In Episode 28, Patrick speaks with Kyle Carpenter, founder of SolidSurface.com
Listen to this episode to learn:
- How a business that started for DIYers grew to support fabricators
- How customers look for construction professionals
- How fabricators can offload small vanity jobs
- What’s an API, and why should the industry care
Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes… and please let us know what you think! You can leave comments for this show on the StoneTalk Facebook page or on this site.
If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for counter-top fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for counter-top fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley.
Today, I’m chatting with Kyle Carpenter from SolidSurface.com. Let’s give him a call.
Kyle: Hello. This is Kyle.
Patrick: Hey, Kyle. Patrick from Moraware. How are you?
Kyle: Hi, Patrick. I’m good. How are you doing?
Patrick: Good. Is this is still a good time to chat?
Kyle: It is.
Patrick: All right. Well, let’s jump in then. Tell me about SolidSurface.com. How did that come about? What do you do?
Kyle: Well, SolidSurface.com, I’ll tell you the background is in a second but basically what we are is a marketplace for solid surface material, and tooling, and accessories, and sinks, etc. We also have ProFinder to find contractors nationally who are in the counter-top business.
Our start and how we got started is a little more interesting. I always try to keep it short, it ends up being long, but basically your run-in-the-mill garage and eBay story. That is over 10 years ago, my father who’s also my partner in the business, he’s a university professor, and he’s also a skilled craftsman and woodworker by night and the weekend. He watched a counter-top contractor come in and saw a kitchen in his kitchen.
While watching them, being a woodworker, he noticed that many of the characteristics of working with solid surface carried over to woodworking. Using cordless circular saws with carbide bit blades and just gluing it up and sanding down the seam, and now you have this totally seamless product. He was interested in it and he asked the contractor if he had any scraps that he could play with. He said, “Come on down to the shop, we got a bunch.”
Needless to say, I think the very next day my father came home with palettes of solid surface scraps in his hand. From there, he created numerous surfaces, basically upgraded his whole shop with using the remnants, gluing together the garage, the various kitchens for family members, and bathrooms, and really just had some fun with it but it’s also such great material.
The next step is I actually ended up moving into their shop while I was saving for my own house. There I was, surrounded by all of his woodworking tools and stacks of solid surface material. I don’t have any background with solid surface per se but I certainly am familiar with tools. While I was living there, my father challenged me to create stuff while I was out there with the solid surface materials.
It wasn’t too long after 9/11 so I ended up creating this wall hanging art piece of the void of the Twin Towers. It was cool. It has the ghostly feel to it. Naturally, I made a guitar body. Who wouldn’t do that if they had access to tools and material, and then started searching the web to see what other people were doing. I found out that people were actually selling cutting boards on eBay and so I started selling cutting boards on eBay, making a little bit of money.
I mean it wasn’t going to make me rich or anything. I had a regular day job. But then when I started seeing that other people were posting these pieces of material that they didn’t have to cut or do anything and were making five times as much, I thought why am I putting this work into a cutting board. I love the craftsman side of it. I mean I like working with my hands but may as well make more money if we’re going to do this. So I started listing the remnants on eBay and they were selling and we were scratching our heads going, “Who’s buying this stuff around the country?”
Kyle: With my background, my skillset is kind of everything digital media and marketing and programming so I created a website and listed all of the products, all the material we had. Just to point people to it from eBay to say, “Hey, look we’ve got more stuff,” and stuff started selling. It was fascinating to us, and more and more started selling. We actually had to start going out of the state to buy more material. For the most part, people were finding us online saying, “Hey, do you buy a remnant material?”
Patrick: Who is buying it? Were they DYI-ers or who are your customers?
