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Friday, August 25, 2017

August Is Another Great Month And The Ongoing Struggle To Maintain A Healthy Perspective

It has been a month since my last post. I had kept meaning to write this month, but every week I kept running out of time before I could write a post, so after exactly a month at 9:17pm on a Friday, I decided to make writing this post my last activity for the week.

Last month ended with a combined revenue from stamp sales and the bed and breakfast totaling just over $13,800, which was phenomenal, and I do not expect to have another month quite that spectacular for quite some time. This month, with just a week remaining in the month, we have sold $5,244 in stamps. I don't have a total as yet for the bed and breakfast, but for most of this month, we have been double booked, so I would expect that we have made close to $4,000 from the B&B, which would bring us to just over $9,000 for the month, which is very, very good.

My investors were due to be paid their interest cheques last month and this month, and thanks to the sales level we had no problem paying them at all. In addition, we were able to afford to pay for some important upgrades to the house, as well as to be able to make some significant investments in inventory.

However, it was a difficult month in one very important sense: I was still really struggling with the fact that I wasn't approaching my work in a healthy, sustainable manner for most of this month. Early at the beginning of the summer, Steph and I decided that each week starting in July, we would have her friends out to stay with us and we would close off the B&B for much of July while they were here, with the last guests here in the first week of August. Even though I know that I am on the Autistic Spectrum, and I know that I get anxious when my schedule is interrupted and I can tend to shut down after too much social interaction, I told Steph that I would be perfectly fine having guests over for a whole month. It was a great idea in theory, but I had a really hard time with what it did to my schedule. At the end of it, I was in total despair over how far behind schedule I was and I broke down one night. My despair was amplified by the fact that I love our friends and I wanted to see them and hang out with them, and I was saddened deeply by how I was allowing my attitude towards my business to ruin my time with them.

About a month before, Steph had suggested to me that she had read an article somewhere that said that rather than focusing on accomplishing goals, it is wiser to focus on cultivating and following best practices. I took it with a grain of salt when she told me, and went right back stubbornly into full-bore production mode, running myself ragged to try and get everything done that I had told myself needed to get done for that week.

It was clear to me after our last guests had left that I had to do something about my attitude to my work, as it has slowly taken over my life to the point where:

  1. I'm not cooking good meals anymore and am eating food that while easy to prepare is giving me heartburn most days.
  2. I'm not working on maintaining my relationship with Steph at all, taking her completely for granted and expecting her to be completely OK with it., and
  3. I'm not working out anymore. 
In effect, I have given up, one by one, most of the things that I wrote about at the beginning of this blog that I touted as the main advantage of being self-employed, because I was afraid that if I didn't devote 100% of myself to my work that my business would eventually fail. But one night a few weeks ago at around 1am, I was so incredibly exhausted, that I kept nodding off at my desk. But rather than go to bed, I just kept pushing myself to complete the task. What should have taken me 1/2 an hour took almost 2 hours. 

It was then that I realized that I really did need to draw some firm boundaries on work and I had to place strict time limits on how much time I spend working each week. I decided that to start, I would quit at 10pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and at 12am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Under no circumstances would I ever work past midnight again. At the same time, I began the process of looking for an employee to help take over some of the tasks that were preventing me from listing as much material as I wanted each week. My goal is eventually to be able to quit at 6pm every weeknight. 

So two weeks ago, I started this schedule with these strict time limits in place. I also decided to resume menu planning and cooking of well balanced, and nutritious meals, as well as a lunch break. Dinner breaks were to last 2 full hours in order to give Steph and I a chance to reconnect and spend some quality time together each day. I was really excited and curious to see whether my productivity would be any less with this schedule than what it had been before when I was working until 2am every night. 

Interestingly, what I have noticed is that I am just as productive as before! I am simply not spending as much time on some tasks as I was doing before. For instance, before the change, I would write these blog posts that would take me 6-8 hours to write and if I didn't have them done by Tuesday night, I would continue working on them on Wednesday and sometimes even Thursday. But now, what I started doing was managing the length of the posts so that they would be finished by 12am on Tuesday no matter what. If I wasn't done writing the post by 11:45pm, I would tweak it so that I could add "part one" to the title and tell my readers it would be completed the following week. I haven't seen my readership affected significantly, but my stress levels are way, way down. I am focusing on doing the best work that I can, which means:

  • Giving priority to customer requests and want lists. I never let administrative activities like listing material to prevent me from giving service to my customers - even those customers who aren't currently spending money. 
  • Then, after all my customers are looked after, I focus on making sure all my bills are paid and government filings are under control. 
  • Then after all that is done, I focus on my listings, and I do as much as I can, without worrying about how quickly it is getting done.
This is what they mean when the talk about systems over goals. I work towards my goals, but I no longer have time-frames attached to them. I have abandoned the arbitrary time-frames, largely because I really have no idea of how long things are supposed to take, so why stress myself out by holding myself to goals that are potentially unrealistic?

I know that just this small attitude shift is working wonders for these past two weeks. It is something to think about for all you entrepreneurs who are slaving away. If you stop focusing on your goals and start focusing on doing just the things that get you to where you want to be, do you really think you will fail to ultimately meet those goals?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Closing In On $13,000 Of Revenue For July With Just Under A Week To Go And Not Living In The Moment

With just 6 days left to go this month, we are close to a whopping $13,000 of revenue for July! That is comprised of $9,900 of stamp sales and just under $3,000 of guest revenue from our Bed and Breakfast. This is almost three times our average month. It is nothing short of incredible and should be a cause for celebration. But it has highlighted the problem that I struggle with the most as an entrepreneur: a refusal to live in the moment and a refusal to embrace the freedom that I have worked so hard to gain as an entrepreneur. I'll explain what I mean in the rest of this post.

