Small Business Spotlight: Industrial Design Agency Utilizes Business Resources in New Orleans
After spending four days in New Orleans and a few days back at their office in Los Angeles rising office costs and the blaring noise of helicopters and traffic surrounding them, the two decided it was time for a fresh start.
As owners of Real DFM, or Real- Designed from Manufacturing, the move to New Orleans allowed the couple to turn their start-up into a growing small business.
ng office costs and the blaring noise of helicopters and traffic surrounding them, the two decided it was time for a fresh start.
Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, Real DFM has its share of challenges. However, Anna is open about these challenges and views them as opportunities to evolve the business.
In this Small Business Spotlight, Anna sits down with the New Orleans Business Alliance to discuss Real DFM’s growth and what it is like to be a company with global reach located in New Orleans.
What is Industrial Design?
Together, Anna and Brien first found their niche.
Anna explains, “I started Real DFM with my husband, Brien in 2015 while we were living in Los Angeles. We were working individually as freelancers, myself in project management for utility scale solar projects, and Brien as an industrial designer. We began talking about what we could do together since we both had a drive to create something for ourselves.”
After some thought the couple unified their work experience and decided to take a risk by forming their own company—a brave move for anyone, but especially for those who already live together!
“We realized that with our cumulative skills in international business, project management, industrial design and a deep understanding of manufacturing processes, we had the ability to build a company that really offered a comprehensive service for designing and developing products from concept to production,” says Anna.
Industrial design turns ideas into real products. It utilizes technology and engineering to figure out how to execute design, so that the result is fully functional and marketable. With connections in China, Real DFM connects businesses to manufacturing facilities.
While there are many agencies that can design a product, and make a prototype look shiny and beautiful. Few agencies are able to turn that design into a real product that works and can be reproduced like Anna and Brien.
That’s where Real DFM found its niche—by offering full turnkey service.
The New Orleans Advantage: Location, Location, Location
Moving to New Orleans was a strategic boon for Real DFM.
The city’s walkable, neighborhood-centered identity meant that Anna and Brien cut down their commute times. They found other perks as well.
While it varies by neighborhood, rental of New Orleans office spaces can often be found for under $2 per square foot. The lower cost of business allows Real DFM to save on overhead—savings they pass on to their clients and put back into business growth.
The New Orleans Advantage: Strong Entrepreneurial Climate
Soon after moving to the Crescent City, Anna and Brien realized they were not alone; there was an incredibly energetic entrepreneurial community in place. After all, New Orleans ranks 3rd in the country for cities with the youngest entrepreneurs.
They also learned that New Orleans remains a city where networking is key to growing a business. Anna points out that while organized networking events play a role in bringing people together, often, “It’s the unassuming person that randomly sits next to you at the bar that becomes the game changer to opening opportunity. You really have to be out and about in your neighborhood.”
The New Orleans Advantage: Small Business Resources
Part of the strong entrepreneurial climate in New Orleans comes from the small business resources. The city offers a growing number of business accelerators and incubators including: the Urban League, Propeller, The Idea Village, Fund 17, and more.
Accelerators advise startups and small businesses with planning and development a growth strategy.
Anna was accepted into the Urban League’s “Women in Business Challenge.” Offered over the course of nine modules, this selective program provides business planning consultations geared toward growth. Participants work with advisors on their business plans and on their presentation to compete for $10,000 in a New Orleans Entrepreneur Week pitch contest.
The accelerator program and pitch challenge allowed Anna to focus her business. As she puts it, “I’ve found that sometimes you can get stuck in the weeds as a small business owner…that you risk not putting your head up, looking at the big picture and thinking about what the growth plan is going to be.”
Added Anna, “The accelerator program gave me the chance to look at how I could diversify revenue streams and how I could manage everything that was going to be a part of that.”
Transitioning from “Start-up” to “Small Business”
Making the jump from “start-up” to “small business” is as much of a mental hurdle as it is a logistical hurdle to prove a business model.
In the transition, long-term business planning begins to play a more central role in the operations of the company. Processes become optimized for growth rather than survival. Utilizing business resources for guidance provides a measure of stability as the business shifts.
“There are still day-to-day growing pains of course, but I can’t imagine how I would have taken that leap without everything I learned in the Urban League accelerator program and the support of the advisors there,” admits Anna.
Though full of nerves and terrified at the NOEW pitch competition, Anna hit her stride on stage. She soon found herself walking away with the $10,000 prize to put towards Real DFM’s growth.
“At the end of the day, participating in the ‘Women in Business’ challenge let me know that I wasn’t alone as a business owner. It was a wonderful support community of women entrepreneurs working in so many unique lines of business,” says Anna.
Why Clients Choose Real DFM: A New Orleans Business
Customers who find Real DFM on the web are often surprised to learn that the company is based in New Orleans. Says Anna, “We keep our overhead lower because we are in New Orleans, where we can cut the fat. But people also have a very charming view of us being in New Orleans. It’s something different and a little quirky.”
Clients working on products that they want to keep secret prefer that Real DFM is located New Orleans rather than Silicon Valley. In one instance, a client working on blockchain technology that specifically chose Real DFM because of concerns that their technology would leak in a city with larger tech community.
Small Business in the Big Easy: Always Room to Improve
While Real DFM has experienced incredible success in New Orleans, being an entrepreneur is not easy in any city.
Nevertheless, Anna sheds light on where New Orleans can improve the small business ecosystem and business resources.
“Industrial design hasn’t, up to now, been an industry common to New Orleans, or even Louisiana as a whole,” she explains. “We have sometimes found it difficult to find the right support on certain aspects of our business that are perhaps not so well understood in the area.”
Situating Real DFM’s business within the various accelerator programs has sometimes proved problematic. Most of Real DFM’s clients are located all over the world and not locally focused.
Anna would like to see accelerators that cater to businesses in similar stages of growth or similar industries. Simply grouping all businesses together as startups can make it challenging to get into the real weeds of business. For example, grouping a bakery, a construction company, and technology start-up may not always make sense. These businesses often operate on different scales and face different challenges in the growth process.
Despite some challenges to the entrepreneurial community, Anna asserts, “I feel like I watch the small business support system in New Orleans grow almost daily, and I really see the drive to make and maintain that ecosystem as one of the best in the United States. I’m certainly proud to be a part of it.”
Where to from here?
Anna and Brien have transformed their company. They recently underwent a major rebranding, complete with a website makeover.
As Real DFM approaches its third anniversary, Anna outlines her goals for the company in the near future.
One goal is hiring.
“Our two biggest expansion plans for the immediate future are hiring a couple of local designers/engineers, so that we can continue to manage the work load of all of the projects coming in,” says Anna.
Secondly, the team is looking to expand their prototyping abilities here in New Orleans.
“We already have a good-sized prototyping and short run facility in Dongguan, China, but we really find it beneficial for our design process to be able to do a lot of early concept development in house. It allows us to test out different ideas and materials. We have our eyes on a laser cutter and a desktop CNC (Computer Numerical Control machine),” explains Anna.
With these goals in mind, Anna and Brien continue to navigate their business wearing many hats each day and juggling a heavy portfolio of international clients.
Anna reflects, “One of the most important things for us has been recognizing the need to pivot when necessary and accepting that what you may have thought was the right idea one year ago may turn out to not be the best idea at all, and being able to look at the time spent on that track as learnings rather than failures.”
Like the ideas and products Real DFM develops, they too, evolve and improve each day.