I woke up my family with the sound of a sledgehammer one August morning. A seven-month adventure to build what would become our family business storefront began with a bang. They had forgotten that the transformation of their home into a storefront was slated for that morning, and they slept in, while I carried on with the sledgehammer, confident that our undertaking would become one of the most beautiful bookstores in town.
The whole process from idea to planning, to building capacity, to creating a business plan, building the storefront, and finally– opening our doors– took about three years, and a lot of learning. We added accounting, ergonomic bookshelf design, and international trade to our skill sets. We learned a few new software tools. We even went as far as creating a killer uncured ham, brie, and sour apple sandwich with caramelized onions on dark rye. I’ll share the full recipe the next time I see you.
Many years in the market as a small independent business means many ups and downs and lots of stories to tell– like those sandwiches. (They’re now an exclusive treat for special guests at my home, since we closed the cafe.) Economic downturns, bad-faith collaborators, and even a pandemic later, there have been more lessons learned during these years than we ever thought there could be, but despite all the ups and downs, bookselling is still one of the noblest, more rewarding jobs ever.
The main moral from this story is the need to be flexible, adaptable, and nimble. Making small bets and building incrementally has allowed for mid-course changes with minimal damage. Good listening skills help understand what customers want, and a keen eye for details is very useful in creating a satisfying in-store experience.
Loads of available tools and services help to translate the bricks and mortar experience to the digital realm and expand the channels to communicate and sell. They are just as important as the physical store and its location. A practice I’ve taken up, and recommend business owners do as well, is to get a soundtrack for every business move. It will help to establish the mood and influence the desired outcome of customer-facing decisions.
With such a rich history to sort out, pivoting has been more than a lifesaver. It has become part of the strategy. A healthy practice learned from experiences as an entrepreneur in a Latin American country with unstable economic and social contexts, reassessment and retooling are often required to keep the doors open.
One of the perks of having lived in such a place is that I have an honorary PhD in resilience and recovery– an expertise that proves mighty handy these days. The following account is the rollercoaster of emotions that we, as a business-owning family, we have gone through. I share it with the hope that it will help many small business owners who are wondering if all the sacrifices are worth it, and whether to keep going despite them all.
Spoiler: yes, they are. And yes, you should.
Things usually start well, with nothing but hope and excitement. No one ever starts a business thinking that something as unforeseen as a pandemic could hit. Confusion clouds our way until we figure out what’s really happening. What do you mean by “lockdown?” So my business is not essential? Zero revenue from my physical store? All unheard of– but as it turns out, harsh realities we’ve had to face.
Just be thankful that this is happening in an age when e-commerce exists, and the tools to set up an online shop and communicate with customers are practically free, and super easy to use. We haven’t had that privilege for a large chunk of our bookstore’s history.
Each day that passes, that slumping sales curve adds a few minutes of insomnia to the night. Having to put a smile on for fewer and fewer customers every day takes a psychological toll that we may not feel right away. It fills the little gaps of the business operation, though. At some point, if you’re not careful, the despair becomes the message that customers get. And no sale was ever closed by a beaten salesman.
This feeling and the ensuing inaction can go on for days, then weeks, until someone steps in and acknowledges that if the same strategy continues, the only option will be to close for good. Once it’s voiced, it’s out in the open and we move on to stage 2.
This is when the curve flattens. There is no more going down because business is as bad as it can possibly get. At this point it makes no difference if there’s one sale or none. The only way to go is up, but there is no way to survive without a drastic change. Confusion keeps winning and there’s a big step between knowing that something needs to be done and knowing what needs to be done.
Deliberation, brainstorming, some crying, and varying degrees of insomnia all go hand in hand with the thrill of picking up a pen to scribble the big plans on whatever paper is available. The indescribable hope mixes with the fear that there is probably just one shot at a turnaround.
Having the will to make plans, even if we throw them out, is already a sign of acceptance. The curve will start to pick up now because what we offer is a real skill, what we do is a real service, and what we have built our business upon is our own community. And businesses with real roots will come around, because the community needs them as much as they need the community.
The second you realize that– and when the good questions start coming in– then the third stage begins. What skills have I learned in the trade that are teachable? What services can I provide with the goods I sell? What products will add value to the services I sell? How do I turn my customers into a tribe?
That awful feeling of the downsloping sales curve has a polar opposite in the true excitement of the warm public reception of the new business. A bond with the community and a concrete offer to add tons of value to the simple act of buying a book go a long way.
This is when I tell you all what we did, and slap on a disclaimer: where all of these ideas might be specifically related to the book industry, they apply easily to whatever industry you’re in. Just add a dollop of creativity and a pinch of hope.
Selling books in an independent setting is tricky. It’s a slow, trickling business. Much of what’s in the store is just brought in by wholesalers and picked back up after a while– so not much risk there, but not many gains, either. Some are imported or bought directly, which requires a keen eye to balance novelty items that will sell fast with catalog items that will keep selling. The risk of ending up with piles of dated novels that no one wants to buy is high, and the margins are thin.
Sounds like a narrow, one-way street, doesn’t it? We have a bricks and mortar store and an e-commerce platform, but then the questions… So what if we teach people how to write their stories? What if we offer a creative writing workshop? And how about we start a publishing house? And if we host poetry readings and philosophy events? Now, let’s package it all up and sell online…
The realization that the turnaround is on is like an inventor’s eureka moment! It’s when you know that the curve will pick up and your business may be forever changed, but you will still be in business. All this, while retaining the passion for what you do, and the same hope and joy of creating something that works that you had at the beginning.
In our experience, big changes have come in three areas. The Foundation, which is the narrative, concept and design that your business brand relies on– sort of like the stage for a play. The Delivery is the actual play, where you present your offer and serve your tribe. Last but not least are the Channels, which are the tools and strategies to let people know when and where your play is going to perform.
When this holy trinity clicks, you’ll be on your way. But what kind of advice could I give if not for the many lessons learned over the years? They may seem hard at first but they will make you tougher.
In the end, all the design and planning in the world will not help if the message is one of defeat. Going through these stages and emerging from the process means you have a clear understanding of your tribe, of the needs of your market, and of your new skills. It means you can now project those strengths into the service you give. The message that a stronger, more confident business owner sends is a welcoming one.
Happy people have the most meaningful relationships and the most profitable partnerships, because they see the upside and can consciously advocate for and propose credible win-win situations. Seek beauty, practice commitment, and build a concept and narrative that care for your business, city and community.
The reward will be absolutely fantastic. You can tell me all about it when we get to have that sandwich.