By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
When asked what’s behind the success of his company, Savvy Rest’s Michael Penny doesn’t need to think too long.
“People can copy what we do, but they can’t copy us,” says Penny. “It’s about transparency and a connection with the customer.”
Penny was 51 when he started Savvy Rest (http://www.savvyrest.com), an organic mattress and bedding manufacturer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since the company began operations in 2006, annual revenue has risen from just under $400,000 that year to about $4.1 million in 2010, a 15-18% increase from one year earlier. Inc. magazine’s 2010 list of America’s 500 fastest growing private companies included Savvy Rest, whose distribution network has grown to more than 60 dealers.
Prior to starting Savvy Rest, Penny worked for a futon company and “knew a lot of secrets about the mattress industry” by the time he went out on his own. “For me, it felt like I couldn’t be myself when I was working for someone else,” he says. “I didn’t want to compromise my integrity.”
“I had some sense of how people wanted to be treated,” he adds. “They’re tired of tricks.”
Armed with that insight, Penny adopted a customer service approach for his business that “empowers” his clientele. “I don’t try to sell them on any particular product,” says Penny. “I let them tell me what they need and whether they have certain physical conditions (pregnancy, joint problems, injuries, etc.) that need addressing.”
From 1975 to 1994, Penny lived in an ashram as a yoga instructor. He believes that experience gave him discipline and a capacity to concentrate – two traits that carried over when he left the religious community and entered the business world. “My ability to focus on what needs to get done is helpful,” he says. “But it’s also worked against me at times, as it meant I didn’t spend as much time on other important things as I should have.”
His ability to focus also surfaces on the sales floor. “When I’m talking to a customer, I’m right there with that customer,” he says. “At that moment, no one or nothing else matters.” When training new Savvy Rest salespeople, he emphasizes the importance of making each customer “feel like a neighbor.”
In addition to its customer service, Savvy Rest separates itself from its competition through its approach to marketing. “Our whole marketing plan is to operate under the noise,” says Penny, adding that he wants to avoid any possible comparison between his company and the stereotype of a used-car dealer. “What I want to do,” he says, “is be quiet and have people realize ‘he’s not screaming.’”
Looking ahead, Penny, who’s now 57, wants to explore more ways to advance what he calls “ethical selling.” In addition, Savvy Rest’s future plans call for increasing its product lines, opening its own stores in Philadelphia and other Eastern cities, and promoting its products to more mid-sized retail operations.
For aspiring entrepreneurs over the age of 40, Penny has this advice: ask yourself what your motives are for starting a business and whether you have the wherewithal to see it through.
He also thinks it’s critical to know something about accounting and, for some businesses (such as restaurants, for example), to get practical experience first by working for someone else.
“It isn’t easy,” he says. “You have to be tough and ready to deal with it.”