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.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Small Business Survival Handbook is going to require a lot of rewriting. Which, unlike my fiction, I seem to be willing to do.

My assertions need to be clear, my arguments marshaled carefully. I want evocative and interesting examples, well-formed sentences, almost aphorisms.

I'm not saying I'm smarter or savvier than other business owners, but that I have 37 years experience, that I learned much of what I know by trial and error, more more often error and error. That my conclusions are often the opposite of perceived common wisdom.

I'm not saying my conclusions will be right for everyone, but it wouldn't hurt to consider them, and to also treat the common wisdom with a smidgen of salt.

There wasn't anything like this handbook when I got started--I still think there isn't. Most business books are boosterish. I'm not trying to be a troll about it, but just saying, "Watch out. What everyone tells you might be wrong."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I'd be a wizard.

Without intending to, I've collected a number of books that are your basic "how-to" for simple survival tricks and frontier fixes.

It's occurred to me that if civilization collapses my books would be some of the most valuable things around..

The lost arts. It would be the equivalent of having magic tomes, full of spells.

I mean, I'd have to have some engineer types around me, and a few military guys to guard me. People would come to me from far far away for answers.

Unless, of course, I shared them. But then, what currency would I have? Heh. I'd have to have apprentice wizards to actually go out and institute my "spells" without giving away the secrets.

There's a story there.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Worked the weekend at the store while my guys were gallivanting around at the comic show in Portland. I have to admit, dealing with so many people does tend to wear me out. Slept like a rock the last two nights.

But it's also wonderful that the store is so active, even in September, even on Sundays. I just need to cast back to yesteryear and remember what a struggle is used to be.

The store mix still appears to be right on. We've seen some increased competition in games lately, but I've been expecting that for years, so I'm not all that surprised. Books are doing better every month. Comics and graphic novels are doing well.

Linda's store, the Bookmark,  is officially for sale. She just turned 68, and it's time. We have a couple years to sell the store, so it will be interesting. Bend is growing so fast that I think there is a chance someone will buy it, and it would be a great way to make a living for someone.

Still working on The Small Business Survival Handbook. My plans right now are to finish a first draft this month, then dive into my journals and see if there aren't diary entries I can use as framework to the book, and try to cull particularly sharp aphorisms and insights.

I have to prepare myself for a mndtrip. There are times when I find my own words fascinating, and there are times when I think, "What a jerk." I used my journals to vent. Saying things I didn't really mean. It was a harmless way to blow steam.

Anyway, send it off to Jared to edit in about 6 more weeks. I don't intend to get bogged down in this non-fiction thing forever. This will already take longer than normal. But at the bare minimum, I want to get back to novel writing by the first of next year.

My publishing schedule is pretty much fixed for the foreseeable future. So that's cool. I'm ahead of the game and quite satisfied with my progress. On the self-publishing front, I'd like to get Star Axe and Snowcastles/Icetowers out in December, and I'm thinking I'll release my little Gothic lovestory, "Gargoyle Dreams" in January. I like this book a lot, but it doesn't really seem to fit with the publishers I'm dealing with. All of them have passed at the very idea of it. heh.

Had a mystery novelist come in the my store, who is established. Someone I've heard of. She lives in Bend and I was properly impressed. However, there was the hint of patronizing in her tone toward me. I didn't take offense. I think that is the way of things. There is always a hierarchy, though I manage usually to step outside of that and look at what I'm doing for myself as for myself.

I'm still holding onto my good news, though it is agonizing. But hopefully I'll be able to announce it soon.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Called the local Barnes and Noble and asked them to carry the three Tuskers books. The manager was obliging, even saying he'd order some copies of Led to the Slaughter even though it is non-returnable.

Tuskers are fully mainstream now. Regular discounts and returns and all that.

Manager wasn't able to tell me if the national chain as a whole was going to carry the books. I don't expect that, but it would be cool if they did.

Meanwhile, I'm still holding onto my good news. Was asked not to talk about it. Sorry to vaguepost.

Writing my business book is a very different experience than writing a novel. With fiction the trick is to stay in the "fictional dream" from day to day, and to keep telling the story.

With non-fiction it's like starting fresh every day. All I need is a topic and I can come up lots of material. I've got 30 years worth of thinking about it, of having refined my observations. They just come out on the screen in a distilled way.

I'll probably have to do more rewriting on this than I'm accustomed to. The point is to be sharp and clear.