When I was a kid, I read stories about Japanese soldiers that had been discovered hiding out in the early 70's in some remote pacific island. These few soldiers still believed that the World War II was still going and continued to prepare themselves for battle and conduct themselves as if they were fighting a war. They had lost all track of time and perspective, having spent 30 odd years in complete isolation. I had read that when they were told about the end of the war 30 years earlier, and the state of modern Japanese society, they simply could not accept this reality as they were too heavily invested in the idea that they had to keep fighting.

This describes the same phenomenon I believe that happens to most entrepreneurs who are founding businesses from scratch. We start with an idea and a vision of what it will take to achieve success with our businesses. We know that the odds are heavily not in our favour statistically, so we over-compensate by working harder than ever - working as if we were still being evaluated by someone else, only our boss is the worst one we've ever had: ourselves. This boss doesn't allow us to take vacations, doesn't tolerate any distractions during the workday and never, ever celebrates our successes. Instead this boss constantly reminds us that as well as we are performing, there is still so much left to be done.

Sound familiar?

When I started this business two years ago, my circumstances were different from what they are now: I was living in Toronto, with my partner and considering settling there and buying a house. The expenses associated with living there were much greater than they are here in Saint John, and I formulated a business plan to establish an operation that would be large enough in scale to support the cash flow needs that living in Toronto would require. It took me months and months to complete that plan to the point that I was intimately familiar with every step and every milestone that needed to be achieved. I had a timeline burned into my psyche and I set about ruthlessly and single-mindedly executing that plan.

Only, it didn't go the way I had envisioned. Almost immediately, I experienced setbacks: one of my investors said he couldn't go through with the investment after all, so I had less money than I needed to execute the plan. I suddenly had to incur debt, rather than sell equity in the business. This added to my stress because debt has actual repayment requirements, whereas equity does not. I found that I couldn't list my inventory nearly as quickly as I thought. I found that working with E-bay is fraught with problems that require my time and attention on a monthly or quarterly basis - time that I didn't factor into my plan. Finally, I really didn't think about what all this singular focus would do to my relationships - with my friends, my son and Steph.

Every time I faced a setback, I either redoubled my efforts, or I tried to come up with a different solution. Ultimately, one of these solutions was to leave Toronto and move to Saint John. It was a great move and ultimately, I believe that it saved the business from certain ruin. However, one thing I didn't do when I arrived here was to alter my original plan to reflect the change in our circumstances. Very recently I did recognize that it wasn't necessary for the business to be as large as I had originally planned and I did start taking steps to divest ourselves of some of the inventory so that we could pay off our debts. That was a good first step, and I felt very good for all of about a week, and then I went back to being stressed again.

Why? Well I had spent a lot of time envisioning how success would look in this business. I imagined a scenario where I have all my inventory listed and all my time gets spent listing material as it comes in, having no backlog and filling orders as they come in, while making enough to live on. I still think that is an attainable goal, but I have been getting very frustrated because I feel like I will never get to the point that all my inventory is listed. To me, that feels like failure. But what if it just isn't possible to attain that equilibrium? What happens then? I had to really start thinking about that.

When I really took stock of how the business is doing objectively, I realized that:

1. Our sales are growing by leaps and bounds and are currently enough to support our lifestyle, some reinvestment in the business, and to pay the investors. Once the investors are paid and the mortgage is paid we'll be laughing.
2. I get at least two or three e-mails from different customers every day now, engaging me and building relationships, whereas this time last year I was getting none.
3. I am getting want lists now from customers who trust me.
4. We were just featured in the Canadian Stamp News.
5. Customers have begun sending consignments.
6. One customer has actually asked me to handle his estate when the time comes.

Although this does not fit my original vision of how I thought the business would unfold, is this not success? If all the above things keep happening every month, then does it really matter if all the inventory is listed? Maybe it doesn't.

I know that one of the reasons I am having such a hard time accepting that the sales will continue to be good unless I get everything listed is that it took me so long to start seeing good sales levels. My brain wants to believe that the only reason sales are good now is because of how much inventory I have listed. Yet the experience tells me that it is not a function of how much is listed necessarily: Some of my largest sales this month were stamps that I listed 2 years ago, which suggests that maybe it just takes that long to begin winning people's trust and all indications are that this is finally beginning to happen on a large scale. So while it may still be important to get the material listed, it may not be as critical, in the final analysis as I had originally thought.

What is important though is that I take the time to begin living and savouring the successes that Steph and I are experiencing. I am taking baby steps by having coffee out in the garden every morning before I start work. I hope to eventually go back to eating better, exercising and ultimately ending my work day at 6pm instead of working until 2 am. Being able to do that involves breaking the chains that I placed around myself and doing that, in turn requires me to be open to recognizing that success may not take the form that I thought it would. I have to recognize when I am successful. This I believe is the most important milestone that we can reach as entrepreneurs.

I am sure we probably won't have another month like this for a while, because most of the sales were to two customers who had very extensive needs. However, I have to recognize that this is just fine: we don't have to have another month like this again. As long as we can keep our average sales level at a point where it can cover our expenses, we will be fine. My best insurance policy against failure is to keep meeting new customers and building new relationships. The B&B has done phenomenally well, being almost solidly booked this month, and I always have the accounting to fall back on come wintertime.

So I, and other entrepreneurs like me need to learn to chill. Chill and enjoy the life we have worked so hard for. Chill and enjoy our spouses instead of taking them for granted. Chill and enjoy our relationships with our children and our friends. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

July Continues to be Gangbusters With $7,528 in Revenue Just 14 Days In!!

