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, August 29, 2008


August’s sales collapse worries me more each day. Is the era of the lighted cap over already? The competition doesn’t seem to have changed. Search volume on those keywords has dropped off badly and cap sales have nearly stopped. Those sales were still building at this time LY. Nothing that I’ve brought in over the past year has achieved notable success.

Traffic is down to a bit over 100 visits a day. With my conversion rate down to 1.5%, I should be seeing 1.5 sales per day now, versus the 3-4 that I’ve come to expect (and compared to the 10 per day that would mean success). My 10-day vacation and the ensuing days of technical difficulty make it very hard to define what went wrong; in fact, the max_connections bug (see last week's post) is still not solved. August will be the first month this year that didn’t whomp LY, and I’m going to miss it by 30%. That ain’t trivial.

September expectations are low. Things won’t really perk up until Halloween, when Christmas starts up. It’s all about Christmas, of course. Poor sales this November and December could sink this company.

But I am borrowing trouble. I was still running at least a little bit ahead of LY as recently as three weeks ago, the ensuing two weeks were abnormal, and I’m still grappling with a software bug. It’s not panic time yet. For now, I can still blame Fate (or God or George Bush, take your pick) and pray that things will come roaring back if I only whine pitifully and persistently enough to the right people.

I must fight drift, keep planning, and hope the customers come back before it’s too late.

Too late?

Being poor is a luxury that I cannot afford very much longer. My wife has been carrying our household financially since 2005. Her commitments exceed her income. We are deeply in debt, our savings are bleeding away, and we’re just one health crisis or lost job away from ruin. She is right to wonder when the time and money that I’ve invested in this business might show some return. The answer is discouraging.

In 2006 (Curio City’s first full year of business) I personally grossed $5,105, and plowed about that much back into the company. That was the year that I figured out what Curio City was going to be about and how this whole internet thing works.

In 2007, as I gradually figured that out and built upon it, I earned $5,125. More importantly, though, I did not inject any more money into the company, and in fact earned a profit of $1,200 (which I paid taxes on and should therefore count as income). Even though I didn’t take the payout, I technically earned about $6,325.

In 2008 – assuming that this August crash is just a blip -- I should gross around $7,000 in salary and $3,000 in corporate profit, and this year I’ll take out enough of the profit to pay the tax bill. So my total compensation will technically be about $10,000. I have started contributing in very small ways to the household budget, and Curio City itself has been reimbursing us for its telephone and gasoline subsidies. It’s not much money, but it’s something…and the symbolism matters.

My best-case plan calls for doubling sales next year. If I can do that, my compensation ought to reach about $20,000 in 2009. At that level I can help out more with the bills, but I’m still not pulling my own weight. Only if I can double it again the next year, and earn $40,000 in 2010, will I approach being an equal partner again.

If I can clear those two huge medium-term hurdles, the years beyond 2010 will pay me enough to justify the lean years that led up to them, and I could potentially enjoy actual wealth by 2012 or so. But it is an extremely ambitious goal, and I don’t yet have a solid plan to get there. Getting outside advice has moved up on my priority list.

If I fall short of those marks…at what point do I have to pull the plug?

My wife has believed in Curio City right from the start, even when I myself did not. She’s willing to keep slogging along for as long as my business shows evidence of success. But she has said twice that “You can’t be making $25,000 a year when we’re 55 years old.” I don’t want to enter old age in poverty, either. If I can achieve my ambitious plan, I’ll be 53 when I’m making $40,000.

It’s not like I could scrap Curio City and jump right back into a job earning $50,000 again. I’ve been out of the workforce for years, and I abandoned my previous career. I don’t know what else I’d do as a 51-year-old white man with no education and an unconventional work history. I will most likely be relegated to menial, low-paying jobs for the rest of my life.

I dodged the question of when I have to pull the plug, because I don’t know. I suppose I should define some checkpoints. If Christmas isn’t at least 25% ahead of LY, I’m going to be upset. But first I have to break out of the current slump.

  • Legal extortion
  • The zombie store
  • Wacky ideas

Friday, August 22, 2008


Did you miss me these past two weeks? Probably not. A few regular readers have added Curious Business to their RSS readers; presumably they at least see the subject line of new posts. But if it’s become a chore for me to write these entries, it must be a chore to read them, too. My recent posts have only been interesting if you’re following Curio City in obsessive detail. Hell, even my own wife doesn’t read my blog. It’s no wonder the hit counter at the bottom of the page doesn’t move much.

Only a small fraction of the 115+ posts in my archives might entice a curious browser to stick around. So I’m going to finish up the few topics that I still have on the hook, and then break my weekly posting compulsion. I’ll update when I have something compelling to say.

Last week’s vacation killed sales deader than did either of my previous absences. Traffic dropped from 150 visits to 50 per day. LY I enjoyed roughly 65% of normal sales during my vacation week. This year I did barely 30% of normal. More worrisome, sales did not recover along with daily visits when I flipped my ads back on. This week is breathtakingly bad. I’m hoping that technical problems are to blame.

Eric found the time last weekend to upgrade my site from Sunshop 4.1.0 to 4.1.4 (on the same day that Turnkey released 4.1.5, keeping me one step behind). I’ve turned on several new features. The best one is a javascript rollover photo app. To see what I mean, just go here and sweep your cursor over the little thumbnail pics.

