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, October 30, 2015

In Which I Lose My Mind (Again)

How about a cash flow crisis of my own making for a change? Careful management and a little bit of luck brought me within $400 of paying off this month's large Mastercard bill. Then routine banking uncovered something seriously out of whack: The money that I'd transferred from savings to cover my end-of-the-month payroll tax bill was actually a transfer to savings. I zigged when I should have zagged and checking was short $577. Since that unexpected savings deposit is on an automatic hold, I can't fully reverse the transfer until one day after my credit card payment is due. I've still got almost enough money to cover my balance...it's just in the wrong bank. This dumb mistake will cost me $50 or so in interest.

I've been screwing up our personal banking more frequently in the past few months -- paying the wrong credit card, adding when I should subtract, failing to record payments or make transfers, etc. I'm also having some verbal aphasia. Could be early dementia, fatigue, depression, or just too much beer. I'd better double down on my beer ration and see if it gets worse.      

October's numbers look a lot better than September's did. Excel says I'm $14 in the black with a day and a half left to go. Quickbooks, as  usual, demurs. If Curio City were a party Quickbooks would be that serious guy who doesn't drink and talks about Star Wars all night. 


Total income: -1.4%
Total COGS: +4.6%
Payroll: +13.2%
Marketing: -0.2%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -100.5% (-$54)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$107

Year to Date

Total income: -8.7%
Total COGS: -7.1%
Payroll: -7.1%
Marketing: -6.2%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -56.2% (-$821)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$2,283

We're in that frustrating time of year when I must work flat-out for no immediate reward. Business is picking up a bit but it still pays me diddlysquat. November's prospects look grim without a repeat of LY's single sale of 36 dove kites. I'd need outpace LY by $400 a week to make up that one $1,600 sale, and I don't see that happening.   

My big Metal Earth order finally arrived this week. I still haven't sold a single model. I said that I wouldn't panic until after Halloween -- and I still haven't finished creating all the product pages -- but I'm certainly getting anxious about my $1,900 investment. This vendor's low stock and long turnarounds mean that I need to place my final order now if I'm going to do it at all. 

The problem is that I can't afford to advertise these things anymore. Clicks that cost 40-50 cents last year are selling for $1-1.50 this year. Conversions don't exceed 5% even at Christmas, so at a buck a click each sale would cost me $20+. I can't pay $20 to sell a product that brings in $6 to $16. Whoever is spending that kind of money must have deep enough pockets to drive everyone else away and dominate the market. I'd match the bastard if I were a Romney or a Trump or a Clinton.   

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Wisdom of Age

Do you think the thieves are getting smarter or falling down on their game? This week's email said:

I will like to know if you do carry golf balls for sale, can you get back to me with the  types you have instock, and also would like to know if you do accept credit card payment,so that we can proceed.

Not revealing one's scam in the initial contact counts as criminal genius. I might have fallen for it if I hadn't seen it all over the past 10 years. The "customer" (a) doesn't know what I carry, yet wants to order some anyway; (b) is concerned chiefly about credit card acceptance (every legitimate business takes credit cards and my payment options are prominently displayed on my website); and (c) either doesn't speak English or is a Millennial. But the real tipoff is the email address: "firstname" + "lastname" + "three-digit number" at gmail is always suspect.

Experience brings wisdom. Age brings experience. At least it does if you're paying attention.


Speaking of "the past 10 years," I bought my Sunshop license and started developing the original store on 10/2/05. I had incorporated in August, IIRC, the first sale was on 11/21/05, and the first sale to a stranger wasn't until 12/5, so take your pick for Curio City's actual 10th anniversary. I think I'll go with 11/21. 


Speaking of sleazeballs, a clever spammer found a new way around my filters. Adding them to Outlook's Junk Senders list weeds out the amateurs. For the professionals, I add key phrases that never appear in real message subjects to my Penis Rule (so-called because "penis" was the first keyword I added to it). I can usually block 90% of the garbage that floods in every day.
This new sleazeball stymies adds random spacing and punctuation to his subject lines. "Draft kings" might have one space, or two, or more, or hyphens and spaces. I can't add all possibilities to the Penis Rule, so I wind up deleting them manually. Congratulations on discovering a new way to irritate people, Sleazeball!  


Speaking of dodgy subject lines: My "Sanders vs Trump" clickbait headline actually got fewer views than usual -- 23 on Blogger and just 12 on Facebook, vs. 67 for the previous week's Trump headline. Trump got four Likes and a couple of comments, while Sanders only got one Like. Let's hope that doesn't foretell our next president.  


