December 27

Episode 154: Zenbuild: Redefining Brick and Stone Buying


In today’s episode of ‘Get Unstuck and On Target,’ Mike talks with Carson Combs, co-founder of Carson and his wife Sharon have transformed the way thin brick, brick, and stone are purchased online, guided by their innovative tagline “Measure twice, click once.”

Carson delves into their journey of starting at their kitchen table with a vision to revolutionize an industry that had remained unchanged for over a century. They have successfully demonstrated that even products that have been around for centuries can provide a phenomenal customer experience when bought online. Their efforts have assisted tens of thousands of customers nationwide with their brick and stone projects.

Listeners will learn about the intricacies of modernizing a traditional market, the criticality of a customer-focused approach in business, and insights into how Zenbuild is leading the charge in online retail innovation in the construction sector.

Carson Combs’ Bio

Carson and his wife, Sharon are the co-founders of Their company was built to make shopping and buying thin brick, brick, and stone as easy as buying anything else online. I love their tagline “Measure twice, click once.”

Like many entrepreneurs they started their business at their kitchen table with a vision to change an industry that has worked the same way for over 100 years. They believe that finding the products you want while having a phenomenal customer experience is how it should be, even for products that have been around for centuries.

Over the years they have helped tens of thousands of customers with their brick or stone projects and have shipped products nation-wide.

In This Episode…

  • The story behind transforming the traditional brick and stone buying experience
  • Zenbuild’s journey from a kitchen table idea to an industry-changing online platform
  • How “Measure twice, click once” reflects Zenbuild’s commitment to customer satisfaction
  • The importance of innovating in well-established industries
  • Key strategies for creating a successful online presence in a traditional market

Links & Resources Mentioned…

Read The Transcript

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to get unstuck and on target I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders whether we're working with supervisors to improve their people skills or it's me coaching a leader one on one getting leaders and companies unstuck is at the heart of everything we do and that's exactly what this podcast

joining me is Carson Combs carson and his wife Sharon are the co founders of zenbuildcom their company was built to make shopping and buying thin brick brick and stone as easy as buying anything else online I love their tagline Measure Twice Build Twice click once you know like many entrepreneurs they start their business at their kitchen table with a vision to change an industry

they had worked the same way for over a hundred years they believe in finding the products you want while having a phenomenal customer experience and that's how it should be they have customers all over the country and I'm interested in just learning from Carson firsthand about his entrepreneurial journey and how he got to where he is right now

welcome Carson

Carson Combs: thanks Mike thanks for having me today on the show I love the title unstuck we all face that every day and running our businesses or being an employee in a business so very very appropriate name for your podcast

Mike O'Neill: well you know it it happens to be a a name that has has part of the expression stuck

what people don't don't really realize it it started when the podcast when the the podcast started when the pandemic that's what I'm trying to say started we were all walking around in circles we didn't know what to do we were all stuck and so I started inviting guests on started the podcast to

learn from each other and that's what I hope we can do today learn from you zenbuild I love the name but when when you were looking at possible names for y'all's business how did y'all come up with zenbuild?

Carson Combs: That's a great question that's a great question you know in have you ever built a home before?

Mike O'Neill: I have not I've always renovation yes built no

Carson Combs: okay any renovations? Well then you understand or even building a home you'd understand the word Zen is never associated to materials construction new home build commercial projects it's quite the opposite you know in fact and so we were going through

but you know a couple of different iterations and names like many entrepreneurs or business owners do you know several years back we have logos we had different names we were playing around with different stuff and zenbuild really made sense in the fact that like you know what we're trying to do is bring online a process that is as as you said in the the intro you know has been done the same way for over a hundred years

and with you know the next generation coming into the industry they're used to being able to do about anything or find anything they want here and not necessarily having to make a phone call which we do have a lot of calls come in and deal with a gatekeeper they want information so they can move on faster

they want to be able to purchase product they want to know when it's going to be delivered if it's available and so the name zenbuild really came from Hey what we're doing and our goal Is to you know maximize the value we can provide to clients from homeowners to you know large scale developers in an online way

and so we're making it easy we're trying to provide design it's a little bit of play on words some of the commercial contractors we deal with across the country I was on the phone with one yesterday up in Iowa and he was he was giving me a little bit of hell about how the name but he was really talking about how easy it was

it's the first time I've ever you know purchased some birth product online and he's like it was so so easy and he'd send us some pictures you know of the project he'd done in and called I ended up talking to him business owner business owner and he was like man the name zenbuild and he was like You know none of the suppliers I deal with you know give me any Zen

in fact it's the total opposite and I was like well there's a lot of great guys out there but you know our ethos is really try to make things easy for customers and be transparent both in our pricing and then in our products so it was a choice between that and about four other ones I don't recall what the other ones were Mike but Zenbuild

com products and making it easy online so well

Mike O'Neill: it works very very well I want to go back to your industry I know very little about your industry other than what I mentioned in the intro it's been done the same way for so very long and for you to launch this business and do things differently I would assume that there was some risk associated with going this way

