How a Store Is Like a Baby

I’m sure you’ve never thought about it before, but having a small, family-run, retail store is like having a baby. I mean why would you have thought about it, but dear Lord it is. I’ve thought this the whole time I was planning, opening, and running our store. And expanding into a 2nd floor space proved once again that the analogy holds true. The 2nd floor is very much like a 2nd child.

When a store is created it starts with a seed of an idea being planted. The “aha!” moment when an idea comes together and the realization begins to set in that it’s actually happening is both scary and exciting.

Then the next many, many months are spent growing the idea and planning for the future. Decorating decisions must be made; Pinterest will be visited. What colors should be used? What furniture and supplies do we need? Can we afford all of this?! The store also needs a name – nothing that will offend or people could make fun of. Should classes be taken to learn new skills and gain new insights? And in our case, we also needed to pick out all the best toys that will help grow young minds. Sleep is lost, and the tiredness of growing a store could never possibly be worse than it is at that point. These months are full of big decisions and lots of dreaming and planning.

Then the store opens! It’s so exciting! Maybe the entry into the world was difficult and forced; scheduled so to speak. It was now or never. But it doesn’t matter because it all worked out and it’s here! People come to visit and check it out. Everyone is so congratulatory. They love the space – it is so beautiful and the name is great. As creators, you did so well. Happiness is everywhere but exhaustion is seriously starting to set in. As has panic. “Can we really do this? Do we know what the heck we are doing? What if this happens? What if that happens.” The first month is just about surviving and getting through it.

Time moves on and the store becomes a more established entity. Each month brings new challenges, but a renewed sense of hope for the future. Life is starting to settle into a new routine. And sleep has even started to return. You know what you are doing. You got this.

And after a while the question comes – will you open another? Oh, boy. Another. Isn’t one good enough? I mean, look how well it’s doing all on its own! And it doesn’t quite feel right. I mean, why force it? When the time is right it will just happen.

And suddenly life shifts and the time is right. It happens. A second space. In our case, a second floor. All the same things have to be done again, but the decisions are easier to make and seem less rushed and more confident. The dreaming and planning start all over again. It takes the same amount of time to get ready, but less attention is paid to only it (the first still demands a lot of attention), so time moves quicker.

After that second space opens there is once again congratulations and excitement, and exhaustion and long hours. Less muddling than the first time, but muddling nevertheless. Things are new but at the same time familiar. And though the first month is a bit rough, there is confidence that the difficulties won’t last forever.

We aren’t all that far past the first month of our second floor, so this is where my analogy ends. But if it keeps holding true we will find our new normal very soon and sleep will begin to return. And I’m sure, eventually, someone will ask about a third.

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What I’ve Learned

Memorial Day is past, summer has unofficially begun, and schools are in the process of letting out for the summer. Kids have had to go through finals and regurgitate everything they learned during the past year, so it seems fitting that I too should review some of what I’ve learned as a shop owner, new business lady, and entrepreneur over the course of the last few years.

  1. I’m an entrepreneur.

That’s a weird statement to me, but I guess it’s right. I still feel like I’m a little blind to all that’s around me from a business sense, and that there’s still so much to learn. How can I be an entrepreneur?! But I once heard a speaker at a conference say that an entrepreneur is someone who looks for business opportunities wherever he or she goes. And I can’t shop, or look at marketing materials, or drive around without thinking how can I use this in my store, what do I like about their marketing and how can I incorporate that into my stuff, and would that empty storefront be a good location for a 2nd Naturally Curious Kids. So, I guess I’m an entrepreneur. And I’ve had to get used to it.

2. Credit cards are complicated.

Ok. So I kind of already knew this, but I had no idea the extent to which they could be complicated. I learned what a merchant account is. I’ve learned about payment processors and online payment gateways. And I had no idea that there were so many separate fees to a credit card swipe – a swipe fee, a batch fee, and a percentage of the total sale. I knew about the percentage of the total sale, but the others were all new to me. And did you know that some (if not most) credit card processors will charge a higher percentage to the retailer (or service provider) if the swiped card is a business card or has a rewards program attached to the card. I had no idea on that one.

Then there are all the different terminals to swipe the card on; and do you rent one of those or buy it. I’ve figured out how the credit card payments integrate with the inventory software and the accounting software. And then there is the whole issue of debit cards….

