Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, April 14, 2017

Fidgety Trends





A few weeks ago my nephew asked if Curio City had thought about selling fidget toys. It was the first I'd heard of them. Apparently they're the current rage among brainier Millennials and their children, the Marshmallows. Some people claim that they are therapeutic for some autistic types, and there might be something to that. Last Saturday they even garnered a Boston Globe story -- the kind of mainstream media attention that usually means that a trend is peaking or on its way out.

Some of my best-selling products over the years were recommended by people I know, so I always take their suggestions seriously. Googling "fidget toys" turns up a huge range of sizes, shapes, and materials selling for $5 up to $40 or more. These odd assemblages of gears, buttons, ball bearings, and switches that don't do anything are being sold everywhere right now. I don't know how to tell a "good" fidget from a "bad" fidget; wholesalers' descriptions generally provide little to no detail. One of my existing vendors is hawking some cheap ones, so it would be easy enough to test demand. If I had any cash on hand I'd place a few small orders with a few different vendors to figure out what my customers do and don't like (or if indeed I have any customers for these). Then I'd buy bigtime for Christmas when I think I've nailed the market. Since the fad is either cresting or still rising right now, selling the test orders is a reasonably safe bet. 

However: 

Fidget spinners and cubes violate most of the guidelines that define a Curio City product. They aren't useful, leaving aside the dubious claims about their therapeutic value. As a ubiquitous trend, they aren't unusual; I'd be competing with Walmart, Amazon, and eBay, among others. If you buy one, you're unlikely to "need" another, so they'd generate little to no repeat business. The cheap ones look breakable and, well, cheap. At a $10 retail, they wouldn't bring in much money. The target demographic (Millennials and below) skews lower than my usual customer base (Gen-Xers and above). There aren't any batteries to expire, but fads are time-limited by nature, and this is the greatest unknown -- is this a six-month fad or a three-year fad? These are all warning bells.

Mostly, though, instead of cash on hand I have a mountain of debt. So I really can't afford to experiment. Sorry, Aaron. You did motivate me to look for my old 1970s-vintage worry stone, though. I know I still have that somewhere.  

Friday, March 31, 2017

We Have Achieved Mediocrity!





Excel says March was a black month. QuickBooks sees red. Just a couple of average sales in the remaining day and a half would push grouchy old QuickBooks' $69 drop into positive territory. As the seventh-best (or fifth worst) March ever, it was comfortably average. Mediocrity is about the best that I can expect, considering how little money I can devote to fighting the headwinds that I'm facing.

March

Total income: -2.1%
Total COGS: -1.8%
Payroll: -66.6%
Marketing: -67.8%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: +61.4% ($1,094)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$689

2017 YTD

Total income: -5.5%
Total COGS: -4.3%
Payroll: -62.7%
Marketing: -43%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: +78% (+$1,436)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$405

Excel shows a $145 gain over last March despite that $160 kite return and the day's business that I lost to the Russian hackers. My CPA's hefty tax-prep fee and another year's rent on my UPS box turned the bottom line especially nasty; without those two confounding factors it would be within a few bucks of zero. I confess, though, to being disturbed at seeing red ink despite cutting payroll to almost nothing. Theoretically, the "actual profit" amount should be what's available for debt reduction; in reality, the variance to LY more accurately reflects what I've paid down. I wonder if profitability is even possible for Curio City anymore, or if its income has fallen so far that it can no longer cover its baked-in costs. We'll see if the next few months can bring back the black.

Prospects for April: Kite sales perked up nicely this week, which bodes well. Jackite's promise to restock poles "in late April" could provide a minor boost, since the six months that they were gone might have created some pent-up demand...but the real impact of that will be on May and beyond, and even then it will probably just mean keeping up with LY, before poles went out-of-stock. Kite season is starting to fly and I think Easter is somewhere in there, too (churches buy a lot of dove kites). With my biggest expenses out of the way, I hope that April can be a turnaround month.

Blue Hills didn't affect March at all. If the huge chunk of income that we're expecting comes in April, next month's QuickBooks numbers will go haywire, and these reports won't normalize again until next February, when I can run apples-to-apples comparisons on the classes that I created this February. As far as QuickBooks is concerned, it was all just Kraken Enterprises up to that point.    

