Making it work in Wichita
Three Wichita business owners talk about what it takes to own a business in Wichita, and why they don’t pick up and move somewhere else.
WHAT MAKES A BUSINESS STAY OR LEAVE?
Pizza Hut. White Castle. Rent-A-Center. All of these businesses were started here in Wichita, but no longer have a central presence. Essentially, they grew out of Wichita like a toddler grows out of pants.
How can Wichita ensure it can keep up with some of our fast-growing companies that don’t necessarily need Wichita to do business? With today’s technology, business isn’t as tied to geography. Moving a business is easier — and so is finding a customer base.
So why do some businesses choose to stay in Wichita when they could clearly be successful almost anywhere else?
We talked with three Wichita business owners whose customer bases are mostly outside of Wichita to find out why they stay.
THE BUSINESS OWNERS:
JONATHAN ENDICOTT – Slickwraps
Jonathan Endicott is the CEO of Slickwraps, which makes protective and stylish wraps for electronics including smart phones, computers, tablets, gaming systems and even drones.
The company started eight years ago in Endicott’s basement in Andover, but moved three years ago to an office and distribution center in Old Town.
Endicott was born and raised in Wichita, but his business has provided him the opportunity to move elsewhere. He has considered it, but for now remains in business here in Wichita.
Shadi Marcos – Cybertron International
Shadi Marcos is the president and CFO of Cybertron International, which includes Cybertron PC and CLX Gaming. Essentially, the company makes high-performance computers for everything from business needs to gaming.
The company started 21 years ago, when computers and the Internet were disrupting almost everything about the workplace. Marcos started the company with some college friends just after graduating from Wichita State University.
Marcos is originally from Egypt and came to Wichita to go to school. He says technology has made it easier to run a business from pretty much anywhere, but Wichita still has an advantage when it comes to shipping product from coast to coast.
Tim Blurton – Hyper Pet
Tim Blurton is the CEO of Hyper Pet, a company that makes a wide array of pet products, from chew toys to leashes and food bowls.
Blurton has been in the pet industry for over thirty years and bought Hyper Pet, which was at the time focused on products like horse blankets, from a Wichita family in 2016.
Blurton is originally from the U.K., and got his start working for Mars Corporation, which makes pet treats in addition to their human treats. He says Wichita is a great place to run a business, but there are some things he would change if he could.
We asked each of these entrepreneurs the same questions, in order to gauge how their experiences were similar and how they were different.
What percentage of your customer base is here in Wichita?
JONATHAN: Our customers are everywhere in the world. I’ve never promoted here in Wichita, but we ship globally — all over the world. And we just kind of grew organically into what we are today.
SHADI: I would say probably only about 10 percent of our customer base is in Kansas, or even Wichita.
TIM: I mean, we sell our products all over the U.S. We sell in all the major outlets. Walmart is a very, very big customer of ours.
Is it possible that Wichitans use your product without even realizing you’re a Wichita company?
SHADI: Yeah, that’s happened. Sometimes people place orders for products, either on our website or on Amazon, Best Buy or Walmart, and then find out afterwards that they could have just gone to the store and picked it up.
JONATHAN: Actually, I was just at a meeting a couple of days ago, and I was talking to a guy here in Wichita. He asked me what I did, and I was kind of vague, like, "I own a manufacturing company. We manufacture cell phone accessories." He asked, "Like Slickwraps?" He’s like, "I’ve spent thousands of dollars with you guys. My son and I are huge fans."
TIM: Most people using our products probably either don’t realize they’re our products, or if they do realize it’s Hyper Pet, don’t realize that Hyper Pet is based in Wichita.
Most people using our products probably either don’t realize they’re our products, or if they do realize it’s Hyper Pet, don’t realize that Hyper Pet is based in Wichita.Tim Blurton, CEO of Hyper Pet
What has made your company successful here in Wichita?
TIM: Everything we make is distributed out of Wichita. In terms of the location, it’s just a great location in the middle of the country. You can get to either side of the country in the same amount of time. The delivery times are really good. That’s the location piece. The other piece is just that I think the people are extremely hardworking, very dedicated and very loyal to the company. I think there are a lot of skills and creativity in Wichita, which we’ve been able to harness.
