24 February 2007

On Faith and Fearlessness, Part II

Where's the whip???

What follows here is Part 2 of a blog about taking risks, banking on your dreams, and creating a little entrepreneurial niche in the world just for yourself. Again (how many times can I stress this?), I am not an expert on how to start or run your own business. I'm a newbie to this whole retail thing in every sense of the word. But here I am doing it, living it, and loving it. I'm writing this one-on-one to YOU, because I know from a year of talking to customers how many of you harbor secret dreams of starting your own shop or turning your creative talent into a moneymaking venture (or at least not a moneylosing venture!). Just as I was questioning whether or not my thoughts on this subject were relevant or should be shared in the blog, two new customers, a mother and daughter, walked into my shop and told me they were sent in by a mutual friend because the two women have a dream of starting their own shop. Our mutual friend thought it would be inspirational and beneficial for them to see what my mom and I are doing. How cool is that? I took their visit as confirmation that I should keep on going with this blog.

So what follows here is not exactly advice or tips. My thoughts are just that--my thoughts--and I caution you that they may be far from practical. I guess I believe that wallowing in the safe harbor of practicality can lead to a staid, pedantic, predictable, humdrum, workaday life. And who wants one of those? At the end of the day, don't you want that little thrill of knowing that you contributed something extraordinary, however small, to even one person's experience of the world, if only for a moment? I do.

So I'm pretending that you and I are sitting in a really great coffee shop somewhere talking this whole thing over. And in front of us are two mugs of hot chocolate. With marshmallows. And whip. Lots of whip.

At the end of the last blog, I started to go point-by-point, laying out some Philosophical basics of business owning. Point #1 was something like, research your dream and others who are doing what you'd like to do. Get inspiration everywhere you can find it. Learn all you can through reading about, researching, asking questions of and witnessing others in action. True enough. But let's get away from points. Remember, we're drinking cocoa here. :)

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts about being an entrepreneur:

You need to know your dream intimately. By this I mean whatever you dream of doing, be it opening a knitting boutique, becoming a freelance floral designer, or starting your own web design firm, your dream must grow flesh and teeth under your watchful imagination. Before you do anything in the practical realm, such as apply for a loan or look for a storefront, you need to be able to envision all the ins and outs of your dream in living color, and you doing it! It has to feel real to you before it even exists. If it's a shop you dream of owning, can you picture your well-appointed walkway, your window displays, the sign above your door? Can you see yourself sweeping the walk outside, making change behind the cash wrap, greeting customers on the sales floor? (By the way, what are you wearing in this daydream?) Can you picture yourself unpacking twenty boxes of new merchandise in your storage room, vacuuming up the nightmare of packing peanuts that fill those boxes, and creating displays out of nothing but tables, shelving, thin air, and your imagination? If so, you may be well on your way to making your dream a reality. Before you can make it happen, I think you have to experience what it will feel like before you can actually do it. This is how to become intimate with your dream. You need to visualize it, eat it, breathe it, sleep it. In fact, it just may keep you up at night (right, coughMomcough?).

You need to believe that there is a market out there for your idea/ creation/concept. This is so important. After all, I assume that one reason you might like to try having your own business is to make money, right? Or at least if this is not a primary concern, you hope it might be an end result. In order to do this, other people have to warm to your idea/creation/concept, so much so that they will plunk down their hard earned money to pay for your product or service. Wow. Sounds intimidating, right?

