Fixer-Upper

Listening to Customers

If you're a little bit apprehensive about making the leap to an entirely new business, you can get started on a slightly smaller scale. Follow the example of Tom Caldwell and Todd Blaudow of TDI Products Inc., who founded the Jacksonville Beach, Florida, company in 2000 specifically to find undermarketed or poorly manufactured products and make them profitable.

Focusing on the boat and RV industry, the partners found that securing their first product line from an ailing company was not an easy task. The inventor of the product, a cord-and-hose system for boats and RVs, had licensed the patent, so there was a third party involved. "We had to buy the patents from the designer as well as acquire the manufacturing rights from the people he [had] licensed it to," says Caldwell.

Once they finally had a struggling product to revamp, Caldwell, 34, and Blaudow, 32, knew they would have to design and manufacture it from scratch. "We had to completely redesign the thing," remembers Caldwell. They retooled the design and manufacturing elements to achieve a more desirable price point and ensure that the product worked reliably every single time.

Armed with a new and improved offering, TDI Products sought out old customers first-even those who'd stopped buying from their predecessors. "We took the old product, showed them [the] problems we'd identified and showed them our new working product," says Caldwell.

Experts agree that approaching your customer base is crucial to turning a business around. "Talk to [people] in the market," says Kramer. "Ask them, 'What are you planning to spend your money on in the future?' Find out what customers can use more of."

Caldwell and Blaudow were so successful in their customer-courting that they're now inundated with suggestions for new product lines and ways to expand their first line-though at the moment, they have their hands full with building their customer base and slowly increasing their nearly $1 million in sales.

As these entrepreneurs have demonstrated, turning around a business is never easy-but with some energy and innovation, even the most troubled business can be transformed into a shining success story.

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This article was originally published in the November 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Fixer-Upper.

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