Starting a business is difficult enough. Now imagine doing it with 47 employees already on your payroll.
That’s what Samentha Tiller did in 2005 when she founded DMI Technologies Inc., which provides audio/visual technologies to companies of all sizes and handles everything from installation to maintenance of systems.
Tiller decided to start DMI, which stands for Design, Maintenance and Installation, when the company that employed her at the time was going under. Facing unemployment, several dozen fellow employees pledged to follow her into the unknown.
“Everyone … said they were coming with me,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “I told them that I didn’t even know if I was going to have work! They said, ‘We don’t care. We’re going with you.'”
Despite its precarious start, DMI has done well. Last year, its revenue topped $11M, and Tiller aims to cross the $15M mark in the next five years. This good fortune has allowed Tiller to expand beyond her Ft. Worth, Texas, base of operations to add two other locations in Colorado. Today, she employs 78 staffers.
The heights reached by DMI make Tiller founder of one of the largest and longest-lasting firms involved in our 1,000 Stories project, The Story Exchange’s 3-year initiative to collect the stories of 1,000 female entrepreneurs from around the world.
Starting Up — By Surprise
Born in Dallas and raised on a farm in Hawkins, Texas, the 50-year-old lifelong Lone Star state resident never planned to be an entrepreneur. After graduating high school, she occupied a series of administrative and project management jobs. In the early 2000s, she assumed a role handling communications and managing other employees at a large electrical firm.
Then one day, everything changed. “The company wound up going out of business, and the president, who left to open his own company, offered me a chance to open my own business with little or no financial requirements.”
He offered to be an angel investor to her, helping her to secure a rent-free office space, providing her with low-interest loans until DMI was self-sufficient, and buying a 40% stake in her firm.
She decided to seize the opportunity, and in May of 2005 formally incorporated DMI Technologies — with, practically speaking, a full staff on board.
It was a large leap to take, and Tiller felt the pressure from day one. “Not only did I have to worry about paying my bills, I had 47 others that looked to me for a paycheck, and I had no idea where it would come from.”
Her solution was to roll up her sleeves. She read up on design and engineering while earning certification as a project management professional. To build DMI’s client roster, Tiller reached out to customers of her old firm and other contacts.
It was tough going at first. “There were times I was in the office working on proposals and bids from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., then from 4 p.m. to midnight, I was working side-by-side with technicians on job sites, making sure the work was getting done — and done correctly.”
In its first year, DMI broke even. But by its second year, DMI achieved more than $4M in sales.
Wiring for Success
Tiller continued to rely on a mix of networking and good old-fashioned elbow grease to turn DMI into a profitable venture. “If I wasn’t bidding, designing, selling, engineering or installing, I was wining and dining customers, manufacturers, distribution firms and more.”
She also took the time to build the right team around her, sourcing new hires from the industry contacts she’d built up prior to becoming a business owner. She would also begin to promote from within as time went on.
“I knew in order to grow the business I was going to have to bring on strong people that I could rely upon,” she says. “Still, it’s not easy handing over part of your world to anyone.”
It’s a good thing she did, though — those strategic hires, as well as the decision to continually expand the company’s offerings, helped DMI grow past several revenue plateaus, she says.
Despite bringing on more staff, Tiller’s drive has not diminished, and she says she struggles with finding a work/life balance as a result.
“I am the first person to tell an employee that family comes first. That said, I am the first person to put my family second so I could do what needs to be done at work,” she says. “It’s a struggle, every day, to leave the office at a decent time and go home to my family — to be present for what they need from me as well.”
Tiller’s husband, Bart, her adult daughter, Samentha Renay, her son-in-law, Derek and her grandchildren, 10-year-old Emma and 6-year-old Derek, Jr., are all supportive of her efforts.
And family has always been important to her. When asked about her most important role model, she names her mother, Lorena Kimbrough. “We didn’t have a lot, but we did have what we needed, and she worked hard for us to have that,” she recalls. “She was our backbone and support through it all.”
Much like her mother, Tiller ultimately wants to take care of people — family, employees and clients alike. In fact, she is already making sure they are taken care of for many years to come.
“There is a plan in place to have employees purchase ownership [stakes], and continue on as we have been doing the last 11 years,” she says. “I look forward to leaving a little of my legacy with them.”