Expert Interview: Lance Miller

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About a month ago, we posted an expert interview on Steve Rhea, who owns and operates AMJ Spectacular Events in the Chicago area. We had a great response to that post, and we reached out to another expert in the industry that has experienced great success and wants to help others achieve their goals in this business.

Introducing Lance Miller

Mike: Hi Lance. It’s a pleasure to have you join us on Inflatable Academy. Just in the time we’ve spent together, I can tell you have a lot to offer our community. I’m really excited that you’re here to share your experience with Inflatable Academy. Can you please start by telling us a little about your business?

Hello Mike. Thanks for having me. My name is Lance Miller, and I am the owner / operator of Big Air Jumpers, Inc. serving Colorado and neighboring states. I started the business 16 years ago and we now have a call center with 5 staff members, approximately 30 drivers, and 30 attendants / cleaners.

I’m a member of ASTM and an active member of F24-61 Inflatables task group which is currently rewriting inflatable ASTM standards. We are currently working on the second ballot which will go to vote in November this year. This group consists of industry experts to include engineers and manufactures.

I was also an expert witness for an inflatable accident in which I was able to see the whole legal process work from the beginning to the end.

My education includes MA Psychology, BS Organizational Management in Human Resources, and AS Fire Science (yes I used to be a firefighter).

Big Air Jumpers was started to supplement my income for grad school back in 1999. One day I was helping my church youth groups and it was “fun inflatable day” where a company would bring a bunch of inflatables and the youth groups would have fun with them and since I was a staff member that day, I was in charge of supervision.

The company the pastor contracted with was very late and the kids had to miss an hour while they were setting them all up. This was very disappointing to me and the church. When the pastor showed me the bill, I was even more shocked. At that moment, Big Air Jumpers was born.

I asked my pastor if I bought some inflatables, how many times a year would he use the equipment. He said junior high 5 times and senior high 5 times. I then researched the industry and found a manufacturer and ordered 3 inflatables. Back in those days, inflatables were about 3 – 4 times more expensive than they are today.

So I began renting to my own church and word got out to other local churches and their pastors asked my pastor where he rented his inflatables from and he referred me to them. The other pastors would call and ask if I had items that I currently didn’t have, remember I only had 3 units, and I said, “no, but if I did, how many times a year would you commit to renting them?”

My 3 units quickly turned into 10 and I had multiple commitments for them plus a debt of over 40 thousand dollars. What I thought would be a short business adventure has turned into something way bigger than I had ever anticipated. Be prepared for what you ask for, because it may come true!

That’s a great story. And I’m sure people will be very interested in hearing more about your role with ASTM.

Passion for the business

Talk a bit about what you like most about this industry.

The best part of this business is creating memories for people. Most people remember events with loved ones or friends by the activity they are doing. By being an active participant in the memory making process, our company is providing the means to produce those memories.

Recently I had a college aged young adult tell me that their parents rented a Big Air Jumper for their 5th year birthday and can remember all of the details of the inflatable party. I was amazed at how much they remembered the details about the inflatable.

I also enjoy the freedom of being a business owner, which enables me to spend quality time with my family and kids. I am able to set my own schedule and be flexible when it comes to appointments and school events.

I also enjoy the off season because it gives me the opportunity to recharge the batteries. I also take on more counseling clients during this time and do some traveling.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure a lot of readers can relate with what you’ve shared.

Goals

I bet people would love to know what your current goals are.

For my own business, my goal is to sustain manageable growth. To do this, it’s important to introduce new products to my customers. When it comes to the customer, they want to know “what is the newest item you have?” The customer wants the bar raised every year and wants to look good for their guests, so I am introducing new products for them to choose from. I have developed a formula for doing this that works very well for me.

Another goal for my business is to go paperless. I have developed an app that is currently being tested. This app will allow us to save time and money with our drivers using an ipad. This allows for GPS and up to date communication with our customers and database.

I also want to help the industry thrive over the next few decades. Our industry is the only group in the F-24 committee that does not have a national association. We are in need of standards that are updated and can be implemented by small or larger companies. By participating in this process, I have practical ideas that would help this industry.

That’s really cool. You’ve got my interest piqued on the formula you mentioned. Maybe we should put together some training on that…

A memorable day

Lance, can you share with us what was a particularly memorable day for you in this business?

