PostNet Printing Franchise Review: Q&A with Kathy Stokes of Steamboat Springs, CO
PostNet printing franchise “made our lifestyle possible,” Steamboat Springs franchise owner says
Kathy and Terry Stokes are avid skiers who were eager to live near the slopes of Steamboat Springs, Colo., a ski resort town of 12,000 people in the Rockies. So when the former 7-Eleven owners decided to move from Bakersfield, Calif., to Colorado, they looked for businesses that could support their lifestyle. They found PostNet. Sixteen years later, their franchise is going strong, they hit the slopes 30-40 times a year, and they’ve developed a loyal following by providing business services that are especially needed in a town that caters — and markets — to visitors.
What were you doing before PostNet?
We were 7-Eleven franchisees for 11 years and had previous experience in the food service industry. My husband is from Bakersfield, Calif., which is where we had our 7-Eleven, but we had also spent time in Steamboat Springs — we’re ski bums! — and we realized we wanted to come here. It took a few years to make it happen, and it was a very conscious effort to figure out what the best business would be. It’s a gorgeous area, and there are an awful lot of very, very bright people in this town trying to figure out how to live out here. We get a lot of tourists in the winter, so a lot of the business is very seasonal — people who make a ton of money during the winter and then nothing the rest of the year. When we were transitioning out of 7-Eleven, we made a list of everything we wanted: something more technologically stimulating, more normal business hours (7-Eleven was good for us, they’re a great company and great at what they do, but we didn’t want a 24/7 business anymore), something that would allow us to work with computers and learn.
How did you discover PostNet?
We needed to figure out what type of business would be viable in Steamboat. I grabbed an Entrepreneur magazine, and they had an article that led me to a binder full of different business models. We weighed how different business models would would work for us and for Steamboat, and as we researched pack and ship businesses and talked with people in the downtown business community, we realized there was a great need. Their shipping needs weren’t being met, and on the printing side, there was not anybody doing that at all. It was an open market. When we started researching different franchises, we checked out Pak Mail and Mail Boxes Etc. and Parcel Plus, and we got their franchise documents, which as a franchisee you learn is something that you should read very closely. When we saw PostNet’s, we realized that it was a very progressive company that had a strong vision of what it wanted to do, and that they welcomed franchisee ideas. They had the tools to support us, but they also respected that franchisees are in the trenches every day and develop solutions that can benefit the whole system. The relationship between franchisees and headquarters is very good. The level of support we receive for the royalties we pay is a tremendous deal.
Why were you so eager to get to Steamboat Springs?
We love to ski! We love the lifestyle, and we chose PostNet because we knew it would be a viable business in this kind of economy. Steamboat is a world-class resort town of about 12,000 people. We serve some of the visitors during tourist season — people who have a business and need to take care of things when they’re here, and people who want to ship things home — but the clients we mainly serve are all of the businesses that cater to visitors — snowmobile tour operators, ski resort managers, etc. They’re either busy serving visitors, or, during the off-season, they’re marketing to bring new visitors in. That allows our business to be year-round, so we don’t live or die by the snowflake.
PostNet has evolved a lot over the last 15 years. What changes have you seen?
When we opened our store the model was more focused on shipping, but within a short period of time we realized there was more repeat business in printing, so we were a very, very early adopter of the printing model. We started offering printing and marketing services from the beginning.
How would you describe the support offered to franchisees?
It’s excellent. During the recession, sales were down for almost everybody, no matter what company, and we know that affects PostNet’s finances, too, but during the recession, when other companies might have pulled back on support, PostNet did more. They continued to invest in support and technology for franchisees to help us get back on track. All the changes they’ve made — adding support staff; new tools; new lines of business to sell, like websites; new processes — it’s been huge.
One of the greatest things they did was assign us specific support people who check in and make sure our businesses are doing well. Rather than have a support department we could call, they flipped it around and hired a staff of people who will call us and keep an eye out for us, and it’s a dedicated person. We have one-on-one support, and these are folks who are very, very bright. When you call, you have a point of contact. For us, that’s Andy Collins, our business support consultant. He’s been to our store, and he calls to ask if we’re okay. He checks in with us.
PostNet had also spent a lot of time and money and energy on technology to get us noticed by customers and make us easier to find, easier to work with. Our royalties are lower than average, and our support is much higher.
Who is your competition?
We have a UPS Store, and I’m glad I’m a PostNet franchisee because we’re much more able to do what we want with our business. Some franchises tell you exactly what to do, and there is no room to experiment. PostNet has brand standards, and things that are consistent, but we are also free to adjust to our community. PostNet is a business service center. If our community has certain needs and not others, we have the freedom to meet the needs and emphasize different parts of the business.
How valuable are your relationships in the PostNet system?
The collaborative, congenial atmosphere has been a great wonderful surprise and is a reason we’re still here 15 years with no desire to move on. We know the owners. We know that everyone is caring for each other. The conventions are often more like a family reunion — we have to pipe down to concentrate on what we have to learn, all the great stuff they want to teach us.
