On Being An Independent Retailer
No one is more surprised than me that I now own, and run, an independent brick-and-mortar retail store.
My past includes being a Code Monkey, running a software development team, Marketing executive, COO, founder of a couple of software-based businesses and heading my own Marketing consultancy. Nothing in that list leads directly, or naturally, to becoming an independent retailer.
And, yet, here I am.
And I am loving it.
I made this transition a few short months ago, back in November. Marcia and I had been talking about relocating to a new place for the next phase of our life and we had fallen in love with Western North Carolina around the Asheville area. While we were making trips to get to know the towns in the area Marcia came up with the idea of buying a retail store. There were a lot of financial reasons why this looked like a good idea, which I won't go into here, but I thought it was a brilliant idea and we set about finding a business for sale that we would/could own.
You can find anything on the Web. :-) Who knew - but there are thousands of independent businesses for sale online. Now, most of them are shit businesses - so you need good filter - but there are also some very interesting opportunities. We found a number of them that we explored. Our initial criteria included:
- Location (we were picky about where we wanted to live)
- Business segment (we saw a number of legitimate businesses which operated in segments that we weren't interested in)
- Track record (we wanted a business that had financial legs: profitable, and hopefully growing, over a sustained period)
- Affordability (this was going to be a cash transaction so there were budget constraints)
Long story short, we ended up purchasing the Common Housefly kitchenware store in Black Mountain, NC. It met all of our criteria and we moved quickly to close in November so we could capture as much of the holiday season as possible. It made our head spin how quickly we made this transition - and most of our friends back in PA were stunned - but we pulled it off in a matter of weeks.
So...here I am... a few months in and extremely energized about the move. What is it that I find so appealing? Let me try and enumerate some of them:
1. Black Mountain
What a lovely and interesting oasis this place is. It is the antidote for much of what ails much of this country. It is a small town about 15 miles from Asheville, in a beautiful setting, which has a strong entrepreneurial strain running through it. The streets are lined with small, independent businesses and when you walk into one of them, more often than not you will be greeted by the owner. This is a destination location in the area and when the weather is nice (which often is here) the streets are lined with people. And when people are wandering downtown, most of them come in my store.
People here are genuinely friendly and interested in how you are doing. Everyone you meet from Black Mountain gives off that I'm-happy-to-be-here vibe. And I get a kick out of small town life. As an example, every 2 or 3 days one of the town policemen, Buster, walks into the store just to check in. "Good morning Mike. I'm just seeing if everything is all right with you." he'll say as he strolls into the store. After shooting the breeze for 5 or 10 minutes he'll leave. "Well, I'll be on my way now. Y'all have a great day." I think I have moved to Mayberry and just talked with Andy. :-)
2. NO organizational bullshit
Although I have done my share of corporate time, I was never very good at it. I chafed at having to seek permission from people that I did not respect to do what I knew was the right thing to do. Nothing like that exists as an owner of an independent retail store. No permission needed - just do it. It is very freeing and energizing. The constraints are time and money - but these are real constraints, not the arbitrary constraints imposed by the weight of a larger organization.
3. immediate and personal interaction with customers
Wow - it doesn't get more real than having someone walk into your store. I try and greet everyone individually and find out if I can help them - or if they are just browsing I give them space. I really enjoy talking to people and this small-store-in-a-small-town environment allows me to get to know a wide variety of people. It is amazing what people will tell you when you are genuinely interested in them (and not just "selling"). This approach (greet them, find out what they need, help them find it) actually leads to some healthy sales and happy customers. After so many years of multiple levels of indirection in the corporate world, I find this direct and immediate connection with the customer to be a breath of fresh air.
The mantra in social media marketing is: Be Authentic and Add Value. This advice works in spades when you are physically face-to-face with the customer. People don't want to be "sold-to". They want to be greeted genuinely, they want their questions answered by someone they trust, and they want to be allowed to make their buying decisions in their own way and in their own time.
4. this is in my wheelhouse
I have always been a student of business. I have studied the great entrepreneurs and the brilliant marketeers of the last 100 years. I know this stuff. Hell, I used to make a good living just telling other people how to build go-to-market strategy and tactics. And now I get to apply it to my own business. I am having a ball with this part of it. I have a long list of things that I want to do, that I am very confident will lead to increased sales, higher margins and loyal customers. I am good at prioritizing, so the list is ordered and I am slowly ticking them off. It gives me great pleasure to execute one of these items and see the effects. Some are subtle - others are obvious. They are aggregate in their effect and take some time to ferment - but in due time it will pay off. Or not. :-)
5. Everything is in my perview
I have always been a generalist. I like seeing the Whole, even when my responsibilities were only for a part of the whole. Now, everything is on my plate. Purchasing, pricing, merchandising, assortment planning, financial planning, staffing, etc. It's all part of my responsibility and I love it. I have always resisted being compartmentalized and now I am freed of that constraint. All of these things have different names, but they are all different parts of the same elephant. In the apocryphal story, different people try and describe an elephant by only touching one part (tail, trunk, leg, etc.) and they all failed. I can see the whole elephant for what it is and it feels to me to be a more natural and healthy way to function.
6. at some FUNDAMENTAL level, business is business
I have had significant responsibility at a $1 billion software company. This little retail store drops many zeros off that number. But at some level it is all the same. You have to understand who your customers are, know what they want and deliver it at a profit. Simple and complex at the same time. Everything I have done in my career (such as it is) up to now has prepared me for this. Bring it on.
7. i like the product segment
I am a foodie. I like to cook. I like tools - there is a right tool for every job, and I like to own it. This store encompasses all of that. When I first walked into the store on a visit, I spent some time wandering around and looking at the merchandise. Every few feet I would see something and think "I'd like to own that.", or "Wow. I didn't know they made something like that." It is very cool. It makes it easy to buy and sell these products because I am passionate about them.
For example, I love coffee. So I recently made the decision to expand the Coffee/Tea department. We partnered with a local coffee roaster and brought his fresh and fabulous product into the store. And he educated me on all the various ways to brew a cup of coffee: french press, pour over, drip, espresso, aeropress, k-cup, to name a few. I researched them all and brought in an assortment and I am having a ball trying them out for myself and educating my customers on their choices. This is a great merging of a passion and a business.
8. the adventure continues
I have never liked being static. I had grown stale and it was time for another change. This move may seem like a risk to some - and it does have some element of risk. But so be it. I believe that standing in one place is how people get old and crusty. I feel alive and challenged. They say that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life. Well, that is how I feel right now. I work 7 days a week on this business, if only for a few hours, but it never feels like work. It is interesting. It is relevant. It is mine.