Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City. 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, July 27, 2007

Baby Steps

This July beat LY’s sales every week, and even came within spitting distance of my sales plan. Nice! I had eight transactions on Wednesday alone. If I could sustain that, you wouldn’t be reading posts about rescue products and marketing crises and new directions and all of that tommyrot. In fact, you might not be reading this blog at all. I’d be too busy counting my money. :)

One four-day sales drought (a typical summer phenomenon) gave me some time to address my punch list. It also left me utterly unmotivated, bored, and dispirited. The drawback to working at home is that, when you aren’t engaged in your work, there is always something more interesting and rewarding to do. My mind was mostly on my upcoming Berkshires vacation – probably my last vacation for several years, if I really follow through on my intention to open a store next year. Although I’m reluctant to abandon Curio City Online while it’s on a roll, I’m looking forward to getting out of town for the first time in ages.

I did make a little progress on that damnable list, though.

I found a few amateur fashion models in the vicinity who would work for reasonable fees or “trade time”, whatever that means. Salacious adult “modeling” services provided an interesting distraction, particularly on Craigslist. I finally decided that (a) because my studio is actually a garage workbench with a sheet thrown over it, (b) because my photography skills and camera are both marginal, and (c) because my wife knows that no young beauty left un-chaperoned could possibly keep her hands off of me…I’m better off just buying a Styrofoam mannequin head.

Being a cheapskate, I wasted too much time looking for a local retailer before finally coughing up $10.49 (mostly for shipping) at some internet wig shop. I named her Polly Styrene.

I tried for two days to re-photograph my cap lights, and discovered why professional photographers have all that expensive equipment. I took hundreds of photos in various lighting conditions before I finally got a handful of acceptable quality. Those have been posted, and Polly is now an internet star. At least none of my competitors – including the manufacturer -- have decent pics, either.

I’ve finally settled on campers as the primary target market for my lighted caps. I think it’s a fairly large specialty group that overlaps with fishermen, hikers, tradesmen, IT guys, and other smaller segments. I didn’t get as far as researching publications for them, although I do have the resources at my fingertips. I’ll hit that when I get back from vacation.

While doing some email archeology, I found an old tasklist for Eric that included this item: “Perform the Sunshop 4.0 upgrade due out this summer.” That email was dated May 24…2006! A Turnkey email announced this week that it’s really shipping on August 6. If that’s true, I might yet perform the upgrade this year.


When a customer asked if the 5-LED clip-on cap lights will work with a hard hat, I remembered an old one in our cellar – er, I mean, in the Curio City warehouse -- from a news assignment that my wife did ages ago. So I tried it, took some photos, and updated my product page. If luck breaks my way, there might be an order for 200+ units in my future.


The truly huge order that I mentioned last week fell through. Oh well.

I sold my Google Analytics code again, for the fifth time. This buyer got a discount for buying the 3.5.1 version, with no tech support, when 4.0 is imminent. This was the first time that I tried to perform an upgrade without Eric’s help. At this writing, it didn’t go particularly well. The code isn’t working.

Speaking of vacation…there will be no post next Friday. Yes, I’ll be checking e-mail daily from our Berkshires hideaway, but I’m not planning to do much more work than that. Tomorrow night I’ll suspend my advertising and post a “warehouse closed” message on the News page.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Learning the Obvious

It's Friday again already? I neither made much progress on my punch list nor had a blog entry prepared. I don’t know where the week went. So today I’ll just tell a story.

Yesterday a woman called to ask about special pricing on this Seashell towel. She’d shopped for two days, she said, and ours was the only realistic seashell design she could find. One other store had them for $5.99, but theirs were out of stock. She wanted 30 of them. The pupils of my eyes changed to dollar signs as “cha-ching” sounded. At the same time, my hackles rose when she said that she wasn’t going to pay our $10 price.

I offered to sell her the eight that I had in stock at a discount. No, she needed all 30. OK then, if my supplier had any more I would still offer her a discounted price, although I couldn’t touch $6 apiece. Well, she wouldn’t pay much more than $6. My gut reaction to her intensified, but what the hell? I wanted her $300, and if I’m really the only store on the internet with what she wants, I was determined to get it. At this time of year, there are entire weeks when I don’t gross $300.

Even though it was no longer in the wholesaler’s catalog, I could get some towels. Two cases would cost me $120, and I could add six of my eight stock towels to make 30. Fine, until I noticed a minimum order requirement of either $250 (according to their website) or $350 (according to their catalog) was going to increase my cost. I contemplated pumping up my order to meet the minimum. But towels are not exactly Curio City’s core competence, and I’m trying to get away from my tangential products.

I called her with good news/bad news. Yes, we could get 30 towels for her. But because the cost went up when I could not meet their minimum order quantity, I couldn’t offer her a discount. Free shipping was the best I could offer.

