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, April 25, 2008

Focus, Juice. Focus

Back in the Olden Days, when I spent my miserable days earning real money at a real job, and we could afford real vacations, we once sallied forth from a booze-soaked villa in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, for a Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour. We rode a wheezing bus to the top of the Blue Mountain Peak, whence we would coast downhill for two hours. Some previous visitors had tipped us off to make sure we rode “the Juice bus”, and so we did. Juice (the driver) kept up a patter that made the two-and-a-half-hour drive along Jamaica’s narrow, potholed roads entertaining and informative. As the bus started its 7,000-foot ascent up a winding, goat-infested road without guard rails, his monolog started to trail off. At each increasingly perilous turn of the steep switchback, Juice admonished himself: “Focus, Juice. Focus.”

As our sleepy New England spring slowly yields to the lazy summer, I have to repeat that mantra to myself more and more often. When business is slow, it’s easy to lose interest in Curio City, put it on autopilot, and spend my time gardening, doing yard work, or just frittering time away on the internet.

And business is slow – in fact, it flatlined for two consecutive days…the first back-to-back shutouts of this year. This week is on track to be my worst since May 2007. In 2006, the corresponding week was among the year’s best. Last year was no great shakes, but still delivered at least a small Mothers Day bump. This year…nothing. Once again, I failed to do any kind of marketing for it, and this year’s recession can’t be helping – shoppers who can afford gifts at all are probably buying “mom stuff” instead of my merchandise.

What do you do when there are no orders to fill, no inventory to reorder, no new stock to bring in, and no investments to make?

Focus, Juice. Focus.

A while back, I identified three strategies for this year:

  1. Increase and improve my merchandise selection;
  2. Increase the number of visitors; and
  3. Increase the percentage of visitors who buy something (conversions).

A wife-induced financial error conspired with the price of last year’s profit to drain some of my startup money for a substantial 2007 personal income tax bill. And I still need to divert some of my Kraken money to a long-deferred and desperately needed home repair (in fact, contractors are coming to bid on the job this afternoon). So much for beefing up my merchandise. This is not a huge setback; nothing on my wishlist is especially exciting. Infusing cash to buy marginal merchandise would be foolish. Even though I know that making this business grow faster is going to cost me, I would far rather pull money out than put more money in. Curio City can carry its own weight while I wait out this trough. My second bank CD matures in June.

I had one serious merchandise disappointment: The artist behind the new jewelry line that I found at the Cavalcade of Crap is facing a potential health crisis. At best, introducing her jewelry will be delayed for some weeks. That was the only thing that I was enthused about. Now I've got nothing in the works.

Focus, Juice. Focus.

If priority 1 is becalmed, how about priority 2? I know of four ways to increase traffic:

  1. Get more referrals from other websites;
  2. boost my organic search placement (which means the Search Engine Optimization topic of which I’ve written 100 times);
  3. improve my PPC ad results; and
  4. buy display advertising.

A few link exchanges have brought in a wee bit of new traffic, but nothing significant. The Boomer Marketplace is still under construction (no link because its creator has not unveiled it yet), and only a few of my products fit there anyway. Daily traffic has historically hovered between 60 and 100 visits; lately that range has risen to 80-120. With a 2% conversion rate, I should be averaging two sales per day. People just aren’t buying like they should. Conclusion: Referrals are great, because referrals are free. I could do more in this area. But link swapping is never going to amount to very much. The visitors that those links deliver are less motivated than ad-driven customers.

Every time I look at SEO, I get depressed by chronic low rankings that defy my clumsy efforts at improvement. Even where I have a hazy grasp of principles, I can’t put them into practice because I don’t know how to change my PHP templates. It’s the same old programmer dependency of which I’ve also written 100 times. Most SEO experts are strictly HTML people. I did put out a feeler to a new developer this week, but it went nowhere. Conclusion: I can’t spend on SEO until I have the technical ability to implement recommended revisions.

