Roots to Leaves: Part Three – Leaves that Attract Energy

Welcome to day three of Roots to Leaves: Small Business Growth in Trying Times. Today I’m talking about leaves!

When one looks at a tree (in season), the leaves are the first thing that get noticed (unless there’s something obviously wrong with the tree, but let’s assume our metaphorical tree and your small business are healthy and not getting noticed for the wrong reasons…). Leaves are showy. They wave in the wind and change colors with the seasons. They’re the first clue about what kind of tree we’re looking at. They’re also temporary.

The same is true for the marketing of your small business. For potential customers, marketing is probably the first thing they see of you. It’s meant to get attention and reveal your business to the world. It’s temporary and changes with the seasons. As leaves absorb sunlight to feed the tree, so your marketing brings a steady supply of new life and energy to your business.

I hear your objections – Marketing isn’t what you do. Marketing takes time and money, and you’re short on one or the other. Shouldn’t your body of work be enough?

Yes and no. Pretty leaves can’t save a diseased tree. Your quality products and service have to be the foundation. But attracting new customers is vital, and word of mouth isn’t always enough. Fortunately, there are inexpensive things you can do to keep energy flowing into your business.

Let’s start with the internet and social media, because it can be overwhelming, and it seems like it’s always changing. But there’s good news – You don’t have to do everything! In fact, you shouldn’t. Pick social media platforms that work for you and your business and do those well. Different platforms hit different audiences, use different tools, and tell stories in different ways. Find one or two that work for you, and get yourself set up.

Website: Your business website is your home online. It’s how you show up in Google searches. You own and control the content of your website. Building a site (if you don’t have one already) can be as simple as signing up with something like WordPress or Wix and using their templates, or as extensive as hiring a web developer to build and maintain something more elaborate. My main suggestion if you’re building a site is to pay the small annual fee for your domain. Don’t make potential customers try to figure out or remember something complicated like website.wordpress.com – pay a few dollars to own your .com (.us, .org, etc.)

Facebook is the most popular social media site. It’s free to join, but make sure your business joins as a “page” and not as a person. Put your logo as a profile picture, and set up a cover image and all your contact information. Use your page to follow vendors and industry insiders, and share the valuable things they post. Share images of jobs you do (just make sure you’re not including personal info on your customers, like the address of the job site – remember that whatever you post can be seen by the public). Have some fun on your page, sharing clean jokes and memes. Use it to showcase new products and services, accomplishments and anniversaries, and to express your best wishes on holidays.

Instagram is the fastest growing platform. It’s more popular with younger people (Gen Z) who are not as interested in Facebook. Instagram is owned by Facebook, so if you set up both and connect them, you can actually have your Instagram posts show up on your Facebook page at the same time. Instagram is very visual. It’s less about telling stories and more about showing pictures. For a lot of businesses, that works. You can show off completed jobs, introduce new staff, or share new products.

LinkedIn isn’t really about attracting new customers, but it’s a great site for hiring and connecting with colleagues and other professionals in your industry. Set up a personal profile so you can recommend people like subcontractors and former employees. Set up a business profile if you plan to use it for hiring.

Twitter is Instagram’s opposite. Where Insta is picture-based, Twitter is word-based (though you can add images). Twitter is great for quick one-line quick bits of info, so it’s popular with news sites, comedians, and the President. It’s easy for your words to get lost in the sea of text, so if you’re going to use Twitter, post often.

– There are many other social media platforms (Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.). I’ve just hit on a couple of the big ones that are most likely to be beneficial for Country Lumber’s small business clients. For a more in-depth look, or to explore some of the platforms I left out, check out this article from Adobe.

Within social media platforms, you have the option to post so your followers see your posts, and/or to pay for ads that go out to a targeted audience. Prices tend to be lower than traditional advertising sources like print media and billboards, and you have better control over who sees your ad.

Building a following takes time. Start by inviting your personal friends, family, and social media connections to like your business account. Follow your vendors, suppliers, and other businesses that you work with. Post content regularly, at least once a week, even if it’s just a picture of a job you’re working on or sharing a post that a vendor put out. Keep your business in front of your audience. Some platforms let you schedule posts ahead of time, so that’s a great way to get ahead of the game on a bad weather day or during the slow seasons.

