There’s a saying that chance favors the prepared. Sometimes that preparation can take some surprising forms. Just ask Steven Wayne, founder and operator at Southern Stitch Canvas & Upholstery LLC in Gulfport, Miss.
When he was growing up, Wayne was much more interested in car audio systems than upholstery. When he landed a sales job at a car dealership right out of high school, however, that three-year career set him on a new course when his manager got into aftermarket leather installations in vehicles.
“Deep down I knew I wanted more than just a job and wanted to contribute more to the greater good,” says Wayne, 37. “I just didn’t know what that would lead to.”
When Wayne had the opportunity to get into the upholstery business for himself, he almost choked when he learned he’d need a $1,500 sewing machine. He forged ahead anyway and started Southern Stitch in 2013 at age 27.
Less than nine months after opening, he outgrew his home office and rented a 1,000-square-foot facility for $375 a month. “I was so nervous to sign that contract,” Wayne recalls.
By 2016, Southern Stitch needed more space. Wayne looked into buying a building that had stood vacant in Gulfport for a while. “As soon as I stepped inside, I knew this place was exactly what I needed,” Wayne says.
Five local banks didn’t agree, however, and turned down his loan request.
While Wayne could have doubted himself, he didn’t let thoughts like “Maybe they’re right” or “Maybe it’s too soon” stop him. He contacted a sixth bank, which approved the loan. “I’m competitive and knew I could make this work,” Wayne says. “I give 110% effort with anything I touch.”
Today, Southern Stitch includes a 6,000-square-foot facility on 3 acres, including a first-class showroom. The team specializes in marine fabrication, aftermarket leather seats for the automotive industry and commercial work, from patio enclosures to restaurant booths to awnings. Wayne cites 10 lessons that have helped him to create a thriving business without sacrificing work-life balance. “I’ve experienced 10 years of ups and downs and have learned a lot.”
1. Be willing to say no
When Wayne opened his business in a spare bedroom of his home, he was giddy the first time a potential customer called Southern Stitch. “My goal in the early days was simple—just be successful. I’d try anything that involved a needle and thread.” He learned, however, that wasn’t the best approach. “Don’t water down your skills and the trade by trying to get all the work. Time is your most valuable asset.”
Instead of expanding his business, Wayne shrunk his focus. “I’m a craftsman and don’t mass-produce items. I specialize in things you can’t buy from Amazon or big-box stores.”
2. Learn from every experience
Wayne started refining his entrepreneurial skills when he was a salesman at the car dealership. “I learned to ask questions and focus on the customers’ needs; plus, I got comfortable working with big dollar figures.” Self-evaluation is also essential if you want to work more efficiently, Wayne adds. “Ask questions like, ‘Could I have eliminated that in-person meeting?’ and ‘Should I have taken that phone call, or is it a better use of my time to keep sewing?’”
3. Educate your customers
Some prospects assume that Southern Stitch orders cushions and other finished products from suppliers. “Customers often have an unrealistic sense of what’s involved in creating the finished product,” Wayne says. “They don’t always realize how we craft high-quality products that are built to last.”
For any size shop, Wayne recommends breaking up a project into stages, not only to streamline the workflow but to help educate customers about why your products are a good investment. “When clients ask about where their project is in our work-in-progress queue, we can tell them what department it’s currently in,” Wayne says. “This helps customers understand there’s more to our skills than what they may assume.”
4. Blend the best of the traditional and the new
“We’re a hybrid shop, with traditional, old-school patterns and techniques—except for flooring—and we also invest in technology,” says Wayne, who uses CAD software, CNC equipment and 2D and 3D scanning. “For the most part, we capture our projects digitally for repeatability and cutting on our CNC. You can still use these processes for hand cutting as well.”
5. Communicate early and often
Wayne and his team communicate with clients throughout the project, not just at the beginning and the end. “Giving customers regular updates with pictures and videos really puts them at ease with the lead time,” Wayne says. “It also helps us educate customers about why they’re getting their money’s worth. Plus, this communication buys you time.”
6. Streamline your systems
Scheduling can be a challenge for businesses like Southern Stitch. That’s why Wayne follows an organized system each
week. Monday is devoted to administrative work in the office, from developing estimates for customers to handling bookwork. Tuesday through Thursday is prime time for working in the shop. Friday is geared toward on-site work for customers. This efficient schedule allows Southern Stitch to operate with Wayne, and two other team members, one full-time and one part-time.
7. Go mobile
On-site, aftermarket leather installations in vehicles make up about 50% of Southern Stitch’s business, thanks to Wayne’s mobile installation service. Instead of focusing on classic cars, he specializes in vehicles from 1990 and newer. “I do seats and door panels and can add heated and cooled seats as well,” says Wayne, who serves customers within a two-hour radius of Gulfport.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Wayne enjoys visiting with people and has learned the value of asking others for business advice. “I like to ask successful clients how they got to this point in their life and whether they have any advice for a younger guy like me. About 90% of them are willing to share some great wisdom.”
9. Trim your customer base
One of Wayne’s mentors taught him the value of reassessing his customer base each year. “About 20% of your customers bring you 80% of your business,” Wayne says. “There’s a concept in business called ‘fire your customers’ that allows you to weed out the ones you don’t really want to work with and focus more effort on your better customers.” Don’t rush it or overthink it, Wayne adds. “Working through this process allows you to raise your prices, and it opens up new doors
10. Grow your network
Wayne, who serves on the MFA board, says networking opportunities through the MFA and Advanced Textiles Association (ATA) are invaluable for sharing best practices. “ATA and MFA members have hundreds of years of combined experience. If I’m working on a project and need some advice, there’s someone I can call. We all want to provide the best quality products, make our customers happy and keep our businesses profitable.”
Darcy Maulsby is a freelance writer based in Lake City, Iowa.
SIDEBAR: Creating custom-tailored projects, from awnings for arenas to boat canvas
The work of Steven Wayne and his team at Southern Stitch Canvas & Upholstery LLC in Gulfport, Miss., speaks for itself. Projects range from 177 awnings crafted for Gulfport Premium Outlets to the awnings that span the tunnels in the arena where the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College basketball teams play.
Wayne specializes in custom-tailored projects. One job that was especially gratifying was fabricating a heavy PVC bimini top with a rigid enclosure for a 68-foot Princess Viking. “The owner and captain were so impressed that they said, ‘You’re our guy for our other projects,’” Wayne says.
Sure enough, he got a call from the captain. The request? Work on the owner’s new 98-foot Hatteras in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Being a small-town Mississippi boy and being flown to a boat mega-capital like Fort Lauderdale is a feather in your cap,” says Wayne, who serves on the MFA board. “It’s great to help people with challenging projects and contribute to our industry’s growth.”
Sidebar: Advice for young fabricators
Steven Wayne says the primary challenge for any young person interested in starting a fabrication business is to understand the do’s and don’ts of entrepreneurship in the upholstery business.
“If you don’t like thinking upside down, inside out and backward, you don’t like problem solving or don’t like interacting with lots of different people, this isn’t the job for you. But if you can handle all that and like creating things with your hands, come on board.”