Rich Christianson with Paul Downs, keynoter at Cabinets & Closets 2014.
Rich Christianson with Paul Downs, keynoter at Cabinets & Closets 2014.

SOMERSET, NJ - Paul Downs, president of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers and a popular New York Times small business blogger, turns out to be a riveting speaker, as well. In his keynote to a rapt audience, Downs revealed the story of his business struggle, from near bankruptcy to solid success, at the 2014 Cabinets & Closets Conference.

Downs, it turns out, also embodies a characteristic woodworking personality type — the "Creative Entrepreneur" — a fact that was revealed by his followup speaker, Laurel Didier. The VP and Group Publisher at Woodworking Network presented the first results of a groundbreaking wood industry study, "The Mind of the Woodworker."

Paul Downs, analytical and acerbic with a touch of ironic self-deprecation, told the story of building his business, from the sale of a first commercial dining room table in 1986, to the delivery of a $185,000, 42-foot circumference conference table to the World Bank in 2011 — based on a lead generated by his search-optimized website — a skill area that Downs has mastered.

Downs' transition from residential dining tables to business conference tables came in 1998, when he made a 24-foot over table for Lippincott Publishing. The complex construction "is astonishing when you consider we did not have a CNC," Downs said. "My craftsman just sat down and built it in about 20 days." The table sold for $45,000 and moved the company into its business furnishings niche.

But it was the arrival of the Internet that made a sea-change in his business. Downs showed charts of sales from 1986 to present that began to rise rapidly when his first began showing up as the top result in a search for conference tables. Inquiries came from all over the U.S. and around the world - even Kazakhstan -  for a company that was oriented to serving local markets.

"I didn't know how to respond to that. I didn't know how you could close the deal long distance." But Downs learned.

Downs said conference tables are the perfect product to sell online, and listed the reasons why:

  • Prospective customers know what to call it
  • Prospects need one, no convincing is required
  • Everyone knows how it works - no explanations are required
  • Know one knows where to buy a conference table
  • Prospects don't know what it should cost
  • It can be shipped, though it is difficult

Because he prices his his tables high enough - starting at $18,000 and up to $150,000, "we can put a lot of effort into the sales process," Downs said. Clients who buy conference tables always pay their bills. "There are an amazing number of clients who pay up front."

He said while Paul Downs Cabinetmakers has continuously grown over the years, it has only recently become profitable. This Downs has done through a number of efforts, including sophisticated development of his website, which is very specifically targeted to his potential buyers — those who need conference tables.

Downs advised listeners not to make their websites focus on their own company, but on the products consumers are seeking. "When people are searching for conference tables they will open my site, and they damn well better see a conference table." He includes pricing online, Downs said. "When you show pricing you are providing the  key piece of information they want."

While the Paul Downs Cabinetmakers' site provides just 600 leads a year, they come from organizations who know the prices and design range of his tables before they call, making each a solidly pare-qualified lead.

Once prospects call, "immediate interaction with a  knowledgeable salesperson" is key. "I made it a point never to be more than six inches from a phone." Downs also added sales people to maintain growth. "Our sales staff are experienced woodworkers. That keeps them from selling things we can't build," he said. Not every woodworker is cut out for sales. "The average woodworker is is not a sparkling conversationalist," said Downs, getting a laugh from listeners.

Designs are rendered in the Sketchup application and show to clients from multiple angles. 

Look and feel of your website, and your own company's engagement, must be of a very high quality, citing Apple stores as an example. "You're competing, whether you know it or not, with the best experience they have had."

Paul Downs Cabinetmaker Speaks His Mind at Cabinets&Closets 2014Downs' presentation also detailed the financial trail to his $2.8 million in revenue, while building the company size to 17 employees in a 33,000-square-foot facility in Bridgeport, PA. At one significant point in Paul Downs Cabinetmakers' history, soon after employee headcount fell from 20 to 7, a CNC machine was added.

"The Mind of the Woodworker" study results presented by Laurel Didier were also mind-expanding. The original benchmark research delves into educational background and steps that brought woodworkers into the business. The study also asked about hobbies, life interests, personal priorities and heroes. And woodworkers were asked questions such as whether they considered themselves outgoing, or introverted; and whether they liked to work alone or in groups.

Tonight a gala reception culminates in the presentation of the Custom Woodworking Design Portfolio Awards and Closets Top Shelf Design Awards.

Paul Downs Cabinetmaker Speaks His Mind at Cabinets&Closets 2014Tomorrow the event moves Garden State Convention Center, where on April 10 and 11 leading manufacturers and distributors of hardware, wood components, CAD/CAM software, woodworking machinery and more will display their wares at the Cabinets & Closets Expo.

Both days of the expo will also feature live product demonstrations at individual exhibitor’s booths and at the Expo Demonstration Stage.

Learn more about the event, including the full conference schedule, current list of exhibitors, exhibitor products and more at CabinetsAndClosetsExpo.com.

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