Who would ever have thought that you could disrupt the sewing machine manufacturing industry and turn it into a genuine service? That's what Merrow has done in a transformation that started in 2004, but which really took off a couple of years ago. Here's the back story.
Merrow was founded in 1838 and has been on the same family for six generations. You can be sure these people know sewing machines. But in 2004, when brothers Charlie and Owen became the latest members of the family to run the business, they were faced with tough choices. Charlie, who has a background in technology explains:
By the time we got to 2004, the Asian manufacturers had pretty much taken over the market. There were only two US manufacturers left and we were pretty much willing to try anything to make Merrow relevant again. Our goal was to use these machines to create value. We spent five years trying to develop new brand stitching plus a variety of technologies to support us on the back end.
Having a technology background helped because the brothers knew that some things would work while others would fail. For them, it didn't matter provided they could come up with something that would work in the marketplace. Eventually, they hit on the idea of branding a stitch type. If that sounds mad then it does until you understand the context in which Merrow has made this into a defensible business model.
The company came up with ActiveSeam. This is a special type of flat overlock stitch that can be used in three flavors: Infused 3D, Comfort and Slim. Each stitch type works for different types of garment and fabric which in turn means it can applied to many different textile types and use cases. A garment maker can use the idea of a branded stitch to associate that stitch with a certain type of garment in the same way that Gore-Tex branded fabric for outdoor wear.
Crucially, the stitch is really software that's engineered to work only with a specific type of Merrow machine. You can think of it as like iOS and iPhone. That combination created the business 'moat' around which Merrow could continue the transformation in a business which by 2011-12 had been stabilized.
In the spirit of experimentation, Merrow had tried a bunch of back end systems in the hope of finding something that would be flexible enough to support what was then a fluid environment.
We have all the complexities of a large company in a smaller business so for example we need to support dealers in 68 countries around the world. We got to 2011 and were sinking under the weight of an ERP system that caused more problems than it was. During that summer I put in a whole bunch of test instances, one of which was Salesforce. I quickly realized Salesforce let us very easily adjust what we're entering into a system. After a year, I went hunting for something broader on the Force.com because what we had was so enabling.
A big part of Merrow's thinking was that the inherent limitations in the sewing market meant they would need a solution that would allow them to grow fresh businesses that acted as sellers of 'licensed seams' hence my quip: 'sewing as a service.' Merrow found that Kenandy was the right fit. More important, it allowed Merrow to not only experiment but launch new businesses for both itself and its customers.
For example, we were able to create a store inside the system for a customer that allowed us to take them exclusively internationally. We're introducing a new line of Mereno clothing, a business we can drop right on top without any problems. We came up with this idea of a kind of Zappos program for sewing machines. We thought of this as a way of supporting this declining (field service and support) business. It took us a week to put it together, we flipped a switch and now it's up and running. We're like an incubator for new ideas.
All of this is achieved in software that doesn't require conventional programming but the ability to manipulate objects inside the Kenandy and Salesforce systems.
Innovation comes from the most unlikely sources and this kind of story is truly encouraging. The fact the current owners are tech savvy is the critical factor because they understand how technology can not only transform but act as the enabler of business models that were previously impossible. In that sense, Merrow fits very well into Phil Wainewright's idea of the 'frictionless enterprise.'