SHADI: Warehouse space is very affordable, as well as salaries and wages in Wichita. Really, probably the bigger thing is, this is such an entrepreneurial town that there’s a lot of support for people like us.
JONATHAN: Being centrally located is a huge benefit. We can get to both sides of the country in just like two to three days with First Class, which is typically like six days from LA to New York.
I would say probably only about 10 percent of our customer base is in Kansas, or even Wichita.Shadi Marcos, President and CFO of Cybertron International
Was there ever a time you thought your business might not work here in Wichita?
JONATHAN: You know, not really. I never really think of the "noes," and the "don’ts". I always focus on doing, and I never really give up. So, "no" doesn’t really exist in my vocabulary, to be honest with you.
SHADI: Early on, we focused our business on the national market, so we have never been that sensitive to the economic swings of the local market. I guess I would say it wasn’t really an option in the early years of our business. We had limited resources, so moving our business would not have been that easy. We did what we had to do to make it work here.
TIM: No. The pet industry is a great industry to be in. People love their pets, and even when money’s tight, we still spend money on pets, which is great.
Do you think there’s anything holding your business back from being even more successful?
JONATHAN: I think there are always things that keep us back. Logistics is always the biggest hurdle. Shipping, inventory, manufacturing and all those things. Even though we’ve been around for eight years, I still feel like we run as a startup. We’re always faced with challenges.
SHADI: Air travel is definitely difficult in and out of the city. If you’re trying to get to the coast to go to any kind of conference or to visit a client, it does take you a long time — basically a day to get out and a day to come back. In other cities, you can hop on a direct flight and be anywhere you want in just a couple hours.
Another big one is there’s not always the talent pool here when it comes to technology.
TIM: No. I just think the pet industry has a very competitive landscape. You have to fight for all the sales you get. There are a lot of very talented people in the pet industry producing great products. We think we create the best. We’re as good as anyone else. It’s a healthy competition, but if it wasn’t there, we could sell a lot more.
Was there ever a time you thought you’d have to move out of Wichita to succeed?
JONATHAN: Yeah, for talent. I’m trying to build a team of videographers, and it’s almost impossible to do it.
SHADI: No. We’re pretty firmly rooted here.
TIM: A lot of our products come in from China or from India. It will come in through the rail system in Kansas City. Then, we ship it down by truck to Wichita. The cost of shipping that product from Kansas City to Wichita is very expensive compared to the cost of bringing the product from China or India. It’s a big percentage for a small part of the journey. We probably would’ve saved over half a million dollars a year if we’d have put the new warehouse somewhere around the Kansas City area. With that sort of saving, you have to think long and hard about it. In the end, we decided to stay in Wichita. I think for good reasons. The biggest one is the people.
Theoretically, could your business succeed outside of Wichita?
JONATHAN: Yeah, for us, we don’t really need Wichita. Wichita doesn’t provide us anything, to be honest, other than outrageous fees for parking here in downtown. It’s crazy. I have to pay like eight bucks per employee per month.
Wichita just doesn’t focus on creative companies, and they don’t focus on companies that can expand and grow. They focus on dead companies that just do boring stuff and are going to stick with 10 employees for the rest of their lives.
We see The Downtown Association with their Facebook and Old Town Association with their Facebook, and they’re always promoting a restaurant or bar. Everybody knows about those. You need to focus on other companies that are growing.
SHADI: That’s very hypothetical. I mean, with technology anymore, you could perform your business almost anywhere. To manufacture computers and provide IT services, we could really be doing that in any part of the country.
TIM: We could be successful anywhere, I’m sure. But at the end of the day, it’s about finding good people that are dedicated to your business. Could we find those people elsewhere? Probably. But why would we? We have a fantastic team today.
Wichita just doesn’t focus on creative companies, and they don’t focus on companies that can expand and grow.Jonathan Endicott, CEO of Slickwraps
Have you ever struggled to hire someone because of your location here in Wichita?
JONATHAN: There’s a lot of great talent out there, but not a lot of talent has great experience. They just move, and I don’t blame them. I mean, for somebody who is just out of college, or who’s been in creative their whole lives, there are just not a lot of opportunities.