July will easily go down as our best month ever so far. It is almost feeling like we have hit an inflection point in the growth of the business. Steph has done an absolutely amazing job with the bed and breakfast, and as a result we are booked up solid almost nightly this month. Getting reviews online from guests is always hard, but the ones that have been left so far are excellent. The guests are particularly raving about the food, with one couple from Paris, France telling us this week that it was just like eating in Paris! Steph has really pushed out of her comfort zone and together we have learned how to make breakfasts that are 5 star restaurant worthy: French omlettes that are so creamy and light that you can't believe they are eggs, and crepes with chocolate ganache and fresh raspberries that literally melt in your mouth. Steph takes a great deal of pride in her business and wants to be the best, so she has pushed herself to go beyond the mundane to offer guests something truly special. Having finicky guests has also motivated us to learn how to do basic things very well that we wouldn't have bothered to learn otherwise. For example, one of our guests this morning was allergic to all dairy products, and said he liked sunny side up eggs. I've never been able to make these well. So I learned how to make perfect sunny side up eggs that are not rubbery and overcooked. The secret? Butter or in his case, olive oil, in a very hot pan that is immediately turned down to low after the eggs are added to the pan. Then using a spoon, you baste the egg with the butter or oil which helps cook the top white, and thicken the yolk slightly without making it hard.

I can easily envision us being booked solid next summer several months in advance.

This week we began our marketing effort for the business by including with every order, a copy of the pamphlet and a personalized letter, on parchment, signed by me, thanking the customers for their purchase and outlining all the other services that we provide free of charge. I also began discussions with a marketing firm to design some formal marketing campaigns to try and re-engage former customers who have not done business with us in a long while. Now that we are doing these things, I can see now how our mailings lacked professionalism before, and how this may have hurt us. Initially, when I started this business, I didn't see the point in using nice stationery or printed envelopes and brochures, since I never really paid attention to them myself when I bought stamps. But I now wonder whether or not there was a subliminal impact. My thinking now is that we get so few opportunities to get the attention of the customer, that it behooves us to use those opportunities to their fullest when they present themselves. When someone opens their mail with some stamps inside, this is the perfect opportunity to get their attention with a personalized letter that is specifically directed to them. It it is key that it be about them, and not just some canned letter that they can tell is sent out to everyone. Yes, it is an extra cost and yes preparing these adds a few minutes to each order. But it is my hope that doing this will significantly improve the odds of doing repeat business with the customers. I am very interested and excited to see what the next few months will bring.

Stamp sales as of today, July 14, total $5,541. So even without the Canada #2 for $2,600, we are still averaging over $200 per day of other sales, which is excellent. Revenue for the bed ad breakfast this month so far is $1,987, which brings the total revenue for the business this month to $7,528, and there are still 17 days left to go for the month. Now, we have friends over for most of the remainder of the month, so the B&B will drop off until August. However, I wouldn't be surprised if we do another $2,000 in stamp sales, which would be $9,500 month - almost three times what we did in Toronto.

I'm finally beginning to breathe a little easier...

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Record Breaking Month With Close to $5,000 After 7 Days and A Major Realization

After a very stressful and expense-heavy June, July is shaping up to be an absolutely fantastic month in which I expect that we will accomplish several important milestones. Between good occupancy with the B&B, strong sales and continued work on want lists, we have been able to generate close to $5,000 in revenue already, just 7 days into the month. 

Just over half of this is attributable to the conclusion of a sale that had its genesis back in May. A customer had expressed interest in this stamp:


This is the second stamp issued by Canada, that was issued in 1851. It is one of the few stamps to depict Prince Albert while he was alive. Prince Albert, was of course, Queen Victoria's husband, and he died in 1861, leaving behind a heartbroken Queen who never got over her loss. This stamp usually sells in used condition, with 4 margins for $1,000 or so. However, the above example is a particularly nice one. So I graded it as superb and listed it with an asking price of $3,750. 

For over 2 years it sat in my store. I had several inquiries about it, from different potential buyers, but I was unwilling to sell it for the $1,000 or $1,200 I was being offered for it. My reasoning was that if I sold it to these collectors, then I would not have it when someone who really appreciated, and was willing to may more appeared. 

I am glad I waited. The fellow who offered me $2,600 for it was a prominent collector who had sold his collection of rare classic British Commonwealth stamps in 1999 with Spink. So he, of all people was in a unique position to appreciate the scarcity and quality of this stamp. He made his offer conditional on my obtaining a clear BPA certificate for it. I sent the stamp to the BPA in early May and waited what seemed like an eternity. Finally, this week I received word from the BPA that a clear certificate was being issued and that the stamp would be back in the mail to me this week. I immediately let the customer know and he agreed to take it for $2,600. I listed it right away and had the funds for it within an hour. So I'm very happy that this sale came to fruition. 

Last month I began listing very modern material, i.e. post 1971 material in earnest, as well as my 1960's first day covers - something that dealers couldn't give away 20 years ago let alone sell. Much to my surprise, both are doing extremely well. The first day covers are selling literally, as I list them, sometimes before I get a chance to go back and check the listing for typos. This really is where the money in this business is made: I bought a lot of about 3,000 covers for something like $250 5 years ago, and I am selling each one for between $1 and $3 a piece. You can't beat that!