3. Ordering good stuff takes a ton of time.

As a small business owner it is imperative to me that we offer our customers quality items. It is especially important since right now we only have 700 sq. ft. to offer those items in, so we have to be really picky. I spend a lot of my time researching – looking online and through catalogs, talking to sales reps, and fielding calls and emails from companies. I try to know about as many companies as I can and I try to know as much as I can about those companies – what their reputations are, where they make their toys, what goes into the manufacturing process, where the company is headed in the future, what is their driving force, etc. This way even if I don’t get to see/play with a product in person before I buy it I can still be confident that it will be a good toy. It also means that I know what companies have what toys. So if I need to find, say, a shape sorter, I know what my options are and I can find what I think is the best shape sorter available.

Customers have used the word “curated” before, and I really like that word for what we do. It implies quality, thought, and intentionality and that is exactly what I strive for. But like I said, that takes a lot of time. It’s worth it though, because honestly it’s a total bummer when a toy isn’t a good toy.

4. There are about 6,000,000,000,000 (six trillion) different games in the world.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but it can’t be far off. I had no idea when we jumped into this that there were so many possible games we could carry in our store. I have stacks of catalogs just for game companies. And it seems even if a company isn’t a “game company” they still have games. So. Many. Games. And we can only pick games if we at least have a general sense of how to play them, what they might teach, and who can play them. That’s a lot of reading and understanding for each game.

Buying games is so hard. I find it the hardest section of the store to buy for. Don’t get me wrong, I love games! They are some of the most teachiest-without-being-teachy toys around. They are fun! But knowing that you will have to understand how every game you come across is played, and then the majority of them you can’t even fit into your store, is honestly overwhelming.

The quantity of possible games in the world is also why we probably don’t have the game you are looking for. But I’m always taking recommendations for good games. If you’ve played one you love let me know. It might take me awhile to get it in the store (because of space constraints more than anything), but it will make it. And I will appreciate it.

5. I can say no.

I don’t know about you, but for me this one was a big one to learn. I’m a people pleaser. Which I guess makes me fairly good at customer service. I hate seeing people disappointed. It’s the worst. But to run a good business I’ve had to learn to say no. And it’s never personal. Usually we are just stretched too thin with time, money, or space. We just can’t afford to donate to every cause that comes along. We can’t afford every advertising scheme. I need to at least occasionally see my husband and kids and make dinner, so I can’t come to that meeting. We don’t have room for that awesome new toy you just invented.

And the hardest situation I’ve learned to say no to – that toy didn’t meet my quality standards so although people liked buying it it will have to wait until the manufacturer has the same standards I have. Even if it means I lose some sales and money. Again, I hate disappointing people, so this was both easy and hard. I don’t like to see people disappointed that we no longer carry the item, but even more I hate to see a child come back disappointed with a toy that didn’t work. It makes my heart hurt when I see that. The store’s reputation is on the line every day, and I need to keep it one of quality and integrity.

6. I’ve made some good friends.

I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this to happen, but I really didn’t. We’ve met some wonderful people through the store, and I will cherish those connections always. There are customers, sales reps, delivery people, etc. that I truly enjoy seeing and talking to. People are genuinely interested in us and our business, and it is more encouraging than I can even describe. I guess I thought maybe all our connections would be transactional in nature, but they aren’t. And I think that’s the beauty of a small business. We know people and their lives; it’s not just a sale. I know when families are moving, expecting a new baby, or transitioning from a co-sleeping situation. I know when people are sick and in and out of the hospital. I’ve seen kids go from crawling to running through our store. I’ve met extended family members. I’ve seen kids start pre-school and move into 1st grade. I know when someone is struggling with reading or if they’ve had a recent special needs diagnosis. It’s amazing to watch people’s lives evolve. And it goes two ways – they know about my boys, my move, and I most definitely overshare things like my birth stories. And I know I’m biased, but you can’t get that from an online sale from a distant company. The customer service rep will probably never commiserate with you about an under active thyroid. Ha!

So, there you have it. Some things I’ve learned. I’m sure there are more than this, and I will probably submit this for posting and then think of about 15 more things I should have included. But if you made it this far you know that the blog is already more than long enough. And you’ve learned just how wordy I can be.