I’d say that she turned icy, except that this lady had been irritating right from the first contact. “So you’re telling me it’s $300.” Yes, that’s the price. “That’s too much,” she said. Take it or leave it (my silence implied). I told her to call me back if she changed her mind.

A few hours later, she did. But not to buy towels. She wanted the name and contact info of my supplier. I could feel myself flushing red. “I get them from a wholesaler. They don’t sell to the public,” I said. “I know that. Just let me talk to them.” I pondered for a few seconds. Maybe they would refuse to sell to her, and she might then come back. I could offer her a token discount and still get most of my price. I was sick of dealing with her anyway, and by now I just wanted her to go away. I gave her the contact info and told her to call me back if they wouldn’t help her, and I’d see if I could find some wriggle room on the price.

She never came back. She must have bullied them into selling to her, just as she had bullied me in each phone call. I’ll bet the bitch got them for $5 each, too.

Mistake #1: Holding out for the full $300, or something very close to it, from someone who clearly wasn’t going to pay it. I didn’t like this lady and I would rather lose the sale than cheapen myself or be pushed around. I should have instead sold them for whatever she’d pay. I probably could’ve gotten $7 apiece. A $210 take on $120 cost is better than $0 (which turned out to be my sales total for the day). But frankly, when you consider that only $14 of that $90 markup would’ve ended up in my paycheck, the accounting hassle of reducing that sale’s contribution to my various budgets wasn’t worth it.

Mistake #2: Giving out supplier info. That simply isn’t done, as I know full well. I should’ve ended the conversation right there. Let her go away mad; so what? In the first place, I hate interpersonal conflict and avoid it whenever possible. In the second place, 16 years of working for retail employers taught me to never, ever, piss off a customer. Even after two years of being my own boss, I haven’t quite grasped that my word is final.

I consider it two lessons re-learned. First, a marginal profit is better than no profit. And second, I don’t have to cave in to abusive customers. At least she went away and I didn’t waste inventory dollars on dozens of new towels that I don’t want.

To end on a positive note, I’m currently negotiating what would be by far my largest sale ever. If it breaks my way, it’ll more than erase my April-June slide. I also had an intriguing phone call this morning from someone who wants to be a sales rep for my lighted caps. It almost surely won’t amount to anything except more wasted time – he thought that I was the manufacturer – but it is more good evidence that my instinct is right: Those babies are a really hot product, if I can just figure out how to sell them before they become ubiquitous.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Momentum

I made no meaningful progress toward any particular goal again last week. Whatever momentum I had going a few weeks ago has dissipated. So today I’ll post a public punchlist that might shame me into tackling this stuff.

Incidentally, July’s sales continue to exceed LY. I actually have a positive open-to-buy balance with nothing that desperately needs reordering right now...for once, I won’t have to scramble when I run low on oak DayClocks, Stone Big Schnozzes, or cap lights (all of those are expensive to reorder). Now I’m reluctant to shut down for my annual week in the Berkshires at the end of this month. What if I lose the sales momentum?

My first priority should be following through on my “rescue products”. This task list is the most difficult for me, because it’s outside my area of competence. It’s going to take a lot of time and cost a lot of money, and it’s mostly chores that I hate doing:

  1. Improve my cap light photos. The ones you see now are the best I could do on my own. I’d love to find an attractive young lady to model them. Failing that (my social circle has a shortage of attractive young ladies) I could use a mannequin head. I don’t know where to get one cheap, without paying exorbitant eBay shipping charges.
  2. Define target audience(s). IT guys? Fishermen? Campers? Plumbers? Electricians? All of the above? I should probably start with one narrow group.
  3. Define specialty publications for the above. I floated an Octopus Overlords thread aimed at computer technicians (none of whom were impressed enough with my product pages to actually, you know, buy one…which raises a red flag about that market). I made no progress at all there with outdoorsmen.
  4. Find contact info for individuals who write product reviews at the above publications.
  5. Find ad specs and prices for the above publications.
  6. See if Diane will produce ads for me again, or buy a copy of Adobe InDesign and do it myself. If I’m going to advertise in print regularly, I probably ought to invest in the program. (PaintShopPro doesn’t do the CYMK format that printers want).
  7. Create a redirect page that will allow me to use a simple URL, as suggested by reader Chris Gwinn.
  8. Create and place my ad(s). Spend the entire marketing budget on this. Ideally, I’ll be able to afford a small ad running from October-December.
  9. Send sample cap(s) to the contact(s) identified in step 4.
  10. Order additional stock to cover the anticipated surge in demand.

I would like to make it through step 6 before I go on vacation.

