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What I've learned this year

jason

This year, I took a leap of faith to leave an unfulfilling job and start something completely new. I didn't quite know what to expect, but I knew that most of what would happen next was up to me. My primary goal for the year was really just to get my bearings and not lose too much money. I was hoping to get a full web store up and running with my ceramics products, and I wanted to import several products over the course of the year and build customer bases for each of them.

I was perhaps a little optimistic about how much I could take on in the first year, but I think I'm off to an acceptable start. When I started, I thought I could concentrate on three or four products simultaneously, but the products I am interested in are so unusual and have too many different countries of origin for me to be able to handle the logistics, sales, promotions and marketing work all on my own. I'm also no longer able to effectively invest a lot of time and energy into building web software, since it distracts from more important wholesale sales and promotion work.

I could probably do everything I want to if I had more cash to throw around. But I hesitate to take on inventory risk without a likely destination customer for each product, and I also didn't want to invest too much in the web store until I had a foundation of wholesale customers.

So, by the end of the year, my goal morphed to be more about getting a reasonable number of retail outlets for the dragon beard candy and use it as a foundation for the next series of products. I now have 14-15 retail points of presence, and I think it's feasible to add another 12 or so stores by mid-February. If by fall of next year I've gotten my numbers up to about 60 stores, and get a little revenue trickle from some other products by summer, I'll actually start to have a healthy income.

Based on last month's in-store sales, January will probably be the first month where I actually start seeing enough revenue to cover most of my personal expenses. I've also minimized most of my advertising budget and switched to a more promotion-based approach, so the regular business expenses will start being properly covered by March or April. I am still nervous about three likely "irregular" business expenses related to travel and trade shows in January, March and July, but I think all three of those will pay off.

I learned that focus was the thing I needed most. Since I wear multiple hats, I really have to bet heavily on a small mix of products. I'm just starting to learn how to be a salesman. I'm incredibly naive as a marketer. I am not a genius at advertising. I'm not bad at promotions but I think I have a lot of work to do there as well. And I am not a great bookkeeper, though I am pretty conscious of where my money is going to and coming from. I'm relatively decent at planning, and even at accommodating dramatic changes on short notice. One thing I'm really good at, I think, is recognizing when a product is very distinctive and will bring something unique to the U.S. market. Of course, that's only a very small part of operating a business.

I need to be better organized and I need to make fewer dumb mistakes and miscalculations. I've made mistakes related to filling orders a few times (three, unfortunately all to the same customer). I've misplaced documents, which led at least once to a day-long distraction searching for an item. I underestimated the time it would take for an air freight order to leave the port of origin and to clear customs and FDA inspection. With varying degrees of severity, these have impacted the efficiency and momentum of my business.

When I was at Microsoft I often complained about being resource-constrained on very complex projects. But I never worked on anything as complex as operating all aspects of a business by myself, and I've never been more resource constrained in my life. I know how precarious my position is.

On the positive side, I'm starting to build momentum, and the long term key to my success is converting active sales work into passive revenue streams; I have to help my customers become successful with the products that I am selling them, so that people come to me and ask if they can start selling the products rather than mostly being the other way around.

I'm starting to see evidence of customer loyalty to the things that I sell; several people have become serious repeat customers, buying large quantities or with enough frequency that I have more confidence in the future of my products. Other than continued footwork, I don't know what it will take to transform my small business into a healthy, self-sustaining operation, but I think I'm mostly on the right track. I just need to be incredibly aggressive and execute my sales strategy in the next year.

Maybe one or two days off

jason

Most people take Christmas Eve off, but I'll probably do a few hours of promotions at Uwajimaya Seattle before attending a family party.

The Hong Kong folks took off Wednesday, only a few hours after Hiromi arrived in Seattle for a two-week visit. Tuesday, our last full day, we ran around doing a few morning errands, although I dropped Mr. Wong's son Hong off at GameWorks, where he spent about 6 hours playing "Street Fighter 3."

Everyone else went shopping. We stopped at the Pike Place Market for a whirlwind tour and visited Bacco for lunch in their new "Bistro" location, where Mr. & Mrs. Wong and Lavina shared a crab sandwich and a lox bagel with some soup and salad. I had a panini of some sort suitable for vegetarians.

I think I added about 5 pounds to my waistline in the last two weeks due to constant restaurant eating, even though I tried to be more cautious about how much food I was putting down my throat. With no meaningful level of exercise and a plentiful supply of heavy food portions, I was feeling some serious stomach pressure by the end of the week.

We ate our last dinner together at Lark in Seattle, which roughly met expectations and was overall quite appealing to my supplier. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is decent, the portions are just right for sharing between four or five people. Not counting alcohol, I think we spent about $23-24/person including a reasonable tip. (Keep in mind that none of us were starving). With the alcohol I think it was a little higher, as the wine list tended to be pricy. We had a modestly priced sparkling wine at about $32/bottle and a couple of other drinks, but I don't recall seeing a red wine under $50/bottle on their wine list.