I also received my brochures that I designed to send out to customers who had not purchased from us in a while, as well as new customers. My goal here was to communicate our value proposition clearly and encourage them to do business with us directly. Here is how the brochure looks:

The Inside:


I've started sending these to my customers with their orders and keeping track of who I send them to. I had been planning to send a mass mailout of these to my old customers, along with a well crafted, personalized letter. However, as postage is expensive, I have decided to obtain the services of a marketing company to help me craft the letter. So that is exciting! I am eager to see what the response of my customers is. 

But just as I printed these brochures, I came to a realization: with how busy just Canada is keeping me and how many under-developed areas there are in my stock, it is very unlikely that I will get around to listing Nigeria for another 2 years, and I may never get enough time to fully study the 50,000 or so covers I have. So I began to consider selling this section of my inventory off within the next year or two. Not having Nigeria will modify the message I am trying to send with my brochure, but I can simply re-design it by the time the collection sells. This was a tough decision and one that I had resisted for the last two years. You see, I had a business plan that I was following from back when we lived in Toronto, that called for us to be making a lot more money than now, and for all of the last 2 years I have been following it, without really wavering. It has been extremely stressful, and it has felt like a race against time to get all the inventory listed. Steph has been extremely supportive thus far, but I have been concerned about the long-term impact of another 2-3 years of this on our relationship. 

I realized that I can probably sell the Nigeria for enough to cover everything the business owes my investors, as well as a good chunk of our mortgage. All of the sudden, I realized that this time next year, we could potentially be almost debt free, with a beautiful house that is almost paid off, while having two fully functioning businesses that between them generate enough for a comfortable living. Could we really be set? Really?

Well, yes, we can. Steph and I have worked really, really hard to build a functioning business, and it seems that our hard work and sacrifice is finally paying off. The key though was to become open to the idea that we really don't need to build a big company with lots of employees. We just need enough to pay the bills and enjoy our lives. Happiness for me really is being able to look up from my desk at noon, and see this:

or take a large cup of coffee every morning at 7:30 or 8:30 and sit here:

Our end-goal then changes from trying to set the world on fire and build a huge company, to protecting our ability to enjoy the above simple pleasures. Thus anything I can do to protect this little corner of the world we have fought for is what I should do. While selling Nigeria and cutting back on ambition may not be the best thing for my ego, the idea of being almost debt free in a year is much, much better for Steph and I over the long run, I think. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Our Bed and Breakfast Takes Off! Stamp Sales a Bit Quieter in June and A New Direction

After two extremely busy months, things began to slow down to the level they were at a few months ago. Stamp sales just passed $2,800 with 10 days to go this month. So it hasn't been a bad month by any means, but it hasn't been quite as busy. In actual fact, part of the reason why the total sales for June has been lower is that we didn't have any large want lists this month, whereas we did have some very large orders in April and May. In terms of day to day sales, repeat business and new customer growth, the business continues to move in the right direction. An added positive is that after just 3 weeks of being open to guests, our Bed and Breakfast has had 10 bookings. The guests so far have all been delighted with their stays and have left glowing feedback. This has been Steph's baby from the beginning and she has worked very hard to make it a success. I am very proud of what she has managed to accomplish in such a short time. So between her business and the stamp business, I think we should have no problem generating $5,000 this month - still a very respectable month. 

But despite all this, I have been struggling with my own inability to see reality objectively. As someone on the Autistic Spectrum I am prone to getting into very rigid patterns of thinking. For the business, this rigidity has manifested itself in the belief that I have to get all my inventory listed for sale within a 2 year window. This has caused me to work 16 hour days without breaks for months and to feel guilty inside for taking any amount of time off. It has also caused me to neglect aspects of my relationship with Steph as well as aspects of the business that did not have to do with getting stuff listed. My greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. I am blessed on the one hand to have the ability to work like this, with this much unwavering focus. But on the other hand, I have always been very bad at gauging when I am getting tired, when my productivity is falling off, and when I am not seeing the results of my work objectively. One of the tell-tale signs that I have learned to watch for is when I start to feel down or like the business is not a success, despite so many objective signs that it is doing quite well. This is usually an indication that I am pushing it too hard, and my usual response is to push myself even harder.

But this week, I decided that I needed to take a step back for the good of myself and the good of my relationship with Steph. I decided that it was time to come up with a schedule that I could follow that contained scheduled rest breaks and time with Steph. So what I am trying for now, just to see how it works is to divide my day into 7 2 hour time slots and to devote each one to a different task. My first block is to start at 9am and my last one ends at 2am. I have scheduled 1 hour breaks from 1-2pm, 6-7pm, and 9-10 pm so that I ensure that I eat regularly and that Steph and I have plenty of time together to stay connected. It is still a very demanding schedule, but I think it is doable, as I can function quite well on 6 hours of sleep. 

To determine how to fill the blocks I made a list of all the things that need to get done each week for the business:

1. Filling orders.
2. Complying with E-bay changes.
3. Customer want lists and procuring material for customers.
4. Developing my stand-alone website.
5. Developing additional marketing materials.
6. Accounting and bookkeping.
7. Writing and maintaining the blogs, including indexing old posts and updating old posts.
8. Listing (lotting) material in the store.

The last item was problematic, as I have been dealing with listing all the material for each area to the exclusion of all others. This was causing me to feel like I am never going to get through it all, and I don't believe that my customers have been getting a wide enough range of material this way. I had invested a considerable amount of time last month getting it all organized so that I could work on any area in small chunks. So what I decided to do was make a list of all the boxes in my inventory and to schedule some time spent working on each box. There were too many to get through them all in one week. However, I found that if I adopt a 2 week lotting cycle that I can get through a little bit of every box in 2 weeks. So this is what I have come up with. 

