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 06, 2018

Flipping Birds




Ever wonder why I keep blathering on about kite season?

Bird kites are my last product line that still sells reliably at full price, because they really work, and because there’s not a ton of online competition. People buy predator kites to scare birds away from their gardens, orchards, boats, or wherever birds are a pest (many parks and golf courses report that the Bald Eagle effectively repels geese, when nothing else works). Far and away the biggest market, that season runs from April through August. Hunters buy goose and duck kites as decoys; this smaller market gives me a bump in the fall. Ordinarily, Christians get the ball rolling when they buy dove kites for church plays at Easter and Pentecost. The manufacturer ran out of doves last fall, promising to have more “in the spring,” but they missed Easter. (When they run out of a style, it often takes them a year or more to replenish; I don’t know why). The smaller Create-a-Bird covers that same niche, and the other “small birds” are used in school plays and community theater productions. Some businesses buy kites as marketing gimmicks, and (finally) some people fly them for fun, or as decorations. 

Curio City will stay open through the summer if bird kites sell well enough to pay its expenses. Anything else I can move is just the gravy for that meat. If kite season doesn’t materialize for some reason – and without doves this Easter, it’s already late – then I’ll close down my store earlier than I had planned. One cannot live on gravy.

The very first product that I bought in 2005 – SKU 1, still available today – was the Canada Goose. I eventually added the other birds, but they languished until I made two conceptual breakthroughs. First, Jackite offered to dropship. That meant that I could offer poles as an add-on without having to stock and ship them myself – something I had found to be impractical because they don’t fit in a standard-sized kite tube. Second, I found some third-party YouTube videos of kites in action and learned how to embed them in my pages. Video sells. After years of barely hanging in there, bird kites finally took off. 

How many kites are we talking about? I’ve sold 105 Canada geese since that first one. The more popular falcon and osprey kites have sold 345 and 520, respectively. That’s nearly 1,000 kites right there, at $40 a pop. I’ve moved 243 top-of-the-line eagles at $70 apiece. Christians have bought 452 doves. Create-a-bird only fetches $13, but 857 of those have flown out of here. I won’t go through all the lesser kites – Snow Goose, for example, has only sold 18 pieces – but I’ve sold 3,000+ bird kites, and most of those were in the past five or six years. Add in add-ons like poles (roughly 322 sold), line rigs (1,100 at $4), and pole mounts, and – well, you can see why I’d like to milk one last kite season, and why it has to materialize to keep me going.

That business is late, as I keep saying, but I won’t give up on it until Memorial Day. Eventually someone will come along with a better website or lower prices or a “free shipping” gimmick, because someone always moves in on successful products sooner or later. One cannot fend off competitors without money and talent, neither of which I have in abundance. But AFAIK nobody else is eating my lunch yet. 

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I finally removed my phone number entirely from Curio City’s website. It will cost me some sales and save me some aggravation. The days when I’d do anything to maximize sales ended long ago. The volume of junk calls dropped after I deleted it from the “Contact number” heading on my contact page and re-recorded my voicemail message to mention only Blue Hills Editorial Services, so this last move should get rid of the few calls. Shoppers have to work hard to find my phone number now.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Over the Hills




I’ve written hundreds of columns about Curio City Online over the past 13 years. I haven’t been posting much lately, because what more is there to say? A year ago Blue Hills Editorial Services crept into my blog. Since then, my focus has shifted almost entirely to Blue Hills; last week I removed Curio City from my voicemail message, since I had already stopped returning most phone calls. You want to order a $10 thing but you’re afraid of the internet? I’m sorry. Back in the day, I would have taken 20 minutes to call you and enter the order for you, but the time and aggravation aren’t worth the $2 that I would pocket anymore.

Yesterday I completed a $3,000 editing assignment for a new client (who will almost surely have more work for me). It took me roughly 80 hours over three weeks. When sales are average, Curio City takes four months to pay me $3,000…and sales are (unsurprisingly) running well below average. If Blue Hills can eventually land one project like that each month, I’ll be on easy street.

Most of my clients are corporate, but I do some work for individuals as well...if you ever need writing or editing help, have a gander at our website. I wish I'd made this transition nine years ago, when Curio City first started to stumble. But I have a lifelong habit of riding out doomed situations for too long, mostly because I hate change, and Curio’s fate wasn’t unavoidable until two years ago.
 
Blue Hills has no overhead; 85% of its revenue goes to payroll. Curio City is nearly the opposite; 80% of revenue is lost to overhead. So why is it even still in business? 

Curio income arrives in advance -- shoppers pay when they check out, before I fill their orders. Blue Hills, again, is the opposite. Some clients pay on acceptance, some pay on publication (when they themselves get paid). My most regular customer’s small jobs only rack up $50 or $75 each; it takes me a month or longer just to reach their minimum $200 billing threshold. They then have 30 days from the invoice date to pay, and they are routinely late. I'm still waiting for a $200 check for work that I did in December and billed in January. I won’t see the $3,000 for the project that I turned in yesterday until the first week of May, at the soonest. Curio City reliably pays me at least some pittance every two weeks. 

