How Lake of the Ozarks Startup 11 North Is Navigating Supply Chain, Labor Challenges
The COVID-19 pandemic has created ups and downs for many entrepreneurs as opportunities for growth have been paired with obstacles, forcing many to get creative and find workarounds. Entrepreneurs like Jeff and Amanda DeWit, owners of custom home services company 11 North at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, show that the present difficulties are helping shape a picture of what they want their business to be in the future. The couple experienced business gains in 2020, but 2021 brought supply chain and labor shortage challenges.
“We got busier in 2020 because people had a lot of time to sit around at home and look at the improvement projects they’d been wanting to do for years,” Jeff explains. “We had so much more work that we needed to hire additional people. Now, we’re facing major shipping delays for construction materials, furniture and appliances, and it’s hard to find workers.”
In 2022, inflation and higher gas prices are also part of the equation.
“Every one of the countless drives to the hardware store costs more and prices are higher when we check out,” Amanda says. “For a small business, it adds up in a big way. We're honoring our own labor estimates that were written up and booked last year even though that means we absorb the cost. We're adapting to stay fair to our current customers while planning accordingly for the future.”
The husband-and-wife team is taking on fewer projects and setting clear expectations with customers around unpredictable project timelines. They are also finding ways to be more efficient with materials and driving time as well as relying less on specialty trade subcontractors to complete projects. Jeff also works extra hours on construction jobs to make up for being short-staffed.
“It’s not unusual for us to work 80 to 100 hours a week,” Jeff says. “It’s a huge investment of time, but that’s the work ethic you need to own a business. We know eventually, when this all settles down and we're staffed better, things will go back to being a bit easier for us.”
Moving forward despite these issues has required Jeff and Amanda to be flexible and draw lessons from the early days of running their business.
Navigating rapid business expansion and high demand
Amanda and Jeff launched 11 North in 2015. (Eleven represents their June 11, 2011, wedding date, and North reflects their home state of Iowa.) Amanda asked her mom, who used to own a bed-and-breakfast, for guidance on the basics of setting up a business. She also got advice from mentors at Lake of the Ozarks SCORE and her colleagues in the Young Professionals at the Lake group, which is part of the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. They used LegalZoom to establish 11 North as a limited liability corporation, QuickBooks for accounting and worked with Dustin J. Cox at Country Financial in Osage Beach, Missouri, to get insurance.
Jeff quit his job as a district manager for Sprint and tapped into his building background to exclusively subcontract as a project manager for a residential construction and development company. After four years, that contract ended, and the DeWits decided to offer 11 North’s services to more clients. To further grow the company, Amanda left her job as a public relations specialist and graphic designer for Lake Regional Health System and began managing home decor and design projects for 11 North full-time.
While Jeff says it was scary to no longer have a guaranteed paycheck, he was able to lean on his strong relationships with local suppliers, vendors, contractors and realtors to grow 11 North at a rapid pace.
For six months, Jeff worked alone tackling tasks like kitchen and bathroom remodels. He soon realized he needed to hire help to advance to bigger projects including full home construction and remodeling, decks, dock repairs and custom woodworking. In 2020, he had nine employees. The current labor shortage has reduced that number to three.
“We’ve been booked out 12 to 14 months in advance ever since we expanded to take on more clients,” Jeff says. “If we worked 24/7 for the next six months, we still wouldn’t be caught up.”
From day one, Amanda and Jeff have built their business on a foundation of high-quality service. This has led to many customer referrals and earned them the Lake Lifestyles magazine reader’s choice awards for Best Interior Designer in 2022 and 2021 and Best Remodeler in 2020 (finalist in 2022 and 2021).
“We're 100% transparent with our customers on every aspect of a project,” Jeff says. “We’re only interested in doing quality work and going above and beyond expectations.”
Self-funding and operating on a tight business budget
Jeff and Amanda didn’t take out loans to start 11 North. Prior to becoming entrepreneurs, they worked multiple jobs at the same time and took overtime, weekend and holiday shifts whenever possible to pay off debt and save money.
“Our business funding came from us working hard, managing our money well and living below our means,” Jeff says. “We’re proof that you don’t need $100,000 to start a business. If you don’t have the cash for something, you don’t need to go out and buy it. Do what you need to do to get by until you have the cash. The interest on loans will kill you.”
Once 11 North was off the ground, the couple operated on a lean budget to make sure they didn’t overextend themselves.
“We didn’t go out and get a brand-new truck, trailer and tools,” Jeff says. “When we first started, I used the minimal tools necessary to do the job and I would only buy something if it was absolutely necessary. Amanda was using a nine-year-old laptop. Limiting our purchases was critical to making sure we had the funds to continue operating. Now, we’re in a much better position, and if we need something, we can just go get it.”
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Prioritizing brand awareness
One thing the DeWits splurged on right away was marketing and branding. Although Amanda’s design expertise helped them cut costs around crafting the company’s image, they did invest in wrapping their vehicles with the 11 North logo and contact information.
“Our vehicles serve as moving billboards and add to our professionalism when we’re on a job site,” Jeff says. “The money we put toward brand awareness was well spent and we saw a quick return on our investment.”
Amanda encourages entrepreneurs with small budgets who don’t have the skills to do their own graphic design work to seek out professional help through freelance marketplaces like Fiverr.
“It’s really important to have a solid, professional image when launching your own business,” Amanda says. “People comment all the time on our logo, how nice our website is and even the look and feel of our business cards. I put a lot of care into making sure we’re represented well.”
Amanda and Jeff used Squarespace to build their website. They showcase their work and connect with potential customers on 11 North’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“It’s important for a small business to have a website and social media accounts so that people have a place to go and see who you are,” Jeff says. “Amanda also created a Google Business Profile, which allows us to control the way our business appears when people search for us.”
Managing work-life balance as married entrepreneurs
Aside from running their company, Amanda and Jeff are also raising two young daughters, have a third child on the way and are navigating the delicate dance between being business partners and husband and wife.
“We have to set certain times where it's work, then other times where it's just for family,” Amanda says. “We read each other pretty well and know when we need to be done talking about work. One clear boundary for us is that our daughters’ needs trump everything. When it’s time to take care of them, everything else falls to the wayside.”
While Jeff says they’re in “survival mode” right now, focused on keeping up with the heavy demand for their services and delivering the best product for their customers, he does envision a future with greater work-life balance.
“Long term, my goal is to not be working every day, 100 hours a week,” Jeff says. “At some point, I don't want to be the one swinging the hammer, sanding the wood and hanging up the drywall. Ideally, we’d have someone who can run the jobs, and we’d handle things on the back end and meet with customers to make sure they're getting the quality product that we guarantee them.”
Even with the long hours and sacrifices that come with owning a business, Jeff and Amanda say they wouldn’t trade entrepreneurship for anything.
“The best part about being entrepreneurs is that even when there are tough days or situations that aren’t much fun, we can take pride in knowing that everything we’re doing is for our customers and our business,” Jeff says. “At the end of the day, being self-employed is very rewarding and freeing.”
Photos courtesy of Jeff and Amanda DeWitt via Briana Henry of Breakfree Photography.
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