Carson Combs: yeah and what's interesting is when I I started and wanted to go out you know like a lot of us do when we have a vision when we want to go create our own company where we're at today isn't where I started I had actually worked for a local company on the commercial side

so I worked with architects commercial contractors commercial subcontractors then manufacturers from different parts of the country really in one market and that family business was a great company I learned a lot and there's actually several companies that have been birthed out of that group

what had happened is right before the Great Recession the family had an opportunity to sell the business which they did and did did well and we were very happy for him they were very generous and very kind people they taught me a lot as well as the other guys I've worked with and gals but

we got bought by a midsize company and of course the recession happened and if you were in construction you know it was a very tough time and that company that acquired us had had me sign a non compete contract and they unfortunately weren't able to weather the storm of recession and in 2011 2012 they were acquired by a Berkshire Hathaway company

and when that happened I was like you know I was working for this family company you know it was a team and we come in we're going to win today everybody's on the same page and then we went to an organization it was about 500 employees and then the new entity that bought us was thousands and I just I was like I need to go

I need to go and so went out to start my local company and just really service the same customers but that non compete from the first acquisition came back to haunt me and so I had to go to court and it sucked Mike I was 32 33 and we had sold our home I've got two beautiful kids they're 17 and 15 now but they were a good bit younger

and we moved to a small condo and sold almost everything we had and went you know the route of having to go through through that we won and the court the local chancellery court said that we were good to start our business and we're rocking and rolling off to the races you know our first job was a a senior living center

and I was like great it was like a 70 000 order we made good money on it and my wife was like we should have done this earlier and about eight months in to start in that business Berkshire Hathaway came back and appealed the ruling and so we were back in court and on the state level at the appellate court and again at 32 33 it was scary you know it was really scary and appellate court came back ruled in favor of them but minimize the territory because the territory that I was restricted of selling in was essentially most of the United States

, a little bowl of I couldn't operate within about 100 150 miles of where I lived so how do you do what you love every day and not violate that? It was a two year non compete is what they had come back with and so we went online and I started doing some research

I found a company in the UK who'd been selling product online for a while and got to know Kevin their founder really well and I was like Hey man you know I have this vision you know it's not where I started but part of being an entrepreneur is learning to pivot right? You know and looking at stuff as you know it's not cancer you know we're not dead we're still alive you know we can figure this out and in that moment that temporary you know kick in the gut feels like it's permanent

and I think any of your listeners who have started businesses or are running you know multi million billion dollar businesses know when they get those phone calls or those emails where something goes haywire and they're like oh gosh what are we going to do? We decided to face it head on and so we pivoted and started learning how ecommerce worked

we started looking at you know the construction material industry is is massive and so the side of it or excuse me the the division we knew was masonry and looking across the United States there really wasn't anyone other than Home Depot and Lowe's that were selling some products with a very shallow offering you know they only had a couple skews and so we went to market and took what little bit of savings we had left you know and started building this knowing that eventually I could come back and So filled the dream of having our local company

and it started to take off that was in 20 Oh gosh 2013 2014 and so I had a bunch of data entry people my dad's retired I had dad come in I called an architect buddy of mine and it's like Hey can we set up you know a bunch of desktops you know in your office we'll stay in the back you know and start building a database and start building what is today you know ZenBuild

com and so along that journey we found pain points customers had right? And the industry in itself operates in a little bit I don't know if I want to use the word monopoly but it operates a little bit in the respect of you've got a manufacturer who sells or who makes a product and they will designate a specific distributor in a territory to sell that product

well that's great for those two relationships but for the consumer side you're not necessarily rewarded to have excellent customer service if you're the only person that can sell a product in a specific area and so what we understood very quickly once we launched the site and starting customer feedback was there were a lot of customers