I tried it out yesterday and today and I am very excited about it. I feel a much greater sense of control and I can see my accomplishment more clearly. I also find that with the breaks and change of tasks that I am working much more productively. I think with this method I am also going to see sales increase, as there will be a better range of material listed. 

This weekend we have friends coming to stay with us, which will be a nice break. However I am predicting that we will be fully booked over the next week. We can only hope!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Message to My Troll(s) - The Importance of Ignoring the Naysayers

Today's post is a bit of an unscheduled message to the person(s) who have been consistently trolling my blog ever since I published my first post in July 2015. I decided that rather than continue to respond in comments I would write it as a post in order to illustrate what is arguably the most important life lesson of them all: Ignore the naysayers who tell you that you can't do what you set out to do.

The naysayers in my case are those people or that one person in Toronto, who continues to troll this blog and level various attacks against my intellect, my character and my integrity. So far:

  1. This person (s) started off attacking my idea, asking through pointed questions whether it was really wise for me to leave my profession to become a stamp dealer. They tried to insinuate that I was working for peanuts when they knew damn well that I was building a business and investing in an idea. Yet they persisted in attempting to employ false and invalid comparisons asking me what I was making now compared to the salary I made as an employee. I say that these are invalid comparisons because it is a universally accepted fact that you will take a pay cut when you start ANY business, no matter how good your idea is. For one thing, your employers have the benefit of infrastructure to implement ideas quickly - teams of other employees - bank credit lines etc. You don't have that when you start. You only have yourself and consequently you will work harder than ever before. But the difference is you own EVERYTHING you produce. No else gets to take credit for your ideas or your work ever again. It will take longer to gain traction, but once your idea begins to succeed, there is nobody around, nor any office politics to derail it.
  2. As the business grew and it became apparent that they were mistaken about it not being a viable business, they changed their tack and started attacking my financial prowess by asking me how I financed the house and pointing out the fact that I was using other people's money and insinuating that I wasn't really succeeding, or being financially responsible, since I wasn't using 100% my own money. They completely ignored my posts about how I was financing more than 80% of the business with my own money - a far higher amount of "skin in the game" than most entrepreneurs have when they start their businesses. 
  3. When that argument didn't fly, they begun attacking our move to New Brunswick, insinuating that we were isolated, had moved to some kind of hick-town and that our friendships would die because we only saw people once a year, even though they have no clue about how often we see our friends and family and that plenty of people live apart from each other. 
  4. Now, most recently, after opening our Bed and Breakfast, now that it is really apparent that we are onto something really good, they are attacking my parenting by suggesting that I am a bad parent because I live 4,000 km away from my ADULT SON and throwing out the concept of isolation for good measure. In addition, they have started attacking my integrity by asking me if I ever told my employers about the fact that I have Aspergers. I interpret this as "You only succeeded because you lied about who you were to your employers by not telling them about your Aspergers when they had a right to know." Why else would they ask me that? This question completely reveals their prejudice born out of ignorance. The reality is that I did tell my partners in my last firm about it even though it was none of their damn business. Why? Because we were discussing the future of an intern who we thought might be on the spectrum and I stood up for him by telling them that I was on it too. 
They have done all of this anonymously and without making direct statements, but rather by asking questions only - rudely I might add. They lack the basic courage to address me directly with their beliefs and to take responsibility for what they say by identifying themselves. So what we have here is a mixture of:
  • Ignorance
  • Cowardice
  • Nastiness
That, ladies and gentlemen pretty much sums up most of the naysayers in your life. They do not have your best interests at heart most of the time. It is very clear to me that the people or person making these comments are not happy with their life choices. They probably hate their lives and wish they could follow their goals and dreams. But they lack the courage to do so. So instead, they spend their lives doing nothing to change their situation and instead they tear other people down. They effectively take their character deficits (ignorance and cowardice) and transmogrify them into a virtue (responsibility) and use that as a club to strike out at those who dare to leave the pointless Rat Race behind them. 

If my posts don't convince you of how pointless the Rat Race is, then frankly nothing will. The thing to understand about the naysayers in your life is that they vastly outnumber the people who are positive - by 50:1, or even more. It is very easy to get distracted by the cacophony of their negativity, since it is so prevalent around you. But it is essential if you are going to succeed as an entrepreneur to surround yourself with positive people who believe in you and offer CONSTRUCTIVE comments and ignore those who don't. This doesn't mean that the positive people will always think that every idea you have is good - they may not agree with everything you do. But the difference is that they have a general belief in your ability to succeed as YOU DEFINE SUCCESS. They don't define it for you, and they don't attempt to hold you to someone else's definition of what success is. If you look at all the questions these trolls have posted on here, you will see that not one of them is the least bit constructive. They are not constructive because these people don't know the first thing about me, so they can't possibly know, for instance whether being far away from family is really a bad thing. For all they know, I could have come from an abusive family (I didn't) and this could be a good thing. As it is, it is a neutral thing, since my family is very geographically spread out. But my point is, they couldn't possibly know this, and therefore their question cannot possibly be constructive.

This brings me to my last point, which is that only those people who know you well can ever offer constructive comments of criticism of what you are doing. Everyone else who thinks they are being constructive are in reality just flapping their gums 99.9% of the time because they like to give unsolicited advice. My suggestion is to either politely accept what they say and make it clear through your actions that you are ignoring them, or politely tell them off. If you are not in a position to do that because the person in question is your boss or someone with power over you than you have to just remember not to get swept up in what they are saying.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sales Surpass $6,400 in May, Our First B&B Booking and Saying Farewell to Ian Bentley

The last two days of June saw an flurry of last minute sales, and orders that I had in the works during the month finally come to fruition, so that we had our best month yet, in terms of stamp sales at $6,475. In addition, we earned accounting income of $160, bringing total revenue for May 2017 to $6,635 - well above a daily average of $200. Life is good.

