Saturday, July 29, 2017

Small Business Spotlight: Cheap Toilet Tank Lids

Today's Small Business Spotlight features one of the most unique & interesting small businesses I have come across so far: Cheap Toilet Tank Lids.

The company is the brainchild of Tom Herbert, who has been running the company since its inception eight years ago. One question I have wondered since hearing about his company was how in the world he came up with such a unique idea.

Tom tells me:

I was working a sales job for a company during the recession. We sold nurse call systems to assisted living facilities, and during this time everyone cut their budget and I had nothing to do, so the owner of the company put me in charge of finding a replacement toilet tank lid when someone broke one in our office. I looked online, found one for $175, and asked him for the credit card to get it ordered. He said that was a ridiculous price and directed me to a local salvage yard where he had seen a bunch of toilets from the street. I went there, found a tank lid that was close enough for $10, and thought everything was done.

Then I sat at my desk and realized maybe there could be an opportunity to make some extra money selling at a lower price online. I built a website, but didn't own any tank lids. All of the companies I saw online listed the item brand and part number, color, and dimensions. I just simply wrote 'Our inventory is constantly changing, so if you need a tank lid please tell us which one, and if we have it, it is yours for $50'. Someone actually contacted me and needed a Briggs 7421, which I didn't know at the time was the most common tank lid. I bought it from the salvage yard for $10, sold it for $50, and instantly had a profitable business on the first sale.

Necessity, meets inventiveness, meets profit.

Tom's background provided all the knowledge he needed for this new endeavour. Everything, that is, except actual knowledge of toilets. He has a degree in engineering, previous web design experience, and recent experience in the sales industry. Now he just needed to teach himself about toilets. And so he did.

For several months Tom continued the way he began, selling tank lids one at a time as requests came in. And then... an unexpected offer. One day a plumber who was preparing to retire contacted Tom and offered him 1,000 tank lids. Tom borrowed some money from his parents, purchased all 1,000 lids and rented a storage unit. He slowly started learning about these products that he now owned. The more he sold, the more he was able to invest back into his business in the form of advertising. The more he advertised, the more people found Cheap Toilet Tank Lids, and the more he sold.

But who exactly is buying toilet tank lids? A large portion of Tom's customers are renters coming to the end of their lease, and needing to replace a broken toilet tank lid in order to assure the receive their security deposit back at the end of the term. They also see significant sales to restaurants, preschools, and gas stations.

But why do they choose Cheap Toilet Tank Lids? With literally thousands of different tank lids & color options out there, they have most of the possible options on hand, and can manufacture others, making them one of the few vendors able to supply almost every possible need their customers might have. Tom has also become quite the expert on toilets and toilet tank lids, and can usually identify the lid a customer needs just by looking at a picture they send to him. That kind of mastery and customer service sets Cheap Toilet Tank Lids apart from the competition.

Speaking of customer service, Tom wants to pass out this helpful tip for anyone living in an older home and considering a toilet replacement:

A lot of people don't realize if their house is 20 or more years old, the plumbing wasn't designed for the new low flow toilets. A house designed for a 3.5 gallon or more per flush toilet has its pipes angled at less pitch than newer ones. If you are convinced that changing to a low flow toilet is going to save you money and save the environment, consider two things. The new toilet took a lot of resources to be manufactured and transported from Mexico or China or Venezuela to get to you. Using the low flow toilet will cost you money every year when your pipes back up. Sludge will build up in your pipes and the flow will be blocked to the street. You'll need to have a rooter company come and clear the pipes out regularly. It is much more economical and better for the environment to keep an old toilet working as long as possible than to put in a new one. 

The growth of his company has allowed Tom to go from just him, getting toilet tank lids from salvage yards and rummaging thru trash bins after hours to find boxes & bubble wrap for shipping, to having three additional employees, over 8,000 tank lids & 400 tanks on their shelves, and even manufacturing their own when needed to meet their customers' needs. In fact, the porcelain-looking wooden tank lids they manufacture for custom requests has given them additional ideas for growing the company even further.

Growth is often an instigator for change, and so it was with Cheap Toilet Tank Lids. They started with one 10'20' storage unit in Largo, FL, then expanded to two unit. An influx of 3,000 lids all at once instigated the move to a 2,000 sq ft warehouse, and then Tom really felt like it was a real businesses. They remained at the warehouse in Florida for several years before taking the plunge and moving to the mountains of North Carolina.

The move across several states also proved to be the largest challenge they've faced to date. Just for logistics alone, the move took four 53' semi-trailer loads of product, plus countless hours tearing down, packing, unpacking, and setting up their inventory.

While most entrepreneurs will tell you that the flexibility it provides is one of their favorite things about owning their own business, Tom also credits that flexibility for his success. Especially with an internet-based company like Cheap Toilet Tank Lids, the ability to set his own schedule allows Tom to be more productive, and also gives him time to pursue his other interests, like travel, hiking, cooking, etc.

Another advantage to entrepreneurship is that running your own business creates a built-in drive to keep trying new things. Tom admits that he's had his share of failures along the way, but even those missteps keep him working toward a more successful enterprise.

His advice to other small business owners is to not fear spending money on advertising. He recommends 10-20% of revenue as a good target for advertising spend. But don't forget to keep an eye on your advertising dollars to check for areas where advertising in that area isn't driving sales. By cutting spending in those areas you free up money to try different, potentially more successful marketing efforts.

The future for Cheap Toilet Tank Lids is definitely bright. With a simple goal of increasing revenue each year, they have succeeded in doing just that every year thus far, and see themselves continuing that trajectory for years to come.


All photos provided by Cheap Toilet Tank Lids and used with permission

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