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, October 27, 2006

(Marketing) Score!

How about a marketing success story, for a change? A few months ago, American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, hired my wife to write a story about cool USB devices. Since I’m familiar with the subject, I did the research for her. We included Curio City’s USB Computer Fan among the other offerings I found, and disclosed our relationship to Curio City. American Way used the item in spite of that.

The magazine hit the planes on October 15, and goes off distribution on the 29th. To date, the article has moved 37 of the 60 fans that I had in stock. That’s zero-cost advertising – in fact, they paid Anne to write the story! Even better, the USB fan is one of the few things I carry with a markup comfortably exceeding 50%, which makes up for “loss leaders” like the Neverlate clock. And perhaps best of all, the article directs people to my front page, rather than landing them on a specific product page as my pay-per-click ads do. That means shoppers have to hunt a bit to find what they’re looking for. Five of those customers did indeed make additional purchases.

This is easily my single most successful promotion to date. I exceeded my sales goal for the last week of October, and came within striking distance of making the month (which would be a first). It’s my second-best week ever, and there's still a day and a half left in fiscal October; if I use calendar accounting instead, I’ll almost surely show my first-ever monthly profit. If it weren’t for October’s “web development” expense (which comes from startup cash, and should have been paid in September), I would already be in the black. Even my open-to-buy has a positive balance…although I won’t sit on that for long!

I wish I could repeat this. With ample help from my wife (I mean, my "vice president for marketing"), I’m creating a media kit for distribution to about 100 newspapers in major cities and college towns. The objective is to get my products included in their holiday gift guides. If I can get even half a dozen mentions comparable to the American Way insertion, success will be assured.

In another marketing development…one shopper, who found my pay-per-click ad for novelty golf balls, is organizing a Spring 2007 golf tournament for 200 ladies. The event will have an “wild and crazy time” theme, and she wants 200 sleeves of animal print golf balls as gifts to the participants. Cha-ching! But she can’t afford to pay $10 apiece for them, and asked what kind of quantity discount I could offer her. She mentioned ad space in her magazine as an incentive.

The magazine is called Gentry. It circulates to 77,000 wealthy older readers in the greater San Francisco area. I’ll sell her the golf balls for my cost and pay the shipping charges out of my pocket, actually taking a loss on the sale. In exchange, she’s giving me a one-time ¼ page four-color display ad valued at $1300. I still need to actually make the ad. I should be able to get it into their February issue, for Valentines Day.

This is how I will grow Curio City – one media placement, one ad insertion, at a time. Nothing that I’ve done up to now has paid off in any substantial way, but I feel like I’m on the verge of figuring out cost-effective marketing – and that is going to be the key to success.

Other Forthcoming Topics:

  • What Does Success Look Like?
  • Credit Card processing fees
  • Possible Futures
  • Planned features
  • O, Canada

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Royal We

Curio City Online’s text speaks in the plural voice (“we”). My readers know that I am the entire staff. So why not drop the pretense and just write as myself?

Conventional wisdom says that customers want to deal with big companies, and would be suspicious of the home-based, small-budget, one-man startup behind the curtain. So I speak of “our warehouse” and “our photographer” and “our buyers”, and people actually do see a big company. I only break that pretense in my newsletter and on this blog, both of which are specifically the voice of the Mayor.

Suppose I dropped the “big company” act? Some customers might like the idea of supporting a real person or helping an underdog. Then again, many might not trust “us” with their financial and contact information (even though it is certainly more secure with me than it would be in a large organization).

What’s your take? Are you more or less likely to buy from a “mom and pop” store with personality? Does a David-and-Goliath struggle against the odds do anything for you? Or is there a trust issue? Are you more comfortable with the known reputation of the colossus, or would you prefer the honest and personal touch of a little company with a real individual behind it?

