Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seven years and still going strong

Happy Birthday to us! This week we are celebrating seven years since the StoneImpressions brand was born.

StoneImpressions originated from the incredible talent and determination of our founder, Melinda Earl.  Back in 1994, she was a single mother working out of her garage.   Using her background in fine art painting, she began uniting plaster, oils, china and cloth to produce textured still lifes. Always trying to improve, she began experimenting with transferring images onto stone. However, the known methods were extremely time consuming, so she set out to find a better way. After four years of research and experiments, she developed a patented, hand-printing process and founded PhotoStone in 1998. 

A few of the original PhotoStones

PhotoStone produces high quality prints of photographs, wedding invitations and old family photos onto stone.  The majority of the PhotoStone clients are high-end photographers like Linda Johnson Photography and Michael's Photography.  PhotoStones are a unique way to preserve a treasured memory and make a truly distinctive gift.

Like any good dramatic corporate tale, the evolution of PhotoStone into StoneImpressions is shrouded in a little bit of mystery.  Another one of the founders seems to recall that it was his idea to use the PhotoStone process to create high-end decorative tiles.  Melinda remembers it a little differently.  I have been around almost since the beginning, but I plead the Fifth.  Like any good diplomat, I will only stipulate that without the tremendous efforts of the two of them, this company would never be where it is today.  They have both put their hearts and souls into it and their unending enthusiasm and steady leadership has brought us miles and miles from where we began.

StoneImpressions started in a rented 4,000 square foot "vintage" industrial space in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego.  It was actually an old S&H Green Stamps factory (and if you know what that is, you are showing your age!)   One of the "charms" of the older structure was that if we plugged in too many things at once, we would blow a fuse.  We then had to go knock on the door of the adjacent neighbor and enter their bathroom in order to reach our electrical panel.  We literally ran a sweatshop for two long, hot summers before we realized that the ancient air conditioning system could be repaired.  No loading dock meant that we would have crates of stone tile dropped off in the front driveway and then have to unload them, carton by carton, and wheel them all the way to the back where the production took place.

The crew back at the old building
We moved to a much larger, newly-constructed building in late 2007.  We were so excited when we could plug in the microwave and the printer at the same time!    But more importantly, the new space also allowed us to expand the production capacity tenfold.  We went from no loading dock to a forklift and a pallet rack that can hold 36 crates with literally tons of stone.  We streamlined the production process and made a significant improvement in our sealing technique.

Our current home.
The new building also gave our design team room to spread out.  There is no denying that expanding your physical space somehow opens up breathing room, both mentally and creatively.  We've gone from simple Still Life murals to elaborate pattern tiles with a more ambitious color palette than we ever thought possible.  This year we released our first catalog that focuses exclusively on Pattern Tile Collections and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Some fun examples of how the company has
grown and changed through the years:

The Logo Changes
Our "logo" circa 2004
Our current logo

The Evolution of a Website

Our very first website

 Screen shot of our website at some point in 2004.

The current website - click here for the real thing.

Designs - Past, Present and Future(?)

One of our early Still Life Murals, named "Water Buffalo."
This is the equivalent of an embarrassing high school yearbook photo.  Go easy on us, please.

The gorgeous Clermont Noire mural - click on the image to really see the color and detail.

Another example of the new - Altalena Pattern in the Ochre color.  Find all of our newest designs here.

Our future?  Some funky modern patterns that we are working on.

The whole experience of bringing a company from the tiny kernel of an idea into a full-blown, thriving business is unforgettable.  Small business owners who have done it,  know that it is exciting, challenging, mind-expanding, frustrating, fun and ultimately rewarding.   We have both grown and contracted with the economy, but we have always maintained a core of smart, hard-working, resourceful people who are a joy to work with.  And we could never have come this far without the unique contributions of each one of them.  We really feel fortunate to have such a great team.

So this week we celebrate our seven years and look forward to many more!  Happy Birthday to us!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Accent Tiles from Corner Pieces

While we are coming up with new designs, we create a good amount of prototype tiles.  You'll see tiles of all shapes and colors spread out over every available horizontal surface in our art department.  It is quite fun, actually.  Just like when Mom takes a batch of cookies out of the oven, we are all drawn to the trays of new tiles as they come in from the production area.  We "ooooh" and "ahhhh" over the ones that catch our eyes first and everyone has a favorite.  For our Designers, there's a special satisfaction in seeing a design that was born on the computer screen transformed into a real, solid stone tile that has character and depth.  

Okay, it's a pie, not cookies, but isn't it a great image?

We purposely let the prototype tiles hang around for a while.  We might eliminate one or two designs or colors right away, but we let the rest sit and "marinate."  After living with them for a while, we can start to see the designs with more clarity and sometimes have different opinions than our first impressions.  We get ideas about how some tiles work together - or don't work together ("What were we thinking?!")  We can see which colors have staying power.  Maybe we liked the pastel-ish green color when we first saw it, but after looking at it day after day, we realize how anemic it seems compared to the deeper, stronger colors. 

Our "marinating" process can result in some serendipitous discoveries.  One example is that we've seen how the corner pieces that we create can be put together to form their own unique patterns. 

Metal Amore Scroll Corner

Eden Spring Corner

Zellii Fusion Corner

Colony Palm Corner

Saldano Corner

Cathedral Corner

We did go ahead and make accent tiles from the various Colony Collection Corners that we were playing with.  But we only have so much room in the catalog and these did not make the cut.  So here they are making their worldwide debut.  Just for you, blog readers:

Introducing the "Lost Colony Accents."

Colony Royal Accent Tile

Colony Queen Accent Tile

Colony King Accent Tile

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A word about customer service

We have just released our new Pattern Catalog and our design team is finally breathing a heavy sigh of relief.   We worked for many, many months on this catalog and we couldn't be happier with how it turned out.   It was a fantastic day when the boxes of new catalogs arrived! 

Or I should say -  the day the second batch of catalogs arrived.  The first batch was not bound correctly.  But took care of the mistake and reprinted our whole order with the correct binding. They did it rather quickly and with very little hassle.  This is truly the mark of a great company - how they react when problems arise.

As most companies do, we have always had the philosphy that we need to take care of our customers and give them superior service.  Every company out there will probably agree that their business could not survive if they didn't treat their customers well.  And in this economy, that is more true than ever.

We have not written this down or put it into any kind of official policy.  It has simply been the type of work environment that has developed throughout the years.  We have always held the belief that if we make an error, we take responsibility and we do whatever it takes to fix it as quickly as possible.  In most cases, our efforts result in a satisfied customer.  

Of course we have had (and will have) very few instances where unless we invent a teleportation machine and can beam the replacement tiles across the country the same day we get the call, the client will not be happy.  We are sorry when we are unable to meet expectations.  But we do the best we can within the constraints of our production process (and the laws of physics.)

"I'm a tile maker, Jim!  Not a miracle worker!

Our technique includes a number of steps that are solely human-driven.  So naturally some mistakes, like printing on the wrong type of stone, can happen.  And maybe we have to overnight eighty pounds of replacement stone tiles, so the client can keep their original installation date.  Ouch!  We cringe a little when we have to do something like that.  But we suck it up and do it, because if it is our error, it is the right thing to do.  In the short-term we might lose money on that order.  But in the long-term, we have gained irreplaceable goodwill from that client.

Gravity is not our friend
We value our relationships with our customers and we do our best to work with them to give them what they need.  Ninety-eight percent of our orders ship out with no problems.  But how we handle that other two percent is what will set us apart in the minds of our customers.  I personally feel fortunate to work for a company that understands that the "bottom line" (a.k.a. $$$$$$$$)  isn't the only measure of success.