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September 2009
Mirror Mirror on the Wall
By Chistina Kapely

     Lisa Huntting was always innovative; but it wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that she actually put together one of her own visions. With a knack for arts and crafts, a few pieces of molding, and inspiration from HGTV, Huntting began creating frames to dress up the large, bare vanity mirrors in her house.

     She was convinced that if she could find a way to easily and economically frame her own plain mirrors, there would be a huge market for others who shared her desire to improve their mirror décor.

     Five years later, that vision has grown into a $2.3 million business with a product known as the MirrorMate frame. Today, MirrorMate, LLC makes easy-to-install frames that quickly and inexpensively transform plate mirrors into seemingly free-hanging works of art, specifically for the do-it-yourselfer.

 

Reflecting on a Need

     The MirrorMate story is not one of overnight success, but rather of hard work and dedication over time.

     Huntting, founder and president of MirrorMate frames, started out in traditional product marketing for Woolite brand products at American Home Products in New York City. A few years later, she decided she wanted to learn more about the financial side of business and entered Columbia School of Business Administration.

     After business school, Huntting worked in corporate finance at Bankers Trust (now Deutsche Bank) in New York, and subsequently as vice president of public finance at Norwest Investment Services, Inc. (now part of Wells Fargo) in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

     When Huntting had a son, she decided to leave corporate life and start her own business. For her, it was a natural move; her father was the fourth generation to run Huntting Elevator Company and on her mother’s side was another family-run business.

“It’s in my blood. I’ve always wanted to start my own business and after having my son, I didn’t want to work full-time. I actually haven’t really worked full-time ever since,” laughs Huntting.

     So, still in Minneapolis, Huntting founded Professional Alternatives, Inc., which placed experienced individuals in human resources and marketing in temporary or contract-to-hire positions. Within a few years, Huntting needed a change and sold her business to move to North Carolina to try something new.

     Huntting had first become interested in the notion of creating mirror frames after seeing a similar project on HGTV. The idea was a good one, but though Huntting was crafty, she knew nothing about creating frames and had experience in service businesses only, not manufacturing.

She toyed with a few businesses all while keeping the framing idea in the back of her mind. Finally, with a little nudge from a friend, Huntting dove into MirrorMate as her next big project.

     “I lived in a house with four huge, naked mirrors, and they really, really bugged me. I thought there should be some way to do something about it that would be easy for the homeowner. But it would also have to be patentable,” says Huntting.

     Huntting started out by gathering information—she began hanging out at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores around two o’clock in the afternoon, which, according to her, is best for one-on-one time with the associates. Soon Huntting had a miter saw and began going to picture frame trade shows for observation and inspiration.

     Her diligence paid off and she met executives from Larson Juhl who offered advice and started opening doors for her. Within nine months, MirrorMate was running out of her garage and six months later expanded to a 9,000-square-foot office and manufacturing space in Matthews. With her current location, she expects to be able to produce around $8 million in annual sales before having to expand her facility further.

 

Framing the Market

     At just over five years old now, MirrorMate is successful and has stood its ground despite the current economic downturn. According to Huntting, MirrorMate began to expand as the do-it-yourself trend was ramping up, a trend that she does not foresee going away any time soon.

     “Our product is easy to assemble and install; if my parents can do it, anyone can do it,” smiles Huntting. Each frame is custom-cut to customer measurements and shipped ready to assemble on top of any existing mirror. MirrorMate frames provide a finished look to plate mirrors similar to framing by a professional framer. The difference is that MirrorMate frames cost about one third of the price of framing a large mirror and are easy to install in minutes.

     MirrorMate’s sales grew 40 percent last year. MirrorMate’s business is split between consumer retail sold online and wholesalers and hotel sales. In the past years, two-thirds of its unit sales were to hotels. Unfortunately, this year hotel sales are down due to a slowdown of hotel renovations.

     On the retail front, Huntting expects sales to increase by 40 percent, while sales to wholesalers will most likely remain flat. Overall, Huntting still expects to come out at around $2.3 million for the year with an increase again next year.

While sales are coming in, the biggest challenge that MirrorMate has, according to Huntting, is simply getting its name out: “MirrorMate products work great. The real challenge that we face is letting people know that we are out there.”