We also finally obtained our permit from the city for the Bed and Breakfast - The Cosy Cottage Inn:

It turned out that we had to have an inspection when the permit guy came to drop off the permit, the result of which was that we had to install emergency backup lighting and hard wired smoke detectors. Fortunately we were able to call the same electrician who did our electrical upgrade when we bought the house, and he came by and did the work the next day. Steph installed a deadbolt on my office door and one on the front door and we were all good to go. No sooner was this all done when we got our first booking. A fellow from Toronto who is doing a 3 year bicycle tour had biked from Toronto to Saint John and was looking for a place to stay that was close to the Digby Ferry, which he was to take to Digby, Nova Scotia on Sunday morning. We are just up the street from the ferry terminal and we are the least expensive in town, so he called us. He arrived on Friday and is just getting ready to leave as I write this. It was a fantastically successful first stay. Here is a picture of how our dining room finally looks now that it is finished:

Here is what we served him this morning:

Fresh, from scratch pancakes, fresh berries and lots, and lots of crispy bacon, along with fresh orange juice, coffee and water. Yesterday morning was Eggs Benedict, so we went a little simpler today. Our guest was very happy though and leaves us with plenty of energy to continue his cycling journey. 

On a sadder note, this past week I had heard about the death of Mr. Ian Bentley, who was my English teacher in high school from the age of 14 to 16. Ian and I had a complicated relationship when I was his student, and we had no contact for many, many years until I re-established contact with him in 2007. 

Ian was without question the best English teacher I ever had, and I am eternally indebted to him for helping me gain confidence as a writer. I am sure I am not an amazing writer - not by any stretch of the imagination. But, I believe I can write readable prose and for that I owe him everything. My entire career and livelihood in the end has rested on my ability to communicate in writing. When I first met him as a pimply-faced 14 year old in 1985, I had no confidence whatsoever in my writing abilities. Previous English teachers had either eviscerated me in their classes, or outright ignored me. But not Ian. He had an unorthodox style, which was nonetheless highly effective: he would identify your strengths and call those out, while giving you a "D" and telling you you could do better. Then, as the term wore on, if you tried, he would gradually raise your marks and your confidence at the same time. He was the rebel teacher, regularly wearing his Oxford tie as a belt instead of as a tie. He could be cruel and blunt as well, saying of one of my friends in his report card: "A young man who feels content to sit in class and fritter his intellectual assets away being nothing more than a classroom wit." Ouch. He didn't have much time for you if you didn't try. He was actually a little bit like the famous chef Gordon Ramsay in his temperament. I imagine that is fairly common with a lot of people who are brilliant in their chosen field when they encounter a lack of enthusiasm in someone, and that person isn't responsive to their attempts to raise their level of engagement. 

I was fortunate to be able to have dinner with him and thank him personally for all that he did for me on a trip that I took to London in 2010. I no longer have the picture that I took of us together on that night. But I do have this picture:

Ian is second from the right in the picture, as you could probably have guessed. 

He wasn't perfect by any means - no one is. He and I had harsh words for one another on more than one occasion. I can still respect the man deeply while being perfectly aware of who he is. He was much fonder of his female students than he was of his male students. However, I genuinely believe that he cared about all his students, and he remembered them. If someone were to tell me that he won teaching awards for being one of the best teachers in the UK, I would not be the least bit surprised. Unfortunately he and I fell out of contact again in 2012, but I remained vaguely aware of him from his activity on Facebook. 

Rest in peace Ian. You will be remembered and missed. I hope you find the peace in death that eluded you in life. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sales Pass $5,650 With Two Days to Go, The Beautiful Spring is Here and Gearing Up For Massive Listings

So with just two days to go this month, we are just past the $5,650 mark. Things were crazy busy up until last week, when they began the customary end-of month slowdown. Although this weekend was not a super busy weekend, it was not a slow weekend, judging from the stack of envelopes that I took to the post office today.

This weekend was just beautiful weather wise, with the temperature being between 14 and 16 degrees and with clear, blue sunny skies. Steph and I decided that it would be a great idea to enjoy the yard that we fought so hard for last year. The lawn needed mowing, so we got out the new lawnmower that we bought last week, got it all assembled and gassed up and took turns mowing the lawn. Then afterwards, we hung out on our patio, and relaxed. I was able to finish a few beers that Steph had bought for me earlier in the week, while looking at some stamps from my own personal collection. I was able to get some nice shots though of the house and yard before we got to the actual mowing:

The house from the front, with our Bed and Breakfast sign off to the left. 

The left side of the house from the back near the side entrance, which is actually the door that people usually enter through. The lilac trees are just beginning to bloom.

The yard, looking from the left side of the house at the back, toward the right side of the property.

This view of the yard is turning to the left a bit to show the right front corner of the property. We are thinking that a pond in the far corner would be a welcome addition, as well as some seating areas. But I'll leave the creative design to Steph, as she is far more creative than I. 

This is looking from the right side of the property toward the right side of the house.

Another view looking back from the right front corner of the property towards the house, garage and patio, which is between the house and garage. 

I think these pictures capture the beauty of the day very well. The best part was that it was just the perfect temperature - not cold and not too hot. One of my complaints about Toronto was that if a day looked as bright and sunny as the above, it would usually be accompanied by blistering 30+ degree heat and humidity. Here, it wasn't even 20 degrees. 

