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 27, 2013

Existential Crisis Part 2: Do Something Else

First let’s put a bow on September.


Total income: +13.7%
Total COGS: +45.3%
Payroll: +18.1%

Marketing: +158.3%
Net Income (Profit): -1898.8% (-$822)

Year to Date: 

Total income: -16.6%
Total COGS: -21.4%
Payroll: -16.1%

Marketing: -3.2%
Net Income (Profit): -67.7% (-$882)

This year’s first black month came at a steep price. Spending 158% more on advertising to deliver 14% more sales is a losing proposition. Given that I’ve been down by 20% all year I could spin it as a 34% increase. But whether you go with 14% or 34%, you can see what the 158% jump in advertising did to my bottom line. Google is laughing all the way to the bank.  

Recording the first positive month of the year makes it difficult to go back into my existential crisis, but I’m sure the red ink will be back soon. I wish I could believe that I’ve turned the corner. But a $900 kite sale on 10/15/12 means that lightning has to strike again this year if I hope to reach October’s sales target.


What would I do for money if Curio City folded? I’ve been out of the workforce for too long, the labor market is too weak, and my skills are too outdated to even think about career-level work. My life as a salaryman is over. But I might be able to score a minimum-wage (or slightly better) job. Fulltime jobs at any pay are highly coveted and go to people who have education and skills and connections – especially connections -- and the labor market isn't going to heal as long as Republicans keep sabotaging the federal budget. But let’s pretend that I could somehow find a fulltime minimum-wage job. In Massachusetts, that’s $8 per hour for 35 hours per week, $280 per week, $14,560 per year. Virtually all hourly jobs are being pared back below 30 hours to avoid the Obamacare coverage requirement, so 30 hours is the new “fulltime” for those of us at the bottom of the economic ladder. Eight bucks an hour for 30 hours per week is just $10,920 per year.

Last year Curio City paid me $15,371. Even with this year’s compensation on track to shrink by 20%, the $12,296 that I expect to pull in still rivals a minimum wage job. I would make less money working fulltime for somebody else than I make working three-quarters time for myself. Add the intangible benefits of making my own schedule and not answering to some two-bit tyrant and Curio City looks pretty good. Wage slavery needs to pay more than $10 to be competitive in an Obama-fulltime 30-hour week. California is talking about raising its minimum to that level, but I don’t see it spreading here soon.

What are the alternatives to a fulltime job?

Popular culture’s advice to “Do what you love and the money will follow” isn’t very helpful if you don’t love anything. I love to drink good beer. If I were 20 years younger I might have gotten into the craft beer industry in its formative days, but I don’t have any beer-making expertise and can’t see how drinking it is ever going to pay off. Massachusetts is currently setting up medical marijuana dispensaries, but one needs to have $500,000 in financing and a solid business plan to crack that market, and there are already 120-some people competing for 30-some licenses. Legal recreational pot isn’t even on the ballot yet.

The real money’s in the black market; Walter White is my role model for a broken, defeated man who turned his life around. Since the DEA and the NSA will eventually get around to reading this post, I’ll just say that I don’t have much of a criminal mind. I don’t foresee a bright future as a drug lord, whoremonger, or slave trader, although I wouldn’t rule any of those careers out if an opportunity came along. I don’t know how one finds such opportunities, though. Probably Craigslist. 

Petty crime doesn’t interest me. Nor does gambling or playing the lottery. The risk:reward ratio is too unfavorable. But I’m not out to get rich. I just need to survive the next 10 years until Social Security comes to the rescue.

Boston being a medical mecca, I might be able to make some serious coin as a lab rat. There are always studies looking for test subjects. The criteria for any given study are usually pretty narrow, but there are so many studies going on that I could probably get paid to take experimental drugs.

My most realistic option is to work part-time without folding Curio City (and I know some readers are thinking “well, duh”). If I could bag groceries or stock shelves or tend somebody’s shop for 16 hours a week I’d make $128 before taxes. That’s more than Curio City pays me for most summer weeks. Getting out of the house and interacting with other humans makes me cringe, but some limited social interaction might be good for me, even in a menial position. 