PPC ads keep getting more and more expensive while delivering roughly the same results. Writing new ads, adding and subtracting keywords, and adjusting bids sometimes brings measurable results…but OMG, what a tedious process, and the gains are short-lived as competitors quickly adjust their bids and improve their ads, too. The only winner in this game, of course, is Google.

Yahoo finally rolled out the new pricing scheme that retailers have long been dreading. I fared pretty well at first; only four minor keywords were knocked out of competition. That rose to 22 keywords a few days later, as competitors adjusted. I got out the ax. Yahoo Search Marketing never delivered very good results, and it’s gotten worse with each revamp. My ads and word groups need to be more granular. If Yahoo’s objective is to drive out small companies and rape the big spenders for all they’re worth, they are on the right track – I deleted at least 25% of my campaign, and I’m sure that more of my remaining 350 keywords will fall away. I don’t know if Yahoo will win at this game; I do know that small retailers are the losers. Conclusion: There’s always room to improve PPC, but it’s getting too expensive to justify putting more resources here.

That leaves buying display ads. I have zero experience with that, no plans, and even less enthusiasm. I’m skeptical that a clumsy, amateurish print ad would drive enough business to do more than just pay for itself. I suppose I ought to explore it. Focus, Juice.

Finally (#3 in my main list), there’s increasing conversions:

My conversion rate ranges day-to-day from 0 to 5.75%, and averages around 2%, which isn’t bad. Website improvements are the best way to increase that. I added PayPal Express and Google Checkout, and got the new shipping estimator working. There isn’t much else I can do without design changes or new features (see “programmer dependency”).

Screw it. I can’t focus. I think I’ll line up another contractor or two to bid on my back porch.

Coming Topics:

  • Social Networking Sites
  • Rearranging the Deck Chairs
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • Kicking It Out
  • Legal Extortion
  • Where Traffic Comes From

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Blogcentennial

Not a whole lot has changed since I first wrote about Why I Blog. I’ve met a few other small business owners, although little has come of it. I’ve struck up rudimentary dialogs with a few customers and interested onlookers, but Comments are an awkward way to converse. I’ve signed up a few newsletter subscribers. I’ve accumulated a few AdSense clicks. (Very few clicks; the boring ads that Google reliably serves up week after week speak ill of my writing. I really do appreciate that readers gamely click an ad or two every time I mention them -- like now). My blunt tone has accidentally cheesed off at least one vendor and insulted one customer, so it’s not all good. Honesty and marketing don’t go together, and I've never been much of a diplomat.

When I started doing this, I didn’t even know what a blog was. I just knew that the experts agreed that I should have one. Since I had kept a private journal for about 20 years, documenting my thoughts came naturally, although doing it publicly did not. A hundred posts later, it’s become routine – maybe too routine. So this week I tried to jazz things up a little, within my limits as a technical moron. I discovered the “Blogger in Draft” beta site, where I could access new content like the RSS subscription gadget. I also added a couple more silly gadgets to my sidebar while I was at it.

I have a logo and link to Technorati, but I’ve never been sure exactly what that’s supposed to do...with the predictable consequence that it doesn't do anything. There’s something called “del.icio.us” on my browser’s menu bar, but I don’t know what that is, either – online bookmarks? why are those any better than normal browser bookmarks? Digg? StumbleUpon? Just names and logos to me. I tried offering a poll once, but after a month, the winning choice (with two votes) was “I don’t like polls.” Fine. Have it your way.

I could invest some of the ample time that I waste writing blog entries investigating some of these mysteries. It seems futile…the technology will inevitably change within six months of figuring it out anyway. And it is so incredibly boring. This is the type of thing I wish I could farm out to an expert.

More than one observer has recommended getting WordPress and moving Curious Business to its own hosting account (or somehow shoehorning a second URL into my Curio City or Kraken Enterprises hosting accounts; I don’t know how, but it might be possible.) I think the idea is to raise my blog's profile above the commoners who use free services. Yet Curious Business is too narrowly focused, and I’m too dull, to even seek a large popular audience. What’s the advantage to learning a new software package and paying $75-100 per year for a second host account? I don’t get it.

