Forbes Magazine’s nomination of College Hill Custom Threads for their first-ever Main Street Awards, which honor exceptional achievements of small businesses, could not be more deserving. In particular, College Hill is nominated for Best Brick-and-Mortar Adoption of E-Commerce, a daunting proposition most local and regional businesses never even entertain.
A Business Is Born
College Hill Custom Threads began about six years ago as a fly-by-night outfit headquartered in a small space above The Coug, one of Pullman’s favorite local bars. At the time, Tony Poston, College Hill’s dynamic founder, and president was managing a few bands – doing everything from booking tours to securing merchandise. He and his partners realized they would be much better off printing their own t-shirts and the like, and thus a business was born.
Time To Expand
College Hill soon expanded to providing merchandise for student groups and organizations at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, with Tony managing orders on Post-It notes and a few whiteboards. Spurred by the local success, Tony and his partners couldn’t see any reason not to expand their ambitions, so they took College Hill on the road.
30 Flights In 30 Days
At the time, Jet Blue had a promotion where for $700 you could fly as often as you liked for an entire month. Tony logged 30 flights in 30 days, hitting every college campus they could from Seattle to Tallahassee, handing out flyers, building relationships, and living out of his backpack. People thought they were hilarious, and Tony clearly made an impression, as they still retain a fair number of customers from their early barnstorming days.
From One Room To 400 Campuses
But just how does one go from a room above a bar and madcap sales adventures to a proven contender in the crowded realm of online shopping, with customers on over 400 college campuses nationwide? According to Tony, the key is creating a remarkable customer experience that cuts through the anonymity of normal E- Commerce and provides a feel that you can only get from a homegrown business.
Becoming The “T-Shirt Guy”
Fashioning such an experience is no small task, but for Tony, it’s simple, and it all comes down to forging relationships. 90% of College Hill’s business is from returning clients, so it’s not just about making that initial sale, but much more about building a connection, becoming his clients’ “T-Shirt Guy”, as Tony says.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done, as in one instance where College Hill made a mistake, thinking that a client in Boston needed an order on Friday, when they needed them on a Thursday. With no shipping option available, Tony wrangled the order himself on a last-minute flight and delivered the order personally and just in time.
Building Your Business – One Individual At A Time
As College Hill grew, it has retained this same adherence to hands-on customer service. Each person who enters a request for information from College Hill receives a personalized response from an account manager who will be on call for them day or night. College Hill then works with their customers to understand what the purpose is for each order, and how they can work together to deliver something unique and personal that fits the stated purpose.
Building Your Team – One Individual At A Time
With a fabulously talented team of designers and consultants, the results are unimpeachable, but that, again, is secondary to Tony. He credits his staff and their similar dedication and drive with College Hill’s current and continued success. To a person, they share the same core values of community, philanthropy, and personal and professional growth.
In order to foster such an environment, Tony has shifted away from a traditional bonus structure to a more constant form of reward and recognition, where an employee will be compensated for anything from running in a 5k to writing a synopsis on a particularly impactful book they’ve read to attending a conference on emerging technology. If it makes you a happier healthier person, Tony believes it will make you a better, more productive person, and this will pay great dividends both in how employees interact with each other and the clients they serve.
All For One And One For All
As a management rule, Tony would never ask any of his employees to do anything he is not personally capable of doing. Unfortunately for them, it appears there is nothing out of the realm of possibility for Tony when it comes to delivering for his customers.
There’s Always Room For Improvement
College Hill Custom Threads is far from finished, as Tony has set his sights on becoming the #1 source for collegiate apparel in the country. Given what we’ve seen so far, it would be foolish to think he and his team would settle for anything less, and even more so to bet against them.