I know I’ve focused heavily on social media and internet marketing – after all it’s inexpensive and available right on your computer or smartphone, but there are other important leaves out there.

– In a past post I mentioned the importance of business cards/brochures/other marketing materials that you can hand out. These can be ordered with your logo and contact info from local businesses or online suppliers.

– If you have a shop, make sure it’s labeled well. Same for your trucks. You’re out there being seen every day – take advantage of that with vehicle decals or magnetic signs that advertise your business.

– Logo apparel/name tags/uniforms visually identify your staff with your business. Like other marketing materials, they can be ordered online or done locally. (Shout out to Tiffany at McDowall Custom Embroidery who does Country Lumber’s logo wear. She’s awesome!)

– Community involvement (roots) is a form of marketing, too. Support a local non-profit or kids sport/activity, participate in the chamber of commerce, or have a float in the summer parade.

The idea is to put your business out there so it can get noticed and be known.

Roots to Leaves: Part 2 – A Solid Trunk

By Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

Welcome to part two of my look at small business growth in challenging times. If you didn’t read yesterday’s post (Roots), you might want to go back to that one first. It gives you the introduction to this blog series, as well as info on who I am and why I’m doing this.

Today I want to talk about the real heart and soul of a small business – the actual product or service you provide. Some marketing types want to sell you on a lot of flash and slogans, but you and I know that the real strength of your business, the reason you exist, is what you provide to your customers. Offering good materials, hiring quality workers, and doing a good job is really what it’s all about.

I’m going to go all “mom” on you for a minute – it starts with taking care of your physical health. And no, this isn’t about Covid and quarantine. What I’m talking about is taking care of yourself with proper diet, exercise (you know, when the job isn’t enough exercise on its own!), and regular health and dental check-ups. You simply can’t be the best for your clients and family if you’re not taking care of yourself. You are your business’ most valuable resource.

OK, scolding over… I’m not here to tell you how to do your job. I know that you know your business better than I ever could. I’m just here to remind you that there are things you can do in the down seasons to strengthen what you offer.

Are you licensed? Bonded? Insured? Up to date on your certifications? Are you keeping up with industry trends or changing product lines from your vendors? Do you have the most current brochures that show what you have to offer?

Keep your vehicles, shop, and tools clean and in good working order. It’s about efficiency, because they’ll last longer, but it’s also about the image you project to potential customers. A disaster of a shop doesn’t instill confidence that you’ll be meeting scheduled deadlines. I’m not saying you should be able to eat off the floors, but hose off your truck once in a while and make sure it’s not leaking oil all over your clients’ driveways. It’s simply about being courteous and showing your customers that you’re organized and professional.

If you have a staff, make sure you have a clear and up-to-date employee handbook. This lets your employees know what is expected of them and what won’t be tolerated. Creating a handbook doesn’t have to be a huge project, either. Grab one off the internet and personalize it for your business.

During the busy seasons, it’s hard to keep up with the business part of running a business. Use down times to set up a processes for payroll, billing, ordering materials and other necessary tasks. Once you have a system set up, it will be easier to keep up when the busy season comes.

That’s all I have for you today. Come back tomorrow to read about leaves – the visible marketing things you can do to attract business. I’ll be focusing on cutting through the clutter and helping you find effective and inexpensive marketing tools.

I want to say thank you to all of you out there who are working hard during this crazy time. Country Lumber customers are there for local homeowners and businesses who need repairs, remodeling, and new construction in spite of the current shut-down situation. We appreciate all you do for our community!

Roots to Leaves: Part One – Roots

By Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

In the midst of the Covid-19 chaos, many small businesses, including independent contractors, are struggling. I decided to bring you a series of blog posts this week with my thoughts on small business growth and inexpensive things that you can do right now to strengthen your business. Even if the Coronavirus isn’t causing headaches for your business, there are always down seasons, and this information will be here for you when your down season comes.

So what do I (Social media coordinator Karah Hawkinson) know about this? First of all, I grew up in the home of a bi-vocational minister/painting contractor. Yup, an odd combination, but Dad was a painter first and used that skill set even after he became a pastor. There’s a lot of “do-it-yourself” and “figure out how to do it inexpensively” in both of those professions, and I grew up pitching in. As an adult I spent ten years doing contract jobs in marketing/ideation while raising my son and finishing my education. From there I went into history, a low-budget non-profit world not unlike the church world I grew up in. Along the way I’ve pulled those skills together and have learned how to think outside the box and grow our reach on a tight budget.