Google owns Blogger, so (despite some irritating interface bugs) it keeps up with technical innovations and is likely to be around for a long time. It's easy to use, it’s free, and I’ve got a 100-post database built up here. That’s some powerful inertia that I have no incentive to overcome.

Is blogging worth my time? Curious Business is my #14 overall source of traffic so far this year, and my #8 source of referral visits. While I certainly appreciate the 34 visits that those numbers represent, it’s still only 34 visits. With my 2.25% average conversion rate, those visitors should’ve made three-quarters of one purchase. My average order value was $47.68, so statistically speaking my blog brought in $35.76, or $2.38 per post. If the average post takes me 90 minutes to write, then blogging is earning Curio City about $1.59 per hour, of which 27 cents goes into payroll. That’s a lot more than I would have guessed. Based on a 40-hour week, my gross salary is $2.93 per hour so far this year. That’s very good money (compared to LY's $1.45 hourly pay rate), and blogging contributes nearly 10 percent of that. So yeah, blogging really is worth my time. That is not the conclusion that I expected to reach, but there you have it.

Of course, this is all just statistical masturbation. See how good I am at avoiding actual, productive work? As I said the first time I wrote about this, the primary reason I blog is to compose my thoughts and create a history that I might refer back to one day. I’m flattered that a few people find it interesting enough to read, and even leave comments. Any sales that Curious Business delivers are just gravy. I’d continue writing for my own selfish reasons anyway.


Sales turned around in the middle of last week. Maybe it’s the beginning of a Mothers Day surge, or maybe the AdWords rewrites and tune-up that I’ve been chipping away at are paying off. For whatever reason, this is already my best week since early March, and, with a day and a half left to go, could potentially even rival early February. For the month, I’ve demolished LY and achieved my plan with a week left to go. Today I’m feeling fat and happy. And a little bit stressed. I've got a lot of work to do today, starting with processing a large Canadian order and a smaller UPS 2nd-Day Air sale that came in overnight.

Coming topics:

  • Focus, Juice
  • Social Networking Sites
  • Rearranging the Deck Chairs
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • Legal Extortion
  • Where Traffic Comes From

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Cavalcade of Crap

As usual, I walked the entire Boston Gift Show floor before lunchtime. As usual, I found only a few dubious candidate products amid the cornucopia of mass-market junk. As usual, my most productive time was spent browsing the handmade and local vendors in the last couple of aisles; as usual, most of that stuff was crafty kitsch and boring ordinary jewelry. And, as is becoming usual, I found one good vendor just as I was about to give up and declare it a wasted morning.

It’s not the Next Big Thing on a par with lighted caps. But I’m confident that I’ve found my first successful jewelry line since supply problems killed off Typewriter Key jewelry. I met a local artist who makes beautiful, high quality, custom jewelry designs with a clever hook, and who will be happy to dropship to my customers. Working this out before Mothers Day is suddenly high priority. Right now, I’m waiting for the jeweler to respond to my initial proposal. There’s no link here because I don’t want to tip my hand until I have a product page set up and the details worked out.

But getting back to crap…. I had to pay quarterly taxes last week. Last year the IRS had changed me from a quarterly filer of Form 941 to an annual filer of Form 943. This year they changed me back to quarterly again. QuickBooks tells me that $526 of my current $826 bank balance belongs to the IRS and the Mass. DOR. The state returns were easily done online. It only took an hour to pay my sales tax, report my wages, pay my income tax withholding, and pay my unemployment taxes. The sales tax report is always tricky because only my Masshole customers are taxed, and they’re only a fraction of my total business. I know that the other 49 states would love to rectify that. I pray that it never happens.

As of today, my paper form 941 has still not arrived. I was going to download the PDF and print it out today when I discovered that the payment is actually not due until 4/30. So I’ll give them another week to send my preprinted form. Stoopid government.