Friday, March 24, 2017

First America, and Now Curio City





How's that whole "getting out of debt" thing working out? About as well as could be expected, thank you for asking. So far I've paid off slightly more than I added each month despite the $100 interest charge, and I did that while my biggest annual expenses (taxes and tax preparation) took a bite out of cash flow. My balance went from a high of $8,800 in January to $8,400 last month and will dip a little below $8,000 next month. With the biggest bills out of the way, I should be able to reduce it by close to $1,000 per month for the rest of the year, leading to break-even in October or November. 

That's too late to finance next Christmas, so I'll have to decide whether to take on more debt to buy enough stuff to match LY's anemic holiday sales, or just hunker down, expect another big decline, and sell off whatever I can, with an eye toward starting 2018 in the black and making that my comeback year. 

This week I billed my first $100 for two hours of editing. Curio City currently pays me $50 per week, and that's in a decent week. I also finished a package of stories for MIT that will pay me more in two weeks than I earned from Curio City in all of 2016. I actually caught myself hoping that I didn't have any new orders one morning because I didn't want to spend the time filling them; wishing that your own business would go away and leave you alone is not exactly an attitude for success. 

The next sentence in the first draft of this post said "I'm still committed to staying open through Christmas," but I'm not so sure about that after what happened last Friday.

I needed to finish three stories on Friday out of the nine in that MIT package that was due on Monday. I quickly tended to Curio City's needs in the morning and reserved the rest of the day to write. Then the emails and phone calls started. In the wee hours of Friday morning, credit card thieves had used my checkout page to repeatedly submit a transaction for $2,958.58 with a different credit card each time. I later learned that their script selectively targets Sunshop stores. PayPal shut down my payment processing ability when they detected what was happening. I closed my store overnight so that the script would move on to some other poor soul. Soon, people who saw a huge charge authorization attempt with my store's name on it began calling me for an explanation. 

By the time it was over -- and I hope it is over, although I was still getting calls yesterday -- 14 people had complained. All of them had recently-opened business credit cards. All of them were in Virginia, Maryland, or one of the Carolinas. Based on the time of day that the script ran, PayPal guessed that the attackers are in Russia or Eastern Europe. These are probably not the same Russian hackers who installed Trump, but who knows what's really going on? People are saying, I don't know, what do you think? These particular slimeballs are "carding," which is a common practice whereby they validate the stolen card numbers for resale. They used a huge transaction amount because high-value cards are worth more on the black market. Wiki tells me that validated credit card numbers can be resold for up to $30 apiece. 
 
Curio City sucked down enough hours and raised my blood pressure sufficiently to prevent me from finishing more than two of the scheduled three stories and leave me feeling like I literally don't need this crap anymore. Blue Hills pays me way, way more than Curio City ever will, and it's far less aggravating because it doesn't face the Great Unwashed Masses. Blue Hills operating costs are close to zero. The big caveat is that all of my work so far has come from assignments that my wife handed me because she has more jobs than she can handle. Nobody would knowingly hire me to write something at $1.50 a word; even though I can deliver quality work that's worth the price, I have no credentials of my own. It will take months or years to develop those. Anne is technically an employee of Kraken Enterprises for tax purposes, but I'm effectively working for her. 

If the editing work becomes steady enough I might finally fold Curio City. I really only need to earn about $600 a month; 12 hours of editing would do that. On one hand, Curio City doesn't pay squat, I don't enjoy it, I don't care about retail, I'm apparently not as good at it as I used to be, it doesn't make the world a better place, and its passing would scarcely be noticed. OTOH, inertia is strong in me; in the short run, it's easier to keep it going than to shut it down. I'd rather convert some of the $20,000 worth of junk in my cellar into dollars than trash it...but, because they are both Kraken Enterprises, what I do write off will offset Blue Hills' considerable profit. The decision to close has big implications that I'm not ready to consider yet. The immediate question is whether I will invest the time and money to actively pursue a successful Christmas, or sit back and take whatever it brings...and I don't even have to address that for a few more months.

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