A Festive Focus

Turn your passion for a specific holiday into a thriving seasonal business by getting your timing right.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the April 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Perhaps you want to sell Christmas knickknacks or Hanukkah gifts, or you specialize in Valentine's Day chocolates or Halloween wigs. No matter what particular seasonal specialty business you want to start, you'll need a bit of guidance to really have a happy holiday.

You've heard the adage that real estate is all about location--well, as trite as it may sound, seasonal businesses are all about timing. If you're planning to reap your windfall during the Christmas season, like all other major retailers, you need to get your proverbial sugarplums in a row at least six to nine months in advance, says Tom Dowdy, founder and CEO of National In-Store, a retailing consulting company and solutions provider in Sarasota, Florida. "Most major retailers have locked and loaded their [holiday season] buying programs before April or May of that year," he says. "So at that point, they've made their selections, estimated their inventory needs and placed those orders [to be shipped] in August, maybe before then." Thinking about Valentine's Day, Easter or any other major retailing holiday? The lead times are the same.

Even if you have a seasonal kiosk or an e-tailing business, you need to adhere to these early planning guidelines. Not only must you estimate your inventory and staffing needs--a huge determinant of your success is going to be your financial plan: How will you make it through the boom and bust cycles of a seasonal business? Again, planning is key-budget how much cash you'll need to keep things running during the slow times, and use the profits you clear during your busy times to sustain you throughout the rest of the year.

You might also expand your product or service to another holiday to keep business humming along off-season, as Byron Reese did with his company, SantaMail.org, which sells fully personalized letters from Santa Claus all across North America (they're even postmarked from North Pole, Alaska, to give them an authentic feeling). Reese sold 10,000 letters in 2001, his first year in business. Though holiday sales have increased every subsequent year, he still looked for ways to expand his offering. Now, parents can order birthday cards for their children from Santa as well. The strategy pushed 2005 sales to $1 million.

Still, the key to Reese's success is organization. After realizing he and his staff didn't want to pull the marathon 36-hour shifts they did the first year, he looked to outside vendors to help with the yearly rush. He also deals with any problems as soon as the rush is over, and then starts planning for the next year. By February, he's up and running. "The temptation is to not start working until you get close to that season, and we've made that mistake in the past," says Reese, 37. "Things always take a lot longer than you think they're going to take. We find it much better to work steadily."

So what are you waiting for? It's already April. If you want to make your seasonal windfall, now's the time to get going.

Face Your Financials
Look your lender in the eye, and get what you need with this expert advice for funding your startup.

Think just because you're a startup, you have to take the first bit of financing that comes your way? Not so, says Chris Lehnes, vice president of business development at the CIT Small Business Lending Corp. based in Livingston, New Jersey, Lehnes shares tips to help startups navigate the scary world of financing.

Entrepreneur: what should a startup entrepreneur look for in a good lender?

Chris Lehnes: It really depends on what's important to you and what you're pursuing. You need to find a lender that's going to consider startups, because a lot won't. Think about what's important to you as a business owner. Are you looking for the lowest down payment possible? The lowest monthly payment? Are you looking for a lender that can help you expand and maybe open one of many locations for your business? You also want to consider aspects such as industry expertise--maybe you're doing something that's specialized, and not every lender would necessarily do a good job for you.

What are some common mistakes entrepreneurs make when choosing a lender at startup?

Lehnes: Just going with what they think is the easiest route. For example, we get calls all the time from entrepreneurs who funded their businesses with credit cards [and got into serious debt]. Similarly, people will go through a leasing company, but the lease terms can be very onerous, so read the fine print. Swiping the credit card or just writing a check out of your home equity line seem easy at the time, but could have serious repercussions down the road.

While securing startup financing, entrepreneurs can often give off an air of desperation. how might that attitude be damaging?

Lehnes: It can get you into real trouble. For example, locking into high interest rates or very high monthly payments can really affect your cash flow. That's why it pays to do a little research, speak to a few lenders--not just take that first loan that comes along. You might need to take a step back and maybe postpone a project until you get the financing that makes sense, because that might increase the odds of success for your business.

How can you find out what good loan terms are?

Lehnes: The SBA and SCORE can tell you what you might not think about and what to look out for while selecting a lender, so they're great resources if you're not even sure where to start or what questions to ask.

Put Your Best Foot Forward
The Do's and Don'ts of creating a professional-looking logo

Your logo is the very first image customers associate with your business, so you want it to hit the right note. To get the skinny on choosing a killer image, we went to Bruce Lowry, founder of Summitsoft and creator of the company's Logo Design Studio software, which guides business owners to create good logos.

Do check out common logo themes in your industry and be sure your logo fits into the fold--you want it to be unique, but not absurd. Says Lowry, "If you're a financial advisor, you're not going to have a very cartoony logo."

Don't go extreme. Extremely simple or extremely ornate are both bad--strive for a balance. Make it more exciting than the typical businessman-carries-briefcase clip art, but don't go so crazy you can't even see your business's name anymore.

Do seek opinions. Ask friends, family, former colleagues--anyone you can--what they think of a few prototypes. Is the logo clear? Does it convey the message and feel of your business?

Don't choose hastily. Your logo is your branding arm. "You need to live with it for several years," says Lowry. "As you build your business, you can't be changing it every other week."

Do use what works. Some programs (like Logo Design Studio) provide easy-to-follow templates and popular color combinations. Feel free to make modifications to your taste, but use the templates as a jumping-off point.

Don't forget legalities. You'll want to register your logo once you finish designing it, so check out the guidelines set forth by the federal government. Visit www.uspto.gov for more information.

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