What’s the best way to market your small fabrication shop? It comes down to one simple concept, “word of mouth.” It doesn’t matter whether your shop is in Arizona, New Hampshire or New Zealand, the approach doesn’t change—reputation is the most significant factor in growing a successful business.
“What works is some guy talking to his buddy in front of his garage when they’re having a beer,” says Vorei Frost Reeves, owner of In Stitches Customs, Lake Havasu City, Ariz. “Word of mouth is its own machine and will continue to happen provided we continue to do good work.”
That good work recently won In Stitches Customs a 2022 MFA Fabrication Award of Excellence in the Marine Exterior Upholstery Category and an Award of Distinction in the Upholstery Category.
In the popular vacation community of Lake Havasu City, boats are built for high-speed fun. Their owners like them flashy, which means a high demand for the kind of custom upholstery work In Stitches Customs provides. Upholstery is just one of the company’s services. It also does biminis, boat covers, carpet, convertible tops, stereo systems, and metal and fiberglass fabrication. The company, which recently expanded to Hurricane, Utah, has four employees in addition to Frost Reeves and her husband, Jason.
When Frost Reeves started her business in 2000, her best advertisement was her own boat, which she custom upholstered. She and her husband would take the boat out, meet up with other boaters, and, invariably, the subject of who did their interior came up. They also handed out koozies imprinted with the business’s logo to keep their company top of mind. She also advertised on the local radio station and still does today.
Hits and misses
Frost Reeves says one successful marketing strategy was joining the Lake Havasu Marine Association. Her company was one of the first small boat businesses to join and exhibit at the annual boat show, which has grown to be one of the largest in the region. While it rarely results in direct sales, it’s a good way to connect with potential customers.
The company also has a website and a Facebook page. Similar to the boat show, Frost Reeves says that while these platforms alone don’t generate sales, they are a first step to showcase the company’s work. “It’s the beginning of the relationship, but it doesn’t sell the product. Usually, a phone call and a meeting with the client is what sells it,” she explains.
A contractor maintains In Stitches Customs’ website and Facebook page. Using her digital marketing expertise, she positioned the company to appear in the top three Google search results. Frost Reeves says she did try a service that promised her website would be first in Google searches but she found it costly, and it didn’t change her ranking.
Speaking of what hasn’t worked, Frost Reeves says that she has tried pennysavers and ad coupon magazines, but they didn’t generate business. And while at one time the phone book was key, it’s no longer useful in the digital age.
“We make a habit of asking people how they found out about us, which is an important strategy,” says Frost Reeves. “It’s gone from the phone book to an internet search, and we are one of the first to come up. They go to our website, which entices them enough to call.”
Like Vorei Frost Reeves, Patricia Wallace’s first strategy to market her upholstery services was to show off the custom work she did on her own boat. The owner of Bear Paw Custom Design in Portsmouth, N.H., recalls that when she first started out, her work was on display on her boat at the local marina. The dockmaster started referring customers to her and as people got to know her work, they’d stop her to chat about it.
“My husband would get upset with me because it would take me 40 minutes to get from the parking lot to the boat,” she says. “I told him I can’t afford not to talk to these people.”
Wallace, who left the corporate world (she was a vice president and controller for a financial services company) to start Bear Paw Custom Design, agrees that word of mouth is her most powerful marketing tool, accounting for more than 90 percent of her customers. It’s kept her in business for 30 years doing upholstery for marine, home, restaurant and commercial clients.
Bear Paw Custom Design doesn’t have a website or social media pages. Wallace does rely on Yelp and Google for customer reviews. Now semiretired, she no longer advertises because she has enough work to keep her busy.
You’re as good as your last job
Matt Forbes specializes in auto upholstery in the custom car market in his one-man shop, Matt’s Motortrimming, in Havelock North, New Zealand. He also does some marine and small aircraft work.
His skills won him two 2021 IFAI International Achievement (IAA) Awards: one in the Marine Interior Upholstery category and the other in the Technical Miscellaneous category for a Motion Force 1 Simulator.
Forbes started doing upholstery because he’s always liked cars, especially muscle cars, but didn’t want to be a mechanic. His target market is high-end builds and show-quality interiors. His customers come to him primarily through word of mouth.
“I find that your last job leads to your next job. People see what you’ve done and talk about it,” says Forbes. “If you do a good job and try to exceed expectations, it pays off with word of mouth.”
He points to an interior he did years ago for a Chevy Chevelle. The owner wanted an understated look in black leather that was original to the car. Forbes says it wasn’t a particularly elaborate job, but it was a nice, clean interior. It led to a call from the owner of another local shop who had seen the Chevelle and was impressed. That one interior broke the ice with a well established tradesman who asked Forbes to help him at his shop. It turned into a significant contract that Forbes has had for nine years.
Social media savvy
Matt’s Motortrimming doesn’t have a website, but Forbes does use social media and thinks it plays a role in raising his profile.
“If someone hears about you from a friend, they will look up your Facebook and Instagram and see some of the jobs you’ve done,” he explains. He’s tried some paid social media posts but hasn’t seen a big return for the money.
Forbes is looking to break into high-end motorcycle seats, and he is redoing the interior of his shop truck to demonstrate his capabilities. He used Facebook to create interest in the project, posting three different designs and asking people to vote. Forbes got good feedback and chose an elaborate design in Barbarossa Leather. He believes his best marketing option will be showing at events such as the Beach Hop hot rod meet, which can attract more than 100,000 people.
Julie Swiler is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.