There’s also a new cross-selling feature on the shopping cart – “users who bought this product also bought…” And a little currency converter on the main page lets you see prices in a variety of other currencies. Currency conversion is supposedly turned off, so it only shows up because of a bug in my template. But even though I don’t especially want to encourage more non-US sales, I think it’s kind of nifty. I’ll keep it for now. Every sale is precious.

Google Analytics should be using the new Sunshop modules now. That would mean one less customization to maintain going forward. I don’t think Eric has commented out his own code yet, so I’m not positive that Sunshop is doing the heavy lifting. I really ought to verify this, although I’m loathe to perturb something that’s working.

So, what’s the technical problem I mentioned? Twice since the upgrade, I’ve seen this message instead of my website:

Warning: mysql_connect() [function.mysql-connect]: User kraken has already more than 'max_user_connections' active connections in /home/virtual/site152/fst/var/www/html/include/db_mysql.php on line 47

There seems to have been a slight problem with the database. Please contact the server admin to report this problem.

If I have hit it twice in routine checks, how many customers has it driven away? This is one of those frustrating things that I’m powerless to fix myself. I’ve been seeking help from Turnkey, MochaHost, and poor longsuffering Eric. Between the three of them, it will get solved. Eventually. Meanwhile I’ve been paying for ads that direct people to a crippled website. This morning Turnkey posted an easy fix that seems to have worked, so far. We shall see.

If it looks stable, I will try next week to implement flyout menus myself. There are a couple of other minor amateur modifications that I think I can attempt, too. After that, I can finally try again to find a new (permanent?) contract developer.

On a cheery note, I’m still selling some old marked-down merchandise that I won’t replace, liberating long-imprisoned inventory dollars. Unfortunately, my usual bestsellers barely have a pulse. Shoppers must be spending their increasingly scarce dollars on back-to-school necessities right now, while the macro economic news keeps getting worse. Or maybe my website is just broken.

  • Tick…tick…tick
  • Legal extortion
  • The zombie store
  • Wacky ideas

Friday, August 01, 2008

Taking the Bull By the Horns

After last week’s malaise, I forced myself to grapple with some unpleasant details that have been piling up. Sales are down, and things are slow as I wait for vacation to arrive and my OTB to build up. Most of what follows is pretty picayune.

First I tried to resolve a mildly irritating customer return problem. A customer wants to exchange the record purse that she ordered. Being the buffer between the customer and the vendor is costing me more time and postage than it's worth. The vendor is even less thrilled with this than I am. To make it doubly challenging, the customer has a Yahoo.com email address, so I can only sporadically reach her via email. (Yahoo blocks most of my email as commercial spam). To make it triply challenging, email communication with the vendor is often slow and spotty, too. This is the slowest-motion transaction ever. I hope that it wraps up with everybody's feathers smoothed before I leave for vacation. But I doubt that it's possible now. As of yesterday, the returned purse still had not arrived.

I finally followed through on the bluster of my past few posts: I reset my open-to-buy number to zero. (I know; go ahead and catch your breath.) Customers last week obligingly bought merchandise that I either have in plentiful supply, or won’t reorder at all, so the newly liberated dollars increase my nice new black OTB number without compelling me to immediately replenish the merchandise. I’m a little concerned that my bestsellers have stopped selling for the moment. Most of the old merchandise that is moving out now is discounted to break-even, or a little better. But some of these dollars have been locked up since late 2005, so I'm pleased to get any of them back.

Vendors can smell money. They have been calling and emailing lots of tempting new items and special offers. I remain resolute, at least until after vacation. Grow, little budget, grow!

I chased down a missing Fascinations backorder. I’ve sold a couple of floating globes lately. I need more. Their warehouse called on 7/12 to ask if I wanted my backorder shipped. Yes, please. I followed up with them on 7/26. As of today, I still don’t have the merchandise or an invoice. Are they really that backed up on order fulfillment?

I found out that my software supports quantity discounts. Displaying a discount schedule might deflect some of the wholesale inquiries from the clueless that I receive almost daily. But alas, bulk pricing applies to a product’s individual variants, not to the total quantity ordered. I can’t give you the 24-item discount price if you buy six each of four different cap styles. Since I don’t ordinarily stock more than 24 pieces of any individual color/style, the feature is worthless. I did implement bulk discounts for a few items that don’t have variants, but that’s just tinkering. Maybe I can eventually have it customized to work the way it ought to work.

Most significantly: I begged my current developer (Eric, who's been with me from the start but would like to be freed) to bring my site up from version 4.1.0 to 4.1.4 – ideally while I’m on vacation -- so that I can try once again to hire a new developer. Yes, I decided to grapple again with that old problem. A new developer will undoubtedly be expensive, but I have got to have regular support if I’m to keep growing. I will simply have to find a way to pay what it costs.

Despite whittling away at my PPC ad campaigns, Google is still costing in excess of $10 per day. Traffic last Tuesday zoomed to 175 visits – the busiest day since June 5. Yahoo still burns $5 daily without much result. Together, I’m spending up to $450 per month on search engine marketing, with a $250 budget. I’m reluctant to slash ads that are bringing visits, but if those visitors aren’t buying, they're just a burden. My OTB reset maneuver means that my bank account is running much closer to the bone than previously, so I can’t tolerate significant, ongoing overruns in PPC ads. I need to keep cutting, slowly and surgically.

That's it. Unless something extremely unexpected and interesting develops, my vacation will preempt blog posts for the next two Fridays. I'll be back on Aug. 22.

Possible future topics:

  • Legal extortion
  • The zombie store
  • Wacky ideas

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