My Mom

A couple of blog posts back I wrote about how much my grandmothers mean to me and inspire me, not just in business but in life. And with Mother’s Day coming up it seemed fitting to write up a little something about my mom (and business partner).

First of all, I work with my mom at least five days a week and usually see her at least six days a week. Let that sink in a moment….. Done? No? Okay, a little more…… And I should say I did this to myself on purpose! Need another moment?

Honestly, I kid. I know many, many people could not do what we do. It would be just too much, or feel too dependent, or the dynamic just wouldn’t be right no matter how much you might love one another. Sometimes love is better from a distance. Ha! But I can’t imagine anyone else I would rather partner with to run a business. We trust each other; when one of us gets discouraged the other can encourage; we have complimentary skills; she gets my humor (she won’t be offended about the above joke, for instance); and my mom has been one of my best friends since I was a teenager.

A good example of our partnership was basically the whole start-up phase. I was the one who casually threw out the idea of “let’s do this back home!” She was the one who on the plane ride home said “so, we’re doing this right?” I said “what about the money, not to mention the time investment!” And she was the one with the money. 🙂 I just gave my time. She was the one who was brave enough to call the first landlord to check out that first space. I was the one to figure out how to design and decorate our final space. She was organized enough to keep track of vendors and create huge databases of possible toys. I was the one to do the business research and write the business plan. I was the one to come up with the first name. She was the one who came up with the final (and much better) name without openly criticizing my first idea. I was the one who was tasked with branding. She was the one who made it happen. And she was the one who would keep me going when I said I don’t think I can do this.

My mom continues to encourage me every day. She is still the organized one who makes the to-do lists, pays the bills, does the visual merchandising (a super fancy term for displaying product), and cleans up the mess I leave on the table and in the back room. Every. Single. Day. (You would think after 36 years of cleaning up after me my mom would have started a chore chart. 😉 ) I am the one who makes the mess, is usually scattered, and has the creative side. I buy the product, work with the sales reps, do anything computer related, and balance quickbooks. I try to keep everything up in my brain, and she makes sure to write down what comes out of my mouth.

I think we are a good team. I think we get each other. And I know this won’t last forever. So, even when my brain can’t hold any more and I’m starting to get tired and think we should just shut it all down, I will let my mom encourage me. And I will remind myself to remember the time we’ve had together creating something bigger than ourselves.

I love you, mom.

 

It’s Almost Easter Basket Time!

Do you celebrate Easter with baskets full of goodies? Well, it’s March now, Easter is about four weeks away, and it’s once again that time to start thinking about what to put in those baskets.

In our house, after 11 years of Easters, we have a pretty set formula of what’s going in an Easter basket. Each child gets one outfit (or just a shirt if I’m having a lazy year), one movie, video game, or book, one small toy, maybe an iTunes card, and candy to fill in the empty spots. As you may be able to tell, my kids have fairly large Easter baskets. After my second child was born we needed another basket. We ended up being suckered into getting the ones from Pottery Barn Kids after seeing all the adorableness in the catalog. And in the wide-open of the store the basket seemed a lot smaller than when I started to try and fill it up. I swore it was the same size as the one I had when I was a child. It is not.

That being said – obviously, what one puts in an Easter basket is dependent on the size of the basket, but I think several guidelines can generally apply to everyone.

  1. Keep it fairly small.

I’m not good at this. And as the kids get older the clothes are becoming more and more impossible to fit in the basket – even with our big ones! And now that I think about it, they are just getting shirts this year. But, irregardless of their clothing size, I always find a toy that’s too big. Since I own a toy store you would think I could manage this part better, but really, no. The toy almost always ends up behind/around the basket. Square corners are not friends with round baskets.

This guideline also applies because Easter is just somehow cute and for cute things. And everyone knows that small equals cute.

2. Keep it age appropriate.

Age appropriateness is important for a lot of reasons, but here I am referring to the idea that a child will get the most out of the toy (or book or even video game) if it’s age appropriate. This seems obvious, but a lot of people (myself included!) tend to forget this when shopping. I always tend to want to buy something that is for a slightly older child and give it to my kid to stretch him, or I think that maybe he will grow into it and it will last longer. But when I do this one of two things ends up happening (and it’s happened a lot in my house). One – my kid starts out having fun, quickly ends up frustrated or overwhelmed, gives up, and then never wants to see the toy again because it’s always thought of as too hard even though the child has aged and it would now be appropriate. Or two – it’s never opened because either the child isn’t old enough to see just how awesome the toy is or it doesn’t quite fit where his interest level is with the topic. The toy then ends up in the back of a cabinet or closet to be opened later, and is never thought of again. We end up with a lot of unused toys (books and video games) this way.

