Innovative Advice for Execs Looking to Change Their Industry

    Nine years ago, Brother asked Dean F. Shulman to reinvent its sewing and embroidery business. To Shulman, sewing machines were an entirely different product line than he was used to marketing — which had been home office products, including the highly successful P-Touch handheld label maker.

    Shulman had spent almost 30 years at Brother as a guy who never wanted to be irrelevant. He was known throughout the company as the guy who whole-heartedly embraced the Steve Jobs philosophy of “Think Different.” So when he assumed responsibility for the sewing division, one thing became immediately clear: He wanted to turn it from a hardware business into a fashion and lifestyle brand.

    He understood that the future of sewing and embroidery was not to focus on the hardware but to create a product line and brand that would embrace the creative soul of the home sewer. Using his knowledge of the technologies used in the office products arena, he knew that through technological advances, Brother could make sewing and embroidery easier for consumers. He set out to change the outdated perceptions about the industry and make it cool again.

    First, he forged a partnership with Bravo TV’s popular “Project Runway” fashion series – now on Lifetime – where Brother could showcase its brand to a new generation of future “fashionistas” who love the art of creating something “different.”  By moving from a hardware-business strategy to creating a new way for sewers to capitalize on their creative spirit, Shulman turned this mature business into a brand new, youthful one.

    Introducing new technologies into embroidery products was also the key. HD displays, the first camera-like feature built above the needle – so embroiders could see exactly what the needle sees, laser guides to help sewers sew straighter, as well as a scanning function that takes users’ designs and turns them into stitch data, were all innovations Shulman’s team incorporated.

    Over a nine-year span, Shulman reinvented the Brother sewing and embroidery business. By introducing new, innovative products – and emphasizing marketing and customer service – he led the division to double their sales, creating a several-hundred-million dollar business in a very mature market. Recognized for these successes, Shulman has been placed on several “top 10 most influential” lists in the industry and in 2014 was inducted into the trade’s Sewing Hall of Fame.

    In this slideshow, Shulman offers his advice for tech execs, like him, looking to change their industry.

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    How to Revitalize Your Business

    Click through for advice on how tech execs can revitalize their industries, as identified by Dean F. Shulman, senior vice president at Brother.

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    Know Your Audience

    Is your industry in need of a face lift?

    At Brother, the sewing division faced not only a maturing customer base, but also a consumer of a mature age. This was a customer base that had forgotten the wonderment of creating something new with their hands and had accepted store-bought “sameness.”

    The teaching of home economics, which included instruction on cooking and sewing, had been eliminated from school curriculums in favor of training students to meet test requirements. At the same time, the younger generation wasn’t filling in the slots left by those sewers who grew out of the market. The industry needed a face lift.

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    Know Your Audience

    To a younger generation, sewing was a hobby their grandparents engaged in. So the challenge at Brother became how to change their perception about sewing – and especially embroidery – so they could envision a crafting hobby that let them create beautiful works of art easily. By introducing a line of high-tech sewing and embroidery machines that allowed this generation to design and personalize their own styles, Brother helped change their perception of this evolving industry. This was not your grandmother’s sewing machine.

    Think different… Create the desire in people to be different and explore and expand their self interests. Provide them not just the tools but the encouragement. Let them experience how being creative stimulates their mind and brings people together. They aren’t just buying a product; they’re buying a lifetime experience. 

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    Partner with Others

    Team up with relevant and timely partners.

    One of the key methods to help re-invent yourself or a company is to partner with others and not try to be successful developing everything yourself. The idea of NIH (not invented here) simply doesn’t work. No company can develop everything on their own. Use specialists whenever necessary.

    In or outside of your industry, identify a strategic business partner with whom you can forge a mutually beneficial relationship. Think about the letters in the word “HOW.” For marketers, success comes when you “Hitch Our Wagon” to others who can help pull you along to new channels of distribution or new customers or new applications. Brother discovered such a partner when working with fashion design reality series Project Runway. Brother partnered with the series as the exclusive sewing machine of Project Runway, boasting a new line of attractive and innovative models. The show has been a great outlet for reaching and educating an elusive younger generation. In return, Brother manufactured a Project Runway branded line of machines, which raised awareness about the show within the home sewing market. The key is finding a partner that really meshes with your vision and where benefits are concurrently realized by both parties.

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    Dare to Be Different

    Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and test the limits. Plan, test, evaluate and retest. Don’t take forever to plan, because by the time you have thought of everything, the market will have changed. Use your customers to give you immediate feedback, especially after the product is launched, and be prepared to use that data to get an upgrade or improved model into the market as soon possible. As the saying goes, success lies outside your comfort zone.

    Oftentimes, it takes a bold move to set yourself apart from others in your industry. “Be different.” Sameness has no value to customers in today’s market, especially with the increasing inability to see your products at retail. Most are sold online, so you must create “homerun features” that set you apart. They don’t have to be exclusive, but you need to make the message resonate and be heard. Sometimes, you have to change on the fly and not hold on to the anchor all the way to the bottom. You don’t want to lose sight of your goal, but getting there may take a different path. 

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    Gain Support from Your Team

    Executives who want to transform their industry must first come up with a vision, one they can believe in, and then get others to buy into it with the same passion. Once your team’s on board and shares your hunger to move forward, you will see the wheels turning before your eyes and you’ll be that much closer to your goal. Surround yourself with minds who share your passion about the industry and the products.

    Take a much more entrepreneurial approach regardless of size. Divisional teams exist in many organizations but “speed management” must be led by a single driver who has a clear vision. Someone has to drive the bus. Someone has to be on the maintenance crew. Someone has to be the navigator. Make sure you have the right people in each of these positions.

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    Set a Clear Goal

    Be sure to set a goal that you and your team can work to achieve. The tasks and approach may change, but your vision should be clear on where you want to be, when and how – then your team can persist in getting there. Think sailing. A sailboat under its sails cannot go in a straight line. It must tack back and forth, but as soon as you lose sight of your final destination, you could end up lost at sea.

    At Brother, the goal was changing the perception about sewing. It was about reaching a new audience; reinventing a 100-year-old industry; increasing sales and profits; and creating happiness and uniqueness through personalization and self actualization. By incorporating improvements like tablet-sized, high-definition color display screens and high-intensity LED lighting, Brother was able to change consumers’ views – which resulted in increased sales with a younger market demographic and accolades from industry insiders and customers alike.

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