One day I was in the call center doing some work. I overheard one of our reservations specialist (our technical term for someone who takes orders) and it was a church pastor trying to put an order together for an outreach event where they are asking people from their neighborhood to join them. They had a very limited budget and I heard the reservation specialist saying, “Those pieces of equipment are too expensive for your budget”.

I asked the reservation specialist to put them on hold and asked to know what was going on. After hearing the story of what they were trying to accomplish, I got on the phone and told the pastor that we would love to be a co-sponsor of their event and donate all of the equipment for free.

Little did I know that his particular event would come back ten-fold! As it turns out, this pastor belonged to a city wide pastor networking club that met weekly and he told all of the other pastors about what Big Air Jumpers did for them and suddenly we had new church customers.

That’s a great lesson on how to think creatively and leverage a small budget for a marketing opportunity.

Advice for those that are new

There are many business owners out there just starting out. They’ve invested in a few inflatables and they’re hungry to grow their business. What single piece of advice would you offer them?

I would say leave a lasting impression on your customer, do your job better than everyone else is and it will pay off. This means, be on time, bring quality equipment, treat people like you would like to be treated, to bring clean equipment, too much communication is okay, and have a positive attitude.

Set up short and long term goals and have them measureable. It could be as simple as 1. Where are you now? 2. Where would you like to be at the end of the season? 3. Where would you like to be in 3 years from now? 4. How are you going to get there?

Get a network together of other inflatable business owners around the nation and have a group of people who have similar goals and ask questions. Establish relationships that are a two way street. You can benefit from their input just like they can yours. I have established a relationship with a company in California in which he tells me every year what items are the most popular. He would give me stats of his rentals. This would be good to see if a trend is forming and to confirm or deny my thoughts on a particular piece of equipment.

Establish a training program. Whether you are by yourself or have 30 employees, you must know what you are doing. Every year I have an industry expert come to one of our shops and every driver and staffer attends. I have Qdoba cater the event with a taco and burrito bar and we spend the next 3 hours going over ASTM and other items to certify each person on inflatable training. Once the training is complete, everyone gets a certificate of completion. You may say, I don’t need that, I know what I am doing and I am sure you do. The caveat to this is, it saves my company over $10,000 in annual insurance premiums plus is a great marketing tool for potential customers.

Your thoughts on networking together is exactly what we’re trying to build here on Inflatable Academy. We hope people will engage with us and let us know their thoughts on how this platform can become even more valuable to them!

Overcoming a plateau in business

So, what about someone who’s already experienced significant growth and is starting to plateau? What is the most important thing for them to understand?

Do not ever forget what got you to this point. This could be a certain employee, a rock solid business plan, and what are the basic principals you stand for?

One time in the counseling office, I was counseling a guy who was the top new cars sales person for a long period of time. He could not get his monthly sales totals above his previous year’s totals of the same months. He plateaued in sales and wanted to know why?

After learning about himself and certain beliefs he had about himself, it came down to permission. He needed to give himself permission to be better. A barrier that was self-made. After a few sessions, he started to believe in himself and that is the permission he needed to be more successful.

Another thing is to understand that experiencing cycles in business does not necessarily mean you are doing something wrong. If you are meeting your goals then you are doing something right.

Know your industry cycles. The single most predictable cycle in our industry is weather and this can be measurable. Other cycles would be having newer equipment, the newest equipment, and industry news.

Last year (June 2014) there was an incident where a slide blew over locally and every single news agency was reporting on this. My office called me and told me that we have had a ton of cancellations due to the slide accident that the media was reporting. Customers were saying things like, “those inflatables are dangerous”, “I do not want my kid being hurt on a bounce house” and “I do not want to take on the risk of my bounce house blowing over”.

Once I heard about the reaction everyone was having, I sprung into action. After 3 TV news interviews and calls to various agencies, I was able to help the local industry with this cycle. http://denver.cbslocal.com/2014/06/02/wind-gusts-toss-inflatable-bouncy-house-300-feet-injure-1/

Industry news can have a huge impact on your business and it doesn’t have to be locally either.

That’s a great story. I’m sure the way that you responded did good things for your competitive position, despite a challenging situation. A great example of turning a challenge into an opportunity.

Overcoming significant challenges

Can you describe a significant challenge (or two) that you had in growing your business and how you handled it?