Kyle: You know, it’s definitely across the board. I mean in the beginning, definitely, it was largely DIY but you definitely saw contractors finding the product and buying them if they only needed a small piece of something. We definitely started to see some of the repair shops coming to us because we’d have products, not only just products but products that were no longer in production. We became a pretty valuable source for repair shops. And that’s just buying off of eBay and our website way back in the day. But then, the manufacturers took notes that we have this website. We were really occupying most of the search engine space at that time so they saw us going, “Hey, who are these people selling this product?”
But there’s also a downturn and they saw us as a possible channel to move some of their product and in particular, their discontinued product and their overstock. Over time, it increased but we started working with manufacturers and their distributors to help move their discontinued and overstock, which I would say that was the pivotal moment for us, is when we started working with manufacturers to move material, move it within the industry, move it to channels that never even knew the material existed or didn’t have access to the material. Of course, natural product expansions, or sinks, adhesives, braces, router bits, and all of the other tools that go along with it.
But, you know, it was just really, we were presented with opportunities. We had to manage those opportunities but we just kept getting hitting with, “Do you want to work with us, do you want to work with us, do you want to buy our material?” We took those and picked and choose which ones we wanted to pursue.
Fast forward many years later, now we’ve got basically…I think we’re at seven fully stocked product lines working with the manufacturers and their distributors. We’ve got thousands of sheets of overstock and discontinued. A lot of it, we stock ourselves in Tucson, Arizona, which is where our warehouse is, and a large portion of it is also being shipped directly from different fulfillment centers or existing distributors.
Patrick: How are you different from another distributor? I mean you’re different but you pretty much are a distributor as well now, are you?
Kyle: You describe it as a distributor. The product that we stock…I guess it depends on how you define distributor. But the products that we stock in our warehouse are primarily the overstock, soft, remnant, discontinued products that we’ll buy out and store locally.
Now, when we’re working on the premium stock lines, I mean we’re working with the manufacturers and we’re working with their distributors. That’s more of a marketplace and if you think of…a typical distributor has sales people. Those sales people go out and they make commissions. A typical marketplace like say, Amazon, or numerous other marketplaces where people can post their own products, Amazon takes a commission. We’re really more of a model of we make the money on the commission and we’re doing the sales and we’re a channel for people to purchase products through.
Patrick: Good point. That makes sense. What else do you offer for fabricators? You mentioned that an end customer can go to the site and look for a Pro so that’s something. First of all, how does one get to be a Pro on that list that could get referred by your site?
Kyle: Yeah. If you go to the ProFinder on our site…in the top right-hand corner is the link to the ProFinder which we need to make a little more visible. But when you go there, there’s a link to create your listing and anybody…We obviously make sure that they’re a real company doing business. If they’re part of an association like ISFA, they’ll get recognition of being affiliated with them.
We have a number of attributes that we actually store in our ProFinder so that people ultimately, will be able to search on. Like if you’re looking for somebody that has a thermo forming machine or somebody that works with stone and solid surface, they’ll be able to filter on those attributes. Those are attributes that you don’t necessarily get from other types of ProFinder services that are out there.
We really want it to be unique to the industry and provide value for finding contractors in the industry. Most people who are just a consumer may not need all those additional attributes. They just want to find somebody who can build them a counter-top and we say buy from one of these guys instead of going to maybe a big box store. We’re really trying to promote contractors as much as we can through our site. As far as…
Patrick: And that doesn’t cost you anything?
Kyle: …so we’ve got the Pro…what’s that?
Patrick: And that doesn’t cost you anything? A professional can just go there and register on the site?
Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. Anybody can register. It’s free. We have an upgrade. In case we upgrade and…you’ll get additional functionality like linking back to your site because as you probably know, links are treated like gold in some cases with search engines. Yeah, so there’s paid upgrades but really…
Patrick: But there’s little risk anyways so no reason not to go there and check it out.
Kyle: Oh, there’s absolutely no risk. I mean if you think of anybody searching by the zip code and show me contractors within five miles, it’s going to show you who’s over in five miles whether or not they’re a paid subscriber. But we really don’t push the paid subscription so there’s plenty of room out there for people.