I wish there was more of an organizing principle. For instance, from the beginning of my store to the end; or connected categories. But so far it's been more intuitive than that. It's also more piecemeal, resulting as I mentioned above in starting fresh each day. Each chapter is a distinct unit, like writing an essay.

I'm beginning to realize that this is going to take longer than my fiction. The first draft may be similar, but the rewriting will probably take some time.

We're trying to get this illustrated. I think that would be a very cool thing, but the question is can we afford it? We're still looking at that.

Something will come out--whether it will be completely refined or just more like a collection of my blog posts remains to be seen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Organizing a non-fiction book is the real challenge to my Small Business Survivalist Manual.

I have all the material in the world. I could probably write a 1000 page book fairly easily.

The only reason I decided to attempt this book was because I figured out a way to do it that didn't require an overly structured framework.

I figured I could just pick a topic and riff on it.

There is quite a bit of crossover in subject matter. Little anecdotes or examples that could be used for more than one subject. So far I'm just letting it flow and trying not to repeat myself. I'm not sure this is going to work out in the end. It may need a little more organization.

Jared asked if he could go through my two foot stack of journals and I declined, because those journals are full of negativity. It's how I handled the stress. I wrote in them rather than talk my wife's ear off, trying to keep from complaining about the same subjects in my store.

But I let myself write anything I wanted, even if I knew at the time I was wrong. I let myself vent.

So there is a lot of anger and bile and frustration and complaining going on in those journals. I wouldn't come across as a very nice guy.

There are also probably nuggets of real insight and aphoristic phrases that could be used.

When I'm done with a first draft, I'll plunge into these notes and see if there is anything that can be extracted.

I've never liked reading my diaries. Most often over the years I've tossed them. But for some reason I held onto these journals. I think I suspected I would want to write a small business book someday. After writing my novels and getting in the habit of daily writing and realizing that it just takes steady persistence, all it took was a little urging from Jared, and I was off and running.

Whether it will make sense to anyone else, I can't be sure. I'm almost certain that not everyone will agree with my conclusions, but that doesn't mean those conclusions can't be useful. Even disagreeing at least gets the reader to examine process.

Hopefully I can get this off my chest once and for all.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Desert Rat.

I've become a desert rat.

Who knew?

All I need is to grow my beard out and get myself a burro and the transformation will be complete. Maybe get a pick-axe and start searching for the Lost Blue Bucket Gold Mine.

There are an endless number of trails, and I'm trying them out one by one. I have my favorite about 12 miles out of town where there is hardly ever anyone else, for when I want to get my four miles in and also write.

But when I can, I search for new trails further out into the high desert.

There is something zen about it. Peaceful and relaxing. My mind can settle into a creative groove and not worry about anything else.

I suppose some people might find the terrain tedious, but I find there is a certain beauty in it. I grew up traipsing around outskirts of Bend, never thinking anything of it. While my Mom concentrated on creating an English garden in the middle of this desert, Dad and I went hunting or fishing in the woods.

It got into my blood somehow.

If you had asked me 30 years ago whether I preferred the mountains, woods and lakes--or the high desert--I'm sure I would have chosen the former.

But I can go anywhere I want for my walks, and I almost always chose the desert. It's more solitary, somehow. More peaceful.

I'm just a desert rat, I guess.

It's interesting that my first book published was Led to the Slaughter, a western horror novel with a strong element of the real events. It got me in the mood; or perhaps my affinity for the west is what led me to the book.

I've turned into my Dad, who always had an interest in the old west. I didn't think I had that, though I enjoyed the occasional western novel. Dad even had theory about the Lost Blue Bucket Mine that got published in the local paper, the Bulletin. I came across it when I was researching. He contention was that you could draw a longitudinal graph of gold finds and where it crosses the path of the Lost Meek Cutoff wagontrain is where you'd find the mine. Of course they were wandering lost, so it's a guess.

It could be hundreds of square miles. Walking in the high desert with its endless hills and gullies makes you realize what a hopeless quest that is.

Anyway, it's become a habit. Sometimes I wish I had more of a memory for the names of these places. I had some friends growing up who always knew these things. Me...I just go places and later I may even have trouble finding where I went.

I probably should learn the names of the places, the plant life, all of that. But I just wander obliviously, lost in my own little world.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Small Business Survival Handbook.

I've already written 7 chapters of this. It's like I've been practicing it for years. I've refined my thinking on each of these topics until I have a running narrative that makes sense to me.

