Friday, May 9, 2008

Be smart when starting and running your own business

Over the years we have built up our business the hard way, mostly with luck, hard work and unexpected opportunities. The biggest thing we have realized is that you have to be constantly learning and changing. Just because something works or sells today does not mean it will tomorrow. It is a lot harder running your own business then being told what to do by a boss.

If you are your own boss then you need to be smart about it. Put the time into market and product research. Don’t assume that because you can sell something at place A that you can sell the same thing the same way at place B. We started selling to a very large hobby group, with a very focused market.

I started buying and selling used items to a medieval historical re-enactment hobby group. I was doing what everyone else was doing and that was working well for me. I made some money and had fun. Then I started talking to everyone, found out what they liked and were searching for; Market research. I made sure that is what I brought in; Meet the needs of the target market. I ended up having people giving me shopping lists and they would pick up the items from me at the next event we were both at. This was great, I was making money and people where getting what they wanted. I soon discovered that I could not always find what people were looking for as used items. I saved my money and then started buying from wholesalers and designing my own line of jewelry; Created a new way to better meet the target markets needs.

Suddenly it was a whole new ball game. I was the only local merchant selling new product; Created a market. My sales when out the roof, I had cornered the market. I re-invested the money into more stock and displays; Meeting ever changing needs and building a brand image. Sales increased and I started selling all over Ontario; Increasing my target market. After about two years other people started to copy me and eventually I started to loose some sales as the market was small; Recognized a change in the market. I expanded to a larger market, selling at craft fairs and then moved to large festivals all over Ontario; Changing my target market.

Again I had an unusual product as everything had a medieval theme to it. This helped make us stand out from other vendors; Creating an image branding my company. However we had to learn how to sell at festivals, it was much different from selling at smaller group events. Both my husband and I had to be there, selling and creating; Expanding the business to meet customers needs in a timely manner. Before I had an established market and because we had consistent contact with our customers we could take orders and almost guaranty sales at the next event. Suddenly we had to earn peoples willingness to part with their money to buy from us with out the established relationship I had with my other customers. We had to develop an entire different way to market our product and ourselves.

We were very fortunate in that we only sold at juried festivals, this limiting the number of competition and pretty much guaranteeing that no one else was selling exactly the same thing as us. We also had several different product lines and prices, that all fit the theme we were able to meet the demands of several different target markets at the same time. As one of the only theme vendors we stood out enough that people brought their friends just to look at our both, and usually buy something.

It was strange because what sold at one festival was not what sold at the next. We had to be able to quickly identify how to market our product and our company at each festival. This was usually accomplished with our displays and even what product we displayed front and center. It was learning experience every festival. Eventually we developed a brand image as we did the same festivals every year. Again though people saw what was working for us and suddenly we have competition starting to sell at the festivals. So we are no longer as unique and different as we used to be. Time to make some changes.

Just over a year and a half ago we opened a theme online store,, yet again expanding our target market. We have spent the time learning about selling online. It is a completely different beast then selling retail to impulse buyers or established customers. There is no end to the competition so you don’t market your product you have to market your site and build a brand image. It is a lot harder then it sounds unless you have a lot of cash to throw around.

We have taken what we have learned have made some drastic changes in our website this month. We changed the look, redesigned how our site works, whom we market to and how we market to them. We are even changing our product from mainly manufactured product and some of our handcrafted pieces to a 50/50 split. We will slowly move away from pieces we buy from a wholesaler to what we make. However the key is flexibility to change with market demands.

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