Second, spend the rest of my “rescue money”:

  1. Re-evaluate cash on hand to find maximum possible spend.
  2. Choose between several competing possibilities…all of them promising, but none extremely exciting. Should I hold the money until something really leaps out at me? Or should I take a chance on one of the several products already in my sights?
  3. Write the order(s), create product pages, take photos, write PPC ads – the usual new product drill.

I should complete steps 1 and 2 early next week, and step 3 as well if I decide to go with the one summery product on my list. If I go with the non-seasonal gift-y things instead, time is not critical. I probably ought to be looking toward Xmas by now.

Third, expand or improve existing product lines:

  1. Add more jewelry styles. This takes only time, no money, and it squeezes a little more value from ads that I’m already running. I already added a couple of new designs this week.
  2. Bring in a new color or two of caps, or maybe try visors.

Fourth, turn dead products into cash:

  1. Remove some of the stuff that’s been in the Bargain Hut for years, and liquidate it on eBay (I’m talking about you, lightswitch covers).
  2. Take steeper discounts on the remaining stuff.
  3. Mark down whole categories – pet supplies and travel.
  4. Announce a big sale in the newsletter.

Fourth, continue to pursue web development:

  1. Keep haunting the Turnkey forums. Sunshop final release is still scheduled “any day now”.
  2. Determine whether to upgrade Sunshop before Xmas or not. This will depend on the volume of bug reports concerning their eventual “stable release”.
  3. Figure out which of the new Sunshop features I can actually use, and contact Eric about modifying templates.
  4. Once Sunshop 4 is running reliably and I’ve got its new features working, consider hiring professional SEO.
  5. Consider hiring a contractor to implement the basic site improvements that have been on my wishlist for years already.

Fifth, work toward realizing Curio City Offline:

  1. Research actual pre-opening cost numbers to replace my rough estimates.
  2. Determine whether I will need to obtain a bank loan, or try to borrow small amounts from friends, or simply put the whole enterprise on charge cards.
  3. Write a business plan.
  4. Shop for a location, and get solid cost info on rent and insurance.

Miscellaneous:

  1. Figure out Gift Certificate accounting. It is harder to understand than you might think. I have to know whether to record the sale when the GC is issued or redeemed. Prevailing opinion seems to be to record a sale when the GC is issued. When it’s redeemed…what? And what about giving change for unused portion?

Ongoing:

  1. Continue refining PPC campaigns, as I do daily.
  2. Keep an eye out for new products.
  3. Continue blogging.
  4. Stay on top of my various newsletters and magazines.
  5. Keep adding to the next Curio City Chronicle. Consider testing their Survey feature.

Suddenly, I feel very very busy.

Friday, July 06, 2007

No Entry, So Here's My Entry

I don’t have a real post for you this week. Between having a visiting guest, the Fourth of July, and a couple of annoying medical problems, I just laid back most of the week. Despite my lack of progress, July’s sales are off to a great start, percentage-wise. (As always, the actual dollars involved are chump change). Today is a good time to post my Yahoo contest entry.

I’m not sure that Yahoo ever saw it. I submitted it once with Firefox, and then again with IE. Both submissions displayed a confirmation screen. But I never got any other acknowledgment, nor did they notify me when voting began despite my ticking a box to request it. When I visited their contest page to see the finalists, I could not figure out how to vote (again, using two browsers).

Four of the five finalists were really lame -- three had products or services for parents and children, and one was a New Age-y looking woman selling ugly fairy dolls. One contestant had a worthwhile looking product – a cross between a game controller and a keyboard. I wish I could’ve voted for him. But he obviously didn’t need me; I see that he was one of the three winners, along with the woo-woo lady and one of the kiddie-product guys.

I thought my entry was pretty good. See what you think.

Tell Us About Your Business (500 words or less)

Curio City Online is a Web site that sells curious gifts for curious people. Bucking the conventional wisdom that a Web business must specialize to succeed, Curio City aspires to offer something for everyone, on any occasion. Being generalists in an age of over-specialization makes our store fun to shop. You never know what you’ll find at Curio City, but you’ll always find something interesting, unusual, and of good value.

Curio City is currently a home-based business whose owner and sole paid employee – the Mayor -- has aspirations that exceed his reach. The Mayor, a now 50-year-old refugee from the high-tech industry, founded Curio City after his third layoff in as many years, and the business reflects its owner’s unconventional history and interests. The store’s Web site combines the Mayor’s technical knowledge, his previous retail experience and his writing ability in a design that evokes his years in the computer-game business – or will, when it is properly implemented.