Kyle: There’s the ProFinder but then we also have ProAccounts and that’s something…
Kyle: We’re actually working on making a little bit more clear…is that we do have professional accounts and there’s a separate area when you go to register on our website that has preferred pricing. Like anybody who’s in a business-to-business field, you have to evaluate the volume, you have to evaluate how big the company is to determine what kind of buying power they have, so you go to register as a professional versus the standard registration which is for your average consumer.
Patrick: Interesting. That’s very cool. Thinking about your consumers who visit your site, do they cluster into certain parts of the United States or are they pretty well spread out?
Kyle: I would say it follows the density of the populations. It’s very, very, very much spread out. I mean I could say, “Yeah, the northwest, the northeast and the southeast and the southwest,” but those are where the denser populations are. Obviously, in some central areas, there’s heavy density. Yeah, looking at a map, it’s everywhere.
Patrick: I was wondering, there’s no patterns that emerged saying, “Oh, more people in the Midwest do DIY than people on the west coast,” or anything like that. It’s just spread out.
Kyle: You know, it’s funny you say that. I mean when we try to identify…it’s hard to track some of this stuff down but we might have a feeling that bothers a lot of people. Everybody is buying in the northwest, and then you go and actually look at the data and you’re being deceived. I don’t know why.
Kyle: I mean, saying that, we have some pretty good software in the back end to show us what’s happening with our data and orders and customers, and so we can have a better understanding. But even having all that information, it’s still hard to really figure out what you want unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.
Patrick: Yeah. Yeah, and sometimes, it’s always interesting to look for patterns but it doesn’t mean you’re going to find any.
Patrick: Most fabricators are regional or geographically constrained, and so it’s always interesting to me when someone is not, to see if there are any interesting patterns that can be educational for the people who are geographically constrained. At the moment, it sounds like no. What about international? Do you do international business or all in the U.S.?
Kyle: If we do international, it will be typically people handling it from a freight forwarder locally. They’re responsible to…basically, from the freight forwarder on, and we’ll make sure that we get it to the freight forwarder. But we do ship into Canada and Mexico. We have stuff going to Hawaii and Alaska. They’re not international but they are off continent which makes shipping a very heavy, large piece of material an interesting proposition, and getting it on there safely on top of that so…
Patrick: Right, right. Let’s talk about solid surface itself. You obviously, very fond of the material and dove right into it and got to enjoy the craftsmanship of it and liked the results. Have you seen customer perceptions of solid surface change since you started the business?
Kyle: That’s an interesting question. I like to believe that it is such a great material. Maybe I’m biased because you know, —
Patrick: You are. [laughs]
Patrick: But I think it’s personally a little underrated.
Kyle: It’s a cool material.
Kyle: Yeah, it’s a neat material. Honestly, I would like to see, and actually we are seeing it more and more and more. If you look at some of the major manufacturers, you’re seeing them promote it in ways that are really creative. You’re starting to see some industrial design use. I have a design background and so I really can appreciate the industrial design side of using this material. I mean it’s a medium, right?
Kyle: You know, it’s kind of pigeonholed into counter-top surfaces but it really gets so flexible and literally flexible, but it’s a versatile product. I think looking at what the manufacturers are promoting these days are some of those characteristics. Look at what you can do with this, what you can’t do with stone and other products. You’re seeing lamps. You’re seeing just shapes in different ways. I think from that perspective I would say, “Yes, it’s coming back with a different perspective on it so.”
Patrick: Branding is a part of that. My perception is that most end customers only know Corian. Is that what you find as well? Do you have to educate customers on the category or by the time they get to you, do customers understand that solid surface is more than just Corian?
Kyle: I think, in general, you’re right. I mean even just having conversations with people who are not in the industry, “What solid surface, are you familiar with Corian?”
