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, February 08, 2008

I'm the Decider

Sometimes I wish I had an ordinary soul-sucking job with a reliable paycheck, defined hours, benefits, paid time off, a retirement plan, and all those good gilded-cage trappings. A job that I don’t have to think about. A job with a boss who would just tell me what to do.

As a business owner and sole employee, I have to make all of the decisions, big and small, with only my wife’s opinions (as valuable and valued as they are, she’s hardly disinterested) as input. Then I have to implement those decisions by myself. My thought process is not moving forward in concert with my self-imposed deadline for making this bet-the-company decision. I’m keenly aware of the calendar pages turning. The first of my three business startup certificates of deposit matures next week -- I need to either reinvest or spend that money pretty soon. How can I think harder? Writing these posts is the only technique I know for examining my own plodding mind.

Given my ‘druthers, I’d continue with Steady As She Goes through the end of this year. That would let me delay the offsite space problem for one more Xmas season while continuing to build my cashflow. I could then ramp up Curio Metropolis early in 2009, and I’d probably have enough money coming in to rent space by the time Fall sales overwhelm me. The main challenge to my web business is becoming more logistical than sales-oriented. I just can’t handle greatly increased business with my present setup.

Unless my physical facility generates revenue (meaning a store? Or is there some other way to do that?), I can’t afford year-round rent when I really only need the space for 2-3 months. There has got to be a creative solution that I’m not seeing. Maybe the very idea of owning and warehousing my own merchandise is wrong. Maybe I need to rely much more heavily on dropshippers, or find some other way to outsource order fulfillment. Maybe one can rent space seasonally, and move in and out of it as needed. That would probably create a bigger logistics nightmare than it solves. Somebody tell me what to do!

Seeing the Future

Without a conceptual breakthrough, opening a store feels as inevitable as Hillary Clinton – something unpleasant that you just have to accept. My crystal ball shows this: Steady As She Goes from March through May, working the minimum required 2-3 hours per day to maintain the web business while designing my store’s content and organization, researching the local retail scene, writing a business plan, investigating POS systems and fixtures, investigating advertising, figuring out how to mesh the store and web accounting, looking at security systems, designing signage, etc. – the details are endless and intimidating.

I need to refine my concept. Do I still carry useful but mundane objects like popcorn poppers and wine corks and ceramic tiles? These slow-selling remnants of my original scattergun merchandise assortment seem to have no place in Curio City's emerging personality. Should I focus hard on the unusual gadget-novelty type stuff? Is there enough of that to sustain a store, and does it sell well enough? Shoppers need to unconsciously grasp the concept as soon as they walk in the door – my merchandise selection and presentation have to make a deliberate impression. Simply plopping the website merchandise on shelves is not going to cut it. Yet I don't want to look like Newbury Comics or Spencer Gifts or The Sharper Image or that other trendy store in the mall, whatever it's called.

I would need to stop planning and begin realizing Curio City Offline by June. I don’t know yet what tasks are required of me, or in what order, or how to achieve them, or how much time they will take. That ought to become obvious as I go. I'm sure that the two biggest hurdles would be obtaining financing and finding a location. I’d need to sign a lease by late August, spend 3-4 weeks in September configuring the space (paint, wiring, lighting, carpeting, fixtures, signage, security…), spend October filling it with merchandise and seeking an employee, and then open by Halloween to get the kinks out by Thanksgiving. Until it’s bringing in money, a business can only burn investment capital to make loan payments and pay rent. A tremendous amount of progress has to happen in a very short time to minimize that deadly interval when the bills are coming and the sales are not.

Somebody tell me what to do!

The Same Old Hurdles

There are a couple of deal breakers that I have to address right up front (maybe this is what I should be working on right now). Even if I am personally stuck covering 75% of the store’s operating hours, I must have at least one part-time employee who can relieve me. As far as I’m concerned, if I can’t afford a small payroll, I can’t afford a store. I am also unwilling to work without pay for any length of time, although it will almost certainly become necessary during the fallow months. And I still can’t make my spreadsheet forecasts break even until sales reach over $400,000 per year, or 10 times what the web brought in last year. That's totally unrealistic.

I would have to suspend Curio City Online when I begin the store opening process. I simply can’t run two businesses at once. Hopefully this hiatus wouldn’t last more than a few months. I’d have to abandon my 2008 web sales goals, which is a bitter pill after the year’s encouraging start. As soon as the store opens, I’d resume my PPC advertising and hope that Curio City Online can pick up where it left off. I’d need the web sales give me some pittance to live on, since a store can't pay me anything outside of November and December. (Even during those months, my part-time, minimum-wage employee will be making more than I do).

Once the store survives its first Christmas, I could try to ramp up Curio Metropolis Online -- if I'm not permanently chained to a cash register, that is. Unless I’m in a high-rent or touristy area, store sales will not even begin to approach costs from January through October. I would have to focus on online business again when the store isn’t pulling its weight.

Thinking is hard. Somebody tell me what to do!

January’s sales streak ended with January, and February is starting out grim. My paycheck has fallen back to $50 per week again – before taxes. I blame Valentines Day. People are buying chocolates, flowers, tacky heart-shaped junk and frilly underthings. I did sell a few Valentine things , but my heart just isn’t in that type of merchandise. If I’m right about this, sales should recover somewhat during the second half of the month…and I’m still hoping that pent-up demand for 4-LED caps will pull February out of the crapper.

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