But enough about me…

I’ve given a lot of thought to small business/organization growth, and I came to the conclusion that businesses are like trees. They need to have strong roots in preparedness and community relationships. They need a solid body of work as the heart of it all, and they need some kind of marketing to attract the energy needed to continually feed the business.

A tree’s roots are it’s foundation and source of live-sustaining nutrients and moisture. Trees with weak or shallow roots die in periods of drought or are knocked over by storms and wind.

Your business is much the same. A business with a solid root system is one with resources to tap into and a support system to help it survive tough times. If you’re not already, work on building up a bit of savings to help you weather tough seasons.

Just as important, make sure you put down roots in your community.
– Join your local chamber of commerce – when Covid caused a lot of businesses to shut down, chamber members started getting emails full of resources about government programs and help from the Small Business Association. We also share each other’s events, and build relationships that sometimes turn into job opportunities!
– Join professional organizations and even Facebook groups for people in your industry. They know and understand what you’re dealing with, and the community brainstorming helps a lot. In my other job at the History Center we have a Facebook group of our colleagues from around the state. The group has been busy during our state-mandated shutdown, and we will emerge stronger for the ideas we share with each other!
LinkedIn is another free social media option for this. You can follow other businesses for inspiration, and it’s a great place to network and hire.
– When times are good, invest in the community. It’s a great way to get your name out there, but it also helps you develop the reputation of stability and longevity. Fly by night contractors who swoop in after a storm and skip town before the warranty expires do not invest in the community, because they don’t care. Investments are more than money, too! Volunteer, join a club/organization/church, help your neighbors, run for office, share local events on social media, etc.
– Make sure you have business cards or some kind of marketing tool (pens, brochures, etc.) that you can hand out when you meet people. The new guy you met at church might not need a roofer right now, but when he does, he’ll need to know how to find you! It doesn’t have to be flashy, either. Buy perforated sheets of business cards and print them at home, if that’s what you can afford – just make sure people connect with you and can find you again when they need you!

Trees and businesses that last have solid roots. Think about what you can do right now and down the line, to strengthen the foundation of your business

Top 10 Reasons to Work in the Building and Remodeling Trades

by: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I hope this finds you and yours well and healthy. We appreciate all the necessary workers out there, including the tradespeople, builders, and remodelers who are helping our homes stay safe and warm. Be careful out there.


There are lots of reasons to love a career in the building and remodeling trades. Here are our top ten.


10. Less college debt: The average four-year degree costs over $30,000 per year (tuition, fees, room and board), or $120,000 by the time you earn a BA. Vocational or technical training costs about a quarter of the amount, and can be completed in one or two years (depending on the program) instead of four.

9. Tradespeople can’t be outsourced: Companies are always looking to save money. One way they do that is by hiring workers in other countries who will do the same job for a lower wage. Jobs in the building and remodeling trades can’t be outsourced because they’re hands-on, on-location jobs.

8. Fresh air and exercise: Do you like being outdoors? Have trouble sitting still? Jobs in the building industry are very physical. No need to hit the gym if you’ve been moving on the jobsite all day!

7. Own your own business: The trades allow for a variety of employment types, including apprenticeships, hourly labor, and independent contracting. If you want to be your own boss, building is a great field!

6. Every day/Every project is different: Do you enjoy solving problems, and rising to new challenges? Do you like variety in your work? No two building projects are the same, which keeps you on your toes and lets you show off your talents!

5. Contribute to your community: Every business, every home, every organization in your community was built by someone, remodeled by someone, and maintained by someone. Builders and remodelers are the backbone of our communities, and people rely on them to keep things running smoothly!

4. Develop useful skills for your own home: Every homeowner knows that when you have a house, you have a project. Builders and remodelers have the skills to build sweat equity in their own homes, and provide for their families with both their income and their skills around the house. Even if they don’t do a particular job, chances are that they have a friend/coworker who does!

