21 February 2007

On Faith and Fearlessness, Part I

At least once a week a customer asks me a variation of this question: "Where did you get the inspiration/ idea/know-how to start the shop?" My answer is usually a variation of, "My mom and I wanted to pool our talents and work on something together./No, I've never been to France; this is just my French fantasy./I just wanted to bring together a collection of everything I love./I wanted to be self-employed in some creative way and this [gesturing widely] was it!" All of the above are true and none of the above is the full story. Today, I want to give a more detailed picture of how The Blissful Home came to be and the reason I want to share my story is because I hope that it will inspire your own dreams, goals, and aspirations, especially if you are considering taking a risk, starting something new, becoming self-employed, trying to market your own creative talents or handicrafts, etc. I am by no means an expert on the topic of starting your own business (typing those words even makes me laugh a little!), but I am one woman who did it and is doing it. If you dream of a similar enterprise, I hope that you will find a little kernel of inspiration in here to hold on to as you bring your own fantasies to life!

I guess I'll break this up into three parts, The Backstory, The Particulars, and The Philosophical Stuff.

First, The Backstory. Unlike many women, I never dreamed of owning a shop. It feels almost wrong to admit that, since I have one and am living out a dream that so many other people have held their whole lives. But no, this was not my lifelong dream. It has most certainly become my dream for the rest of my life, though. I picture myself doing this in twenty years. I picture myself doing this with a Baby Bjorn strapped to my chest. I picture myself doing this, silver-haired at 70, when I have grandkids. This shop is part of what will be my life's work, my contribution to this planet. But no, in the beginning, to enter the exciting, uncertain, colorful world of retail was never my dream, goal, or intention.

But I did want to be self-employed. In college at Ohio State, I studied English and focused in Creative Writing because I thought reading and writing for four years sounded like fun. It was. I graduated and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I took temp jobs in offices that weren't very fulfilling but helped me make my car payment. Then, one day, while watching Fashion Emergency on E! (remember that show?), I watched an eighth grade teacher being made over before she accepted a national teaching award and I said glumly, "I wish I could be a teacher." Then, in the next breath, I said, "I can be a teacher!" And so I began to research graduate programs in teaching and landed at a very, very good one: Kent State's Master of Arts in Teaching program. One year of research, workshops, and an amazing student teaching experience at Coventry High School with the uber-talented Mark Jamison later, and I was a teacher! I moved back to Columbus, wanting a bigger-city experience, and I started my teaching career at a brand new high school in a large, ever-expanding district southwest of the city. I taught there for three years and learned so much about teenagers, how people learn, and most of all, myself. Like most teachers do, I had some high highs and some low lows. Then I took on the teaching assignment of a lifetime. I was lucky enough to be selected to join the staff of the Christopher Program, a humanities magnet program that drew juniors and seniors from 19 different districts. The students had to interview and be chosen to join the program, so they were highly motivated, excited about learning, and often deeply political or spiritual or artistic or intellectually gifted. I had two wonderful colleagues, Steve and Andrea, who enriched my experience on this earth. Beyond that, the students gave me the most priceless gift of all: the courage and practice of looking inside myself to see what was really there. And what I saw surprised me! Although I deeply loved my students and considered myself and was considered by others to be a passionate and effective teacher, I really did not want to be a teacher anymore. Always, in the back of my mind, I had known that teaching would be a short-term career for me. I knew that eventually, I would have my own business of some kind. And one day, after a cumulative of days of feeling not quite right about something and also feeling that something new had been planted in me, I sensed within myself that my time as a teacher was drawing to an end. But I still had no idea what the next move would be.

And then one day, the next idea showed up. (For a more detailed description of that day, including the egg rolls, see our very first blog.) Some friends of our family were taking over management of what once was a very hot retail space. They were inviting new vendors in to help them make the space a brand new thing. In the space of about an hour, my mom and I had decided that we should do what we had never thought of doing before: go into the home decor business for ourselves. Neither of us had a serious retail background. She loved home decorating but had only practiced on her own homes over the years. I, too, shared her passion but had a totally different style: more eclectic, less studied, more whimsical. I loved to manage and write policies and deal with people and come up with stories. Together, I knew we could do this. More than that, I knew that together, we should do this. We would do this. And the huge 'should' I felt was not the kind of should you feel when you feel guilty or obligated or coerced. This was a soul-resounding should, the kind of should I imagine you feel when your feet are in the stirrups and you're in the middle of a contraction and you say to yourself, "Self, you should push this baby out right now!" Sorry to be so graphic, but I'm trying to convey the soul-deep, urgent, natural agreement of everything inside and outside of me that came together to show me that this was the next step. It was that strong and that complete. Yes, I should own a boutique. So should you wait to feel that soul-resounding should before you start pursuing your new dream with gusto? I wish I could tell you for certain, but I don't know. All I know is, that for me, the timing was right and I was right for the timing. Things came together fairly naturally and very quickly. But that doesn't mean it will happen that way for you. Things might fall into place for you and your venture after years of dreaming, planning, and scheming. You'd probably be better off that way, actually! Real experts suggest you should plan for up to a year, certainly not less than six months, before launching your own business--especially a shop, which requires a sizeable financial investment up front before you even know if people like your idea!