Instead of pushing them with something inappropriate enable them with something appropriate. It’s okay for a toy to be right at a child’s skill level – the fact that it’s at their current level will allow for them to grow without being discouraged. And that’s only encouraging.

Now about the under 3 crowd – I know I said keep it small, but this can be hard to do for very young children and really isn’t age appropriate, what with the choking hazard problem and all. For this I would suggest taking things out of their packaging. All toys get smaller when this happens, and if it’s something like a set of blocks or a stacking toy or something you can spread it out in the basket. It fits, it’s fun, and it’s age appropriate.

3. Keep it quality.

Again, this seems obvious. And I will say I’m better at this guideline than I am the first two. We all want to give kids something that they will love to play with and will hold their attention, but it is so much easier said than done. For this one you really just need to know your child and you need to keep it simple. I think people end up spending a lot of money buying a lot of small trinket type things that end up not used just for the sake of filling space. If that same amount of money was spent on one thing that is more substantial and different then it is more likely to be played with. There are only so many rubber bouncy balls a kid can have. Think quality and not quantity. And if there is space left in the basket add a couple of Peeps or a good book.

4. Keep it tasty.

This is really just about the candy. My only guideline is to give your kids candy you like to eat too and then buy an extra bag (and hide it).

There you have it – my Easter basket buying guidelines. Hopefully they have helped in some small measure and maybe you can even use them for other holidays (ooohhh, like for stockings!). Have a Happy Easter and maybe we will see you in the store before then.

 

My Inspiration

I’m sitting at work on this Valentine’s Day and I’m thinking about the two women who were and are my biggest inspiration for starting this store and becoming an entrepreneur. It seems appropriate to love on them today, and I’ve wanted to scream out their names to everyone since this store started. They are just awesome women and would never toot their own horns!

Many people know the story of how the store came about – my mom and I took a trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law after their new baby was born. They were living in San Francisco at the time and we ended up at several toy stores to browse and of course buy things for the new baby. The stores were all independently owned and just simply cool – all hands on and ran counter to everything “big box.” Boom. The idea was done. We just needed money, space, and to create a brand. Easy peasy, right?

But most do not know what in the world would even put our minds into the place to be looking for a business idea in the first place. Well, I don’t know about my mom, but for me my grandmothers are my inspiration. They were both business owners, and they both carved out a niche for themselves in this world. They were both able to help support their families, and they both did it despite any odds against them. And they both have loved on me my whole life and in no small measure made me believe we could do this.

My Grandma Cullison was a hair dresser and owned her own beauty shop. It was really known as Janice’s Fash-n-aire. (I hope I spelled that right because I have never actually called it that! It was just grandma’s beauty shop.) From what I understand in the family history, she went back to school and got her cosmetology license after she had her two kids. And in a very small town in eastern Ohio my grandparents built a new house and turned part of the walk-out basement into a section for grandma to have her own business. She had a waiting area/drying area with three of those drying chairs with the hood things. And on the other side of a short counter there was the work space – one of those fun lift-y chairs and a hair washing bowl. There was also a storage area and a bathroom in the back. And for a short time she added on some space and had some tanning beds, as well.

I have so many memories of sitting in the shop with my grandma and all the ladies; watching The Young and the Restless, and listening to them all discuss the drama of Victor and Victoria. I remember the phone ringing and watching grandma multitask without missing a beat. She handled it so smoothly. I remember being impressed, but it was also just grandma being grandma. There was hair to cut, set, and sweep up, combs and brushes to disinfect, and appointments to take down. And her appointment book was always full. Now as an adult with my own children I have no idea how she managed so smoothly. She was on her feet all day, still cooked and cleaned house, and I’m sure managed the kids (and I know my dad was a handful!). Needless to say I’m impressed. She never complained; I always complain. She’s an amazing, determined woman. I love you, Grandma!

