Learning to Reap What You Sew

It all started with coffins.

A co-worker in the theatrical lighting business asked Megan Duckett if she could sew. Knott's Berry Farm theme park was searching for someone to reupholster coffins for a Halloween-themed ride.

Duckett didn't know how to sew, but summoned up some entrepreneurial moxie and took the job. She rented a little Singer sewing machine and reupholstered 10 coffins over five weeks.

"I made them pretty special with purple velvet and red satin linings. They used those and to this day for all I know they could still be in a prop warehouse somewhere," said Duckett in a phone interview from her offices in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., in Los Angeles County.

Duckett moved to California from Australia after working as a lighting technician for shows such as the Phantom of the Opera and at venues hosting big-name touring bands.

Duckett working on drapes for the 1995 Stone Temple Pilots tour. (Courtesy of Sew What?)

When she first moved to America, her dream was to be a lighting technician in the rock and roll industry. "I don't think it gets any better than classic rock," she said.

Which may be why today, Duckett is the president of Sew What?, a successful small business with about 30 employees that makes stage curtains, theatrical drapery and similar goods for bands like James Taylor, Don Henley, Madonna, Maroon 5 and Sting. Her firm also does work for theaters, schools, special events and conference planners.

In 1992, while still working backstage in the theater, she busied herself by doing evening and weekend sewing work for the entertainment industry. In 1997, she incorporated her business after her husband Adam, whom she married in 1996, pointed out that she was making more money sewing than at her day job.

"There just didn't seem to be anyone filling this need just south of Hollywood," she said.

The Sew What? team. (Courtesy of Sew What?)

The couple rented a warehouse for the growing business and Adam, who had been working with Megan on the weekends, soon joined her full-time as her chief financial officer.

"This has definitely been a family affair," said Duckett. "The balance between his role and my role is so fine and such a great balance. I don't think we would operate with the clarity we do without the both of us here."

Weaving a Web

Sew What? was thrust into the 21st century in 2001 when the company lost a big contract because it didn't have a Web site. "It was going to be the biggest job I ever had," recalls Duckett. The almost-client called up to praise her prices and services but said, without a Web site, it couldn't give Sew What? the job. Web sites help the larger firm measure the credibility of smaller vendors.

"I about fell off my chair," said Duckett. "I couldn't believe that having a Web site would be a factor for a sewn drapery product."

That night Duckett bought a $50 do-it-yourself Web-site design program. "I went to the library and stayed up for 18 hours straight," she laughed. "It had clip art and was the most hideous thing you've ever seen, but I had one now."

A drape made by Sew What? that hangs in Los Angeles' Nokia Theater. (Courtesy of Sew What?)

The work paid off quickly. "Suddenly, this little Web site was making the phone ring," Duckett said. Prior to the launch of the Web site, the company "only spread out as far as my sales people walked." But Duckett was soon fielding requests from Arizona and other far-off places.

She has since partnered with Star Marketing to maintain the Web site because as the business has grown she doesn't have time to invest an hour or so a day on the site, "but the content is mine and the passion is still mine. They've just taken over being the presenter."

Duckett is also fascinated with Generation Y's romance with all things digital. She sees this group of youngsters as "tomorrow's purchasing agents."

"While Generation X may pick up a phone book to research, members of Gen Y don't know what a phone book is," she said. "If they need to find a Krispy Kreme, they're on the Internet right away."

She has developed her Web site to try to speak to this new generation. "I know that this is the means by which they're going to find me...I think a well-rounded marketing package is important...and that may include traditional print...but a Web presence is becoming the be-all and end-all," of a company's marketing strategy, Duckett said.

"The minute Adam and I realized that we could utilize the technology out there, our world really opened up."

The company is highly successful now but has had to craft new strategies in this sour economy. It's rolling out a new rental division, enabling customers to buy products for the short-term rather than requiring them to to make purchases flat-out.

Tapping into State Resources

Sew What? also has capitalized on state programs like the Small Manufacturers Advantage initiative that's run by California Manufacturing Technology Consulting, a private, non-profit consulting firm that receives federal funding from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. MEP has offices in every state, but the program's funding is perennially in jeopardy.

Sew What? founder Megan Duckett. (Courtesy of Sew What?)

The program helps manufacturers with less than $15 million in annual revenue become more efficient. "They've really helped train us on how to be more efficient on the manufacturing floor," said Duckett. "We've learned things we never would have without going to school for shop floor manufacturing...and I went to the school of hard knocks."

Duckett hopes that in five years she will be able to say to herself: "I have achieved something innovative, changed lives and employed people. I hope I'll always have that entrepreneurial spirit...I am a dreamer as my grandfather used to call me."

By Sharon McLoone |  June 24, 2008; 2:49 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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