Now, for The Particulars. We quickly threw our first shop together. It wasn't any more romantic than it sounds, either. Our initial set-up was accompanied by a month of migraines for me and followed on a month of my mom nursing a sick relative who needed 'round the clock care. She was sleep deprived and I was headache sick. But we knew it was what we should be doing, so we kept trudging ahead. We bought products we liked but we didn't have a clear vision for what the shop would look like when it was all put together. What was our retail concept? What was our design philosophy? What was our merchandise mix? Well, in those days it was whatever we thought it should be and wanted it to be, without regard to what would even sell. I didn't know enough back then to know what I didn't know (as Dr. Phil says). Nevertheless, we opened up and did a nice business for seven months. I have to tell you, though, that even in our very first week of business, I sensed that our little shop in that location was only a temporary gamble. We had grown feathers and jumped out of the nest. Now we were to start looking for a place to roost. A place to grow our dream, our vision, and our customer base. I started looking for new digs immediately.

I am not one to rest when I know I'm not in the right place. I get restless and direct all my attention to seeking the future. When we first found this location in Jackson Township, I knew it was supposed to be for us. On a busy corner where two major thoroughfares intersect, the space I had my eye on hadn't managed to retain a business for more than several months in a long time. I firmly believed it was because the space was meant for us. But mind you, it was no beaut when we first laid eyes on it. It was too small, smelly, the carpet was ripped and stained, and the walls and ceilings were terrible. But I knew that knocking out the wall between this space and the space next to it would give us just the right amount of square footage. I knew we could tuck a small office in the back and that we could work with a slightly undersized storage room in order to maximize our sales floor. I liked the natural light that came in through the windows. It felt right, even though my friend's ex-boyfriend told me the space was a "feng shui nightmare" and I needed to "reclaim" a certain corner of the sidewalk in order for the energies to flow properly. Well, reclaim that corner I did, but not the way he suggested. :) My mom was by no means immediately convinced that we had found our location; she's a a processor, a muller, a weigher. I'm not. Could you have guessed? So we continued to look at other properties, including an absolute fantasy of a mint green Victorian house with a wraparound front porch. I toyed with the notion of buying this house, restoring it, living on the second floor, and making the first floor into our shop with a coffee shop off the porch. But a more thorough inspection of the house, plus its out of the way location, made me think better of it. And then it hit me: I knew how disappointed I'd be if we were to lose the Fulton space. It was supposed to be ours. And the rest of the story, you can catch up on by reading my past blogs. Or, you can experience it in person at 4605 Fulton Drive!

So here we are at The Philosophical Stuff, which is what you're reading for anyway if you're a person considering starting your own business, et al. I don't feel quite comfortable being in the position of giving advice, although surprisingly, I'm occasionally sought out for it by others who see what my mom and I are doing and are wondering how they could do the same thing. I say 'surprisingly' because we haven't been at this very long and have a LOT to learn. In fact, I wonder if some of you out there who have been in business for yourself for longer than I have are reading this, clucking your tongue, and saying, "What was she thinking? She should have done X and Y before she did Z." And you know what? I'm sure you're right!

Which brings me to point #1 (oh, so now I'm doing points??): There is no one 'right' way to approach going into business for yourself. There is no one-size-fits-all business model or one right way to write a business plan (yeah, still don't have one of those...getting to it, though!). There aren't certain steps you have to take in order to start this whole process. But there are steps you probably should take before you just plunge in and start investing in materials or buying product. What are those steps? I wish I would have known! I'm not kidding. All I know is, it pays to do research. The best research is research that makes sense for the kind of business you're interested in, whether that be visiting shops you like, seeking out the proprietors and asking them a few questions (you may want to send an e-mail or make a phone call first; shop owners are usually pulled in thirty different directions at once when the shop is open!), studying the websites of artists who do work similar to your own, reading magazine articles about other women who are living your dream and being successful at it. From the moment I knew we would start a shop, I made learning as much about having a boutique as I could my second job. I'd come home from my day of teaching and surf the internet until midnight or one AM every night, reading up on the marketing strategies of My Favorite Shop, studying the websites of other small shops to see their merchandise mix, reviewing back issues of magazines for stories about small shops. I bought books that broke boutique owning and running down into practical tips and gave advice from women who were doing it. I quickly became an "expert"--well, as expert as you can get without ever actually doing it--on my new field. Lacking actual hands-on experience, I at least wanted to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

So I guess the gist of Point #1 is to read about and seek out other successful entrepreneurs and start getting a feel for what it takes in terms of time, production, marketing, money, and other resources. After all, we don't dream in a vacuum, do we? We are all inspired by someone else or something else. Be thirsty for inspiration and hungry to learn from other people. Don't hesitate to ask questions--lots of questions! Studying what someone else does well and trying to figure out why other people respond to it doesn't mean you'll end up imitating them. If you're going to successfully market your own ideas, you have to know from a marketable idea!

In the next blog, I'll delve into more of the philosophical stuff. And not the stuff you could get out of the tip books. I'll try to aim more for the heart and soul of this whole entrepreneurial thing. Stay tuned!

And oh, for those of you who read the previous blog, you can sigh in relief along with me that our ceilings were promptly and expertly repaired by Tommy and Al from our A+ property management agency. Thank you to everyone who made us a top priority in the midst of rampant ice and water damage!

And oh, lest I forget, here's what's new in the shop: April Cornell luxe honeycomb tea towels and hemstitch napkins in fresh spring colors; French tea towels in soothing, muted shades (very Giada DeLaurentiis-esque); a new collection of French perfumes and bubble baths (all at really great price points!); colorful door mats; velveteen rabbits for Easter, and a limited number of one-of-a-kind Spring floral arrangements in interesting vessels. Still waiting for beaucoup merch from our trip to market. Why does it have to take so long? Come in and have a look!


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