Friday, July 6, 2012

If I Could Turn Back Time

I demurred when someone asked a few weeks ago “about things you learned that you didn't expect to learn, mistakes you made, and what you would do differently (or what you did right and wouldn't change!).” Today I’ll take a stab at it.

When Curio City was still on the drawing board back in 2005, I figured it needed to gross $175,000 in annual sales to generate an annual salary of $35,000, which is half of what I earned in my heyday. I figured it would take five years to get there. My bricks-and-mortar store would deliver 75% of the revenue with the website picking up the rest (about $44,000).

The store never came to pass, of course. The website should make something close to $70,000 this year, and if the economy ever turns around, I could hit $100,000 by 2020. That’s a lot of money for an old man selling stuff out of his cellar, but it still leaves me solidly below the poverty line.

What happened?

Most obviously, the Great Recession happened. I thought that Americans would always spend money that they don’t have to buy things they don’t need for people who don’t want them. It seemed like Ronald Reagan’s new Age of Greed would roll on forever. Will those high-flying days ever return or are we back to the more modest lifestyles of the 1970s and earlier? Hard to say. Economists think that we might return to historic norms by 2016, but I don’t expect to see boom times again during my remaining years in harness.

But blaming the economy only goes so far. Americans are still as materialistic as ever, even if they lack the means to indulge themselves like they used to. The rich are richer than ever, the middle class is treading water, and the poor…well, nobody cares about them. Maybe the go-go years are gone, but people are adapting to this new normalcy.

I blame three things for my failure: Marketing, technology, and poverty.

I don’t like self-promotion or have even the slightest interest in it, so it’s no wonder that I suck at marketing. I had thought that I’d be able to farm it out to consultants. But marketing professionals earn big salaries that price them out of my reach. So I’m left to thrash about on my own.

I don’t understand the appeal of social networking at all; my Facebook page is somnolent and I don’t even try to use Twitter. When every other entity in the world is putting itself forward to the point of saturation, such reticence is deadly. My email newsletter is so ineffective that I am tempted to close my Constant Contact account to save $18 a month – the newsletter doesn’t even drive the $180 in sales that would justify that expense. I keep it going mostly because I understand it and I’m fairly good at it (my open/click statistics always beat the industry average).

I was interested in technology back when I used to go out into the world. I even had a short career in software development. But I dropped the tech ball after leaving the workforce. I almost got a smart phone this year out of professional necessity, but my wife decided that she needed one, too, and we can't afford two data plans. The choice was easy since she actually wanted one and I did not, but it probably doomed Curio City to ever-decreasing relevance. The appeal of tablet computers also mystifies me. The incessant parade of new i-Thisses and e-Thats is boring. Technologically, I am stuck in 2005.

That might not matter so much if I could reach enough curmudgeons like myself; we Boomers still command the economy. That’s where poverty comes in. I would like to spend $500 a month on Ess-Eee-Oh for six or more months to dramatically boost my organic search results (unpaid clicks). I need to overhaul my website’s design. And I need to refresh my product line, writing off a lot of old dead items and bringing in some new lines. It would take between $5,000 and $10,000 to accomplish all of that. But I constantly struggle just to cover monthly operating expenses.

What would I do differently if I could start over? I might spend the $28,500 that I invested in Curio City on education instead. I could’ve bought a degree in, say, accounting. It’s not that I yearn to be somebody’s employee again – the “being your own boss” thing has forever spoiled me for wage slavery -- but sometimes I wish that I could just mindlessly punch a clock and earn enough money to survive on. After all, it’s not like Curio City fulfills my boyhood dream of taking things out of big boxes and putting them in little boxes. I don’t make the world a better place, or get much personal fulfillment, or make much money. Yet that’s how I spend my days.

No, that’s a copout. If I had it to do over, I would take one of these two paths:

1. Find a partner whose skills complement my own and who would contribute some startup cash and be a co-owner. That would yield a better capitalized startup, compensate for my personal weaknesses, and force me to work harder when my self-motivation flags. I considered doing that. But I’m a loner and I didn’t want to give up half of my business, I didn’t want anybody second-guessing me, and I didn’t know anybody who would have been interested, anyway. If I could reset the clock, I would try harder to find somebody who fits that bill.


2. Find a line of business that interests me personally. I enjoy the managerial aspects and creative control of running a business. But I’m neither a consumer nor a capitalist. I chose retail because I’d done it before and because it was easy, not because of any desire to sell things. I didn’t know in 2005 what else I could do, and I still don’t know today. I’m not passionate about anything. So…why not retail? It’s no better or worse than anything else I might do. If I could reset the clock, I would look harder for some type of business that might suit my personality better.

I’m an old man selling stuff out of his cellar with no visible path forward and 15 more years until I can max out my Social Security checks. Yet, rather than give in to despair, I cling to the hope that if I keep plodding along and making those incremental changes that I can understand and afford, I can still kick this thing up to a higher level. After all, the web store is beating my original forecast for it. Curio City has generated more than $60,000 in paychecks and repaid more than $13,000 of my original $28,500 loan. If it's not been a big success, neither is it a failure.


An interesting “new” scam crossed my desk. Although it’s new to me, it’s so obvious that I can’t believe I never encountered it before. In this active version of domain-name squatting, somebody pays the usual $8 to register a domain name similar to yours (in this case, “”), then emails you to say that it’s being auctioned off with a minimum bid of $69. What do you want to bet that if I had bid $69, fake competitors would’ve jacked up the price? And if I fell for that once, how long do you suppose it would be before the scammer registered and “auctioned” another variation on my name? 

Very clever, legal, and I’ll wager that the sleazebag ( earns a lot more money than I do from my legitimate business. Maybe I should’ve become a scam artist.


There will be no posts for the next two Fridays due to my annual vacation. You might want to read this one three times.

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