Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't quit.

Anyone catch the interview on "60 Minutes" with the successful Las Vegas gambler? I thought it was a hoot when he asserted that the crooks and swindlers in the gambling world were more honest than Wall Street.

But it also pointed out something that defies conventional wisdom -- that one can be a successful gambler at all.

It brought me back to that moment about 20 years ago when I realized that I needed to change the way I did business.

First, for context. This was after a seven year growth spurt. I had 4 stores, around 12 employees, pretty high sales.

But sports cards were collapsing.

My first response to that collapse was to lower prices to compete with the chainstores and fly-by-nights that suddenly popped up.

Secondly, the moment of epiphany: There was a PBS program at the time, usually aired around mid-afternoon, about small business. I wish I remembered the title of the show, because it had a big influence on me -- but I suppose the program would be dated by now.

Anyway, there were actually two moments of clear-sightedness. The first, was a epidsode where a young businessman was walking along the banks of a pond (I remember it being Walden Pond, but that seems doubtful) and reflecting on what had gone wrong with the business he had just closed.

And the thoughts he was saying out loud, were the same thoughts that were going through my head.

That scared me, it scared me enough to actually make some very big changes. That very afternoon, I went back to the store, and moved all the prices back to full retail, Suggest Retail Price, or where not applicable -- I moved everything to a 40 to 50% markup. Because that was what I needed to survive, and I figured I might as well give myself a chance.

The second program that had a huge influence on me was about a "successful" gambler. I remember thinking, "there's no such thing as a successful gambler." But what the guy was saying really had an impact on me.

Basically, he recounted how when he started out gambling as a young man, he had a number of contemporaries. But one by one, they fell away after running into trouble. But he kept going, and finally -- after many failures and setbacks, he finally learned how to do it on a consistent and reliable basis.

"Why quit," he asked. "When you've gone through all the hard work of learning through your failures?"

I took this to heart. Even though I lost a whole lot of money on the sport card boom and bust, and the comic book boom and bust, and the non-sport card and magic booms and busts, I still felt there was a way to play it -- to gamble, if you will.

My first shot came with pogs. I pretty much pitched a no hit ball game, there. Nearly flawless. (It was an unusual fad in that I could buy exactly as much material as I need, when I needed it. Usually the problem with a fad isn't SELLING the material, it's ACQUIRING the material.)

The second success was with Beanie Babies, followed by Pokemon. In both of these cases, I was able to "Time The Market", get in on the Golden Age, but get out before it became a disaster.
I mostly did this by not actually buying direct from the manufacturers, but through middle men. I paid slightly higher prices for the privilege of being able to get out and cut my losses at a time of my own choosing.

But it really doesn't matter how I did it. The point is, I learned from my mistakes and failures, and applied those lessons to the next situation. Instead of quitting altogether.

There hasn't been a fad over the last ten years that I could find a way to tap into. But that's all right. I'd much rather have solid if unspectacular sales on a day to day basis. If a fad came along that I thought I could profit from, I'd do it, but I don't mind if one doesn't come along. Manga and anime looked like it might go that direction, but technology short-circuited those possibilities. I probably broke even, over the long run. It isn't the fad cycle I'm concerned without nowadays, it's the technology curve.

To tie it back to the stock market; I do indeed think you can probably "time" the market, at least in the broad sense. I suspect the same lessons apply. Get in lightly, test the waters, leave yourself an escape clause, get out when the getting is good. Don't be greedy. Don't be foolish.

But don't quit altogether.

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