3. There are LOTS of career paths in the field: From drawing architectural plans to pouring concrete, from drywall to roofing, plumbing to HVAC work, there is a universe of different jobs that one can do in the building industry. Each of them requires a unique skill set, and each of them is vitally important!

2. Be part of a growing industry: Before the Coronavirus crisis, all the news about the building industry was labor shortage, labor shortage, labor shortage. Though we don’t know what will happen to the economy after the pandemic, trends show that before the pandemic single-family home building projects were on the rise. I know three different architectural firms, and even during the quarantine shutdown, all of them have been busy drawing new plans for this summer’s projects.

1. Construction and remodeling jobs pay well: There’s a huge pay range in the construction industry – from laborers with no education or experience (median: $38,000/year) to general contractors (average: $91,000). Of course, a lot depends on where you live, how much experience you have, etc. but when you combine a solid income with a lack of education debt and the other benefits, it’s a great career!

Questions: Or, what happens when an outsider joins the lumber business

By Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

If you’ve read the employee spotlight about me, you know that I’m not originally from the lumber/building materials (LBM) industry. My background is in history and marketing. Sure, I’ve done my share of home improvement projects, but I’m an amateur and I know it. In the ten months that I’ve been working at Country Lumber, I’ve learned a lot. And I’m wise enough to know that I’ve only scratched the surface. Today, I’m going to share with you some of the questions that I’ve had this past year, and what I’ve learned since joining the LBM industry. You might just learn something yourself!

  1. Cherry trees are tiny. How do they make enough wood to become lumber, millwork, or furniture?
    Through a quick internet search, I learned that there are different kinds of cherry trees. While we tend to think of the pretty flowering trees from Japan, cherry wood actually comes from a different species called the American Black Cherry Tree (Prunus serotina). The Black Cherry has a much thicker trunk than the ornamental varieties, and makes nice hardwood that usually has a straight grain, making it easy to mill and work with. A cut Black Cherry Tree looks kind of like a bullseye. The inner heartwood is darker in color, and the outer ring, or pulp wood, is lighter.
  2. Is MDF fake? Where does it come from? What is the production and use difference between MDF, plywood, and particle board?
    This question turned into a rabbit trail as each piece of information gave me more questions. As I’ve stated, I’m no expert. But here’s what I’ve learned:
    Engineered wood – including MDF (medium-density fibreboard), plywood, particle board, and a host of other products – is made from real wood, or at least wood fibres. So it’s not “fake” per se.
    These man-made products start with wood fragments, which are put together with adhesives. That’s as general a description as I can give, because each type of engineered wood is created differently. MDF, for example, is tiny wood fibres coated in wax or resin, then adhered together to form a dense, solid material. Particle board is similar, but instead of tiny fibres, it’s made from wood chips mixed with a binder. Plywood, on the other hand, is made of thin sheets of wood veneer which are glued together, alternating the grain to give it strength.
  3. Like I said, learning about engineered wood gave me more questions. Is engineered wood better than real wood?
    Yes and no. Like everything in life, you have to have the right tool for the job.
    Engineered wood is man-made, so it can be created to meet more specific requirements and have greater uniformity than natural lumber. Engineered materials can be made from recycled wood or wood or scraps.
    On the downside, engineered wood products don’t have the grain and look of natural wood unless they’re covered with a wood veneer. Also, the adhesives in engineered products may contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, so you should wear a mask when cutting it.
  4. What is maintenance-free decking made from?
    All this research on engineered wood made me wonder about composite decking. Composite decks are maintenance- and splinter-free, and look like new year after year. But what are they made from? Turns out they’re a composite of wood fibres and plastics, moulded or extruded to look like timber planks. Exact formulas and processes vary by manufacturer, but that’s the basic recipe. I had no idea there was wood involved, and many contain recycled materials, too!
  5. What about treated lumber?
    When we built our deck ten years ago, and when we fenced our garden, we used green treated wood. I wanted to know what that was about, so I did some digging. Wood is a porous, natural material, so it’s prone to rot and insect infestation when it’s in contact with moist ground. To improve the longevity of lumber, they use pressure-treating. This process involves soaking the wood in a preservative, then putting it in a pressure chamber so the preservative can soak deep into the wood. This helps the lumber resist rot and repel pests. As with the manufactured wood, there are chemicals involved, so it’s best to use gloves when handling treated wood, and wear a mask when you’re cutting it.

