People start businesses every day. Some succeed quickly; some fail right off the bat; still others percolate slowly and grow gradually, one day emerging as bona fide success stories.
At some point, every start-up business owner needs a little help-a few pieces of sound advice from professionals to help steady a new business' sometimes shaky beginnings. But good old-fashioned irony usually dictates that, just when they need it most, small-
business owners can least afford to spare the time or the expense to hire experts who can give them the advice they need.
Len and Greta Buffinton can identify with that. In August 1994, the newly married Len, 32, and Greta, 35, started a mail order catalog selling self-help, relationship and psychology books. Admittedly, they weren't experts on direct mail, but they'd done extensive research to determine whether there was a substantial market for their products. They also determined whether there would be enough subject material to keep the catalog interesting and functional. In Len's words, they wanted the catalog to offer books that were about "sensitive issues but tasteful, helpful and not just quirky."
After deciding there were more than enough books to fill a diverse catalog, the Buffintons settled on a name, Brown Wrapper Bookstore, and a cover concept to match. Despite its furtive exterior, you won't find any X-rated tomes in the Brown Wrapper catalog-just reputable literature and videos.
Designing their catalog would be no small endeavor-the Buffintons knew that. So instead of taking on the responsibility themselves, they hired a graphic artist to design the format and handle all the pre-press arrangements. Greta wrote the copy; but aside from that and offering a few layout suggestions, the Buffintons let their designer do the rest. "We told her which books should be in which category, and then we shut our mouths," says Len.
The result was a 20-page black-and-white catalog, its cover printed on full-color 100-pound stock bearing the appearance of a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. A "Slim Jim"-taller and wider than the standard mail order catalog-Brown Wrapper was designed to be sent in the mail without an envelope. The Buffintons printed 30,000 copies of the first catalog at a cost of approximately 50 cents apiece.
In deciding who to mail their catalog to, the Buffintons contacted a list broker who supplied them with three rosters of 5,000 names each. Unfortunately, mailings to these lists garnered an overall response of less than half of 1 percent, which Len characterizes as "just horrible." Later, the Buffintons learned the list they'd bought was
8 years old. When confronted, the list broker told the Buffintons there were "no guarantees." "That mistake cost us a lot of money, time and effort," says Len. Lesson number one.
Even as the Buffintons were putting their first batch of catalogs in the mail, they were already beginning to suspect that finding their target audience was going to be a difficult process. That's why, in later mailings, they adopted the habit of constantly testing small lists. Keeping track of the multitude of lists began to pose its own challenge, so the Buffintons decided to hire an outside company to handle database management. Lesson number two.
As any budding entrepreneur knows, growth is a tricky thing. Grow too slowly, and you miss the boat; expand too quickly, and you may harm the business. After their first fiscal year, the Buffintons' Brown Wrapper catalog had earned them $200,000, and they were eager to grow the company, but they didn't want to do anything they'd regret. They are as cautious as they are enthusiastic-with a good balance of passion and prudence. From day one, they and their five employees have handled fulfillment in-house, stocking inventory in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse adjacent to their Old Saybrook, Connecticut, commercial office. Lesson number three.
The Buffintons have made some mistakes, but they've also done a lot of things right. How can they improve on their success and make their burgeoning business grow even more? For some sage insight and advice, we've sought the help of a few experts.