It should be useful to someone, if only because it might make them a little more careful.

I have no illusions. Most people will need to learn these lessons the hard way, but even then confirmation after the fact can be useful.

My friend Brett, who has owned a comic store for 29 years, made the comment that while he often agrees with my observations, he often comes up with different conclusions.

Fair enough. If nothing else, my conclusions will hopefully spark debate. Because the biggest mistake is not thinking about these things at all.

I have loads of material. I'm just riffing on each of the topics right now. I'll want to go back and refine them. I could, if I have time, go through my 30 years of notes and see if there isn't something useful in them that I could add. I'm sure there is, there are probably tons of useful things, but the problem is extracting them from reams of material.

I have notebooks that stack two feet high, and 10 years worth of blog posts. Many of my business posts I never made public. They became my business journal. Notes to myself.

I could write this even faster, but I'm trying to hold back to one chapter per day, one chapter per walk. Then spending some more time refining it.

I'm just laying out my thoughts. If it helps even a few people then it's worth it.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Good news soon.

I was sort of a loose ends when I woke up yesterday about what to do. By the end of the day, I'd decided to go forward with the small business book.

First of all, I have some good news. I can't say anything yet, but it's very encouraging. It's more progress in my writing "career" and another reset of the clock.

I think I'm permanently turning my back on the possibility of mainstream publishing. I don't have an agent, and now I'm pretty sure I don't want one. I don't want to sign a constricting contract. I don't want to have to slow down or write what they want.

For instance, my "Fires of Allah" was meant to be a thriller. I thought maybe I'd use it to try to get an agent. One agent asked me for "100 kickass pages." The phrase bothered me at the time, but I couldn't put my finger on why. It's only now, months later after the agent rejected the proposal that I realize that the whole approach was so Hollywood smarmy that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Douche-bag agent saying to the writer, "Knock my socks off, kid." Yuch.

I think I've found a home with small publishers and I'm happy with that. It's probably where I belong. I like the people and I like the atmosphere. I'm at a point in my life where that matters more.

I've been published by the mainstream and I know that it isn't a panacea in any way. It's a nine day wonder. It's very similar to my business career where I chose what felt right versus easy money. It was the right thing to do.

Anyway, my intention during my month long vacation was to finish the "Fires of Allah." I woke up yesterday still torn. Partly excited by my good news, but also doubting if the book was the direction I really wanted to go. There is no point in writing a mainstream thriller if I'm not going to take it to the mainstream. My small publishers wouldn't be interested in it.

Then I realized that I would be excited to proceed with the book if I put a supernatural element in. I instantly understood that I could put a Jinn in the story and it would be transformed.

From Wiki: "The Quran says that the jinn are made of a smokeless and "scorching fire," but are also physical in nature, being able to interact in a tactile manner with people and objects and likewise be acted upon."

How perfect is that!

What tells me I'm on the right track is that I'm excited by the book again. So I think it's a Go.

But first!

On my walk yesterday, out popped another chapter in my small business book and by the time I was done, I realized that the "Small Business Survivalist Handbook" had taken possession of my subconscious and there was nothing for it but to finish.

I'm going to write a chapter per day until it's done.

Meanwhile, my friend Jared is going to be heavily involved in the process. Jared was more or less responsible for me starting writing my fiction again 4 years ago. He gave me a good explanation of the self-publishing landscape that I could understand and buy into. He was supposed to promote my "book" (at the time, that's all we could conceive of...) but that fell through.

He seems much more enthused over this project. He's tech oriented. I think he wants this book to appeal to Millennials and Gen X'ers. I'm going to write the content and he's going to do everything else. He wants to illustrate the whole book, which is an interesting idea.

So I'm going forward with that.

When I'm finished I'll turn back to my "Jinn-flavored" terrorists setting forest fires book.

Four years into my writing, and I'm still enthused, which is an unexpected thing to have happen. I feel like the 28 year old who first published a book. Heh.

Friday, September 2, 2016

2.) Stick to Your Original Goals

2.) Stick to Your Original Goals

I'm going to jump from the exciting beginnings to the near ending of my business.

In 1992, 8 years after I bought the store, I was home watching a program about small business on PBS. A guy was fishing at a pond (my memory has it as Walden Pond, but I think that's an imagined embellishment.) The guy's business had just failed and he was giving a running commentary of how he was feeling and what he'd thought had gone wrong.

