From closet designer to entrepreneur: Lisa Carlquist's strategy for success

Photo By Artisan Custom Closets

In seven years, Lisa Carlquist, president of Artisan Custom Closets, took her company from zero sales to a projected $9 million in revenue for 2018.  Carlquist will be a featured presenter at the 2019 Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo on March 6, the oepening day of the three-day event.
Lisa Carlquist will be a featured presenter at the 2019 Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo
She credits the Marietta, Georgia-based company’s dedication and focus on marketing for much of that success. From the early stages, Carlquist recognized the importance of making an investment of time and money in the marketing strategies. Other factors leveraging her success include a detail-oriented approach and a knack for hiring the right people at the right time.
Officially launched in 2011, Artisan Custom Closets is projected to reach $9 million in sales this year.
Before officially opening Artisan in 2011, Carlquist had worked as a designer for another closet firm for more than 12 years. That firm was eventually acquired by a larger industry player. But it was a completely different environment than working for a private company, she says. Realizing it wasn’t the best fit, she decided to leave at the end of 2007.
A stained hardwood closet designed and manufactured by Artisan Custom Closets.
“Going into 2008 I had no job. Worst possible time,” Carlquist notes. 
But, paraphrasing Charles Dickens, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times…” because she still had a following in the industry. Despite leaving her job in the midst of a global recession that sent the housing and remodeling industry spiraling, she was still getting calls from clients. 
When she left that company, another designer left with her and they ventured out on their own. She contacted a friend who runs a retail fixture company to cut and install jobs for them.
“But it was still a horrible time. We had no marketing or advertising. It was really just me and one other person, selling jobs here and there,” Carlquist explains. “I actually took a job outside the industry just to get by.”
But by March 2011, she made another go at it and officially launched Artisan along with a business partner – the owner of the retail fixture company.  
“From 2011 through 2013, we outsourced, and his company did our manufacturing for us,” she says. “Then, on January 14, 2014, I bought my first router and edgebander and we started manufacturing.”
Located in Marietta, Georgia, Artisan Custom Closets manufactures in a 29,000-square-foot facility.
Artisan, which is located in a 29,000-square-foot facility, now has a shop full of equipment including two Homag Vantage CNC routers, Gorbel material handling equipment, edgebanders, forklifts, a dust collection system, and other woodworking machinery. The company also has two showrooms on site – one upstairs with approximately eight vignettes and one downstairs with four. 
In its first year Artisan did $1 million in sales and by the next year, revenue had more than doubled, to nearly $2.5 million. That jump in sales reflects Carlquist’s savvy in finding an advantage in every situation. 
“The first year was full of surprises and you never know what will happen,” she says. “We were cruising along slowly in 2011 selling 70ish thousand per month when another closet company in Atlanta went out of business. Of course, I hopped on the phone and started calling their salespeople who were without jobs. A couple of them did come to work for us and we went from $77,000 in sales in August 2011 to $230,000 in sales in September 2011.”
Carlquist says she learned a lot during that period and credits her staff with enabling the company to keep up with the increased business. Although at the beginning of 2012 the other firm reopened and many of the newly hired sales staff returned, “our momentum remained.”
Also during that time, Carlquist invested in marketing to get her name out in the marketplace. One of the mediums she used was radio. Although she was told at her previous job that “radio wouldn’t work,” now that she was making the decisions she decided to give it a try. It proved to be very successful.
“They were like, ‘It won’t work. Closets are a visual product.’ I said, ‘Yes, but this station, in particular, has our demographics. These are the people who buy closets. I know this will work,’” she says. “About three or four months into Artisan, I started on the radio, and, for us, it’s been extremely successful. I still do it. People walk in every day and say, ‘Oh, I heard you on the radio.’ So, now I’m on two stations. The one I originally started with (a talk radio station) and, believe it or not, a sports station.”
However, radio is hard to track, “because people hear our name and they go to the website and fill out a form and it gets logged as a website lead,” Carlquist says, “But, once you start talking to them they’ll say, ‘I hear you on the radio all the time.’ That’s why they went to the website.”
Carlquist’s attention to detail is another factor in her success. She carefully tracks where money is spent as well as how her customers hear about Artisan.
The company uses a call-tracking number with a whisper feature on marketing material, such as postcard decks. So, when a customer calls the number listed, someone at Artisan’s front desk picks up the phone and they hear the name of the postcard publishing company whispered before the caller comes on the line. “So we know before they even get on the phone what number they’re calling from,” she explains.
For Carlquist, the key to marketing is to “focus on consistent, repetitive branding. In today’s world of constant connectivity, you must make sure you’re seen and heard,” she says. “The most common reason that people do not buy your product is that they do not even know about you.”

Finding talent

Carlquist has a knack for finding talent – anywhere. For instance, she tried a print ad in the local paper. Although it didn’t bring the results she was looking for, she gained a new addition to the Artisan team. “That salesperson who sold me that ad now works here,” she laughs. “I can teach anybody to design a closet, but I can’t teach personality, and how to make a connection with people.”
Another example is one of the women who works at Artisan’s front desk. Carlquist says she met her at a Braves game and told her, “You’ve gotta come work for me.” And her newest engineer was a young bartender she met at a sushi place. “I said, ‘Your memory is amazing. What do you want to do? I know you don’t want to be a bartender,’” she says. “And he’s like, ‘No. Just graduated from drafting school.’” Carlquist told him that she was looking for a CAD person and he now works at Artisan.
That ability to spot talent has helped her build a successful team at Artisan Custom Closets, consisting of 17 designers, eight engineers and a host of other workers from the front office to the shop. “I seriously have 50, 60 of the best people I ever met working here,” she says. “I want leaders. You can’t be afraid to have someone who may know more, may be smarter...That’s what makes us the best.”
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About the author
Michaelle Bradford | Editor

Michaelle Bradford, CCI Media, is Editor of Closets & Organized Storage magazine and Woodworking Network editor. She has more than 20 years of experience covering the woodworking and design industry, including visits to custom cabinet shops, closet firms and design studios throughout North America. As Editor of Closets & Organized Storage magazine under the Woodworking Network brand, Michaelle’s responsibilities include writing, editing, and coordinating editorial content as well as managing annual design competitions like the Top Shelf Design Awards. She is also a contributor to FDMC and other Woodworking Network online and print media owned by CCI Media.