Thursday, September 29, 2016

What a trip!

I've been reading 25 years worth of business journals, and while some of it is familiar, a lot of it isn't.

It took me far, far too long to realize that sports cards were going to decline to nothing. I wasn't sure where comics were going to go; or if they would ever come back. Pokemon and Beanie Babies and Pogs weren't sure things until they were.

Basically, I didn't know what was going to happen. Duh. I know what I know from hindsight; at the time I had no knowledge of the future.

I feel almost sorry for the guy in these journals. It's a tangled knot of worry and stress, even considering the journals were created to vent. 

I probably should have been more alarmed in the mid-90's over my debt, but I was managing to pay them right up to 1997, when Congress gave banks the right to jack up rates and penalties. Then, Bam!. It was a problem.

Sold the mall store in 1997, and by 1999, I have the first comment: "I think we're going to make it."

I tried way more things than I remember that didn't work. I had more competition than I remember. I paid attention to every little detail, down to a few bucks. I was hanging on for dear life, and making deals with everyone--customers, wholesalers, landlords--anything to get through. I had a mono-maniacal focus on survival.

There's a fair bit of anger and bitterness toward what I perceived as underhanded and stupid practices by others. 

There was the moment when I started to go my own way, even when it was the opposite of everyone else.

But mostly constant worry and disappointment and an occasional nice day. I don't talk about debt much, even though that was the root of the problem and when that debt was retired in 2004, suddenly everything got better.

I'm glad I read these journals, but I'm never doing it again.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Re-writing History.

When you own a business for as long as I have, a narrative develops. A story of how I survived, with warnings and reassurances. Warnings not to make the same mistakes. Reassurances that I made it through.

Looking back on it now, I'm more forgiving of my mistakes. So much of it I couldn't have known, nor was there much I could do about it. The mistakes I made were understandable mistakes.

The reassurances are now tempered by the realization of just how hard it was--not just on me, but on my wife.

In reading my notes for this book, my narrative is changing. I've come up with 5 distinct periods of my store, between 6 and 7 years long, each detailing a different situation. It kind of make sense of the blur of the last 32 years.

1984-1989.  The Boom.

An exciting time of growth, lots of planning, lots of stress but all of it good.

1990-1997. The Crash.

I expanded too fast. There was a collapse in the sport card market, then a collapse in the comic market. I used credit cards to make it through and built up tremendous debt.

1998-2003. Hunkering Down.

It was all about survival. I had no cash, no credit. 40% of gross profit went toward debt. I worked every day.

2004-2010. The Revival.

Debt was paid off, sales started to increase, but I didn't let up. Spent most of that time building up inventory, even when the Great Recession hit. (I saw it coming and while it affected us, of course, it was easily managed.)

2011-2016. The Maturing.

Finally have the inventory level needed, the mix of product that works. Workable budgets and management procedures. Livable income and time off. Hurrah.

Out of 32 years, 14 of them were miserable, and seven of them neutral, and the others were O.K. to good.

Would have been nice if I could have skipped the middle 14 years.

It's easy to see how and why I didn't write. It's easy to see how the years passed so quickly.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Going through 35 years of journals, looking for nuggets of wisdom for the Small Business Survivalist Handbook.

Not going to be able to use much, but it certainly is edifying.

First of all, a third of the stack is actually fiction fragments. Beginnings of innumerable stories, snippets, ideas, poems, misc. Never really did give up writing altogether, especially in those first few years. Most of these stories I don't remember writing at all.

The early business notes are almost all to-do lists, business plans, notes to myself, calculations. It's amazing how much analysis I did in that first decade.

The mid-nineties are when I really started a journal. The entries are surprising clear-eyed, but specific to the circumstances at the time. This is when things were going off the rails, but the credit card problem hadn't really started. (It was happening, but the crunch didn't come for a couple of years.)

Unexpected, while things are going wrong, I give the tone of observation. Not as much sturm and drang as I would have expected. I'm not really as bitter and angry in these journals as I was later; again, probably because I hadn't started my seven year slog of working every day yet and still had some perspective.

The journals in the early 00's are mostly just day-to-day ups-and-downs; not lots of insight, just either "Oh, great! Business is better than I expected!" Or "Damn. Business sucks." Not very informational. There's a bit of underlying bitterness going on.

By the way, my first mention of "overbuilding" in Bend was in 2002. Heh.

Everything changes when I pay off the debt in 2004. Still tight as I'm building my inventory back up to sufficient levels, but the stress is much reduced. Started hiring again, but there is residual bitterness.

Then in 2006, I start doing my journal on my blog, The Best Minimum Wage Job a Middle Aged Guy Ever Had. A lot of these entries, where they involve the business, could actually go right into the book, actually. So I'm going to concentrate on these  last 10 years worth of entries.

I wish I had snappy journal entries all the way through that I could use to frame my business story, but it doesn't look like anything is usable until all the crisis's were over and I started making money again.

I think I'm going to toss all this stuff out when I'm done. If ever there was going to be a use for it, it's for this book. Most of it is just crap.

