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, September 28, 2007

Why I Blog

I started Curious Business for three reasons.

First, I hoped that it would be a clearinghouse of information for startups. Some small business owners out there have solved the same problems that I face, and others are encountering problems that I’ve solved. I wanted Curious Business to make connections and share experiences. That has happened a couple of times, although not the way that I’d envisioned. Rather than leaving comments, people send me email. Blogger technology is just not appropriate for a message-board style of interaction.

Second, I hoped that Curious Business would drive a little business and instill customer loyalty. Readers would follow links to my products and sign up for my newsletter. The search engines would index my posts and raise the page rank of linked products. Has that happened at all? Google Analytics, my best source for traffic information, says that Curious Business is my #16 referring site, having sent me only 40 visitors in the past six months. That's not very impressive. Only 10 of those visitors (25%) bounced without shopping, and a very impressive 12.5% conversion rate made this blog my #8 source of website referral sales. It’s not driving much traffic, but it’s driving good traffic. I also know of two newsletter signups through the blog interface. I hate to say it, but I'd probably get better sales results if I wrote my posts in marketing happy-talk instead of being my curmudgeonly self.

Third, I want to keep a history. Someday I might tell the story of Curio City in book form. Whether it turns out to be a rags-to-riches success story or a cautionary tale about how not to start a business, I need a record of events, goals, and thoughts. Deep down, I’m still an English major with a compulsion to write.

Who’s reading?

You are. Thanks for coming! Please make yourself known – leave a comment if something interests you.

My wife reads it, sometimes. If I nag her. One or two friends have visited in the past, although I don’t think they’re regular readers. AFAIK none of my friends or relatives follows the progress of my business. I don't blame them. There's a lot of interesting material on the web competing for our limited time, and my writing can be dry.

At least two other small business owners stop in periodically. Some of my vendors have been here, but I don’t think they’re regular readers. Every time I send out a newsletter, a few customers click the blog link. Some people stumble across it when Blogger’s random “next blog” link serves it up. That’s pretty much everybody that I know of. The counter at the bottom of the page says Curious Business has had 688 visits. Even if 200 of them were by me, that’s still nearly 500 real page views. Somebody’s reading, and so I keep writing.


Months from now, when economists are arguing over when the recession started, I will point to Friday, September 21, 2007. Business hit a wall that day and has not recovered. Still, thanks to a long run of decent sales, the month is already 50% over LY, with a day and a half yet to go. It looks like September will finish with a tidy little profit.

October and November look scary. I’m up against LY’s big score with nothing comparable working for me this year. I’m hoping that some cool new products and the Sunshop upgrade (which is still going painfully slowly) will make up some of that ground. But, let’s take it as it comes, shall we?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Some People Never Learn

Nine months ago I wrote about the demise of the Ultra Bright Finger Lights, a fun and profitable little bestseller that succumbed to dead batteries.

Several weeks ago, I discovered that the supplier of my bestselling cap lights is now offering a new incarnation of finger lights called Rocket Rings. The casing is a little different, the battery compartment was redesigned to use smaller batteries, and the price is much lower. Even allowing for a generous markup, I can retail these things for a buck apiece (versus $4.50 apiece for the old finger lights). How could I pass that up?

A few orders soon revealed that the Rocket Rings share their ancestors' tendency toward battery problems. About one in ten of them don’t work; since they come in three-packs, that means about a third of my stock is unsalable out of the box.

Luckily, the packages are very easily opened and re-closed, making it easy to reassemble working three-packs (although achieving the proper color assortment adds a bit of challenge) and reduce the spoilage to only the lights that are actually defective.

I am not the kind of guy who just throws things away. Even though they’re so cheap that they hardly merit the time and attention, my cheap nature compels me to rehabilitate what I can. Usually, the only defect is one bad battery of the three tiny ones in each ring, or even just a bent contact. With enough time and patience, I can salvage almost all of the defectives. It's a nuisance, but as long as people buy only a few packages at a time and I’m only shipping a few orders a day, I can squander my time.

Yesterday somebody ordered 30 three-packs. Ninety lights. And so this corporate CEO once again spent a solid hour fussing over his latest bestseller. I ended up trashing only four lights. I've only written off two packages out of the 37 sold to date.