That’s a huge part of it. You can draw on the support of PostNet, but you can also draw on the support of franchisees. We have a message board and access to each others’ information, so we can get ahold of each other for answers to questions. We also talk with other franchisees who have similar stores, and we discuss challenges and solutions — and that’s like having a chance to sit in a competitor’s store and ask everything you want and learn how to be better. How often do you get that chance?
Dennis and Joan Cogan have been great for getting ideas; Lee and Karen Daniels in New Jersey; John Yovetich in Montana. Dennis is one of the kindest, nicest people you’ll ever meet — a classic example of a franchisee who brings so much to PostNet. The online ordering system that PostNet uses was first found and used by Dennis. He showed it to everyone and headquarters, and now it’s systemwide.
We were fortunate to become a very high-volume store about four years in, but managing the work became a challenge. We figured out a system for dealing with it, and Steve and Brian had us come in during one of the conventions to train others in it, and now that’s being used systemwide. You get heard when you talk to headquarters. They’re trying their darndest to support us, and they’re all ears when they have a franchisee who finds a better way of doing something. That’s the benefit of a franchise if you do it right. There’s a lot of communication here.
How did you weather the recession?
When the recession hit, we all knew the printing industry was changing, just like we knew the shipping industry was changing. There are benefits — digital printing gave us an advantage over big presses. As printing press businesses closed down, our business was growing because digital printing was the way to go. We then watched advent of online order sites from places like VistaPrint that were selling at crazily discounted prices. We could see that would be a challenge, especially since the recession hit our clients, too. When money is flowing, people want to come to us to ease the burden on their staff, but when people all of a sudden were out of money, some were looking for the cheapest possible way to do anything. In our area, that’s what hurt sales during the recession.
We looked at it, and knew that some money would come back, but some of the change would be permanent. So what’s our next thing? We’re a business services company — what are the next group of services that customers need? I was stumped, and PostNet started talking about online services. My first thought was, “I can’t learn to build a website!” But PostNet set it up so we sell the service — we’re the person they know and trust — and we can outsource it to a company that has been vetted and that they trust to do a great job. Customers are very happy. You know, the whole reason we bought a PostNet — we saw that it was flexible and could adjust and grow — keeps being true.
What personality or values do you think are needed to succeed as a PostNet franchise owner?
I think the best franchisees have to be very, very customer-service oriented and outgoing. A cheerleader for our community. They need to be comfortable with and proficient in technology and find that exciting — not scary. They need to be tech-savvy and enjoy that, customer-service oriented with a personality for customer service, and I think it’s important that they understand staffing and are able to be comfortable with hiring, training and building a good team. Your quality of life depends on having good people who can help you with this business. If you’re the only person who knows everything, and you can’t pass that along, this business can be hard and you will limit your growth.
We have five full-time employees and one part-timer, and my husband and me. He’s the shipper and I’m the printer.
Being in a resort town, do you ever ship anything unusual?
We ship a ton of taxidermy. We ship out probably 300 elk mounts and deer mounts a year, mountain lions, bears — every year. That’s a classic, unique area of the business that we can really monopolize on. Who else is shipping bears? But in our area, taxidermy is a very big business. You sell copies for 4 cents, but you can ship an elk for $400. And the margins are good.
How in the world do you ship an elk or a bear?
You have to go freight. It’s a bit of logistical nightmare, which is great for us because other people can’t figure out how to do it. We use boxes and pallets and a lot of bubble wrap.
How much of your business comes from shipping?
About 30%. If you took the freight (from all the taxidermy) out of our shipping, it would cut that in half. Other PostNets handle equally as odd requests. It’s all about knowing who your clients are and what they need. That should be thought through carefully as you pick your store and plan how you’ll grow your business. You can waste a lot of time serving high-volume/low-dollar customers if you’re not careful how you market your business.
What does your typical day look like?
We’re open 8:30-5:30 Monday through Friday, 10-4 on Saturday. I am here the whole time. For a while, before the downturn, we had 12 staff members and I didn’t have to be here as much — that was lovely, and we’re working back to that. We’re here 50 hours a week, which is more than we’d like. We have over the years been in here less, but as we went through the recession and are emerging, it required more time. We’re still able to have plenty of fun, though. The ski lodge is right outside our door, so we probably ski 30-40 days a year. It’s actually important in our area to hire a few people who don’t ski! We’ll come in later when skiing is great — but most of our customers do, too. We call it going to a “board meeting” — two hours of skiing. That’s why we moved here and wanted to live here. PostNet made our lifestyle possible.
Would you recommend a PostNet franchise to someone else? Why?
To the right person, you bet. If this is the type of thing you’d find interesting, I would definitely recommend it. My biggest recommendation for a new person considering a PostNet and trying to make a decision is to go and work at a PostNet for a few days or a week. It’s the most important decision you’ll make. We’ve had people fly in from New York and spend a week at our store. We’ve had people drive in and spend a day or two. You should take a darn good look at it — understand what it looks like day-to-day. That gives you a great idea of whether it’s right, but it also gives you an idea of what you can shoot for in your own store.