Lenny Huiras started Vital Signs NW with his wife, Andi, after discovering the need for on-site engraving for landscaping rocks and features. The business has evolved over time and they've added apparel, accessories and bridal, but the commitment to custom goods with excellent quality remains the same.
When not at work, you can often find Lenny and Andi antiquing or hanging with their two dogs, Kia & Harley.
In this Startup Savant interview, Lenny and Andi share their experiences running a startup company. They're candid about their ups and downs as business owners, their mistakes for starting off at a lower price range and the best move they've made to scale up their platform. Read on and enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you got the idea for Vital Signs Engraving and Apparel?
Vital Signs actually happened by accident while we were building another business called On The Rocks. On The Rocks was supposed to be a rock engraving business. While starting that business we learned that there was a calling for other engraved products as well, so we seized that opportunity,
Customers began requesting other products like T-shirts, hats, and other promo wear. We learned quickly that On The Rocks didn’t really explain what we did. Although it was catchy for the rock engraving side, so we kept that going for our rock engraving clients.
When did you know that you had a business on your hands and not just a ‘good idea’? (The ‘Aha!’ moment)
Our Aha moment was while starting our first business, we spent every dime we had, literally! We still couldn’t engrave a rock, because we were missing one final product. Andi asked one night what we were going to do with all that equipment and we realized we were pretty much lost. She went to the cabinet to grab a glass, to pour herself some water and she said, "What about engraving this?"
I looked at her and asked, "What do you mean?" She pointed out that everywhere you go there's glassware with branding on it. I thought she might be onto something so we broke out all of the equipment right there and then and made a stencil to blast a glass. It worked!!
We posted photos of our first glasses on Facebook. The next morning we had requests for engraved glassware from friends. "I have a wedding or a Birthday next week can you engrave one for me?" We still have those first glasses and we use them regularly to remember that’s where this all started.
Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest? How did you find it and ‘niche down’?
We found our competitive edge in the onesie, twosie business at first. The fact we would do one or two glasses was a big hit. Even with some big businesses, they wanted to have one or two engraved as awards, or beer of the week types of things and most customers only needed one or two for birthdays or weddings.
Then as we got known for the small orders and our quality, the big orders of 50-100 came in at first, then 144-288, then not long after we were doing 500 piece orders.
In your experience, what's the best way to find your ideal customer?
The biggest mistake I feel we made was starting off with too low of a price point. It was great at first. We sold a ton of glasses but we didn’t make any money. Then as we figured out pricing, people thought we just raised the price on a whim, which deterred a few customers, they didn’t understand that we were far undervalued at first.
How did you find the time and money to get Vital Signs off the ground? Any advice for entrepreneurs with minimal time or resources?
We worked full time for the first two years. This was a night and weekend hustle. We traded our vacation time at our full time jobs to work on the weekends and we put the money we made right back into the business. We didn’t take paychecks from it for years. I quit my full time job first. I was home for a year, while Andi kept working full time, and nights and weekends with me.
Three years ago, she called me from work after being unhappy for a while at her job, and said she was coming home, I put my two weeks notice in and we decided we were going to make this work. And that is exactly what we did! It was actually easier to have her there. I got much more work done, and I was able to make meetings and meet with customers, and things were still getting done because we were both home.
We worked in a little workshop behind our home for another 1yr and a half, until a friend called. He said he had a small retail store front available to sub lease, and he would make it possible for us to afford it.
We went to the bank to try and get a loan to help with expenses and we were shot down. We met with our friend and said we weren’t sure we would be able to afford to move into the store without the backing. He replied to both of us that nothing in this world comes easy and with this opportunity it would help legitimize our business, with an actual store front.
So we took the risk and in May of 2015 we moved in, with no bank backing just our own money and determination. Best move we ever made!
What do you consider the biggest milestone that you've hit with your business?
Our biggest milestones are the businesses we've picked up along the way. We started with local people and small businesses, and now we work with some of the largest companies in the world. The number one thing I can say we did to get here is, making our customers #1, making their requests, emails, and calls important, responding as fast as we can, and keeping our quality as high as possible.
Have you faced any failures with Vital Signs? How did you overcome it?
We have failed several times! I think that's why we succeed! You can’t always win, nor do we want to. All business isn’t good business. We have always tried again when we have failed. If we lose a bid, we bid another job. We just do our best to not get discouraged.
Who has been your greatest influence as an entrepreneur? How did they shape your business?
I would have to say my stepdad, Fred, was my biggest influence as a child. He instilled work ethic in us kids. He passed away the year we started this, and never had the chance to see what we have built it into.
How do you balance life and work to remain connected and available for your loved ones?
Well, for that, I'm very lucky. My wife is my partner in life and in our business. Unlike other businesses, we go to work together everyday and some days whether we like it or not we go home together. But we have an incredibly strong bond and we talk about everything, no matter how hard the topic is.
We've finally gotten to the point recently where we can start to take some time off. We have a great staff in place and that has taken some weight off of our shoulders. I'm starting to find a love for fishing, and she's starting to read again.
What are the top 3 pieces of advice that you would give someone starting a business in Oregon?
My opinion: 1) have a strong accountant, 2) have a good role model or mentor, and 3) absolutely love what you do, or it isn’t worth it!
Check out Lenny and Andi's Etsy store here.