Recycled Glass Biz Wins With Cloud Computing
The swirl of attention around Vetrazzo LLC is every bit as dazzling as the stylish countertops the company makes from recycled glass. Most of the buzz is about the striking kitchen countertops made from the sustainable alternative to granite and Vetrazzo's impeccable "green" credentials. But the fast-growing company has another story to tell: Founded by a former software executive, it's leveraged innovative cloud-based technology to support that growth without taking attention away from its core business.
The green story of how the glass slabs are made from recycled beer or vodka bottles may be sexier -- actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. raved about Vetrazzo's products on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno -- but the technology angle is just as important to the company's overall success.
Vetrazzo CEO James Sheppard knew about the quality of the product because he was a customer long before taking the helm. A software marketer whose company was acquired by Oracle, Sheppard and his partners -- chief creative officer Olivia Teter; CFO Jeff Gustafson, a former JPMorgan VP; other former Vetrazzo customers; and some 100 angel investors -- bought the 10-year-old company's intellectual property in 2006.
They bought only the IP because, according to Sheppard, "the company was a mess. They had 68 different Excel spreadsheets, all of them wrong." By jettisoning the management team, manufacturing facilities, and other baggage, Sheppard and his partners were able to start clean. "Vetrazzo LLC is a new entity," he says with pride. Today, the company has 36 employees working in a revamped 1931 Ford factory in Richmond, Calif., originally built to produce the Model A. And even in the down economy, Sheppard is looking to hire more salespeople.
The building may be old, the glass may be recycled, but the technology is cutting edge. Just not the part actually at the plant.
The new company gets by on some Dell laptops and PCs, a few routers and printers, and a single PC configured as a shared drive for the company. Connectivity comes from a shared T1 line to the plant and AT&T business DSL in the offices -- plus a VPN to connect the two. Packaged software consists of QuickBooks Pro and Microsoft Office. And that's pretty much it. "I don't concern myself with infrastructure," Sheppard says. "All I need is a fast Internet connection."
"We decided we were doing away with [infrastructure]," Sheppard explains. "We were just going to use online documents and Salesforce.com." And that is where Vetrazzo's innovative technology can be found. Salesforce powers a Web site that Vetrazzo uses to run all the key elements of its sales operation for both the in-house sales team and some 13 regional distributors. "Our goal is to certify 50 new sales reps this quarter," Sheppard says. But the app also runs other operations, including production planning, raw materials and finished goods inventory, and order management.
Sheppard says prospective customers can enter their ZIP code and query Salesforce for the Salesforce dealer data that matches that location. When new dealers sign up to sell Vetrazzo's products, Vetrazzo salespeople enter the dealers' data into Salesforce and publish it directly to the Web site. To make it happen, Vetrazzo hired David Claiborne of The Claiborne Co., a tech consultant in New Orleans, to build a Force.com API to put account records directly into Salesforce. If necessary, the system can send leads to district sales reps within five minutes of a potential customer hitting the submit button on the Web site. The site even knows to adjust the inquiry form depending on whether the customer is a homeowner, showroom, fabricator, builder, or architect, and project timing is a question on the Web form. The leads are automatically routed to the appropriate distributors.
Kendall Collins, Salesforce's chief marketing officer, says Vetrazzo's implementation is a unique application of his product. "This is not an out-of-the-box implementation you're going to see anywhere else." But what did it mean to the new company?
Sheppard believes his company's unique technology implementation has played an important part in Vetrazzo's fast growth. "We wouldn't be at 36 employees -- and looking for more -- if we didn't have this. The effort that used to go into IT development has gone into growing the business."
Plus, he says, "there's the measurable stuff, and then there's the unmeasurable stuff. What's the cost if the wrong thing ships and a project gets delayed waiting for the right product? Customers don't like it," he says, and they tell their friends. And that can be deadly for an emerging company. Do it right, though, and a company can quickly gain a good reputation. "We constantly get, 'Oh, we thought you were a much bigger company.' Because our Web site helps us do things right. Most people get to this stuff much later in their life cycle."
Of course, the key question is exactly how much the system has led to actual sales. "That's a trick to measure; we're still wrestling with that," Sheppard says. "We sell through the channel," he explains, so "we don't have that same direct-sales visibility. Leads go to the distributors for follow-up." And Sheppard doesn't know if any of Vetrazzo's distributors use Salesforce. "If I could get them to, it would be great!"
So, how did Vetrazzo end up using Salesforce and Force.com as its technology platform? At the time, Sheppard says, "I wanted to do this all on the Web, no hosting."
"Initially, it was a buy-versus-build question," he adds. "We looked at a handful of off-the-shelf solutions, but they only worked in silos. We were not going to buy five different $50,000 applications and then try to integrate them. So we looked to build our own application and had to scale down our expectations."
And there was another problem with Vetrazzo building its own application. "Even if [a developer] agrees to build it, they may not deliver it," Sheppard says. Not surprisingly, Salesforce's Collins agrees: "You create a spec, then sign your life way, but you have no idea what you're actually going to get."
"If you're a small business, good luck testing," adds Collins. "It's extremely expensive, and if you can't try things" before you buy, you're taking a big risk unless you stick with Excel and other rudimentary tools.
Sheppard recalls thinking that "it would be great if I could do it on something like Salesforce," but didn't think that was possible. "Until we saw Force.com, we didn't see anything that had bridged that gap. Then, when I realized I could do it on Salesforce, there was no way I wouldn't do it on Salesforce."
Of course, the choice of Salesforce wasn't really that simple. It turned out that "one of our investors knew [Salesforce CEO Marc] Benioff, and I was already a Salesforce CRM customer," Sheppard says. "He put me on to [Salesforce's] Adam Gross on the technology side, and I got an Oracle buddy to write a spec in exchange for a new countertop."
What's Next For Vetrazzo's Technology
The company's products are sold by 13 regional distributors, and they need to be kept in the loop as well. So Sheppard is installing an Articulate-based online training portal. (Sheppard says the Force.com AppExchange product in this space didn't meet his needs because it doesn't actually host the portal.) Other IT projects in the works at Vetrazzo include adding to the 25 custom modules and using the system to generate outgoing e-mail blasts.
Collaboration is another key issue for the company: "Every document that's public facing has been signed off on by top executives," Sheppard says. To make that kind of sharing easier, "a year from now I would expect to be using some sort of collaboration software," adding that "version control is a big thing that gets me."
If it all seems like a bit much for a small company that makes kitchen countertops, Sheppard doesn't see it that way. For him, putting everything in the cloud makes it easier. "I come from the software industry," he says, "but I'm not a techie."