SHADI: Apart from technology talent, another major struggle that we have is being able to hire manufacturing folks.
You know, you’ve got the aircraft companies that are doing such big swings in their hiring and firing and layoffs, and those big swings just cause a vacuum of labor in the manufacturing field. Or sometimes, a complete excess of labor. We definitely feel it when they suddenly hire a large group of people who just create a little bit of a vacuum, and then suddenly they’ll just do these huge layoffs, and you’ve got a lot of people looking for work. I think Wichita’s very sensitive to that. Maybe not a lot of people realize it, but the small business people like us feel it.
TIM: If we look at the warehouse office type of employee, I think Wichita is an interesting labor market because the availability depends on how well the aircraft industry is doing, and then, to some extent, the gas and oil industry. When the aircraft industry is doing well, it’s harder for us to recruit great people. Then, obviously, when there’s more of a lull in those industries, there’s more availability.
Marketing people and designers, yeah, there is a challenge there. But if you look at recruiting designers of dog toys, there’s not very many of them. A lot of them tend to be based on the West Coast or the East Coast. I wouldn’t say Wichita is somewhere a lot of them have thought would be a place they’d want to live one day. That’s just how it is, right?
But with technology these days, you can still be very connected to a business, even if you’re not physically located there all the time, so we use video conference, telephone conference, etc.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs considering starting a business here?
TIM: It’s the same advice I would give to any entrepreneur. I mean, I think it’s about believing in yourself and believing in what you’re trying to achieve. I think it’s about trying to seek advice and support.
I think there’s quite a driving business community in Wichita. I mean, there’s a long history in Wichita of companies that have started here. Some are still based in Wichita. Some have moved out, obviously. I think within the business community, there are a lot of people with a lot of experience that can give advice. I think if you’re starting out, it’s always good to be able to talk to people who’ve maybe been through some of the experience of starting up a business and understanding some of the challenges and helping you through that.
JONATHAN: You know, Wichita’s pretty awesome to start a company in. And I see entrepreneurship everywhere. I tell people all the time, it’s like an entrepreneur capital.
The cost of living is also really cheap. So, you can really take those extra funds, quit your job and live pretty comfortably — and still start that dream. That would be really difficult if you lived in a bigger town.
SHADI: Talk to as many other entrepreneurs and business people as possible. Use the resources that are available. For example, WSU has a Center for Entrepreneurship, which is a huge resource for people like us when we first started out. Being able to get both academic and real business world advice from people in the community has been awesome. That’s probably the thing I would say for somebody starting out.
If you could change anything about Wichita what would it be and why?
JONATHAN: The biggest problem I see is that a lot of youth are just not getting involved — or they don’t know how to.
The younger generations need to be spearheading the future of Wichita. I would like to see more of that. Younger, hipper people creating businesses and driving businesses in Wichita.
SHADI: We need to attract more talent, and we need to keep talent here after they finish college. I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to that, and I feel like most of the other cities are still kind of grappling with that as well. If we’re able to figure that one out quickly, that’s the one that’s going to make the biggest impact for businesses like ours.
TIM: Well, for our business in particular, I would absolutely have the ability to bring product in and out by rail. I think that would really open Wichita up to a lot of different types of businesses. Then, I think the other thing would be developing more direct flights. That’s obviously not in Wichita’s control — I totally get that — but to me, you really need good access in and out. No one really runs any business without being connected with the rest of the U.S. Although, it is a great airport, the more connections we can develop from there, and the more direct flights, the better.
If your concerns aren’t addressed, do you think you’d be forced to move?
JONATHAN: I guess I’ve never given myself an ultimatum for Wichita. I like being here.
SHADI: Again, I’d say we’re pretty firmly rooted here in Wichita.
TIM: No. I think if we were going to do that, the time for us to do it would’ve been the end of last year, or when we committed to our new warehouse. I mean, now we’re in a 100,000-square-foot, brand-new warehouse facility. We’ve developed our office space how we wanted it to be. It was built the way we wanted it to be. I think this was a very firm commitment from Hyper Pet to Wichita. I don’t see that changing.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.