My Grandma Hosler was an artist who worked in dried flowers and owned her own gift shop. I’m not sure how she would feel about me calling her an artist, but she was. She started her career as a business owner later in life. She was always a working mom, but after her youngest child went off to college she decided she wanted to go to college, too. So she did. When all was said and done she had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in business. I think she just wanted to use her degrees, so she and Grandpa decided to start a business – she created wreaths and other arrangements out of dried flowers and he did the books, but I think he would even say she was the boss. She had an amazing sense of aesthetic and her stuff was just beautiful. Her business was called Country Herbs. They started small – doing craft shows, passing out business cards and such. At some point along the line they decided to go bigger, actually put down roots, and open a brick and mortar store. To minimize overhead they opened up the lower half of their split-level house and turned it into a store. In the middle of the country. With no one around. Talk about bold! Grandpa has said that on their first day open they just waited for people to come. Waited and waited. But people did come. They came and they came. Eventually the store outgrew the space they had, so naturally they added on to their house and the store doubled (maybe more!) in size. Grandma taught classes on wreath making and working with dried flowers, they sold their herbal dips to local grocery stores, and had amazing Christmas open houses.

I was alive when she went into business, but still very young, so it was really the first time I had really given any thought into signage, overhead, logos, bookkeeping, credit card fees, expansion, advertising, business associations, shipping and receiving, customer service, and creating shopping experiences. I remember all of this stuff and more from her store. I also got the opportunity to learn how to wrangle hot glue and make my own arrangements that went out to the sales floor (and occasionally sold without having to be put on sale!). I have memories of trying to help during Christmas open house weekend, the smell of hot cider, sneaking the jam samples, wrapping up breakable items, and hearing the cash register ding. My grandmother was a quiet, sweet, and unassuming lady who got stuff done. I love you, Grandma!

Both of my grandmothers were bosses, and it shows in the businesses they built and ran for decades. They put business into my blood in different ways. It took me a little longer to figure that out than it should have, but I got there. And both of them have been able to visit and see what we’ve created with our vision, although they are not both still here to follow us through the years.

In all the days, months, and years ahead I will look to them to know how to run my business and my life. You are wonderful, inspiring ladies, and this is my thank you and I love you. You will always be my inspiration.

My Favorite Toy

Customers often ask me what’s my favorite toy in the whole store. This usually leaves me giving them a blank stare because I love so many of our toys it’s hard to choose. (I picked them out after all!) But after much thought I realized the answer is quite simple – wooden blocks.

Have you ever thought about blocks? Just plain old wooden blocks? They don’t seem like much to look at; they don’t do anything. But then that is kind of the allure, isn’t it? The child (or the adult – hey no judgement!) can make the blocks whatever they want them to be and make them do whatever they want them to do. There is such freedom there – freedom to explore, examine, imagine, and just be a naturally curious kid. block_building_smallThey can become skyscrapers or slices of pie, turrets or telephones. It’s all in how you want to play with them. My kids would play and build for hours with their blocks. They built structures, obstacle courses, and went wherever their imaginations took them. ranch_tinyI have many, many pictures of their creations before they would have to clean up. And I still remember playing with my brother when we were little and building towns and roads and castles. And, maybe to the chagrin of my parents, drawing on them with marker.

Wood blocks cover so many developmental and educational objectives without trying that it’s actually hard to find another toy that does that. Every time I put a toy on our website I have to check what skills the toy supports (i.e. independent or cooperative play, visual skills, motor skills, creative play, logic development, etc.), and when I add a building toy I end up clicking almost every skill. Blocks can be used to learn early math and spatial concepts, including engineering concepts. They foster creativity and imagination. They develop gross motor and fine motor skills. They can help develop social skills if they are played with another person. And they are even a role playing toy, because once you build that town you don’t want to just look at it – you need to add some characters and play with it. As a friend of mine says, with wooden blocks “the play possibilities are endless.”

At Naturally Curious Kids, we carry four different brands of wooden blocks – Beka, Uncle Goose, Tegu, and KEVA. All are different and all have their own special qualities. Beka makes the traditional, hardwood wooden blocks. Uncle Goose makes handmade alphabet and language blocks, as well as some other specialty blocks. Tegu makes wooden blocks that are embedded with magnets to add another dimension of play to traditional wooden blocks. And Keva makes single-sized wooden planks that can be used to build simple or elaborate structures.

Check them out and you might fall for these toys as hard as I have.