Lessons in Building A Small Business

This post originally appeared on my (Celina’s) personal blog http://www.notesfromtheneighborhood.com.
Now that Shabby has her own blog, I am reposting it here in it’s original format which I wrote nine months ago, but here is the original. And by all means, if you need more reading material, do check out my personal blog. 🙂

My mom and I have been in business together for almost three years and for both of us, going into business together was a dream come true. We lived on opposite ends of the country for so long and as soon as we didn’t we set right to work on starting a business together. No matter that I had 3 kids in 9 months and my children, husband and parents and I were suddenly all living under the same roof- “hey! Let’s also start a business! We’ve got nothing going on.” So, the Shabby Alpaca was born. It hasn’t been an easy road. We’ve navigated relational issues, business decisions and lots of choices, but through it all we’ve come out stronger. I was really worried about going into a partnership with my mom because I didn’t want a business to get in the way of our relationship. I told my brother, “I don’t want this business ruin my relationship with mom”. “Don’t let it.” he said with complete authority, “Don’t let it.” And that was that. I decided that Shabby Alpaca was not going to come between my mom and I no matter what happened. It hasn’t always been an easy choice. There’s a lot of stressors in a mother/daughter relationship and there’s a lot of stressors in starting a business. We’ve worked hard to separate what’s what and work on what’s really going on. But family business is another whole post for another time. For now, here’s a few things I’ve learned along this bumpy and fun ride.

Three lessons I’ve learned in three years

1. Take risks 

My mom’s background is in the alpaca business. She’s been a farm owner, alpaca breeder, herd health manager, marketing expert and farm operator for 13 years. She’s got a million contacts in the alpaca world. Every single alpaca product we sell is through her contacts. When we first started into business she said, “We have to sell socks. Socks sell.” I didn’t believe her (I never do. More on that in another post). But I let her chase down the leads on socks anyway. She came up with a friend of hers whom she had worked with who was a sock manufacturer and was moving out of the sock business and into the yarn business. This friend of hers offered to sell us her socks at rock bottom prices. The problem was we had to buy every pair. Like a thousand pairs of socks. Let me tell you in no uncertain terms that I could not have imagined selling 1000 pairs of socks in my entire lifetime, let alone a few show seasons.  We went back and forth and back and forth and finally decided that the socks were good quality and priced so low, we really couldn’t afford to pass up the offer. So we scrambled up the cash and bought the socks. (We decided early on to not use debt to grow our business). Seriously, buying 1000 pairs of socks was a major risk to me. I was coming from a place of doing small craft shows to fund my adoption and I didn’t want to blow it our first year in business by taking a leap we couldn’t afford to take. But let me tell you- the risk paid off. Some months our only income came from selling socks, some shows the only thing we sold was socks, some days the only thing that kept my feet warm were those damn socks. And today, we have maybe 300 pairs of socks left. And now we’re totally screwed because they don’t make these socks anymore and they are one of our best selling items😉 It paid off for us to take a risk. Yes, it was calculated, thought out and agreed upon by both of us, but it paid off. Not every risk does, of course. We have taken lots of risks that haven’t paid off, but with every risk comes at least a chance to learn (see lesson 3).

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We’ve got socks. Lots of socks….

2. Hire experts 

Though we’ve been in business going on three years we are really just starting to take off. When we started we hired a lady I found on Craigslist to create an $80 logo for us. We bought Vistaprint business cards. We went to high school craft fairs and hocked our wares. And at the time, these were the appropriate things to do. We didn’t do anything wrong by starting right where we were. We spent a couple of years exploring who we were as a business. We explored the waters of who we could be and talked about who we wanted to become. And now three years in, we think we have it figured out. We are branding ourselves. Setting ourselves apart and making decisions about who we are and what we sell to whom. In the midst of that, we came to realize two things. 1. We need true professionals on our team if we want to be set apart in our industry. 2. We can’t always afford to hire the best people, but sometimes we can hire the best people to teach us how to do it on our own. Recently, we engaged Mure Media out of NYC to completely rebrand us. It’s an expensive endeavor. We contracted them to create a new logo, new marketing materials and to help us really discover who we are and what everything we do should look and feel like. I am 100% confident that hiring this company is going to be worth the money. As we talked to Mure in the early stages everything we said, they said better. Everything we wanted to do, they had experience doing and as a bonus they understand the alpaca side of things. Not that we are a typical alpaca business, but we really did need someone who “got” that side of us because it is a foundation of who we are- it’s what my mom brings to the table for her side of the partnership. So we need it! As we started to move toward really ‘growing up’ one of the things we knew we needed was professional pictures of our merchandise. I called several product photographers and got quotes for a full product photography package. All of it was beyond our budget (everything is when you are using cash) but money or not, getting quality photos of our merch was a need. I decided that I really wanted high quality as we moved forward, but since we couldn’t afford it, I figured I needed to do the next best thing: do it myself (I did at one point in my life call myself a professional and charge people for portraits, so I do have some experience here). One of our good friends is a serious professional photographer (not a cousin with a really nice digital camera) so I asked him if he would he teach me some tricks and tools so that I could take my own pictures. He agreed and charged me minimally to come help me set up a studio in my basement. My basement studio is now set up and Joel has agreed to help me anytime I need on a contractual basis. He’s a true professional and we need his expertise, but I can do my own photography. Sweat is the water of the small business plant (<—-did I make that quote up? You can use it if you want…).

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Basement photography studio. It isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good.

3. Fail Fall gracefully

Like anyone starting something new, we’ve had our fair share of failures. We’ve had craft shows that bombed, tents that nearly killed us, racks that fell over and nearly killed others and merchandise we thought we’d sell that no one bought. All of these failures were painful in their own way, but from each of these trips and falls we not only learned something, we also have learned how to fall gracefully. Falling gracefully is a difficult proposition. It means first of all that you have to fall. And falling sucks. But as anyone who is building something new or learning something new knows, falling is part of the deal. I’m not one for failure. My dad was a pretty hard-nosed guy and if I brought home a report card with all A’s and one B, the only thing mentioned was the B. So, I don’t really like doing things imperfectly and that has been part of the lesson- the B’s are OK and everyone get’s a F once in a while. But with each mistake, each mishap we learned. When the tent nearly blew away, we learned that you really do need tent weights like the show organizer said. Two women holding down a tent in a wind storm just isn’t going to cut it. When the racks fell, we learned that racks can definitely stand on their own, but one strong gust of wind can take them down with ease. When the shows bombed we learned those shows are not for us and when we bought things no one wanted we learned that people will buy stuff at 50% off. And each time we failed, I learned that failure is just a part of the deal and the best thing I can do is keep going. The next best thing I learned is that a little laughter cures all. My mom and I are funny and fun people and sometimes the stress of working together is too much. But we’ve learned that if we can laugh at ourselves, we can keep going.

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If you’d like to read a fun little article about our business- check our Denver Flea’s write up on The Shabby Alpaca. And by all means, do check out The Denver Flea. It is our fleakin’ FAVORITE event and we know you will love it!!

 

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