This is not an ordinary entrepreneurial undertaking. The Mayor isn’t some college kid who expects to make his first million before he’s 25. The Mayor does not aspire to become a high roller at all. He doesn’t wear a necktie. He’s not even keen on wearing shoes. But he does intend to succeed on his own terms. Success means generating a comfortable living for himself and his future employees by offering customers a unique online shopping resource.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s modest means have never matched his ambitious vision to create a place where people will not only shop, but socialize as well. His original dream to transform his life’s savings into a new livelihood is now faltering. Growth recently stagnated and even slipped.

Because it’s self-financed, Curio City must grow steadily and rapidly to sustain itself. The Mayor’s bootstrap approach leaves little room for setbacks like those that the business is facing right now, and so he’s re-examining his most basic assumptions. He has identified five paths that Curio City might take, and the time for committing to one of these paths is approaching quickly. All of the foreseeable futures require an infusion of money and expertise. You can learn more about these choices and challenges in the posts labeled “planning” at the Mayor’s blog.

What Does Your Business Need to Become More Successful? 500 words or less

The Curio City that you see today is just the seed of what it could be. All of the elements for success – including the all-important vision for the future -- are in place. The business’s infrastructure is sound. Curio City awaits only a helping hand to reach the next stage of development. There’s nothing wrong that an infusion of outside expertise won’t solve.

The Mayor lacks the marketing and technical skills necessary to take his company much beyond its current level. Three aspects of the business need serious (and expensive) work:

  • Web design. Navigation needs to be more intuitive and enjoyable. Several core features from the Mayor’s original 2005 design remain unimplemented. The site needs a cosmetic update to remain timely. And it desperately needs professional search engine optimization. The Mayor has a clear idea of the enhancements that will take Curio City to the next level.
  • Merchandise. The store should evoke an old-fashioned hobby shop-cum-general store, updated for the information age -- the kind of place where every corner you turn reveals some fun surprise. It needs to be overstuffed with strange and amusing merchandise of all sorts. The current selection approaches the necessary breadth of interests, but lacks depth. Many categories languish because they contain only token selections. To achieve the desired atmosphere, Curio City needs about three times the amount of merchandise that it currently offers. Based on 18 months’ worth of sales, the Mayor now knows what type of items to add – and what to punt.
  • Marketing. Promotion has been Curio City’s Achilles heel from the start. Our sales-driven ad budget only buys second-tier placement for most of our pay-per-click keywords. Our few forays into online and print advertising have been expensive and disappointing. Our few media placement successes have come about through luck, not something that we can replicate. Marketing is one very large and important hat that the Mayor simply cannot wear himself. He needs to outsource that job.

Hiring the necessary talent and buying new merchandise will cost more money than the Mayor has invested to date. With his nest egg gone, money has to come either from sales or from loans. Right now, Curio City’s performance is too weak to inspire investors or to cover the store’s needs. And that’s where the Yahoo Ultimate Connection Contest comes in.

How Can the Yahoo Ultimate Connection Contest Help Make That Success a Reality? 500 words

Consider the scale of the Yahoo Ultimate Connection prize in relation to Curio City.

  • $25,000 worth of free clicks will almost double the money that the Mayor has invested in Curio City to date. It will buy prominent placement for our most important keywords. That means buying more traffic than we can ever afford with our own resources. Combined with the next prize component, that jump-start could easily double or triple our modest sales and ensure the success of our business.
  • Since pay-per-click is our entire advertising strategy to date, access to a Yahoo search marketing expert who can teach us to maximize the results of that $25,000 will benefit Curio City much more than it would help a business that employs search advertising less exclusively.
  • Mentoring from a prominent marketing expert is precisely what the Mayor needs the most, because marketing knowledge is his greatest personal deficiency. He has worked in a vacuum so far. His halting struggles to find affordable marketing expertise have gone nowhere. A year’s worth of professional advice at no charge will greatly reduce the amount of money that we need to borrow, or free that money for other purposes.
  • As explained previously, a Web site makeover is a primary goal for Curio City’s success as an online business. The Mayor currently intends to borrow the money necessary to hire a professional Web developer. Winning this service would further reduce the amount that we need to borrow, or free that money up for other important needs (such as merchandise).
  • The Mayor has grudgingly agreed to wear shoes to the “Ultimate Connection” power lunch. He might even buy a tie.

The Mayor currently plans to seek financing from a local bank (or other investors) in the second quarter of 2008. The mere fact of winning this prize – coupled with the expected sales increase from the search marketing infusion -- will give Curio City the necessary credibility to obtain the loan that it needs to expand and thrive. The Yahoo Ultimate Connection Contest prize will make the difference between failure and success for one struggling little business. Your award simply couldn’t be more effective elsewhere.

OK, maybe my business isn’t original enough or valuable enough to make the cut, but I made a pretty good case, didn’t I? Wouldn’t you think that it merits a “nice try” e-mail? Or at least a robotic acknowledgment? Pretty shabby, Yahoo.

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