Friday, September 23, 2016

One of my Small Business Survivalist Handbook chapters is about burn-out, which I think afflicts most owners after a few years.

My basic job as a storekeeper is to go to work every day, to keep the location clean and tidy, to deal with customers, and to order and then stock material.

These are the bare essentials.

Guess what? I'm usually not able to accomplish those tasks within store hours. Much of my ordering takes place extracurricular.  Most of my day is taken up dealing with customers.

So imagine, if you will, all the services and events and promotions that most stores are expected to provide.

Hiring someone to help doesn't make it any simpler. I've never done a more complicated thing than hiring another person, who comes with their own complexities. In fact, I think it takes twice as much work to train a person as to do it myself.

Once they're trained, they still have to be paid. If you have a Mom and Pop sized business, chances are whatever extra profits you generate by having help will be soaked up by said help.

So all the advice that most business books give about how to add more service to your business is almost guaranteed to burn out the owner. Each little thing may not seem like much, but they rapidly accumulate and most of them can't be taken back once they are offered.

This goes for anything extra you might be tempted to do. Sell online? Extra. And you'll be competing with people who do it full time.

It's always been kind of an insult when someone thinks they can buy a business and do it outside their regular work. Do they think their store will be any less intensive than the job they're already doing? 

Keep it simple, and only add complexities once you're certain you can keep up--if then. If you are honest and reliable and helpful and carry the stuff people want, then you are doing your job.

Adding coffee to your store isn't required.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Funny little meme I ran across: "What Everyone Desperately Wishes You'd Stop Doing, Based On Your Myers-Briggs Personality type.

INTJ: Talking to everyone like you’re a wise sage from the future, sent back in time to lecture them on the foolishness of their actions and thoughts.

Nailed me!

It's funny, because I'm writing a non-fiction book, The Small Business Survivalist Handbook, with exactly that tone.

Finishing the first draft today, then digging into my 20 years of journals looking for material. Don't really know what I'll find.

Always feels good to do the first draft. It always signifies that it will become a book of some kind.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Four years ago, I cleared out my everyday schedule to do nothing but write. It has made me incredibly productive.

But when I'm not writing, going on two months, life starts feeling oddly empty. Writing non-fiction is more like a job, a task. It isn't a deep dive into an alternate world.

I miss my alternate world of the moment. Much like when I don't read for long periods of time. A book is always an ongoing place that is alongside my waking moments.

I took a break on purpose. I've already filled next year with books from publishers, and could easily self-publish for a couple years after that. So I'm way ahead of the game. I decided it wouldn't hurt to take a break and assess what I want to do.

I thought it was possible I might want to try something different, try for the mainstream.

Instead, I came to the opposite conclusion. I like my little niche and I think I'll stick to it. I like genre. I like adding a little supernatural or SF element to most of my stories. "Snaked" came out well, and it has no supernatural or SF, but it certainly has the 'fantastic.'

Anyway, I missed my walk yesterday out of pure laziness (well, actually, because my normal time fell between me recording TV shows, which is somehow worse..)

Told Linda this morning that I'm taking a walk today no matter what; neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow would stop me from my appointed walk. I don't care if I run into packs of cougars (the animal kind...well, either kind) or break both legs or...I don't care, I'm going walking.

I'm dedicating October to finishing The Small Business Survival Handbook. But come November 1, I'm writing fiction no matter what.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Writing a non-fiction book is a completely different experience than writing a novel.

With a novel, I live within a fictional dream bubble for days at a time. My whole focus is on incubating that bubble, keeping it afloat, and writing within it.

With non-fiction, I just pick a subject and sit down and write it. I'm basically relying on my 35 years of mulling over my business. Small business is probably the only subject that I could write about authoritatively.

It doesn't take much to get started. I set out on my walk with a subject in mind and it comes spilling out.

I've got 8 chapters left in the first draft. All 8 subjects lined up. Each chapter is about 1000 words. Short and pithy. It wouldn't hurt to make them even shorter and pithier--but I also want to create an attractive author's voice. The tone is actually something I have to decide on. I can be folksy or blunt or trollish or modest or stern or whatever.

I don't want to force the voice, I want it to be natural. It will probably end up being like my blog posts only more polished. I feel prepared to re-write, which is not something I usually look forward to. Non-fiction seems to be different that way.

I don't know if this Small Business Survivalist Handbook is going anywhere, but I always wanted to do it anyway. So now I've done it.

My editor wants to include illustrations, and that's a great idea, but as always the problem is with the artists. Hard to find anyone reliable that I can afford and does quality work. One of the reasons I'm a book writer not a comic or graphic novel writer is because working with artists is really hard. Artists have their own agenda.

Better to just do my own thing.

As soon as I'm done with the first draft, I'm going to dip into my years of notes and see what I can find. I'm sure more subjects will come up, that I'll find more to say. It's always a little fascinating and little cringe-worthy to read over old diary posts.

I'm feeling pretty upbeat because I'm almost done with the first draft, which means this thing is happening, one way or another.