and there were a lot of customers that wanted to buy product but they either had a negative experience or they were just told no that product's not available when in fact the product was available and so after about 5000 projects across the country we're like we've got a business and we need to scale a little quicker

and so I don't know if any of your other guests have ever raised capital before but we went out and said okay we're going to build out the platform further we're going to pump it up with some juice you know and make it even easier for customers and so we went out and raised capital in 2018 and then launched the new site in July of 2019

and a gentleman down in South Florida was our 1st customer it was a 1 400 sale of some thin brick and I called him up immediately you know it was like you're our first customer and he's like what you guys haven't been around for a while I was like no we've been around for a while I was like but you're the first one on our new our new platform

and so thank you so much for your business but that was you know in a snapshot you know my entrepreneurial journey and now we've built a team we've got manufacturing relationships and under other vendor relationships that are phenomenal I think that's a a big key is finding people that

can see the vision and are willing to take a little bit of a risk and I try to do that now myself with other you know friends that are starting businesses and going yeah that's a really good idea you know if you thought about this we thought about that and then be careful about who you take advice from too

that's another good piece of advice I got from someone else

Mike O'Neill: I do want to come back to that as you know I spent a number of years in corporate HR and so I understood and I was really good at corporation when you start your own business all the rules that you knew get thrown out the window you start fresh

I have found myself drawn to entrepreneurs this is why I wanted to bring you on the podcast because as an entrepreneur you you've experienced the highs and the lows and there's a tendency when people think about being an entrepreneur all they really think about is the highs and I don't want to dwell on the lows but those lows can be very low and you and your family sacrificed considerably you learn valuable lessons you embrace technology and apply that technology and a platform that really was not doing that

and what you have built thus far strikes as if you're on you're on the right on the right path but those lessons learned you've already shared examples where you you got stuck and how you personally got unstuck you also share an example that I love and that is when the platform went live and you got your first order you could pick up the phone and you can call and say thank you

and that was I think the underpinning of what you're trying to do create a buying experience that was very customer centric how have you kept that customer centricity as you have thrived as an organization?

Carson Combs: Yeah that that is challenging right? You know as you scale past you know a couple 100 customers to to thousands of customers it's hard

you know as an owner you know to be able to touch each one of those and I think at the end of the day I try I don't get to everyone but you know in our CRM where we track all of our projects we have a follow up it's typically about six to eight weeks after customers gotten their product and it's a you know thank you

and actually what I found more effective cause a lot of people don't like to talk on the phone mike you know at my heart I'm a salesperson I like to talk we'll send text messages I'll shoot a text you know my name is Carson I'm the founder of zenbuild thank you so much you know for buying from us

we would love to see what your project looks like and I think you know a lot of I think most people you know they like to talk about something that is theirs right? And so Kim is a builder I think she's in Mississippi and she did this fireplace and she was 1 that I couldn't get her on the phone

I'd send her a text and she sent me back this picture you know of her fireplace not a big job but I was like wow Kim that looks great I was like those chandeliers really line up and she was like do you know anything about chandeliers? I was like no but it looks great and so in you know the being authentic to your customers I think is something that's important with my team

and then with the customer experience too is we don't get to talk to everybody that you know purchases from us but we try to reach out you know if we can't get them on the phone well I mean they get emails through our system but we'll send them a text everybody's got a Google text line and it's like Hey you know thanks for shopping with us

do you have any questions? Cause our products a majority of what we sell on the site are thin stone thin brick products a lot of times you know our customer segments have switched significantly during the pandemic when you started this podcast you know our DIY sector was almost 90 percent of our transactions

now it's flipped you know to where the D I D I Y customers are last year I think it was maybe 47 percent of our customers to the Zenville platform platform were individuals as contractors you know found out about us through the amount of money we spend with Google and the other marketing we do and then clients you know that but getting

in touch with those people whatever type of customer they were and then being authentic thank you for your business I mean how often have you bought something you know because our the product you're buying from us is typically you know several thousand dollars you know it's not a hat or t shirt that's you know 20 or 40 dollars

and so how many times have you gotten a phone call from one of the big box stores or a company where you spent a couple thousand dollars and they're like thanks or just a text? Um and I I hope that's something I can always do because I like engaging the customers you know I like seeing the projects you know zenbuild and what we created is essentially making people's homes their offices the places they worship their schools you know better we get the opportunity to you know at the heart of it dress you know a building or

put our product inside someone's living room I mean that's that's a cool thing to me that's a really neat thing to me

