“Bringing the artisan into your house is a deeply human task. When you have a treasure in your hand made by an artisan, you have a little piece of that person’s soul. They know that treasure that they are shaping is going to put a smile on someone’s face that they’ll never meet, and if they’re lucky will be passed to another generation, and will be still on the earth after they no longer are. If you talk to artisans, there is a deep human yearning for legacy and the sense that your life matters. What we do, with bringing handcrafted treasures to you, is reminding you of that.” – Terri Alpert
From Functional to Emotional
Fresh from a career on Wall Street and with a baby on the way, Terri Alpert started her first company, Professional Cutlery Direct, as a “maternity leave project.” Despite success at a major firm and excellent project management and IT skills, she recalls realizing that she didn’t truly know how to sell an individual product to an individual customer and turn them into a loyal client. Resolving to learn those lessons as quickly as possible, she put aside $10,000 and set out to see if she could grow a real company, all through internally generated cash flow.
Professional Cutlery Direct took off. The company made the INC 500 list of the fastest growing private companies in the United States 3 years in a row, at one point earning a place as the second fastest growing firm in Connecticut. After 7 years, PCD employed 40+ people and boasted some of the best information and selection for high end chef’s tools. Terri brought lines that had only been available in Europe to the American consumer, and to all appearances, the company seemed to be stronger than ever. But, upon a closer look at the core metrics, Terri saw cause for concern.
“The top and bottom line growth looked great, but financial statements are a rear-view mirror”, Terri explained. She focused on the non-financial metrics, the “spreadsheets”, as she called them, and saw a more unsettling picture. It was costing the company more and more to acquire customers, and those customers were worth less and less. The startling reality was the PCD was coasting on its current client base.
During a period of intense soul searching, Terri wrote down the essential attributes of the PCD brand and the ways each limited their business model. She then took those characteristics and reversed them, flipping white to black, and the concept of Uno Alla Volta was born. The new company would be emotionally, not functionally meaningful, it wouldn’t confine them to categories, and it would offer an infinite supply of new product.
The transition from PDC to Uno Alla Volta – spurred on by significant increases in overhead, a 30% hike in catalog postage rates and the Great Recession – took years. Terri led a major reboot of the organization, restructuring it to include a parent company, Stoney Creek Brands, which operated both PCD and Uno Alla Volta for a time before ultimately divesting the former. Over the past four years, this hard work doing the blocking and tackling of revitalizing a culture and breaking down silos has begun to bear fruit: the first year value of a customer for Uno Alla Volta has increased 2.4x.
“This is what happens when everyone is singing from the same hymnal, but not because of brainwashing or groupthink”, Terri explained.
The Power of Print
If you are looking for an absolutely fascinating conversation, ask Terri to elaborate on print as a medium. Uno Alla Volta distributes a beautiful catalog, which is the primary way customers interact with the brand.
In her business, “Print is more effective than any other medium, and print often drives the other media.”
In fact, across the world “More ecommerce transactions are still driven by print than all of social media combined.”
Unlike webpages (like this one! It’s great to see you’re still here, by the way) that visitors linger on for mere moments, people typically spend much more time with print catalogs. Additionally, the tactile and sensory aspects of the medium are very powerful. A grid of products on a website pales in comparison to a two-page spread, which can show you how items look together and create an overall brand persona and story.
As Terri put it, “The basic shopping experience online is a collection of items. The basic shopping experience of print is conducive to creating a lifestyle.” In their business, where a customer often doesn’t know they want the items Uno Alla Volta offers, print allows them to discover new treasures in a relaxing and relatively undistracted way.
Even if customers don’t immediately order from the catalog, seeing treasures that catch their eye drives online visits, and ultimately, sales.
Technology to Enhance the Human Experience
“Technology, when used right, unleashes human potential and allows us to focus on things that are uniquely human.” Terri prefers to automate mundane processes wherever possible, giving her team more time to truly get in the heads of their customers to find ways to make the brand more meaningful to them.
This past year, the company underwent a major upgrade to their ERP system, which is helping facilitate the next phase of growth. They have also invested in a system that allows customers to write personal messages to accompany their purchases, which are printed along with a certificate of authenticity, certifying that the product was made by an artisan, one at a time. The system works seamlessly with their warehouse and pick ticket application. When an order is placed, the certificates are printed on beautiful paper, complete with the custom message, along with a pick ticket. Tickets and certificates come out together, in walk sequence order, allowing the warehousing team to be as efficient as possible.
For Terri, there two moments that stick out in her mind above the rest. The first was conceiving of Uno Alla Volta as a way to keep their staff employed when she realized that Professional Cutlery Direct wasn’t going to thrive, long term. And the second was the painful but successful reboot of the company that created a culture where she truly wanted to come to work every day. “If it’s right for you, you’re going to grow. I’m going to grow. We’re all going to grow”, Terri added.
“The touchy-feely stuff is the biggest competitive advantage in the world.”