I hope you got some new information from my wonderings, or at least got a good laugh at what an LBM newbie doesn’t know. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment. I’m always up for new things to research!

Employee Spotlight: Al

By: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

It’s been a few months since I put up a blog post. We had some issues with the website, and between other priorities and getting someone smarter than me to fix it, it just took time. But it’s all working now, and I’ve even been able to touch up some things on the site!

In the meantime, we brought in a new Yard Foreman/Dispatcher, so it’s time to introduce you to Al!

 

(That’s him under the beard)

Al and his wife, Melissa, live in Big Lake with their two sons and two dogs. He likes living out here because it’s less congested than the Cities. It’s also a good place for Al’s hobbies, which include hunting, woodworking, welding, and cooking with his smoker – a convenient hobby since smoked BBQ is his favorite food.

His favorite thing about working at Country Lumber has been the people and personalities he works with – both employees and customers. We enjoy working with Al, too (even if he’s not a coffee drinker…)!

Next time you stop in, say hi to Al and welcome him to the team. If you’re lucky, he might show you pictures of some of his gorgeous woodworking projects!

Home Winterization

By: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

As much as I hate to admit it, winter is coming. And they’re predicting a bad one. Sigh…

It doesn’t have to be all bad, though. Winter is beautiful, and I do love a good, cozy snow day with hot cocoa and jigsaw puzzles. But I digress…

A little prep work now goes a long way in preparing your home for a comfortable and energy-efficient winter. Here are a few things to switch, check, and update before the snow flies:

As you can see, you’ll need to call on a few professionals, but preparing your home now will save you time, money, and headaches later. Your home is one of your biggest investments, protect it!

Getting the Most out of Online Design Tools

By: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

Have you ever played with online design tools? The ones where you put in a picture of your home and see what it would look like with a variety of updates? I’m a big fan of this tool. For one thing, you get to see what different exterior products would look like on your exact house. For another thing, it’s free, and available 24 hours a day. You can sit in your favorite recliner in your fuzzy slippers and dream about what your home could be.

I’ve shopped around the internet, and I have a few tips to help you get the most out of online design tools:

1. Start with a good picture. Waudena Millwork/Diamond Kote lets you start with an image from Google Street View, but with any other site (or if your Google view’s not great), you’ll need to start by taking a picture of your home.

  • Take the photo during daylight hours in decent weather
  • Take the photo facing straight at the front of your home. Shots from an angle make everything look off later.
  • Minimize visual clutter. Cars in the driveway, garbage cans in front of the house, or decor/furniture items in the shot will make setup challenging later.

2. Pick your website. If you have a preferred siding company you plan to work with, use their tool. If you have a preferred contractor, find out what brand(s) they work with. There’s no reason to go through all the setup for something you can’t use in the end.

If you’re at square one, or you’re just having fun with possibilities, there are a number of manufacturers who offer this tool. Here are a few I tried out:

  • LP Smartside – they offer custom looks at siding, accent siding, brick/stone, and trim. Their tool offers a unique feature allowing you to adjust the perspective and brightness of your photo. On the downside, I couldn’t find a measuring tool, so everything looked comically oversized on the little cottage image I used.
  • EDCO – EDCO’s design tool has roofing, siding, and trim options.
  • Certainteed – Certainteed’s design tool offers roofing, siding, accent siding, brick/stone, trim, and matching paint colors for visualizing colors on shutters and doors. I found it really complete, though the colors can appear a bit bright and cartoonish if your original picture isn’t bright enough.
  • Waudena Millwork/Diamond Kote – This tool offers the most options of any I tried, including roofing, siding, accent siding, stone/brick, trim, matching paint for doors and shutters, and exterior doors complete with lock and handle options. This tool is recently updated with a lot of great features, including the Google Street View option I mentioned above.

3. Patience and a Steady Hand. Setting up your image isn’t instant. Unfortunately, no matter which site you work with, you’ll have to painstakingly trace out which areas are siding, accent siding, roofing, etc. And the more careful you are, the better it will look in the end.