Digging up even more crap…. My website was down sporadically for at least two days last week. MochaHost blamed two unspecified “server problems” that are apparently solved now. I hope that being offline explains why sales slumped so seriously last week. I’m probably not going to hit my plan, and even beating LY looks iffy. It’s likely to be my slowest week since October 2007. At least last week was a good time for downtime, if one must endure such. Our first gorgeous spring days and some competing personal priorities (income taxes, doctor appointment, etc.) took me away from Curio City anyway. The yard isn’t going to rake itself, is it?

The Forrester Research Group predicts that online sales will grow 17% this year despite the lousy economy. I hope that’s more relevant to me than all the recessionary hand wringing that dominates the news daily now. I don’t care if bricks and mortar retail dies. If you’re a regular reader, you already know that I can’t understand how stores survive anyway. And I hate shopping.

A number of readers (“one” is a number, right?) mentioned liking the bulleted “coming topics” that used to appear at the end of my posts back in the olden days. I don’t write as far ahead as I did when this blog was new, and I’ve blown myself out on a lot of subjects, so it’s harder to forecast future posts these days. But I’ll try.

Coming topics:

  • Post #100
  • Moving things around
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • Focus, Juice
  • Legal Extortion

Friday, April 04, 2008

April Showers

March is in bed and the year is ¼ gone, with the excellent results that I previously reported. April will be more challenging. The incessant media drumbeat about recession and frightened consumers is starting to frighten consumers into recessionary behavior. Fortunately, we soon grow bored with gloomy stories and delayed gratification. I give this recession six more months, tops. I’m such a small company that macro-economic trends don’t mean a whole lot to me, anyway.

The Google Checkout problem that I wrote about last week turned out to be a silly security certificate detail. Mocha solved it without even replying to my support request. Everything’s running along ticky-poo now. The last remaining fallout from the Sunshop upgrade is a cosmetic flaw stemming from outdated templates. I hope Eric will get around to that before too long. The many customizations in my templates make replacing them perilous.

Upgrading PayPal from Standard to Express poached a lot of sales from credit cards. That rocks for two reasons. First: The typical credit card transaction costs me about 4.5% of gross. Rewards cards, non-US accounts, and other special credit card categories can cost upwards of 5%. PayPal takes “only” 4% for the identical transaction. Second: PayPal pays interest on deposits, which partially recovers my processing costs. I don’t earn anything on deposits to my business checking account. Payment processing consumes 4.65% of my gross sales (actual YTD figure, not counting the $15 monthly Authorize.net fee).

Google Checkout beats them both. My AdWords spend earns me enough free processing credit in Google Checkout to cover an entire month’s sales. Even if I exceed that credit, Google’s rates are just over 2%. In fact, the one GC transaction that I’ve successfully processed so far actually paid me 13 cents! Go figure. GC could take a significant whack out of processing costs if it catches on. In retail, recovering a couple percent of gross is a huge deal.

I can’t affect the economy, but I can jump on the recessionary mentality with a clearance sale. I took merciless markdowns on lots of old stock, and sent out a 10% off coupon, in hopes of freeing up a few more bucks before I hit tomorrow’s Boston Gift Show. The 184 delivered newsletter emails drew 69 opens (37.5%) and 29 clicks (42%) that delivered three known sales. That’s pretty good. All of those numbers should still creep up a little bit in coming days.

Sales were weak this week. Thanks to a couple of defective product refunds, I just barely beat LY, and plan is touch-and-go. Oh well, they can’t all be winners, right?

I’m going into the gift show tomorrow (in the cold rain again; why is it always raining when I have to walk from South Station?) with my open-to-buy at negative $1,400. That’s not as bad as it sounds. For one thing, most of those overspent dollars are in lighted caps, which is the best place for them. And remember that I decided a few weeks ago to invest in some new merchandise, even if it means infusing more cash or carrying some temporary debt.

Speaking of the economy…did you know that I get a few cents every time somebody clicks on one of those Google ads? If you can spare a few seconds, help a brother out. AdWords says I haven't had a single click in the past three months. Sure, they're serving up boring ads...but come on.

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