From a personal perspective, one of the most difficult things about being a shop owner is figuring out what will sell that still fits the look and aesthetic of your shop. In my opinion, you should rarely compromise the identity of your business just to make a buck. Could I sell a hundred fridge magnets a month? Probably, and my chances of doing so increase dramatically if I diversify and bring in every style of cute magnet I can find. People like to hang things on their fridge, it's true. However, you might have noticed we aren't a fridge magnet kind of shop. :) (No offense to those individuals or shops with their own prodigious collections.) We do, however, offer one line of magnets that are artfully done, fit the personality of our shop, and make everybody smile. This is not a concession on our part. This is the one kind of magnet I've found that makes sense at The Blissful Home. In fact, I think my customers would find it strange if I did bring in a counter spinner chock full of campy fridge magnets. They would know it's just not us. When my mom and I go to Market, finding stuff that's right for our shop can feel like a needle in a haystack. But when we find IT, we know it. That's how selective and thoughtful you have to be about defining and shaping the identity of your business.
From a shopping standpoint, I totally dig shops that have a cleverly and fairly narrowly defined niche. There is an awesome shop in Columbus called Collier West (www.collierwest.com) whose style I would describe as "chic, upscale, world-traveling urban cowboy." Clearly, theirs is a niche market. But even if your home does not fit the aesthetic of "chic, upscale, traveling urban cowboy," you would enjoy wandering through the two levels of this Short North shop. The style is so clearly, unapologetically defined. Collier West--the shop--knows who it is and doesn't--can't--pretend to be anything but.

So the larger point here is that in defining the brand or identity that is your handiwork, your shop, or your service, you need to be realistic about what people would be likely to buy or solicit from you, but you also need to know who you are, what your brand embodies or stands for, and more importantly, what ISN'T you. As an example, if you are a freelance journalist with a conservative Christian point of view, would you be likely to take on an assignment that is pro-Wicca in the schools? Some might argue that you should in order to stretch your own perspective, but I believe that in order to be at peace with yourself and the business you are creating, you need to be true to yourself and your vision, however narrow that might appear to others. After all, each one of us has her own unique gifts, and no one else can make the contribution that you can, quite as well as you can. Hold on to that.

Oh, and one more thing about finding a market: your market will find you. My mom and I learn and relearn this every day as new customers find us through word of mouth. Women tell us, "My sister-in-law said, I found a new little shop that is so YOU; you have to go! So here I am!" One of my favorite customers (hi, Melissa!) even called me once to say that while she was having lunch with her husband at Panera that day, she overheard a table of women talking about our shop! That was incredibly encouraging (not to mention flattering), because it showed me that if people enjoy an experience, they will want to share it with others. Yes, advertising is important and can't be overlooked (and believe me, we've got to do a lot more of it), but trust that if you create something of quality or offer quality services to people, those who get you and what you're all about will find you.

And finally, somehow, someway, you've got to overcome fear. I have to recuse myself from this point because somehow, someway, I began The Blissful Home without fear. This was the biggest gift of all. All I can say is, it is my belief that opening this shop was the next step for me. I believe it was something I was meant to do, part of God's plan for my life. That certainly doesn't mean it wouldn't and won't be without struggle, though! Everyday there are concerns, sure, about money, our merchandise mix, having enough customers, how much to buy for Christmas, etc., etc., etc. These concerns are common to just about every shop owner and I'm sure every business owner of any kind can relate. But glowing quietly and steadily behind all of that is the assurance I have, 100%, that I am in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.

So how do you overcome fear--fear of failure, of going broke, of your idea being rejected? I guess it comes down to faith. How can I say this without sounding totally pat and cliched? Think about all the things you take for granted in your life, ways in which you operate in faith without even realizing it. You have faith that the sun will come up (or, you know because science tells you it will; science is a kind of faith). You have faith that you will draw your next breath. You have faith that when you open your mouth to speak, your voice will come out. These are things you don't have to overly analyze in order for them to work. This is what I would suggest to any person wanting to start her own business: have faith in the seed that has been planted in you. The creativity burning inside your heart, your mind, and your fingers is a gift. Treat it as such. Nurture it, tend to it, let it have its practice, give it time to grow. Don't cast your pearls before swine. Protect your dream until it's time to let it shine. Take practical (yes, I said it!) and intuitive steps toward growing your vision into a reality. Above all, have faith that the time will come, your time will come, when you are sharing your talents with other people, your friends, your community, and even the world.

In the meantime, dream wildly.

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