Corporate clients always pay up eventually. Individuals are chancier. If someone flat out refuses to pay, there’s nothing I can do. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a hazard of the freelance business.  It's not like I have a battery of lawyers standing behind me. Unions are not a thing in the gig economy. 

Long delays in payment are okay as long as the pipeline stays full – being owed money well into the future is fine as long as you also have previously-owed money coming in now. Blue Hills isn't steady enough to provide that yet, and will never be entirely reliable: the five-figure project that I was expecting in April got canceled this year because the client’s grant didn’t come through, and they figured out that they could do it in-house. 

So Blue Hills’s success is not written in the stars, although it’s promising. Curio City’s just a matter of managing decline. I think that I can do that gracefully, much as Obama managed America’s decline for eight years, but I can’t rule out a chaotic and catastrophic failure, such as the US is undergoing now.     

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Sale of the Century!

A friend asked if Curio City will have a big clearance blowout at any point. It hadn't occurred to me. Maybe. If so, it won't be until late summer at the earliest. 

Most merchandise is already reduced to near cost. I don't like to go below cost. If I paid $5 for a thing, I want to get my $5 back. Sometimes I might let it go for $4 or even $3, but not often. Isn’t it better to recover a couple of my five bucks than nothing? Not necessarily. Sometimes reducing Kraken Enterprises' profit by $5 is more valuable than increasing its income by $4. 

The first draft of this post walked through the accounting in mind-numbing detail, but I’ll cut to the end without showing you how I got there. Essentially, if I take $4 for that $5 item, I increase my personal income by $0.80, and at the same time I raise my personal income tax liability by $0.80 (because Kraken’s profit/loss goes directly onto my 1040), for no net gain. If I write off $5 instead, I don’t pocket anything, but I reduce my tax liability by about $1. 

In favor of selling below cost anyway, I’d rather have 80 cents now than save a dollar later on. I’d also rather ship the item to somebody than throw it away, and I usually make a buck on the shipping charge. Blue Hills Editorial Services enters the picture here. 85% of Blue Hills income goes into payroll. The other 15% covers the employer's portion of payroll taxes and leaves a tiny profit toward the $1,500 it costs to be a corporation every year. Apart from that, Blue Hills has almost no expenses to offset its profit -- that's where Curio City’s losses are nice to have. When Curio City is losing money on operations, as it’s doing right now, it offsets Blue Hills' profit without needing to take markdowns. I can sell that $5 thing for $4 and pocket my 80 cents without driving up next spring’s tax bill. But when kite season puts Curio operations back in the black, I need write-offs to make Kraken's profit disappear.

I'll talk more about Blue Hills in my next post. To return to what I opened with: I don't plan to have a big end-of-business blowout sale because the write-offs are usually worth more than the small amount of cash that I can get for them. Between now and closing day, individual prices will slide a little bit here and there, but if you see something you want...don't wait. It probably won't get any cheaper, and it might sell out at any time. 

I keep mentioning kite season. Kites sell year-round because there are people who live in warm places. But it really gets going when spring weather settles in. Ordinarily it opens with Christians buying dove kites for church plays. Dove kites have been out of stock since last October, and the manufacturer will only say that they'll be back "in the spring." So I don’t know if I can count on the Christians to kick things off this year.  

Finally: The same person who asked about a going-out-of-business sale also wondered when Curio City will close. I still don’t know myself. The short answer is “It depends.” At this point I'm only staying open in anticipation of kite season. If it doesn't perk up by the end of March, and the cost of staying open continues to exceed the money coming in, I’ll close earlier than I had intended. 

September – the end of kite season -- is the earliest ending that I foresee; Christmas is the latest. But circumstances can change – for example, PayPal keeps sending me technical emails that I don’t quite understand about PayFlow integration, and a friend identified a problem with my security certificate that will, if I don’t do something about it, blow up in either April or June (I’m not clear), but only on the Chrome browser…maybe. Meanwhile, Turnkey just published another Sunshop update, putting my store software at least three versions behind now. Some technical thing might come along and deep-six my site before I’m ready to sink it myself. OTOH, I keep updating my master Excel file each month, and that’s currently formatted through next February, so there’s a ghost of a chance that I’ll keep going into next year. I don't plan to or want to, but I just got word that my biggest Blue Hills job isn’t going to come through this year, so I still need Curio City’s financial lifeline.  

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Speaking of that, I robbed myself of more than $100 last month by forgetting to reset February's payroll percentage from 10 to 20% of sales. Since Curio City unexpectedly bought me a new computer, though, I’m going to let it off the hook for the difference.

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