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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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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Kraken Enterprises begins

The older I get, the harder it is to pretend that I work for any reason other than to get a paycheck. Yet, to succeed in a job, you have to act like the paycheck is incidental. You have to pretend that you care so much about the work that you’d rather be in the office than anywhere else. The people who pull off that charade (or, even scarier, the ones who actually buy into it) are the ones who get ahead.

I’ve never cared much about making money for other people, and somewhere along the line I lost the ability to pretend otherwise. This attitude probably makes me unemployable. Being nearly 50, white, and male does not help very much, and my checkered work history and rudimentary education pretty much seal the deal. Who would hire me?

The combination of inheriting a bit of money, feeling unemployable, and being unable to retire, led inevitably to one conclusion: I have to work for myself.

I was slow to accept that idea – it wasn’t easy to give up the pursuit of a regular paycheck, especially since I didn't feel driven to do anything in particular. As I was grappling with that, I decided to spend a few thousand dollars on one last exotic vacation. We arranged to meet up with some Michigan friends in Tortola, BVI. One fine afternoon in the swimming pool at Lambert Beach, I went into my employment lament, which had begun to bore even me after my third layoff. My friends suggested that I might start some kind of gaming website. I couldn’t imagine how that could possibly make money, especially with PC gaming on the wane, and strategy gaming never particularly popular, and me having no real technical skills. I shot the idea down…but it was the first time someone suggested a website.

Gradually, I concluded that I should open a store. But what to sell? The two things that I know best – books and computer games – have died in retail. The Internet and two huge chains own bookselling. PC gaming is steadily losing market share to consoles (I have zero interest in action-oriented console games). Besides, like books, that business is owned by the Internet and by huge chain retailers. It is simply not possible to establish a profitable general-interest bookstore or PC game store.

So…what retail category is not thoroughly dominated by (a) Internet retailers, (b) big-box stores, or (c) a mall boutique chain?

First, I investigated hobby shops. There are still a fair number of mom-and-pop retailers, despite worrisome growth by a chain called Hobby Town. As my continuing research suggested that a hobby shop might be feasible, I had to admit that not actually having a hobby of my own (except, that is, for PC gaming) would be a real handicap. Successful independent hobby shops are labors of love by fanatical hobbyists.

My other inspiration was a store in Williamstown, Mass., called Where Did You Get That? This dimly-lit, claustrophobic store was overstuffed with all kinds of novelties, gag gifts, games, nostalgia items, costumes, toys, and miscellany. You didn’t know what you’d find around the next corner, but it would probably be interesting. This store’s eclectic selection and haphazard presentation was its strength. It was actually fun to shop. Here was a concept that depended on its owner’s quirks. It could not be made formulaic and reproduced. As far as I knew, there were no similar shops locally.

I wanted to avoid a label like “hobby shop” or “bookstore” that would create expectations that constrain my selection. “Gift shop” seemed sufficiently vague to encompass almost anything. I would open a “gift shop” similar to Where Did You Get That. I would eliminate the cheap, tacky, lowbrow humor items and tilt more toward the techie and the sophisticated. I would also have a nice website, and make a significant share of my sales online.

(Ironically, the original Where Did You Get That store has moved to a larger, brightly-lit location. Their selection and presentation are more professional now, and they’ve lost the quirky fun feeling that originally inspired me. Let that be a cautionary tale.)

I researched Boston-area competitors. I took a few classes on how to found a company, choose retail space, etc. The price of rent in any desirable shopping areas was very discouraging. I honestly don’t understand how any independent store can ever cover its rent and payroll, never mind putting money in its owner’s pocket. I started running numbers. They were pretty daunting. It was very clear that my little inheritance was not going to do it. I’d have to take on considerable debt. Debt = danger. I really wanted to bootstrap my business.

About this time my wife suggested that, instead of starting a store with a website as an afterthought, I could start with the website, and use the knowledge and experience gained to open a store. Maybe the web would even prove profitable enough that I wouldn’t need a store at all. Oh, and by the way, she would support me while I got the thing off the ground.

That was the breakthrough. I could bootstrap this thing. I could establish the business, find vendors, test merchandise, and build a brand – all without taking on debt or risking anything beyond my starting capital.

On August 12, 2005, Kraken Enterprises, Inc. was born, and I was committed. ("Kraken", by the way, is a long-time gaming alias assembled from the letters in my name.)

NEXT: Curio City takes shape

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