There is a wrinkle, though. The same customer who bought 30 packages asked about potentially buying up to 1,000. I obviously can't do triage on that many. If I can get them at all (my source is down to 25 left), I’ll offer the customer a generous allowance for defects. Slightly more worrisome is the potential for these things to start selling in great numbers very soon, now that they've made the bestseller list. I can imagine them blowing out for Halloween and Christmas. If that happens, I'll probably have to raise the price and throw away the defects more aggressively, or I'm going to be spending hours every week playing around with these tiny batteries.

The Boston Gift Show, Again

I think this was the first time I attended one of these things with actual money in my open-to-buy. Even though this show should be subtitled “Cavalcade of Crap,” I did find two new product lines, and one older vendor’s display convinced me to try a small assortment of their merchandise (emphasis on the last syllable; they are a dice company. I’m an adventure gamer).

Three hits from 525 exhibitors (down from 625 last spring) is not too bad for a store with Curio City’s focus on the unusual.

Business remains strong, btw. Last week was down a little, but still more than doubled LY’s comparable week (low-hanging fruit, remember?). I’m guessing that consumers are pausing after their annual back-to-school spending. If LY’s pattern holds up, they’ll come roaring back next week.

Friday, September 14, 2007

For Want of a Backslash, The Website Was Lost

The Sunshop 4.0.1 upgrade that you’ve been reading about for nearly two years is now in progress. Due to the magnitude of the changes, I decided to start with an entirely new install rather than risk introducing bugs and downtime by patching my existing store. While my developer (Eric) works on customizing the standard templates, I’m applying all of the settings and customizations that are within my grasp.

There’s a lot of default text to rewrite. Much of it resides in a .php file. Yesterday, I spent perhaps an hour customizing various messages and interface strings. Then I decided to place a few dummy transactions to generate some email messages. But the 401 store is isolated from the database. So I I had to create a dummy product, and for that, I had to create a category to put it in. Which I did, whereupon the store and the admin interface both promptly crashed to a plain white screen.

After a fruitless hour of troubleshooting, I ran crying to Eric. The verdict? I didn’t “escape” my apostrophes. You have to type backslash-quote in a php file: “don\’t”. I actually knew this. The ability of rogue single quotes to bring down the site entirely, however, came as news. Learning this lesson cost me most of a day’s progress, plus at least an hour of development charges.

In unrelated news…

Last week I mentioned the interruption in my free krakenenterprises account. I did ultimately cough up $5 to turn the address back on. Now I need to remove the email links from my Kraken website. I’ve gotten over 100 spams before lunchtime today. All of them are addressed to my two krakenenterprises.com mailboxes. Some spambot is having a field day.

Oh, and business is still very strong. I am going to absolutely demolish last September’s weak sales results.

The Fall Boston Gift Show is tomorrow. If there's anything remotely interesting about it, I'll tell you next week.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Low-Hanging Fruit

August finished 67% ahead of LY, with a profit (yes, profit!) of $153. YTD, I am a few dollars in the black – and because retailers don’t generally expect to see black ink until November, that’s pretty phenomenal. If it weren’t for the money that I’m trying to spend right now on site improvements, I’d surely be looking at a profitable 2007.

September 2006 was a really lousy month for sales. That’s the low-hanging fruit. With a day and a half left in it, this first week is already 26% ahead of LY. Nice start, even if the actual dollar amounts involved remain too small.

I designed a postcard to promote lighted caps to the media. 50 copies cost less than $10, thanks to a VistaPrint special. Soon I’ll send them to 50 newspapers, magazines, and websites. If even one of them picks up and promotes the product, I should be able to offset last year’s USB Fan phenomenon. If this effort flops, though, October and November could be a bloodbath. That’s the high-hanging fruit waiting for me after September is picked clean.

I’ve had a couple more nibbles from companies seeking large quantities of items to use as gifts. These deals tend to fall apart on my inability to imprint merchandise, or to quickly obtain 300 copies of something that I stock in much smaller quantities. The company that supplied my USB lights and USB vacuums hasn’t answered four different attempts to contact them – I don’t know if I’m going to be able to supply 300 of these things or not.

To complicate things, my free krakenenterprises.com hosting account has been suspended. It’s graciously provided by Rip, the proprietor of Navigator Hosting, as a courtesy to members of Octopus Overlords. Ordinarily, he “pays” it each month by applying a credit, but this morning my account was really cut off. On one level, the silence is nice; this account apparently has no spam filtering and routinely delivers 50-100 junk messages every day. But I do use my kraken address as my main personal business contact, so I can’t go without it for long. If Rip doesn’t surface by this afternoon I’ll have to pony up $5 to get it back online...and there goes my September profit! :)

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