     Although she has cut back on her marketing budget for this year, Huntting is ramping up a new strategically targeted marketing plan with an acute focus on online media.

“We are as much of a marketing company as we are a products company. Even in a recession, you cannot stop marketing,” says Huntting.

     She describes MirrorMate as mainly an online company, gaining new customers through Google searches and over one thousand wholesalers around the nation.

     “You have to understand what the wholesalers’ barriers are to selling your products and help them overcome those barriers,” says Huntting. With some help from a marketing specialist, Huntting is creating an online community. Through e-newsletters, online meetings and forums, Huntting hopes to reach out to wholesalers to give them an opportunity to learn from each other and become familiar with her products.

     To reach current and existing customers, Huntting has also launched a national public relations campaign that not only includes traditional media placements but also includes a plan to pursue niche market bloggers and engage customers through social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

     “We are being much more Web savvy,” says Huntting. “It may not be right for everyone, but for online businesses it is the way to go.”

 

Reflections on Success

     There are a number of factors Huntting credits as contributing to her success with MirrorMate.

     In the beginning, she never expected to make a profit or even to be able to pay herself for the first three years in business. Going into any business with the mindset that it will take time to increase revenue was something that kept Huntting strong as the business developed and ramped up.

     Then, there was her understanding of general business fortified by her background in marketing and finance. When offered the opportunity to use an accountant, Huntting declined stating that, “No one knows your business better than you.”

     In addition to “what you do know,” Huntting says, “knowing what you don’t know” was every bit as important in building her success.

     “I know what I don’t know, so I find people who do,” says Huntting. At MirrorMate, Huntting surrounds herself with people who have the knowledge and skills that complement her strengths including individuals who understand processes, work flow, and even social media. If no one is available, Huntting even recommends hiring a consultant to come in and help with business when it makes sense.

     Also important to Huntting is being surrounded by peers. Currently, Huntting is a member of Vistage of Charlotte, a CEO membership organization that meets monthly to share best practices, ideas, business challenges and questions. For a small business like Huntting’s, she says, this group is crucial when you don’t have a board of directors or group of advisors to turn to monthly.

     According to Huntting, “Owning your own business is always more fulfilling than working for someone else, but also the hardest thing I have ever done. Especially with manufacturing—you have to learn so much every day. It is like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner every day whether you want to or not—you have to keep learning and taking on new things.”

 

Glimmers of the Future

     Moving towards the future is a journey that has already begun. Just recently, MirrorMate released a new product called Pizzazz MirrorSquares, small, decorative framed mirrors. Even more unique than the product though, is the packaging in which it comes. Customers can order Pizzazz MirrorSquares in medium (12 inch) or large (14 inch) sizes and have them delivered in a pizza box to their front door. Similar projects that create a huge impact for residents or real estate stagers with little skills or effort are coming down the road. Huntting hopes to soon begin to develop a catalogue of products.

     Another big push for Huntting and the staff at MirrorMate is going “green” and becoming green certified. Huntting, a self-admitting tree hugger who drives a hybrid car, composts and recycles regularly, conducts nothing less than sustainable practices in her own business. To date, MirrorMate goes to great lengths to recycle and reuse as much as possible including using scrap molding for smaller frames and samples, and recycling cardboard and wooden pallets.

     Nearly 85 percent of the molding used by MirrorMate is made of 100 percent recycled medium density fiberboard manufactured in the United States of America. Their supplier of wood molding is also environmentally conscientious and has planted over 300,000 trees worldwide.

     MirrorMate is already 100 percent compliant with phase one of the new California formaldehyde regulation for composite wood products. Even though the manufacturing standard will not be fully regulated until 2012, MirrorMate is already compliant to the standards that will be imposed by the California Air Resources Board, which will be the toughest production standard in the world for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood panels.

     On a more personal level, Huntting is striving to give back more in her career and personal life. She hopes to create her own charitable foundation in the future.

     Lisa Huntting is living her dream of owning her very own business that has a niche in the marketplace and success reflected across the Internet. One thing’s for sure…Huntting will continue to add products to MirrorMate as she conjures them up; who knows what the next makeover might be?

     As the company continues to grow, Huntting and her staff at MirrorMate are looking up.

Christina Kapely is a Charlotte freelance writer.
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