Infrastructure change can sometimes be hard. We started out 16 years ago hand writing orders on 3-part paper invoices. Since then we have moved to printed invoices, then to electronic invoices and now we are unveiling an app that will handle everything paperless. Each phase of this had to do with the changing times and you have to keep up with it even if it is not broke. Someday we may develop a system of drones that will automatically drop a unit off at its location and the crew meets it there and sets it up, you really never know.

Online ordering and driver apps. I have been working on online ordering for over 2 years and finally it has come together. The hardest part was getting the app customized to read from our server’s database. It seems that when the season starts, its pedal to the metal and that was the delays.

The typical day

Lance, what does your typical day look like?

During the season there is no typical day. My day consist of doing site surveys, preparing for a weekend where we would need 45 staff members on various jobs. Meetings with managers and preparing run sheets. Sometimes I am needed to move equipment between our three warehouses. Nothing is typical in this business.

Final words of wisdom

Do you have any final words of wisdom to share?

Take control over the things you have control over and let the other stuff go!

What to do next

Check out the ASTM standards:
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Download the ASTM guidelines here

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Want to download the ASTM guidelines? Register for our FREE membership to get access to this and more resources on Inflatable Academy.

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If you have any questions on the new ASTM standards, please comment below and I would be happy to answer any questions.

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8 Comments

  • John Bennett

    Reply Reply June 8, 2015

    I Think that this is excellent advice having a background in sales and being a service technician I have learned customer service is one of the key ingrediants to being successful, because honestly you are selling yourself just as much as your sevice and product. People love to deal with those business owners who are focused on them and their needs. Someone who also shows a genuine concern for their customers event turnning out like it was your own. Also having good ethical, morales and being fair and honest makes it much easier to up sale an order but not by pressure but by taking your time with a customer and helping them with advise on how to make their event even better with small modifications, sharing your experience with other events that you’ve done that could enhance theirs for even a better experience and then the pay off is the happy people both the hosts and guest and people asking for your business card or the customers telling you that you are their guy now. This is an exciting industry with so many opportunities and a way to earn a living while enjoying what you do. I would advise anyone who is in this industry or thinking about getting into this industry to join this forum to see the success stories and the struggles of those who have gone before. It will better prepare you for the highs and the lows and then show you what success truely looks like.
    John Bennett
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    • Lance Miller

      Reply Reply June 8, 2015

      John, you have a great perspective on what it takes to succeed in this industry. Sounds like you got it. Thanks for the response. God Speed!

      • John Bennett

        Reply Reply June 8, 2015

        Thanks Lance you have great stories that are very insperational and I wish you continued success in this business.

  • John Bennett

    Reply Reply June 8, 2015

    Ohh one more thing I have been in this industry feeling like I’ve been going it alone with the weight of the world on my shoulders but after Einflatable Academy I feel less stressed and more focused. Just being a part of something is a tremendous and encouraging spirit lifter. Two thumbs way up for Mike and Einflatables for putting this all together. I know it can only get better from here.
    John Bennett
    Facade Theme Party

    • Mike (Inflatable Academy)

      Reply Reply June 9, 2015

      Thanks John. That means a lot to me.

      I’d love to include your comment in an email out to eInflatables email list to encourage more people to get involved. I hope you don’t mind? It would be great to include your name with it if that’s ok with you?

      • John Bennett

        Reply Reply June 9, 2015

        Feel free to include any of my comments and my name thats the purpose of this forum and I believe if it is going to be a success we all need to be involved and available for support to help one another to make our whole industry successful.

  • Adam Barden

    Reply Reply June 10, 2015

    Lance, I would love a copy of the ASTM working document. Thank you so much for sharing your information. We are very big on training in our rental business and I would also be interested to know where you find the experts to perform your employee training? Thanks again!

    • Lance Miller

      Reply Reply June 10, 2015

      Hello Adam. I would be happy to send it to you. Send your email address and I will get it to you. Right now I am working on a training workshop that will fit your needs. In the new ASTM it will be a requirement. We are still working out the details on it. Send your email address to Lance@bigairjumpers.com and I will send it. For my workshop I hire Phil Slaggert. He is transitioning out of doing it full time and I am conversing with him on taking it over. He started the ROAR program.

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