Kyle: “Oh, okay. Yeah.” That’s how the conversation goes, and then enlighten them that there’s all these other competing brands just like any industry. It kind of opens their eyes. For people coming to our site, literally Patrick, it’s all over the place because you have people who are searching for the product on search engines that are searching for an LG HI-MACS. They get to our site from there. And then you have other people who are searching for Corian but maybe they are now exposed to other brands. So there’s no question, and we’re close to 50,000 visitors per month right now, unique visitors per month.
Patrick: Wow, nice, good for you.
Kyle: Yeah. Of those 50,000 people, we would like to believe that this is a platform for these major brands to promote their brand and to get exposure where they might not otherwise be getting exposure.
Patrick: That’s cool. Now, I did notice on your website you have a vanity top configurators. If I’m looking at that right, if I wanted a vanity for my bathroom, I could just order it exactly how I want it right on your site and it would just show up and I’d install it, right?
Kyle: Yeah, that’s exactly correct.
Patrick: That one is specifically Corian and not the other brands. Why did you settle on just Corian for those?
Kyle: Largely for the sake of simplicity and just availability of fabricating it. Because when you’re building a program to offer everything under the sun, (a) it complicates things, and we try to keep it simple for the end consumer. Even though we have a lot of options, we try to present them as simply as possible. So we’re looking to expand is what I can say.
Patrick: Interesting. Okay. Is that successful? Do you sell a lot of vanities with that program?
Kyle: I don’t know what your definition of a lot is but I mean, definitely, we’re pleased with the sales of it, yeah.
Patrick: Cool. Are you making them yourselves or do you work with external fabricators to get that done?
Kyle: Yeah, we’re working with the wholesale fabricators, contracting out to them, to build them for us. I mean we don’t, ourselves, necessarily want to get into the fabrication business because there’s so many amazing ones out there.
Kyle: That gets backs to our ProFinder. When we have people coming to us who are maybe interesting in doing a project themselves, we’ll say, “Look, this might be out of your realm,” or if it they don’t to know how to work a saw, it’s, “Go find a contractor,” and, “Here’s some great ones in your area.” I mean that’s our mentality. We want to promote fabricators. We don’t want to try to compete in that sense but…
Even with the vanity top program, we recognize that a lot of fabricators don’t want to build small vanities. So that’s kind of where the hole that we found, was that people were having problems getting contractors to make them vanity tops that were reasonably priced that were custom. Big box stores charge a lot, and so that’s the opportunity that we saw, and trying to help answer that question so.
Patrick: Makes a lot of sense. I know recently, you ran into Harry from Moraware and he told me that you have a new API, the surface net API. What is that about?
Kyle: Yeah, yeah. Harry, it was great talking with Harry.
Kyle: Just to give it a little bit of background. The API, for anybody who’s listening who doesn’t know, application program interface typically used by programmers, web developers, etc. It’s basically connecting data from two different systems, right? So for us, the history of the API that we’re working on to make more public is that, in the early days when we started listing the inventory, we were seeing the same colors over and over and over. We had to create a separate back-end system to manage all of the brands, to manage all of the colors, and manage all of the attributes. What we didn’t really realize at the time we were creating was this great library. Especially when we started connecting the adhesives because we have an adhesive selector and that adhesive selector is all on the back end empowered by our relational databases which ultimately is presented as an API.
Early on, we created this library that was used for our own inventory system, and then we started basically creating APIs that served the data to our own applications. As we continued, and making relations to other products, we started thinking, “Well, this could be of use to other people and so how would it be useful to other people?” And that’s completely up in the air. I think that’s the thing about APIs, is that it leaves it open to interpretations. I could think of a thousand different reasons why it could be valuable to say, programmatically, grab me all of the Corian swatches and all of the matching attributes on a real time basis and import them into a different system, or not even import but just display them transparently on your own system.