Mike O'Neill: well what you've done you've taken what could very well be seen as a cold product and you've given me a better understanding how this product changes homes changes businesses changes a house of worship

the simple act of sending the text if I got your text one I probably would be a little bit surprised but odds are pretty darn good that I'm going to tell somebody else guess what I bought is a great product but the founder reached out to me personally and it conveys one that customer centeredness that I was asking about but it goes one step further and that is it conveys all right this this is a big company that

yeah acts small and it's willingness to just the simplicity what you just described carson I want to go back to something you mentioned and you just mentioned in passing but I think it's critically important and that is you've learned valuable lessons but you also make reference to those who you surround yourself and I know that you have created your own trusted board of advisors

share a little bit more about what that is and how does that work for you?

Carson Combs: Yes I think that is probably the key more than anything is who you surround yourself with we've all heard the five people you surround yourself with you know a reflection of who you are I think as a husband and a father and you know then as a business owner I think that the tribe that I've I've been very blessed you know to have built you know over my career and in the last almost 10 years of starting this company is is pretty awesome

and they're genuine people they care you know I think when you start something you have a lot of people and I'll talk about my own experience when I was like Hey we're going to sell this product we're going to sell bricks and stones online a lot of guys that I've worked with for years manufacturing side and essentially the distribution side who we were disrupting were like Oh yeah that's cool

that's a good idea um I thought about that cheerleaders a little bit and then once we started getting traction and we started disrupting and doing what we had set out to do those cheerleaders very quickly were like what are you doing here? You know you're you're getting into my pond

and that was that was hard and so in that experience I went back to my tribe of fellow business owners executives and you know large large organizations and I was like Hey we're facing this I know we're on the right path you know I know the clients are there and I know the product can reach further than what it's currently reaching

I talked to fellow business owners entrepreneurs several times a week then on the the business owner side after raising capital my shareholders I talked to them every week and it's like Hey I'm struggling with this you know they're a little bit of a coach for me Mike and then vice versa you know and so I think shared wins you know in that group and in your tribe are are powerful you know and they tend to extra energy

you know on those days where you're just like ah dammit today sucked you know what are we going to do? You know we're going to get up and of tackle it the next day and then they also give you a perspective you know perspective from someone you know that has experienced what you're going through or perspective of someone that is either much older and at the end of their career they've retired and they're hanging out smoking a cigar drinking a bourbon down on the beach

it's like you know it's going to be all right you know do the right thing and I think that's the feedback that you get from most in my tribe is what do you think the right thing is how do you do it? And as long as you execute on that Mike you know you can get up the next day and go you know what there's always more

there's always more more work to do you know I've got to take the position of I've got to take care of our customers I've got to take care of you know our manufacturing relationships and ultimately I've got to take care of myself and my family and I think that is it's easier said than done but having a tribe of people around you that you can call

I told you before the call I was on with a friend of mine last night who owns a company and he's going through a little tough time right now and I was like Hey bud how are you doing? He's like do you want the honest answer or you want me to say I'm doing fine? I was like man tell me you know how's it going?

He's like it sucks he's like I'm still at the office you knowum I don't want to go home yet you know my mindset's not right and I was like you know tell me what's going on and I just listened to him for 15 minutes and I was like well what are you going to do? How are you going to figure it out?

He's like well I'm thinking about this and this and so that whiteboard session over a phone call you know I know it was valuable to him and then to me you know I think the rising tides you know going back and helping people ultimately gets you to where you want to be and that's something that you know as we work with our customers it's like Hey what are you trying to do on this project?

You know how can we help you? How can we provide value? And I think good friends and people in your tribe try to provide value for you find those people you will not regret you know having people that you can call on a good day or a

Mike O'Neill: bad day parsons I'm listening to you I know that in my work you know I own my own business and people just assume oh it must be nice

to not have a boss is your boss Mike

and you just you just mentioned a few your your boss would be your customers your boss would be investors your boss would be all hosts and I say boss but what I'm saying is you still have stakeholders to contend with and with growing success

there could be the possibility that a little arrogance creeps in and I'm not saying you but as organizations grow they begin oh we've got the secret sauce we know what we're doing and it works for a while and I guess what I would apply to you is that you've acknowledged that even with success you still need to

surround yourself with wise counsel yeah and and you tap into that wise counsel on a regular basis and I love the notion though but then you also pay that forward when you are speaking to a friend who is being real with you I hope that that was what people are picking up on this podcast I like to invite people on who are willing to be real

it's not all rosy no it can be rich richly rewarding and I'm not saying just from a financial standpoint as we begin winding down this conversation I'd like to get your take your nearly 10 years into this particular business I know you have other businesses and we focus primarily on zenbuild but as you look back on nearly a decade of of owning the business

if you were to reflect on that experience and reflect on what you've shared with us thus far what do you want our viewers and our listeners to have as takeaways?