Today I ran around like a madman in the afternoon but it was mostly in search of food for the next few days. I fulfilled a wholesale order in the morning. Hiromi was driving tonight's dinner plan, featuring a tofu gnocchi and a gobo soup from a Japanese macrobiotic magazine I picked up on my last trip, and I prepared something for tomorrow's family gathering, basically filo cups filled with a savory cheesecake, upon which I will place some sauteed chanterelles with sage pesto and shallots, or probably some lox and capers for the non-vegetarians.

I need to eat more judiciously the next few weeks so that the holidays don't lead me back to my early Microsoft expansion...

Last day before a long journey home

jason

We had our last demo today, in Milpitas, which attracted record crowds and pretty respectable sales. Saturday was surprisingly calm in Foster City, but the 99 Ranch store there is beautiful and well-suited for presenting the candy.

We had a few issues with proper display of the product in one store yesterday, and today we discovered one store had mislaid our cardboard display stand since signing for delivery. I am hoping to properly resolve these in the next couple of days.

I'm expecting good results overall in the Bay Area as word spreads, and we had a healthy launch for the area this week.

Tonight I learned one of the stores in Seattle has gone through a lot of inventory in the last two weeks, so I'm trying to decide whether to pull some inventory from other stores or to sacrifice some of my inventory meant for internet orders. I wasn't expecting to need another shipment this quickly, and the Hong Kong side had some unexpected orders, so I had not budgeted for a new order, and the Hong Kong office doesn't have much capacity to spare as they ramp up for Chinese New Year.

We ended up eating at a really horrible Japanese restaurant tonight after a tour of Macy's in San Francisco. I knew it was trouble before walking in, but my preference was overridden. I ate some not so freshly boiled edamame, a strange squash-filled roll, and some oddly prepared firm agedashi-doufu. I couldn't eat two full pieces of the agedashi-doufu because it was so mediocre. The staff didn't understand Japanese, and as far as I can tell from the misspellings on the menu and the waitstaff interactions, everybody working there was Korean. I left at the suggestion of Lavina to hunt down something I might enjoy more, and walked around aimlessly looking for a snack.

Last night we had a good meal in North Beach though, so I think that makes up for it.

Bay Area exposure

jason

Our TV appearance in Portland got canceled due to the feature reporter and some part of his crew getting very sick... we got a call from the station at 5:45, about 30 minutes before we were supposed to go on. We just chose to drive to San Francisco around 7:30 on Tuesday morning.

However, a Chinese TV station and a Chinese newspaper visited us during our first demo in Daly City in the Bay Area. We saw the newspaper today, though I'm not sure when the TV feature will appear. It's likely to be on the SF market Cantonese station, TVB. A mainstream newspaper photographer also took some photos.

The Daly City demo went pretty well. Enough of the customers were from Hong Kong or Cantonese speaking areas that I didn't have to talk very much, and some people aready knew the brand. Our demo today was a little quieter, as the store traffic at the Cupertino 99 Ranch location wasn't quite as dense.

We made a brief stop at the Asian Art Museum today, where I could see their presentation of both the ceramics and the candy. We also showed the video to some of the volunteer staff and Mr. Wong greeted everyone. We ended up behind schedule, arriving at almost exactly noon at the Cupertino store. I think we were lucky everyone else on I-280 considered the speed limits a mere suggestion because we might have otherwise been about 15 minutes later.

 

The tour is underway

jason

We made our move from Seattle to Portland last night. Saturday involved rushing around maniacally to get a rental car before the agency's noon closing time. Enterprise apparently doesn't "pick you up" on Saturdays if you live in Seattle, so I needed to extract Mr. Wong from his hotel a little early and have him drive my car back to my home.

The demo in Seattle went reasonably well; apparently the publicity from the Seattle P-I, Seattle WeeklyNorthwest Asian Weekly (twice), Seattle Chinese Post, and even some internal Microsoft message boards brought in a few people. We definitely attracted crowds, especially at the Seattle store. I hope that this event translates into a long-term boost in sales and also helps build the brand image in the US.

Originally we planned to return from Portland to Seattle tonight, but on Friday the Portland Fox affiliate asked us to be available for a morning TV show this Tuesday, so we decided it would be simpler just to stay in Portland and continue directly on to San Francisco from there.

We are traveling in a small van, but the amount of luggage needed for supplies, personal effects, display material, and so on makes the space pretty crowded. I almost think we would have been better off dragging a small trailer behind my Camry. I feel comfortable, but the passengers themselves must feel pretty cramped.

Tomorrow is our first relatively unstructured day. I'll be taking the Wongs around Portland to do some market research, the specific mode of which most people simply call "shopping." We'll go to downtown Portland again and maybe a few other areas. I'm not looking forward to waking up at 5am on Tuesday or driving for 10-12 hours afterward, but I think it will be interesting to see what happens in the Bay Area.