Kyle: I mean part of the conversation with Harry is, “Can we integrate an API like this which not only gives exposure to the library of all the colors…” And keep in mind, not just solid surface but we actually have…even though we’re not selling quartz, I’ll say yet. Even though we’re not selling quartz yet, we have all of the quartz products, the majority of the quartz brands and colors in our back end system, a lot of the decorative surfacing system we have in our system. We have this mass of information and it’s buried right now and we want to expose it and work with people to expose it for good.
Patrick: I think on our end to…
Kyle: Oh good.
Patrick: …connect those dots a little bit. We have an API, although ours is a little bit stale. It’s something that we would like to breathe life into at some point. It’s just hard to find priority for that. But ultimately, if you had a great API and we had a great API, that would allow customers to hire IT people for reasonable costs that could link the two systems together. For example, to do something interesting, like we don’t help customers with their actual websites but we do…some customers have used our API to see what they have in inventory and put that on their website, kind of an interesting use case.
Well, if you’re dealing with overstock material especially, I mean stock material as well, but at a minimum with the overstock material…especially for customers who are price conscious, if they want to see, “What can I do to update my kitchen,” and see in real time, “Oh, here’s a color that based on the square footage I entered into this fabricator’s website, I could get my kitchen redone for half as much as I thought it could.” Because they’re going to see…you know, they’re pulling this material from SolidSurface.com that is incredibly inexpensive because it’s overstocked or remnants or whatever.
That’s not simple but when you have those APIs set up, it at least makes it possible. Simple and possible are two very different things. But when it’s possible, then the leading edge companies can do things like that, and then eventually someone creates solutions. Maybe someone will create a solution for fabricators to host their websites with where those things are already linked together, and then it does becomes simple. But until you expose those for the market to play around with, there’s nothing they can do.
Kyle: Exactly, and I agree, and I’ve seen it happen in lots of other industries. I mean as a digital media guy myself and dangerous enough with the programming, APIs are really neat. When you learned of them and then when I learned of them back in the earlier days of companies like Flicker, if you remember, exposed their API to all these images and it was like just better than sliced bread at the time.
Patrick: Twitter, Facebook, all these companies are…
Kyle: Oh, yeah.
Patrick: …things are built that you would never imagine could be built or why they would be useful, but until you expose those APIs, they can’t happen.
Kyle: Exactly. And so, I have a kind of, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality about it.
Kyle: I also feel like our industry, technologically, is a little bit behind which is natural. You’d expect being the kind of the product type. I mean both of our companies, being more in tech space, I feel like we can pioneer this now and help move some of this forward, that it will enable other people to move faster within the industry if we can help expose some of these libraries. Because I think there’s opportunity even though I’m not exactly sure what some of that opportunity is.
Patrick: Well, I’m going to give a shootout to a couple of our partners. DataBridge Integrations…
Patrick: …which used to be known as BPN Systems. I interviewed them on the show. They pretty much carved off a separate business to focus on these kinds of integrations because they’ve been getting enough interest from people who want to link systems together in various ways and fabricator’s choice as well.
There are other key systems besides ours like SlabSmith, and systems from the saw manufacturers like Park, etc. It’s a leap of faith but there is to a certain degree, and if you build it, they will come aspect to these, that if all of us can keep evolving and expose what we can do, then companies like DataBridge Integrations and Fabricator’s Choice can take those and bring them together.
Even individuals also and that partner page, a lady named Danielle Sherman, I was shocked at the solution she created with Excel using some things we exposed. When you give customers easy ways to get at that data, people do wild and crazy thing with them which I think is pretty awesome.
Kyle: Absolutely, and the space that we’re talking about, it’s not limited to the contractors either. If we’re talking about exposing a surfacing library API, I mean there are a few out there but not coming from the same background as we are, I guess. We’re providing swatches to architects and designers, let’s say, and so being able to expose all these surfacing tools to architects, designers, and the companies that support them, again, build it and somebody will come somewhere, hopefully.