One thing that had begun to concern me about the business was that I felt that I had no coherent lotting plan. My general plan was to list material in sequence, from early to modern. I had been following this plan for the past year and a half, but as I bought collections and acquired more material, I was noticing that material was winding up all over the place in my office. Because I didn't have the right size storage boxes, I was placing oversize sheets and covers in different locations, so that it became very difficult to be sure as I worked on a particular stamp issue that I had all the material - I would often find items squirreled away after I had finished working on an issue, or I would lose a sale because I would think that we didn't have the material in question when in fact we do. 

So I decided that before I list any more material, the time had come to properly organize all my Canadian material into chronological order, with all items being kept together. It took me four solid days of sorting and organizing. 

Here's how it looked on Thursday, half way through the process:

Finally, tonight, I got the last of the material integrated and sorted into no fewer than 26, 1 foot-long storage boxes:

This is a massive amount of material and it is doubtful that I could get it all listed in a year. But at least it is all organized where I can see it, so that I can begin to plan my listings better and maybe stagger the material, so that early and modern material get listed together. In this way no one period dominates the listings for too long. 

With that, it is 2:30 am, and very much time for bed. However, I head into tomorrow with bright optimism and a clean desk. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sales Approach $4,300 Half Way Through May and The Importance of Controlling One's Emotions in Business

Sales have continued to be nothing short of phenomenal this month. In addition to strong E-bay sales, we have begun to develop a very strong clientele outside E-bay, and these collectors have placed lots of orders with us for material. We attended our first show in over a year, which was held her in Saint John. I went in with very few expectations this time: my only objective was to put on a good display for the people walking by, to hand out business cards and copies of our blog posts and establish some rapport with the people I met. As it turned out, I was able to meet these expectations and sell $630 at the show as well. Then after I got home last night, a relatively new customer, who collects covers bought over $200 worth of covers, and this purchase led me to start showing him the rest of my covers today. So there could be several hundred more in sales coming from this customer over the next few months. So by the end of today, we have just under $4,300 in sales with 16 days left to go in the month. This is set to be our absolute best month yet.

However, there have been a couple of situations that left me fuming last week:

1. E-bay has announced that we are no longer to have any contact information for ourselves in our listings. So I would have to spend a few days to remove our telephone number from every one of almost 6,500 listings.

2. This comes a month after E-bay announced that we had to get rid of any active content in our listings by June. Fortunately Auctiva was able to do this for me on all but 122 listings. However, they should have been able to do that with all of them. So I'm going to have to spend at least 1 day of time I could be spending doing more important things to fix listings on E-bay that I have already created months ago.

The E-bay situation is not new, but this time it has become abundantly clear that E-bay is never going to stop trying to micro-mange my business. It's what they do. I have long believed that eventually the wholesale changes that they come up with would eventually slow down and ultimately stop - at least for a time. But, there seems to be no limit to the number of ways that they can micro-manage the businesses of their sellers, and I'm just waiting for that fatal policy change that comes at me  when I have 20,000 listings up and I'm half way through my contract. I feel fairly certain that this type of change is coming eventually. I just have no idea of when. It is that feeling of uncertainty and fear that gets me really down every quarter. You expect in business to have to be on your guard for external threats from demographics and your competition, but you never expect your largest threat to be one of your suppliers or service providers.

An astute analogy is to imagine that you are opening a store in a shopping mall. You sign a 5 year lease and pay $100,000 for leasehold improvements and fixtures, and another $50,000 in moving expenses. At first everything is wonderful, with sales coming in and lots of traffic. Then after a few months, you notice officials from the mall standing outside your store telling customers "You know, if you are looking for XYZ product sold by this store here, you can actually find it cheaper down there in that store". The mall management assures you that this is a good business practice because they want to make sure that the shoppers in the mall have the best shopping experience and that they will direct traffic to your store if your prices are lower. You tell them, that you don't understand how they can do this when you are paying them RENT and that you are not a store that competes on price. You try to explain that you compete on the quality of your product and your service, but it falls completely on deaf ears. You are told, "Well, you can cancel your lease and move out with no penalty if you wish. Thank you for being a valued mall tenant.".

Of course after dropping $150,000, you're not going anywhere, so you grudgingly accept this annoying practice and carry on. Then a few months later, mall management comes into your store with a new lease and tells you that by staying in the store, you are accepting the new terms of the lease. They leave and you begin to read the new lease. In the lease they tell you that after two months have passed, you will no longer be allowed to sell one of the products that you carry. No reason is given. You are also told that your prices all have to end in $0.99 because they have done studies that show that this is what shoppers prefer. So you have to go and re-price your entire stock, closing the store for a week, to do this. Again, you aren't going to leave, so you do your best and re-price everything, losing out on a week's revenue to do this. Of course, it doesn't wind up making any difference to YOUR sales, and you knew it wouldn't, because you know your customers. After its all done, things get back to normal, and you have a few really good months in the mall.

Then three months later, they come back to you again, with you guessed it, a new lease. This time they don't like your use of colourful window displays. They tell you that it is distracting to shoppers and you have to change your displays or move out. They also tell you that you are no longer allowed to have your website on your business card or a telephone number, and that the only way your customers can reach you is by coming to the mall in person. When you ask them why they are instituting such a rule, they tell you it is because they are seeing too many instances of sales being completed outside the mall and they just can't have that happening, since they feel entitled to a percentage of all the potential revenue from these shoppers. You've never had any calls from customers before, so you agree to the rule change. But you are annoyed because you just ordered all your business cards the month before, and took out an ad in the yellow pages. Now you are going to have to change everything.