Leave a comment. Our marketing department wants to know. :)

Forthcoming Topic Ideas:

  • Credit Card processing fees
  • What Does Success Look Like?
  • Planned features
  • O, Canada
  • More About Marketing

Friday, October 13, 2006

Money Doesn't Grow on Trees

If you’ve plowed through my past posts, you’ve heard about startup phases and my attitude toward debt. Most readers must wonder where I got the money to finance this approach – unless you’re my in-laws, who just assume that I stole it.

I am not a rich man, nor do I want to be. I scraped along for many years in subsistence-level jobs. I’m content with just enough money to comfortably pay my bills with a little bit left for modest luxuries. A couple of computer games per year, a nice vacation every couple of years, decent gifts for my wife and friends, the occasional computer replacement…that’s plenty for me.

In 1996, I left retail (which pays squat) for a tech job during the boom. My starting salary as a game tester was a small pay cut from being a book buyer, but by 1999, thanks to royalties and promotions, I had nearly tripled my income. Meanwhile, my needs and wants remained unchanged.

The PC game business is brutal. Burnout is common and employers are notoriously mercenary, trimming staff every time a product ships. I always expected that I – with no technical skills or education -- would eventually quit or be laid off.

So I saved a lot of money. I am a lousy consumer. I much prefer having money in the bank to buying things. I called it my Unemployment Fund.

In 2000, with my employer obviously failing, I angled for the generous severance package that came with the first round of layoffs. Combined with my savings, and large enough unemployment checks to cover my bills, I’d never been so rich in my life.

Fast forward: Further career crises unfolded as my money gradually dwindled. Then my mother died, and I inherited another year’s salary. This, I knew, would be the last time in my life that I would ever have a lump of money at my disposal. Now my slow-motion career crisis intersected with the resources and motivation to change it. With the generous support of my wife, I finally gave up on game development entirely, and Kraken Enterprises was born.

So here’s how you start a business without going into debt:

  1. Reduce your needs and wants to subsistence level.
  2. Earn considerably more than that, and save the difference.
  3. Marry a woman who will cover your personal living expenses while you pour your assets into the business.
  4. (Inheriting more money is optional, but recommended.)

It’s as easy as that!

If Curio City Online turns a profit in 2007, as it must, my current deprivation will have been worth it. If not, it was a terribly costly detour. I’ll have spent my life’s savings and walked around penniless for two years for no good reason. But at least I have a shot at the brass ring, and that’s more than most people ever get.

Other Forthcoming Topics:

  • Long-term Prospects
  • Planned features
  • O, Canada
  • Giving 110%
  • Credit Card processing fees

Friday, October 06, 2006

Marketing Will Be the Death of Me

Last night’s attempt to enlist some marketing help sputtered to a bad end. Anne and I thought that our friend’s startup was a public relations firm. It isn’t. Muddy Dog Media is actually a video production company – and a damned fine one, I’m sure. Maybe I’d have known that if I’d checked their website instead of glomming onto a PR buzzword that I saw in their press kit. Oh well, it was genuinely nice to see Elaine again, even if she was a little bemused by our misguided appeal for help.

I’ve always known that marketing is my blind spot. See “If You Build It, Will They Come?” for my previous thought on this. Corporate types in suits and haircuts always did the marketing while I ran operations. I thought of them as overpaid parasites. Little did I know.

Nothing has changed since I first posted about marketing back in August. I have made no progress on improving it. My now-defunct eBay store, my almost-monthly newsletter, this blog, my tentative and clumsy efforts at understanding SEO…none of it has made any discernable difference. My small marketing startup budget continues to dribble away, month after month, subsidizing PPC ads. They remain the only thing that works.

The moral of this post is simple: Never try to start a business without working out promotion first. You can't just trust it to work out.

This post would undoubtedly make a professional marketer blanch; expressing doubts must be a huge PR sin. But I said that this blog would not be a happy-talk marketing tool, and I am resolved to keep it honest.

Forthcoming Topics:

  • The Royal We
  • Where the Money Came From
  • Long-term Prospects
  • Planned features
  • O, Canada

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