I recently put $800 worth of old Metal Earth models on the credit card with the intention of spending as much on new ones. Well friends, I waited too long. By the time I started slogging through it virtually everything that I really wanted was sold out. I still spent $1,100 on what I consider second-string models, and that only bought 36 of nearly 100 candidates (just about doubling my inventory). $1,900 worth of deficit spending has produced no sales at all yet, but I won't start panicking until after Halloween. I need to see some encouragement before I blow another $500 or so on "coming soon" models.

I'm not thrilled with anything from my other usual vendors. They're already running out of stock and they're difficult to order from anyway, so all of my eggs are in the Metal Earth basket by default. Did you know that most of these companies don't have online wholesale ordering? One doesn't even put their order form online, so I can't see what's still available or what happened to prices since my last order. They expect us to use human sales reps. That's so 20th century....  

Today I'm grappling with the most difficult vendor of all to finish off my Christmas buying and will have most of the inventory before Halloween. I'll be carrying a staggering $6,000 in debt into the season. But if I can count on matching LY's lackluster holiday sales, I should gross $16,000 during November and December. $3,200 (20%) of that goes to payroll (yay!), $6,000 digs me out of debt, Google and PayPal take $3,000 for advertising and payment processing, and I might need $2,000 for reorders. That reckoning still leaves me $1,000 in the clear. That's just enough to pay for taxes and tax return preparation and survive 2016.  

So it's going to be OK. But I'll feel a lot better when Metal Earth starts trickling out.        

Friday, October 09, 2015

Can Bernie Sanders Beat Trump?

Since I failed this year's "find great new products" objective, I need to sell more of the same old, same old. Metal Earth models are at the top of that list. I dropped $800 this week just to replenish the models that I sold last year and next week I'll spend at least that much more on some small fraction of the 100+ models that I don't carry yet. At the rate that they keep adding new ones, I'll never be able to stock the whole line.

Last week I said that "I can't responsibly start placing Christmas orders until my November statement period begins on Oct. 13," so how the heck did I spend $800? Irresponsibly! Since I need products now, debt is the answer. 

I really, really hate going into Q4 with a pile of credit card debt, but what else can I do? The orders need to start flying in earnest next week. After this Columbus Day weekend it will be time to switch the Bing ads back on and start working longer hours. Christmas is here.


Thieves are coming out of the woodwork. This week somebody asked if I would use his freight consolidator to ship to the Fiji Islands. Uh, no. That's Fraud 101. I don't know what brought my little store to the attention of international thieves, but I hope it passes soon.

Incidentally, last week's post brought double the usual number of visitors to my Facebook page. I can see why the media loves Trumping up some clickbait. Just for fun, let's see what happens when Bernie and the Donald duke it out. I'm not even going to touch on the political speculation that would justify my blatant clickbait headline.

To be clear: Clicks don't make me any money by themselves. Google paid me $100 five or six years ago after I finally accumulated enough clicks on the ads that run between my posts. Since then, my unpaid balance has crept back up to $75 ($0 of that from the past 28 days, yo). If you aren't running an ad blocker, be my hero and click one of those ads to send a few pennies my way. At the rate things are going it will take two more years to make the $25 that will trigger another payout. 


Monday morning a customer called to change his Unassembled Osprey kite order to an Assembled kite. I can't change the amount of a sale so I needed his credit card number to collect a few additional bucks. After berating my website for his failed reading comprehension, he told me that his daughter controls the credit card. I canceled his order and went through my usual order-cancellation rigamarole. Refunding the payment is the last step in that process. 

Due to a reading comprehension failure I didn't notice that my PayPal transaction list was several hours out of date. I refunded the top order, which actually belonged to the previous customer. There aren't any do-overs after you issue a refund. PayPal's list still wasn't updating, so now I couldn't see the transaction that I still needed to refund or the erroneous refund that I might or might not have just issued. Oddly, the account balance seemed to be updating properly, so I could infer the invisible transactions until a third order materialized. Unsure whether the refunded guy would pay me a second time, I told Jackite to hold his order until further notice.