Curio City demands most of my attention between mid September and mid February, when retailers hire their seasonal help. I can’t work elsewhere during the winter if I want to keep my own business alive. But there must be some job openings during the slow season, too. I could spare 12 or 16 hours a week from March through August without putting too big a dent in Curio City’s sales or screwing up my personal schedule too badly to garden and cook. I haven’t looked for a job since the newspaper classified ads were all the rage, but it can’t be terribly hard to figure out how it’s done nowadays. 

The only thing I’ll rule out entirely is food service. 

I figure that being offline and away from my phone for 16 hours a week would reduce my summer sales by 10-20%, or $75-150 per week. Only 20% of that would have found its way into my pocket, so I’d expect to my Curio City paychecks to shrink by just $15-30 a week. If I’m earning $128 doing something menial, I’d still come out $100 ahead. I’d have to buy some presentable clothes, but that shouldn’t cost more than $100.

A reader suggested that I revisit the idea of opening a bricks & mortar store in Boston. A local chain called Copley Flair folded a few years ago, leaving an opening for an offbeat gift shop. I hate to be dismissive, but I’m going to dismiss this idea on two points: First, I hate stores and don’t want any part of owning one – especially not a high-rent urban store -- and second, nothing has arisen to claim Copley Flair’s niche since it failed. That tells me it wasn’t exactly a gold mine. It’s probably a recipe for slow-motion, high-cost failure…and I don’t want to do it anyway.    

So that’s it: I’m going to look for a part-time job next February or March and look into the possibility of becoming a medical test subject in the meantime. Unless, that is, I can turn Curio City around in a big way. And that is grist for next week’s post.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Operational Crises

I should have had my existential crisis a couple of months ago when things were slow. A mysterious operational crisis hit during a busy sales period last Friday and preempted last week’s post. (Yes, I said busy; sales are picking up.) The existential crisis is postponed until next week because I’m too busy to deal with it.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. Two emails announce every order that comes in: One from my website and one from the payment processor. On Friday morning I received a credit card payment notification without an accompanying order notification email. Email can be a little flaky, but the order email usually arrives ahead of the payment email. There turned out to be no order in my transaction list corresponding to the small payment. 
This happened once before, many months ago. I never figured out what caused it then, but it wasn’t repeated so I chalked it up to a server hiccup and moved on. This time the customer promptly gave me the info I needed to reconstruct her order. A test transaction went through normally. A couple of hours later a real transaction also came through without incident. Then, late in the afternoon, I got a PayPal email with no corresponding order notification, and again the transaction itself was just plain not there.

Now that’s worrisome. I logged into my MySQL database to check the Orders table…and couldn’t find the table! In fact, there were a bunch of empty new “Mobicart” tables that I don’t use and a lot of my real tables had disappeared. My site was working normally, so the data obviously had to be there, but the strange-looking database sent me into a full-blown panic. The first thing I do in a panic is pause all of my advertising. I then contacted all three potentially helpful parties – MDD Hosting, Turnkey, and my contract developer – and sat back and worried, since I don’t have the technical skill to do any more than that.  

If it’s not already too late to make a long story short: The database had merely undergone an interface change. My web host said that their server was solid. My developer said everything looked dandy to him. Turnkey made a couple of guesses, but as I hadn’t updated Sunshop in many months I had no reason to suspect the shopping cart. We never did figure out what caused the two dropped orders, but the situation has not repeated. 

I’m convinced that Google punishes customers who pause their AdWords accounts. Even though the ads were only offline for a couple of hours, business died for three days after that. But Google’s over its snit and sales are picking back up.


This second one isn’t a crisis, although I could turn it into one if I'm not careful. On 8/23 one “Icuriocity (lastname) don’t share info” ordered a couple of small kites for $23.11. I filled the order normally two days later and forgot about it despite the confrontational customer “name”. A few weeks later the customer complained that she didn’t get her order. 

Delivery confirmation showed it arriving two days after I sent it, so I made a routine response: Your package was sent on this date and arrived on that date, here’s your delivery confirmation number, go to usps.com to see for yourself. And btw here’s a link to our missing package advice. The important thing on that page is this paragraph:

After a package is confirmed delivered, or when you are notified of a delivery attempt, that package is no longer the responsibility of Curio City. We aren't responsible for packages that are lost or stolen after they're confirmed delivered. Our ownership of that package ends when your carrier scans the label to prove that the package was left.

Some customers argue with me about that; most just go away. I figured my weird-name customer was in the latter camp until I got a letter from American Express a couple of days ago: “Our mutual customer claims that s/he did not receive the order and requests credit.” 

