Life takes us on journeys. Business often makes those journeys most unexpected. You start a venture with excitement and hope for the future. Maybe it’s a dream you’ve held for most of your life. Maybe it’s a new inspiration. Maybe it’s just an idea you want to try.
Sometimes it works. Business takes off, sales roll in, and it’s all you can do to keep up. Everything looks positive and good, and it stay that way… maybe even for years.
And sometimes it bombs right away… and sales are a struggle from day one.
Unless you’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into a business that seems to be a failure out of the gate, it’s much easier to let go of a failure that hasn’t cost much yet than the business that’s booming. Even when it gets to the point that you have to.
Let me explain…
When I was about four or five years old, I got the idea to open a book and toy store. It’s a dream that didn’t die with age. Over the course of my adult life I looked at several possibilities. From almost buying a quaint bookstore on the coast of North Carolina to scouting locations in Sarasota, FL near where I grew up, to sharing the story with my amazingly supportive husband and him saying, “Let’s go for it” the dream didn’t die. Which within a few months after that conversation we were opening our first toy store, Toy Box Gifts & Wonder.
It was everything I’d ever imagined. The whole store sparkled of wonder. Customers loved it. The employees were fantastic. The first six months took us through Christmas and was just plain… magical. We were in the black in the first six months. Knowing nothing about retail but knowing marketing and learning as much about marketing in retail as quickly as possible, we thought we could continue the success we had already seen.
What we didn’t count on was the nature of retail and its dependency on simple things like weather, parking, and people’s unpredictable temperaments. In 2018 a downward spiral began. Every event was rained out. Construction began which caused traffic backups. Parking was already a nightmare. We were determined to stick it out. We dumped… poured… almost half a million dollars into a business that sucked it up like a black hole encountering its first planet.
And of course we didn’t stop there. In that year we opened our second retail store, Nerdvana Outpost, and that store instantly out performed the first toy store. It got to the point Nerdvana’s bills suffered because it was supporting Toy Box. We stuck it out hoping fourth quarter would give us the boost we needed to clear the slate.
Only instead of starting 2019 with a profit, or even at ground zero, we started with a deficit. It took half of the new year for us to realize we were using a teaspoon to bail water from a sinking ship with a hole the size of a small crater in its hull.
We began discussing closing the store. It was painful. We knew it meant letting several of our dedicated employees go. How would they begin to understand our decision? How long after making our decision should we tell them? Would there be any blowback? What if we ourselves didn’t know exactly what our decision would be until we were forced into it at the last minute? What’s the right thing to do as a company?
After looking hard and long at the numbers (we were trying to keep our emotions out of any decision making), we didn’t have any answers except one. The only thing we knew was that if we continued on this path much longer we wouldn’t just lose a store and a few employees. We would lose everything. Both stores. All our employees. Our home. Our belongings. Our reputation in the community. Everything. And that didn’t sound fun. At. All.
Throughout this process we encountered an unexpected opportunity. One of the businesses in our Master Plan was a marketplace of sorts, except it would be more than an antique mall. It would feature antiques, artists, boutiques, and be an incubator for startups. A place where we could do workshops for local entrepreneurs and help them grow their businesses. Because despite the fact I felt like a total failure at retail, I still knew a thing or two about business and marketing.
In fact, in August I sold my international author training brand and business The Book Ninja to spend more time in our new company and building out our other brands, including the second store. Some might say I was stupid for handing off a half-million dollar business, but it was draining me of energy. It was not my passion. And for me, I have to love what I’m doing or else I just can’t do it anymore. I’d been struggling for two years with that business. Don’t get me wrong, the money was great. It’s what helped start both toy stores. But it got to the point where enough was enough. The week I let that business go I found a surge of energy which helped me launch full-force into the marketplace concept… 1833 Schiers Market. And better yet? We could move our toy store there and cut our expenses by 90%, potentially keeping it open long term. Win-win-win.
The Marketplace was awesome. It was everything we had planned on paper and then some. We worked with a local business owner and built it from scratch in less than two months. We went from idea and empty building to over 100 vendors in less than 30 days. Our first 12 vendor checks came in just one week after announcing the concept… without any vendor spaces even ready to move into yet. To say it was a runaway success would be an understatement.
We discovered a concept that would work and had ideas to further monetize it. The ideas were working. The community was behind it. So after pouring all the work into starting this business for someone else, we proposed several partnership options with the business owner… all of which were turned down. The weekend of Grand Opening was a huge success. We got press coverage, vendors were thrilled and customers only had good things to say about the space and vendor selection (most of whom were hand-selected and invited by yours truly). To say I felt like I was an integral part of the business would be an understatement. It was my life for two months. I took a full break from my online business that whole time (my brand sale happened during this time, so that made it a little easier). I dedicated those two months of my life to building a successful foundation to that business.
When the day came that the business owner severed ties and said he was not interested in a partnership, my heart broke. At first. I took a full week off just to sleep and recover from the burnout I didn’t even realize I had. After many discussions with my husband we decided remaining vendors and stepping back from the business entirely would be the healthiest option for us. So that’s what we did.
Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control, the systems and processes we put into place at the market business stopped being used. Other things happened that I won’t go into here because circumstances are still unfolding… but suffice it to say, my heart hurts as I watch the soap opera unfold. We proved it would work. But due to still being too close to the event horizon of our previous financial black hole, we don’t have the capital to do anything about it. Yes, we could replicate this business model for others. And today I was even invited back into the business. (As an employee… HAHAHAHAHA… I’m an entrepreneur. I can’t work for anyone else.) But unless we owned the business outright there’s no way I’d work it again. And that’s just not on the table anymore.
As of right now with the information we have at this moment, it looks like my toy store will not survive its new business concept. We’re not sure what’s going to happen through the holidays, but I’ve stopped making myself promises I can’t keep. I’m facing a new reality… The dream I’ve held since I was a tiny child… is dying.
What is there to learn from the death of a dream?
First, I stopped dreaming, which was a huge mistake. If you take anything from my story and perhaps your own dreams’ demises, take this: DO NOT STOP DREAMING. I was in a funk for a month, floundering and wondering what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. It’s not a fun place to be. I still don’t see the complete picture on the puzzle and feel like I’m grasping at random puzzle pieces from 10 different puzzles… while blindfolded. But despite that, there’s one realization that’s nagged at the base of my skull for the past several weeks and that is… Do. Not. Stop. Dreaming. For me that means do some serious soul searching to find my next dream. And confront the fear head-on that’s keeping me from wanting to dream again.
Second, pay attention to your red flags. We ignored the red flags that said our store was in trouble and we needed to make a change until it was almost too late. We ignored red flags in the marketplace when they started to appear and pressed on anyway. Maybe I in particular would have avoided a lot more stress if we’d immediately made changes based on these red flags. However, I didn’t listen to them. They were waving in gale-force winds and I turned my head the other way so I wouldn’t see them. If I’d paid attention to those flags I feel I’d have been better equipped to handle the emotions during all the transitions.
And finally, fully know who you work with before you sign anything. With all that’s gone “wrong” over the past few months, one thing that went right was we did not sign partnership papers. The market is not where I’m meant to be. At least right now, I’m not meant to run that type of business. And recognizing that leads me one step closer to figuring out what my next big Dream is.
I don’t know what that looks like… yet. I know it’s going to be big… bigger than anything I’ve ever done before… and frankly that scares the shit out of me. What I do know is once I’m ready I’ll be walking into the new Dream with a lot more wisdom, which can only be a good thing.