Now things were pretty bollixed. Fortunately the guy who started this whole chain of errors had also mistyped his email address, so he didn't get the deluge of automatic emails that my correction efforts kicked out. It took the rest of the day to straighten out this mess of my own creation, starting with a sheepish phone call to the innocent fellow who got the mistaken refund. He cooperated and I gave Jackite the go-ahead to ship...then realized that I'd written his number down wrong and still couldn't charge his card. (I managed to correct that mistake without calling him back.) Jackite missed my go-ahead message and didn't ship his order until yesterday. But everything's finally straightened out and my customers should be satisfied, if not happy. I hope.

Friday, October 02, 2015

My Brush with Trumpworld

Before we get down to the grim business of business numbers, let me tell you about my brush with Donald Trump's world.

An ordinarily month brings one or two sales to Canada, England, or Australia. Last Sunday I got an order from France, and then one from Mexico soon after. France is a bit unusual, but Mexico might be unprecedented. They both looked normal enough so I packed them up and addressed them.

A few hours later my new amigo placed two more orders (probably right after he got the USPS shipping label email). None of them were large enough to raise suspicions, but together they added up to downright weirdness. It turned out that this muchacho had paid with three different cards without entering CVV numbers for any of them. That tripped all of my red flags so I fired off a polite email requesting an explanation. I didn't expect an answer because (a) he's most likely a thief (and a rapist and a drug smuggler, if Trump is right), (b) he might not speak English, and (c) his gmail address might be fake. 

While I was still fretting over what to do about that, a Canadian order came over the transom. Five foreign sales from three customers in one day? Both the French and the Canadian customers paid with PayPal. Credit card fraud is very much a thing, but PayPal fraud really isn't. 

After much digging I finally unearthed PayPal's security settings ("My Account/Profile/My Selling Tools/Getting Paid and Managing My Risk") and changed them from their wide-open defaults to strict filtering. I wish I'd found these a year ago and I wish they'd defaulted to the secure options, but I've been lucky until now. The strict new settings will undoubtedly trip up some honest customers and cost me a sale now and then; indeed, they blocked two transactions on the first day before I eased back. I recovered one of those and lost the other permanently. 

If my thief hadn't quickly followed his first suspicious order with two more, I'd surely have shipped it and lost both the money and the merchandise, and incurred a chargeback fee for good measure. If his follow-up orders had come in more discreetly I probably would have shipped those, too. As it is, I had to refund $150 worth of fraudulent charges, but all I lost was 90 cents in PayPal fees. Now, if this fellow was merely validating a list of stolen numbers preparatory to reselling them, he didn't care if he received my merchandise or not...but I don't think he's what you'd call a criminal mastermind.    


Remember when I said that September was my big catch-up opportunity? Yeah...about that. The two worst weeks of the year came back-to-back this month (along with my smallest paycheck, like, ever). Ordinarily I should do somewhere around $100 a day, or $1,400 for those weeks. Actual sales were $435. This week hasn't been much better. 

Last year I blamed September's decline on my site makeover. This year, my vacation shutdown is the most obvious suspect. Even though I was only actually "closed" for three days -- and my store was never actually offline -- I'm pretty sure that Google punishes one for suspending one's advertising. It typically takes a week or two for my July vacation business to bounce back to normal, too.

It's possible that September has turned into a piss-poor month all on its own. September '14 was the weakest month of that year, and the worst September since 2008. September '15 will be this year's nadir and fell to 2007 levels.
Without further agonizing, here they are. Read 'em and weep. 


Total income: -30.7%
Total COGS: -32.3%
Payroll: -26.1%
Marketing: +0.3%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -195.3% (-$500)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$244

Year to Date

Total income: -9.6%
Total COGS: -7.2%
Payroll: -8.1%
Marketing: -6.8%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -54.1% (-$763)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$2,171

I wonder if I should follow Trump's example and declare bankruptcy. He turned out to be right about Mexicans, after all.

What might have turned September into the year's graveyard? I don't think it's September's fault, per se. It comes on the heels of a summer of neglect; with very little money coming in and no new products coming out, I just coast on bird kites for several months. There's nothing in the pipeline when those sales sputter out. That prevents me from bringing in holiday items just as people are starting to shop for Christmas (and yes, they definitely are). I can't responsibly start placing Christmas orders until my November statement period begins on Oct. 13. And that's already a month too late. 

OK, well, the year's low point is out of the way and Q4 is here, ready or not. Last October was the worst since 2007. One would think that this month's target should be low-hanging fruit...but I said that about September, too, didn't I? Tightening security and making it a little harder to check out looks like a pretty stupid move in this sea of red but I'd rather go broke from lack of business than from theft.

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