If that confrontational customer name had already raised my defenses, this development kicked them into high gear. Contacting Amex instead of me indicates that they have been down this path before. I’m probably dealing with a common thief. (It's also possible that the package was undeliverable due to the weird name on the label, but in that case it should have been returned to me.)

Fortunately the Amex letter is not a chargeback. It gives me the options of providing proof of shipment and delivery (both of which I have) or refunding the purchase. I’m naturally inclined to fight it because I’m in the right and the customer is probably pulling a scam. Amex’s instructions for resolving disputes are encouraging. But past experience with Mastercard and Visa disputes taught me that they are invariably resolved in the shopper’s favor at the expense of the merchant (you don’t think the bank is going to cover the loss, do you?). If Amex doesn’t consider my documentation adequate – which they might not because delivery confirmation doesn’t include a signature -- they’ll escalate it to a chargeback and I will incur fees beyond the refund. Meanwhile, because I didn’t find Amex’s “online dispute tool” until just minutes ago, I have to respond to this complaint by FAX…and since I no longer have a FAX machine or landline, those cost money and inconvenience. Issuing the small refund to avoid further costs and headaches is the logical response, so that’s what I’ll do. But I don’t like it, not one little bit. 

I did block the customer’s IP address so that they can never buy from me again, at least from that computer. That makes me feel a little better. Now I’m trying to decide whether to send an email explaining that even though they got their refund, I consider them thieves and their business is no longer welcome…or just try to forget about it. Since this shopper apparently is a habitual pain in the ass, reason says that I’m better off dropping it.  
Letting Bad Guys win really pisses me off, though.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Existential Crisis, Part 1: The Past

Leave it to the wife to pose a hard question that I’ve been avoiding: What’s the future of Curio City? I’ve got to haul my carcass through 8.5 more years until I can get Medicare, 10 years until my full Social Security date -- and that’s too long to simply run out the clock. I need to have a long conversation with myself about how I should struggle through my last 10 years.

The next few posts will be that conversation.
The future is rooted in the past, so let’s start there. Curio City is a story of constantly diminishing expectations. My original plan called for a physical store and website with a $400,000 break-even point (assuming a personal salary of $50,000 per year). That bar fell below $250,000 when I dumped the bricks and mortar.

The trend was encouraging until the economy collapsed in 2008. Curio City’s momentum stopped in 2010 and went into reverse in 2012. This year I’m facing a 20% decline. My best year netted $15,000 on sales of $70,000 – not even one third of my goal. Today even a $25,000 income would feel lavish and the $125,000 that I'd need to generate it looks like a pipe dream. 

I can’t lower my expectations below zero.

Curio City expected that people would always buy stuff they don’t need and can’t afford, as they had done dutifully since the 1980s. It’s apparent now that the Great Recession permanently diminished everybody’s expectations. The middle class will eventually stop shrinking and losing wealth. It will recover some sense of security, even progress, but robust good health will not return within my working lifetime. The gulf between the classes will keep widening through the next election cycle. Reversing that trend and redistributing the wealth will take a decade beyond that -- and that assumes that we can elect a progressive government in 2016, which is hardly a given with the big bucks firmly in control of the system.

So waiting for things to turn around, as I’ve been doing since 2009, doesn’t cut it. This is as turned around as it’s going to get on my time horizon.
Now, having said that: Curio City is not entirely at the mercy of the macro economy and the fortunes of the middle class. I don’t have millions of customers whose collective behavior mirrors economic trends. On a typical day I only get 100-150 visits and make two or three sales. Those numbers are stubbornly consistent and doubling them should not be an insurmountable challenge. It's not like I need to bring in a million new shoppers; 150 would do nicely.

Of course, that’s been the challenge all along. Nothing I try ever seems to work for long. Progress in one area is offset by declines in another. Consumer tastes are fickle. Technology keeps moving ahead. My tech knowledge is stuck in 2005 and I’ve never been a consumer at all. I’m not very good at this and I don’t seem to be getting any better. After banging my head against the same wall every day for eight years with little to no success, it’s getting hard to even care.

Is it time to hang it up? What options do I have? 

1.    Keep plugging along, but plug better;
2.    Keep plugging along, but supplement it with other work;
3.    Do something else.

I’ll grapple with those next week.

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