How We Got To Here

Earlier this year my wife and I closed one of our stores and abandoned (or at least placed on an indefinite hold) expansion plans in a bid to get back some of what we’d given up over the last 15 years of owning businesses in the retail industry. We opened our first retail store in April of 2007. After a few years on the wholesale side we were excited to be working more directly with our customers. It’s hard to create something that other stores are selling, but never be in a position to solicit real feedback in a retail setting. Our first shop was a mix of our own brand and those we’d discovered while selling it traveling the country. Seeing our space come together was exciting and we felt unstoppable… until about the time we opened our doors.

To put it mildly, the first year of our retail business was grueling. We had just moved from Los Angeles to Columbus, where Niki (my wife and partner) attended college. Our store was in an alley and we didn’t know just how big of a hurdle that would prove to be. We had no employees. I spent seven days a week (after the job I picked up delivering fliers for a plumbing company in the mornings) at the mouth of the alley with fliers, begging people to walk the 35 steps to our shop while Niki rang the couple of sales per day this generated.

As we established relationships with regular customers things began to ease up a bit. One of those customers was a man that owned a specialty lighting store in town who would come in to shop with his son. We’d often talk about business and he’d give me advice from the perspective of someone who’d been doing retail far longer than me.

Something he’d often repeat was to throttle your growth. I don’t really remember how he said it but in essence that is what he meant. That growing too fast will sink a business faster than just about anything else. At this point I am thinking, “we could grow 1000% this year and I am still not sure we’ll make rent.” But over the course of the next decade as we added a new brand and subsequent locations I began to learn these lessons firsthand.

I watched several other retail brands go from one location to five to zero over and over again. Initially I’d feel pangs of jealousy as they’d get more press or the owners would get on the panels I wanted to be on at conferences. I felt like, once we escaped the alley and had a few years under our belts, we were pretty damn good at retail. So why weren’t we “succeeding” in the same way. Even after seeing this enough times to start to really understand it, we still walked down that path.

Obviously failure isn’t the outcome for every retail brand that attempts to scale. But it’s absolutely the outcome for every retail brand that does so without considering a few key points like:

  • Is my brand truly replicable?
  • Are we unique enough to unseat local competition?
  • Will I be happy in a more administrative role?
  • Is this what I want?
  • Is this what I want?
  • Is this what I want?

Far too many business owners fall into the trap of growth for growth’s sake without really considering the ways that growth will impact them. If what you like about your business is developing connections directly with the people you serve and being active in your community then scaling in the traditional sense of opening more doors might not be for you. If scale is what you want then developing personal connections with the people you serve and being active in your (local) community might not be for you. I don’t mean to suggest either path, or any other path for you or your business is inherently wrong, but one of them is likely wrong for you.

While my own experience is primarily that of a retail business owner, I believe that people from many fields will find help in what we’ll discuss as well as the exercises and tools I’ve found to help define boundaries between your personal and work life. If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your business, there is a different way to do this and I’d love to help you discover it. Toxic entrepreneurship has cost too many of us our businesses, families, savings and lives. What are cultural norms but a set of behaviors exhibited by a community? Let’s work together to change ours.

1 Comment

  1. Success can be the fastest road to failure.
    Your comments ring true for me. I have long wondered about the wisdom of “growth”. It’s been my observation that often gross sales go up but the net doesn’t grow proportionally. “Growth” often means working harder for less just to have higher numbers and smaller margins.

    I value family and life experience more than business. My business exists to facilitate a better family life. However, in spite of trying to avoid growth, your volume of sales can creep up and there is no easy way to turn it off. Working for yourself is like being a farmer. You do not know when the drought is going to hit so you do not want to turn away business. Before you know it, work has sucked up your whole life and relationships suffer and the quality of your existence drops.

    Like

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