It scared the hell out of me. What I was hearing was an eerie echo of what I was feeling and thinking.  I realized I was that close to quitting.

It really shocked me. My stores were going down and I was just letting it happen.

I got up off the couch, drove to the store, took out my price gun and started doubling the prices on most of my main product. As you might imagine, my sales started dropping.

I also stopped bleeding money.


Back to the exciting beginnings.When I was offered the chance to buy Pegasus Books,  I went home and did the math. I'd worked in the store for 4 years, managing it over the previous year. I saw where the absentee owner had sort of dropped the ball and thought I could probably pick up business.

The math said that I needed to do about twice as well as the store was currently doing. I had no doubt I could do that. I thought there was starved-up demand.

But really, going in, I was hoping to earn maybe minimum wage, at least be my own boss in a nice place to go to every day. That's all I expected or hoped for and it was enough.

Those first years were exciting. To be able to make decisions without having to ask permission, to see how the changes I was making were working. I'd been trying to write fantasy novels in the previous 5 years, and while I'd had three books published, it was an agonizingly slow process.

Suddenly, all my creative decisions were instantly rewarded.
The main products were books, games, and comics. Around 1985 I added sports cards. This was before the boom in cards really took off. I rode that rocket for the next six or seven years before it collapsed. (I no longer carry sports cards but I'll be talking about them a lot in this book, because I swear to God I learned every possible negative lesson I could from this one product.)

Sales started doubling and then doubling again. I was undergoing exponential growth.

Someone early on in my career mentioned that the only thing worse than failure was too much success. That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, but I learned the hard way that it was true. Weird but true.

If you are doubling your sales, you also aren't making any money because every cent you're making is going back into buying product. Cash flow is non-existent. A wiser man would slow down, take some profits, build slowly.

Then again, I saw the opportunity to build the business fast, and so I took it.

Again, most of the details of this growth I'm going to talk about later, but suffice it to say, I grew fast.

That's where I made the big mistake: I opened a second store in a neighboring town, and then a third store in another neighboring town, and than a fourth store in the local mall. Visions of empire danced in my head; my "young entrepreneur" phase began.

Turns out, I didn't really know how to be a manager. Not yet, anyway.

But the real point is, I didn't set out to be a "manager." I had seven employees but they were constantly quitting for no good reason. I had to let a couple people go. Suddenly all my preparations were meaningless. (I'd trained my first manager for six months, he quit after three months when I withdrew the "Incentive" he'd taken advantage of.)

My main job seemed to be  running around and plugging holes. I'd turned into the little Dutch Boy, sticking my fingers in the dike.

Meanwhile, the competition in sports cards became suicidal; people selling cards for ridiculously low margins. I made the mistake of trying to compete with them. (When you compete with stupid people then you're equally stupid.)

I'd forgotten what I'd originally wanted from my business: A living wage, (I didn't need much), a pleasant place to work, and being my own boss.

Being a stressed out manager wasn't what I'd wanted to do, but somehow that's where I'd ended up.

It's the great American way that if you are successful, you grow. You expand, you open new locations, you take on staff, and so on.

Well, bullshit to that. At least for me, it wasn't really what I wanted.

You've all probably heard of the Peter Principle: An employee will be promoted to his level of incompetence. I believe the same thing hold true of business owners: He will expand to his level of incompetence.

I'd tried to leverage the success I'd had in my one store into other stores. But there was only one me, and the moment I wasn't around in my own store, it started to go down. I couldn't keep up the quality for any of the stores. 

So I did something that was almost as hard as growing---I shrank. Over the next few years I sold or closed the other three stores and concentrated on my one store.

Now, that one store is doing better than all 4 stores used to do, even at their peak. And I'm happy, not as stressed, and feeling somewhat secure. (Knock wood.)

Somehow I'd lost sight of what I really wanted. It was only when I was on the verge of failure that I was reminded of my original goals.

I've tried to never lose sight of them again.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Thinking about writing a Small Business book.

I'm thinking about writing a small business book. The subtitle would be, "How to Survive a Small Business."

I went on a day long walk yesterday. Drove out past Millican to the old highway to Prineville, and pulled off on one of the trails. Very much in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, I was thinking of how I'd do a business book, and it occurred to me that I could pick topic headings, and then sort of riff on each topic.

Right away, I rattled off 27 topics, which is a small proportion of what I'd could come up with after 37 years of doing this. In fact, I was thinking of one every few minutes and purposely cut off the flow.