Carson Combs: Yeah I think

two things Mike that I think I would pass on to the listeners and people . it's a challenge you know when you have a lot of wins forget about the times where you know you weren't winning and you know that false sense of you know we've got it all figured out is is never never accurate

I know that I'm not always right you know and within my team I want us to win I want our team to win I want our company to win our want our customers to win and I think putting those people on the bus in your team number one in accepting the humility that you don't have all the answers in your knowledge

right it is a great takeaway and then the second one I know any business book you read any entrepreneur book a shoe dog by Phil Knight is one of my favorites a guy that started Nike shoes and well he went through in his journey when you run into mountains you know or movable objects you know professionally or in starting a business it seems so overwhelming

you know for us it was convincing manufacturers who had done business the exact same way to go Hey we know you have this this network that sells your product but you know there's 330 plus million Americans and nearly all of them have one of these are you know are online we think it's a you know a strategic avenue that you can move product

I heard no and no and no so much and so the second point I think is you know some people joke about and I know is one step you know to a yes I think that's accurate and if you've got a vision and it's grounded in reality and you've got people that need what you're providing you know there's a market there

and I think getting up and working on it every day even when it it seems like you're not making any progress is still ultimately you know the way that you move forward so you know those two the humility knowing you're not always right and then second you know when you run into those ditches and those issues you know just keep moving just keep swimming

ted have you seen Ted Lasso? Did you watch Ted Lasso? Yeah just keep swimming and I think you know that is in itself something that I've gained a perspective on and I tried to share with my other you know friends that run businesses or other entrepreneurs or investors or people I've met along my path is they're like how'd you figure that out?

Like I didn't we just kept swimming you know and eventually you know we were able to figure it out and have been able to build a company that has value and provides a lot of amazing products to clients all across the country I think that I think those are the two I'd give your audience Mike

Mike O'Neill: obviously those are excellent and that is one with success maintain humility and perseverance , piqued the interest of folks who are watching or listening if they want to reach out to you what's the best way for them to get a hold of you Carson?

Carson Combs: , obviously our company is zezenbuild.cowe spendnd a lot of marketing so if you type in zenbuild we don't show up please let me know email is Carson C A R S O N at zenbuild com is the best way to get me that's what get me I'm on I'm on this thing and the laptop nonstop so but if I can be

Mike O'Neill: apologize for those who are listening and not watching every time he makes reference to this thing he's holding up his phone

so you're right we we do live on this phone a lot of people are probably listening to this via the phone what did we do before we had these smartphones? I don't know

Carson Combs: it's crazy just think about my kids are I told you my kids are 17 and 15 you know I look at them and I just think about the the next generation you know and how again I'd like to say that we we were brilliant and we had this idea and we we were 30 years in the future and knew everything would work

but you know at the rate my kids are on this and then my friends and everyone else you know this being the cell phone I think the world is much smaller place and I think whether it's building your tribe whether it's finding information whether it's researching your business idea you know those tools are there you know utilize them and you know follow follow your dream persevere even when it seems difficult

Mike O'Neill: thank you for sharing a little bit about your journey your your insights I found most enjoyable I'm confident that our our listeners do and will as well thank you excellent

Carson Combs: Mike thank you you have a wonderful day buddy

Mike O'Neill: thank you I want to go ahead and wrap up by just thanking our listeners for joining us today

you know my passion is building leaders leaders that people follow you know not because they have to but because they want to you know I found that the clients that we work with they usually had one of two problems either they were frustrated because they were losing the employees they wanted to keep or the leaders

they found themselves stuck in the weeds of the day to day and as a result they were failing to execute on their long term strategy so if your business has slowed down due to high turnover or perhaps poor execution let's talk head over to benchbuilderscom to schedule a call so I want to thank you for joining us

and I hope you have picked up on some quick wins from Carson that will help you get unstuck and on target

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