The Bamboo Garden team is here

jason

Mr. Wong, Mrs. Cheng, and two other key staff members of Bamboo Gardenhave arrived safely. I trust they are now getting some sleep. We had countless errands to run this afternoon, including nailing down the final schedule, routing the new candy shipment, and sending some media to the 99 Ranch promotions folks. Afterward, we made some attempt to find large quantities of cornstarch, which Mr. Wong was loath to bring on the airplane and risk misinterpretation by Homeland Security folks.

Before turning on full-productivity mode, we stopped at Cafe Besalu for a little breakfast and caffeine, with a little bit of chatter. After that, I was either on the phone or driving somewhere or writing up a shipping order for the next 5 or 6 hours. We mellowed out around 5:30 pm, although it took me a good 30 minutes to make it from Queen Anne back to Fremont due to heavy traffic. I did some prep work in the kitchen and came back after they had time to take a shower.

I did manage to make them a little dinner, but I think we didn't eat until about 8:30.... I made a potato pizza with sage pesto, chanterelles, and thin slices of eggplant, a mixed green salad with yuzu vinaigrette, a little squash-potato soup, some grilled mushrooms with basil and garlic, and some green beans with lion’s mane mushrooms and ginger. We finished off the pear sorbet which I think I mentioned here a few weeks ago, and it still tasted pretty decent.

The schedule for Bay Area is now settled, though I think the actual time of day might still need clarification.

  • December 15: 99 Ranch Daly City, 250 Skyline Plaza, Daly City, CA 94015
  • December 16: 99 Ranch Cupertino, 10983 North Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014
  • December 17: 99 Ranch Richmond, 3288 Pierce Street, Richmond, CA 94804
  • December 18: 99 Ranch Foster City, 1070 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404
  • December 19: 99 Ranch Milpitas, 338 Barbar Lane, Milpitas, CA 95035

Insured and ready

jason

Today I entered the ranks of a real company and signed a commercial insurance policy. I didn't have a choice, really, as it was driven by a customer requirement. The last thing I want right now is additional expenses. But it was something I would have needed to do eventually.

I am exhausted, but I still have a lot of work to do still before my candy-makers arrive tomorrow.

We'll be doing live demos of dragon beard candy at Bellevue Uwajimaya on Friday, noon to 6 pm; on Saturday at Seattle Uwajimaya, noon to 6 pm, and Sunday and Beaverton Uwajimaya, also noon to 6 pm.

My plan for the Bay Area should be ready to go by tomorrow, but I'm still waiting for the customer there to arrange the details. It looks like everything will be good, and there is some promotion being done on their end too.

A new shipment came in yesterday and I have to prepare the routing details somehow by tomorrow, so maybe I'll take a few hours of leave from my guests who are arriving to do some logistics work. Tonight I have to do some housecleaning, too.

Not yet that sane

jason

I was doing the usual sampling at Beaverton and Bellevue this weekend... Beaverton went reasonably well, with a high sampling-to-buying ratio; Bellevue was a little slower but sales picked up as I was about to give up for the day. One guy who bought several boxes last time I saw him picked up another big box today. I'm happy to have that kind of customer.

Hiromi discovered a unique "pillow" when acting as a tour guide for one of our mutual colleagues.

This is probably not something for my import company, since I tend, to my detriment, to focus on slightly more high-brow items, but someone would probably appreciate it if I did bring it in... Called "hiza-makura" (hiza means falling asleep in someone's lap, makura means pillow), I guess it's designed for a special kind of man. If nothing else, this pillow seems to have the "dirty old man" or ojisan market locked up. Cost: about $90 (retail). 

http://portal.nifty.com/koneta04/11/12/02/

I'm likely to be incommunicado on the web journal for an extended period, as I prepare for Mr. Wong's visit and try to solve some irritating issues I'm facing. But I'll do my best to report what's going on during the tour.

Mr. Wong is coming

jason

The guy who makes my dragon beard candy is coming to Seattle next Thursday. I'm trying to get my publicity act together; I've got a few little mentions lined up but I'm hoping to get a little more visibility still.

His wife, his son, and one of his assistants will be coming also, so I'm trying to get publicity hotel, transportation, appliances and similar things lined up in time for their visit. I'm not sure I'll get much sleep in the next few days.

This will be cool. I think it will help sell candy, and will help us launch properly in the Bay Area.

I shipped off a small internet order to Japan today. I was excited because it was the first completed order going back to Asia. I've made one or two shipments to Canada, but that's the extent of international orders so far.

The weather is pretty cold these days, so I'm not looking forward to the depths of winter this year. Last year was intensely cold (by Seattle standards) with unusually high frequencies of snowfall... I hope it doesn't get that harsh this year.