For my research, I downloaded a stock image of a simple cottage. On each site I traced out the siding, doors, windows, roofing, etc. Then the fun began! I imagined my little house as a rustic cabin, a beach cottage, and more. I gave it stone trim, accent shutters at the peak, and new color schemes. It was a really great way to see what was possible.

Check out any of the tools linked above, and when you fall in love, come see us at Country Lumber. We carry all of these great brands and more!

Employee Spotlight: Jonathan

By: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

Jonathan is another black coffee-drinking, long-commuting, hard-working member of the Country Lumber staff (we seem to have a type…). He came to us after living all over the country and working for more than seven years as an architect. Those experiences give Jonathan a unique perspective, which he uses in his work – Commercial Building Materials Sales and Consulting.

Jonathan has been at Country Lumber for three and a half years, and his favorite thing about his job is completing large and small projects on iconic structures in the Twin Cities metro area.

Central Lutheran Church addition, Minneapolis

When he’s not selling building materials for cool projects, Jonathan enjoys going to live music events (more than 50 a year!). He also plays the drums, and enjoys outdoor activities like biking, kayaking, and hiking.

If you’re looking for commercial building materials and you want expert help with an architectural background and experience with unique projects, contact Jonathan at jonathank@countrylumber.us

Investing for the Sale: Preparing your home to get top dollar in a hot market (Interview with Realtor Cass Studor)

By: Karah Hawkinson, Social Media Coordinator

Sometimes, we do home improvement projects because we want to be more comfortable or make our home work better for our family and lifestyle. Sometimes, we invest to help make a sale. I wanted to know more about which projects make a difference in home sales, so I went right to the source and interviewed a local realtor.

Cass Studor is a realtor with Haller Realty. She works out of Haller’s Becker and Sauk Rapids locations. She also owns Snap Fitness gyms in Becker and Big Lake.

CL: My main question is what home improvement projects do the most to add equity or speed up the sale of a home?
CS: There are many updates one can do to help assist with the sale of their home. Some projects may be smaller in nature, while others a bit more of an undertaking. It is always good to look at what doing the upgrades/updates will do for the sale of your home.

Let’s start at the beginning. When a prospective buyer drives up to your house, what do they see? What does the entry of your home look like? You want to make sure that your front door is in good condition. I have viewed homes where there were cracks in the solid wood doors that gave buyers and uneasy feeling before even entering the home. Curb appeal is important as prospective buyers may drive by your home prior to requesting a showing, and you don’t want to lose out on someone viewing your home due to the front door/entry being in poor condition. Sometimes a new door and hardware are needed and others a fresh coat of paint will do the trick nicely. Also make sure if there are stairs leading into your home or a front porch that they are in good repair. Rotting steps or decking do not give a good first impression. Buyers will also look up when they first encounter your home. How does the roof of your home look? If a roof is in need of repair, it can be a turnoff for many buyers.

Another area that is always important is the kitchen, for some the most important area of a home. Buyers pay a great deal of attention to the condition of kitchens.

CL: Kitchens can be expensive projects.
CS: If doing an overhaul is not in your budget, there are less expensive ways to update the look of the kitchen if your cabinets are in good shape but outdated. You can refinish the existing cabinets or purchase new doors for them. Updating the hardware on the cabinets and on the kitchen sink is also good to do. New hardware can give the room a completely different feel. Next, after the kitchen, comes the bathroom. Bathrooms are a very essential part of the home. Kitchens and bathrooms can be the areas of a home that can be more expensive to update, but people do notice these areas.

CL: What are the small things a person can do to freshen up a home for listing?
CS: If your budget is smaller, you can always freshen your home up rather than some of the bigger remodel projects. Fresh paint and a good cleaning can go a long way to make a home more inviting. Now if budget allows, there are some fun projects that can make your home stand out against the competition.

CL: Anything else? What if you’re not sure where to begin?
CS: The list could go on and on for the updates that you could make to your home or things you could add, like a deck. You need to choose wisely for your individual home as to which areas need your care the most. If you are unsure which areas of your home could use some updating or TLC, make sure to talk to your realtor. They can help you decide which projects will help the most with increasing the value or curb appeal of your home.

Thank you, Cass, for taking the time to tell us about investing to prepare for real estate listing!