanded to include two additional, independently-owned locations in Frederick and Annapolis, Md. Lawrence saw things differently from his original employer and decided to allow, and even encourage, his best employees to own and operate their own businesses. The Streidels eventually recognized a great potential in the flat glass market and began offering commercial and residential installations. Eventually the flat glass portion of Winners grew to the point that Lawrence decided it might be best served by standing on its own. And so Interior Guardz was born and today serves as an independent flat glass-only operation. In recent years, this pattern has repeated itself. About the time the Streidels were laboring over the Fibonacci sequence, Lawrence began imagining the possibilities in the decorative films market. Once again, he relied on the analytics of Charlotte to determine the possibilities.
“We were selling more decorative films than we were solar,” Lawrence explains. “It was a gradual movement, but, at some point I realized I had more decorative films in stock than solar. Then we realized—we had so many architects and interior designers calling us, saying, ‘Hey, we saw that you did such and such design on such and such commercial building. Could you do this? Or do you have additional films that you could use to do a similar pattern?’”
Suddenly Lawrence realized that decorative films might offer more than just an opportunity to increase flat glass sales. “I came to Charlotte and said, ‘This is an opportunity to see if we can be the first to offer not only decorative films but our own creations,’” he says.
It didn’t take long for Lawrence to realize that Winners’ architectural customers wanted more than just a few simple patterns, so he and Charlotte began digging around for additional suppliers. “We definitely reacted to a demand,” Charlotte explains. “We started seeing an increase in questions about [decorative films] and we looked around and just didn’t see what we wanted in terms of product line. Large manufacturers have decorative lines, but they’re small [lines]—maybe five, six or seven types of film—mostly various types of matte.” In addition to locating a number of providers and film types, the Streidels also began creating their own designs and having them manufactured exclusively for their company.
After assembling a hodge-podge of decorative products, mostly from foreign suppliers, the Streidels realized their new business venture was beginning to take an unfamiliar form. Up to this point, the couple had acted solely as dealer through the Winners and Interior Guardz businesses, but soon they realized the opportunity to become a distributor.
“We saw an increased interest in decorative films through our installation projects,” Lawrence says. “We decided to have yet another company, in order to keep all of our entities separate.” And Decorative Film Depot (DFD), a Rockville-based distributor, was born.
A Different Approach
When the Streidels started their automotive and flat glass businesses, Lawrence hit the pavement, literally prospecting from door-to-door—first with automotive dealerships, then with commercial and retail businesses. The effort paid off for the couple’s previous businesses, but decorative films would take a slightly different approach, so they thought.
One of the couple’s first endeavors for DFD included a local home show. After purchasing a booth space for the exposition, they were a little astonished at the public’s response when the booth was swamped with interest and orders.
In October of 2007, the Streidels began designing the site and system to support DFD as a largely internet-based business. Lawrence felt that, as a distributor, a retail space wasn’t necessary. Instead, they secured a warehouse space (in addition to their other retail spaces) and began investing heavily into web site and systems development.
While sister products, such as solar films, are difficult to put into images and words for the web, Lawrence says decorative films beckon this format. In addition to creating a robust web-based catalogue, with the help of their web developer, the Streidels came up with some interesting new concepts. The new website includes a proprietary system for viewing decorative films, called Reliable Image Comparison System (RICS™). They discovered that, in order to successfully promote and sell these products online successfully, a system would have to be developed that ensures a consistent visual background and common reference points that enable viewers to determine the size and exact nature of a film’s pattern. The company also introduced Film by the Foot™, allowing decorative customers and dealers to purchase only what they need, rather than requiring them to purchase an entire roll of film.
While the company continues to sell decorative films to end users, it has also signed a number of dealers. Through an agreement, dealers are provided with exclusive territories and are allowed to purchase through the same web-based system, or by phone, using a special dealer code that allows for different pricing. The Streidels have chosen not to create a retail space in order to display and promote their films, though Lawrence says dealers will likely find that investing in large displays will have its benefits. While automotive and architectural solar films aren’t particularly well-suited for displays, hundreds of decorative film designs and patterns can mimic a paint store effect to help consumers make a selection. In addition to saving the necessity of a retail front, the web-based format also allows the Streidels to beat the issue of time zone differences for ordering purposes.
Continuing to Raise the Bar
In the wake of their sudden success as a distributor, the Streidels say they continue to struggle to provide enough options for their dealers and customers.
“We decided we wanted to be able to offer more like 300 types of decorative films,” Charlotte explains. That aspiration would lead the company to make a several-hundred-thousand-dollar investment. It has also pushed the couple toward taking another large step—manufacturing. Rather than forcing customers to select from the patterns they’ve managed to scavenge together from the industry, the Streidels have invested in printing technology that enables them to create their own patterns and designs. By purchasing raw, UV-coated films, they are able to use a new ink-based system to print logos, patterns and even textures, directly onto film.
“Our printing process is unique in that we can print on most of our films, and we can print any design—whether a picture, logo or a repeatable pattern,” Lawrence says. “And we can do it in any color, including white.”
Lawrence says this investment will open up additional business in the storefront category.
While the couple readily admits that DFD isn’t a manufacturer in the traditional sense, the company is producing its own brand of printed films. Additionally, they’re in the process of implementing a system by which window film dealers can submit their own designs to be included in a contest. The Streidels plan to select the best designs for production. As a result, the pattern’s designers will have their “own” film and will even receive a per-foot royalty from DFD.
The Streidels use the term manufacturer loosely because they know that while the window film industry offers an extremely low barrier to entry for its dealers, it is well known for adjusting the classification of manufacturer to exclude “relabelers” and the such. However, most manufacturers fall into the coating and laminating category, since few actually produce a finished window film product from raw polyester. By the same token, while the company isn’t exactly “coating,” one could argue that it has begun “manufacturing” under similar concepts.
“These big manufacturers out there, if they really wanted to do this, they would have done it a long time ago,” Lawrence says. “They have shown that they want to stick to solar films.”
And with that kind of logic, the Fibonacci sequence doesn’t seem like such a difficult task for this couple anymore.