Then, as an experiment, I picked one of the topics and wrote about it, just off the top of my head.

So the fact is, this book would be extremely easy to do. I have a whole set of ideas I've expounded over the years, and I have examples for all of them. 

So I may do this.  Does this look interesting to anyone?

Here is the first draft of the first topic, and a list of the other topics.

"YOU'RE STILL HERE?!" "How to Survive a Small Business"

1.) Remember--most "small business" books...aren't

This isn't your usual business book.

After some early success, I went through what I call my "young entrepreneur" phase.  I devoured magazines like Inc. and Entrepreneur. I even wore a coat and carried a briefcase; albeit with blue jeans and without a tie. (Never a tie!)

Most books I read back then seemed to think "small" businesses were places with 50 or more employees, but I tried to glean from them what I could.

It took some brutal missteps but I finally realized that business books and magazines exist mainly to sell more business books and magazines. 

More often than not, the advice in these publications is disastrous to mortal humans. For example, when I opened a store in the local mall, I tried to create an "Incentive" program for my manager based on a gung ho article I read. It was a complete failure. I made the mistake of rewarding gross sales without enforcing profit margins. It never occurred to me that my manager would sell everything cheaply. (He didn't stick around once the "Incentive" was removed...)

This one mistake almost brought down my little empire. (The word "empire" is my "young entrepreneur" talking, not the grizzled veteran I am now. I carry a backpack these days, not a briefcase.)

Stupid, yes. But that is sort of the point. I should have been sticking to basics, not trying to get fancy. I forgot who and what I was.

So be forewarned. Many of the observations I'll make in this book are going to contradict common wisdom, and more often than not be counter-intuitive.  Notice I say "observations" rather than advice, because I think every store is different, every owner is different, and so giving advice is pretty risky. And yet, some things I've noticed over the years might prove useful.

What this book isn't is a Get Rich Quick scheme. The focus here is on making a decent living, working in a pleasant place, being your own boss.

33 years ago, I bought a very small business that I'd worked in for the previous 4 years, called Pegasus Books; in downtown Bend, Oregon. I'm still there. Somehow I survived, and I'm finally ready to say thrived. (By my standards, and that's what counts.)

This book is written with small retail businesses in mind, with a few employees.  Though some of the observations might be useful for service businesses, or restaurants and bars, it isn't specifically designed for that.

There are very few books that really address the needs of Mom and Pop style businesses. Why? I think because the Powers That Be have decided there is no money in it. And yet, a large percentage of small businesses are like mine. An owner and perhaps the spouse and a few employees, in a single location.

I won't be using business jargon. For one thing, I don't know any business jargon. I didn't go to business school. I'm not going to address technology or accounting or taxes or anything like that. This is more a book about how I survived, and after a long struggle, finally thrived.

I went up to the local community college once for business advice. The advisor told me I had a "primitive sophistication." No doubt, he was damning me with faint praise, but I embrace that description. I believe, in fact, that I survived and thrived because I didn't pay too much attention to what the business community said. I resisted writing this for a long time despite the urging of others because I didn't feel I was successful enough.  I've made a bunch of mistakes and it took some time to finally reach real profitability.

Ironically, it is these very same mistakes that make whatever observations I make useful.

This is the only time I'm going to qualify my observations. Obviously, what I say may not apply to your own experience. Obviously there are exceptions.

But that said, I'm going to try to be as honest and forthright as possible.

Stick to your original goal.
Decide if you want to be a shopkeeper or a wheeler dealer.
A lifestyle store, but a store: not a hobby and not a charity.
Start small; don't throw money at it.
Follow the herd...right over the cliff.
Where did all my neighbors go?
Competition: can't live with them, but you have to live with them.
Turnover. What does it matter?
Inventory, inventory, inventory.
Location is your store, your store is your location.
I have some quirks. So do you.
Burn out. Only thing worse than not making money.
Advertising is a scam.
Don't quit your corporate job to open a small business.
Know your town, live in it. Then open a business.
No one cares if your fixtures are used.
Bootstrap or borrow?
Don't wear the clown suit unless you're a clown.
Analyze your business. Doesn't everyone? Nope.
Fads and bubbles, a deadly opportunity.
Cagey gets you nowhere.
Selling isn't everything.
If the customer is always right, does that mean you're always wrong?
and so on and on and on. I can come up with many more.