But I have all the faith in the world to continue pursuing it and…some of the conversations…actually, at the meeting I spoke with Harry at was, “How can you get SolidSurface.com in front of me more?” Because it’s not part of our purchasing process and we understand that it’s not necessarily part of the purchasing process. We don’t want to bombard people with email. They get enough of course. How do you make it part of it?
Integrations of our inventory into systems like Moraware, for instance, or some of the other ones out there, to have an extension or something like that where you could just quickly search the inventory right there in the interface. The only way you can do that is through the API. I mean that’s the angle we’re looking at as well, and hopefully something like that maybe will come to fruition but…
Patrick: And here’s an idea and I hesitate to say this because we actually think of a lot of ideas, we just can’t implement hardly any of them. I rarely share mine, since our customers have so many, why would I share mine? But here’s just an idea. It’s not like we’re going to build this, okay.
But when you said that, it made me think of an interactive quote. In CounterGo right now, we create a quote and print it out and hand it to the customer, or fabricators print it out and hand it to a customer, and they go home and they compare it. How cool would it be if it were an interactive quote where they…you know, yeah, they could print it out but they would also email a link to the customer where the customer could choose the material after the fact and including real time supply from various places.
Based on some sort of formula that the fabricator might put in there, they could see, “Oh, here’s an actual material that I could choose, here’s the quote,” and change the price on the fly. I don’t know if anyone would want that or do that but I’m a geek so I think it would be cool. But to tell you the truth, I doubt most homeowners would think it would be cool. But those are the sorts of things that someday, people are going to want an app or whatever.
Kyle: But there’s this subtle…
Patrick: Stupid idea but it would be fun.
Kyle: …value to that that…no, I think it’s a great idea. There’s a subtle value to that that people, as consumers, don’t necessarily realize and there’s…that you’re doing something that not others are necessarily able to do because they’re restricted. You know, we should get together weekly and talk about this stuff because we can geek out together, or maybe a separate podcast but…
Patrick: You know what I’m going to do, I’m going to create a slack channel and then it can be you, me…there’s another guy who does some stone stuff, not solid surface but mostly stone, who have some really interesting ideas as well. We’ll just have an ongoing conversation of ideas like this so that we don’t drop off the mat.
Kyle: Yeah. That sounds great.
Patrick: I think we need to do that. Cool. Any advice for fabricators before we wrap up?
Kyle: For fabricators…
Patrick: Most our listeners are fabricators so that’s…
Kyle: Well, I was thinking of stone. I mean I would say keep an eye on what we’re doing because we’re constantly adding and working with new distributors, new materials. 2016, we’re looking to expand into a lot of different interesting things.
Kyle: We’re proud the Internet Retailer just recently named us one of the top 300 B2B eCommerce companies to work with.
Patrick: Nice. That’s cool.
Kyle: We’re in the top 1000, just general e-retailers. Yeah, I mean we’re trying to really stay on top of this stuff and stay ahead of it and really, like we said, I mean, help push our industry into technology. We really want to do it, I hate the word but, transparently. I mean we want to work with your existing distributor. We don’t want to replace them. We want to work with them and help process these products through them.
If we can get to that, I would say we’ve succeeded. I mean if we’re not adding value to anybody, then there’s really no point. But if we can add value and if you have ideas on how we can add value, then please bring them to us because I would say that’s why we exist, to make your life easier. How can we make your purchasing department’s life a lot easier, and how many POs do they process in a day, and if you can do them all in one, you know, is that good?
Kyle: I would say, ultimately, tell us what’s useful and we’ll respond, definitely.
Patrick: Yeah. We will definitely have to stay in touch. This is very cool. Well, thank you, Kyle. I will send you a note when this is up to date but I’m sure we’ll continue the conversation.
Kyle: Awesome. It’s good to talk to you too, Patrick, and yeah, let’s not be strangers, for sure.
Patrick: All right, take care.
Kyle: All right. Bye-bye.
Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for counter-top fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk on iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonetalkshow on Twitter.
StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for counter-top fabricators.
I’m your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.