And you sit there wondering: "what's next?" Are they going to tell me how many staff I have to have? Are they going to tell me what my price tags have to look like? What credit cards I must accept? and so on.

Sounds pretty absurd doesn't it? Yet, this is exactly how E-bay today does business and treats its sellers. They were supposed to be a venue, like the yellow pages, where a business could go to sell its product. For the privilege of the traffic, they paid E-bay a fee, and E-bay minded its own business. That is how it used to be before the MBA types who now inhabit management got a hold of it and started the metamorphosis that has turned it into what can best be described as a "racket". These people have clearly never taken ethics courses, or if they have, they weren't paying attention. There used to be certain ethical rules of good business that just didn't get broken when I was growing up in the 1980's and 1990's. I can well remember stamp auctions where you had to be a dealer, with a registered business to bid. Why? Because the auction houses at the time correctly recognized that if they allowed members of the collecting public to bid against dealers, they would be harming the businesses of the dealers - their largest customers. Nowadays, its a free-for-all at every auction, and I have had many collectors tell me that can't pay my retail prices for the full service I provide since they can just bid against me at the same auction I source my material from and get it cheaper.

So, not competing with your own customers used to be a big one. If you were a wholesaler, you didn't go into retail too, or if you did, you did it through a completely different company, so that it at least looked like you weren't doing it. Not taking actions that have the effect of injuring your customers businesses is a fairly well known ethic in business. In common tort law there is  concept of "tortuous interference", which is basically interfering in someone's right to conduct business freely, and it is a tort that historically has allowed the injured party to sue for damages. But E-bay does this all the time by a variety of different things too extensive to list here. However, a few of those things are:

1. They would place ads in your listings for competitors product if that competitor was selling something cheaper than you. They would also put ads from non-e-bay stores that were paying them into your listings. So if you were selling computers, they could put a "Best Buy" ad in your listing. WTF? right? You are paying them, and your competitor is paying them and they are advertising for your competitor in your listing. Unethical? Yeah just  bit. This year, they have stopped that, undoubtedly because they realized they would eventually be sued, but what they have replaced it with now is "promoted listings", which is a form of pay-per-click advertising that is only available to anchor stores like myself. This may benefit me, but it will hurt any seller without an anchor store.

2. They tell you that you have to accept paypal as a form of payment. You can't use any of the other payment gateways, which is odd now, given that supposedly Paypal was spun off from E-bay and is a completely separate entity now. To me this is a form of "tied selling" and tied selling as far as I know is illegal, or at least it was.

3. They manipulate the search results where they put the sellers with the lowest price first, regardless of how much inventory they have, or how much history they have with E-bay and regardless of the overall quality of their item descriptions. They do this to force their sellers to compete on price. They bump listings to the top that offer free shipping and downgrade those that don't. Again, they are trying to force sellers to offer free shipping if they want to be in the top of the search results. Sometimes they hide your listings altogether and don't display them at all. This later practice was clearly illegal and fraudulent when sellers were paying e-bay for each listing. So what E-bay did to get around this was they started offering free listings, but cut the top rated seller discounts and raised final value fees instead. This way they can always say that they can do whatever they want with your listings since you didn't pay for them anyway. The problem with all this is competing purely on price is not competing at all. It doesn't take any business acumen whatsoever to compete on price, and few businesses that do this blindly will succeed. Those that do have a very clear strategy and are aiming at a very specific market. To try and force every seller to compete this way is bad for the sellers, e-bay and ultimately the buyers, because it means that the sellers of quality items will be forced out and replaced by sellers of junk, and that is exactly what is happening.

So as you can see this makes me very upset. Unfortunately for me managing my emotions and concealing them at appropriate times is not my strongest suit. I tend to get worked up and my usual routine is to call customer service at E-bay and complain, trying to get someone more senior up the chain. For a while I actually thought I could reason with someone senior there, but after many conversations I realize that such is not the case. They really don't see good sellers as their greatest asset. To them, it is only the buyers that count, and there is no persuading them to alter course on this. Actually, they may well realize that we are a great asset to them, but they also realize how vulnerable we are as sellers. So the short term consequences of upsetting us is not great, since if one seller leaves, there are many sellers just waiting to give it a shot.

So I've had to realize that while my emotions may be white hot, and I might want to call E-bay and threaten to close my account or some such thing, it is not a good idea, and it is not going to help me deal with the problem, which is over-dependence on one sales channel. E-bay is convenient and relatively easy, but I can see that it is a very bad idea to continue being wholly dependent on them. The sooner I can develop a presence at stamp shows and a customer base outside of E-bay, the better off I will be. So this is just one example of many in business where one has to take a deep breath, step back and think strategically. Getting worked up, angry and depressed doesn't help you think clearly and it doesn't help you deal with the issues at hand. In business, as I am learning, there are going to be a lot of these situations, and while it is OK to experience all these emotions, it is important to be honest with oneself about what the primary driver of the emotion is. In other words, while I may feel very angry at E-bay for what they are doing, my real anger is to myself for being too trusting and not accepting sooner the fact that the rules of business have changed for a lot of businesses. If I accept the new reality, then I can't really be mad at E-bay. I simply make a decision to restructure my business to make the best use of them that I can. Maybe what it means is I only list the cheap stuff on there from now on. Maybe it means that I don't list stamps that have any probability of return, and so on. I'm not sure - I'm still figuring it out. But I wouldn't be able to see any of these clearly if I were still caught up in my emotions.

So, in closing, it is a very important lesson to learn in running a business: feel how you feel. Experience your feelings and get them out, preferably in  safe non-judgmental space, and then once you have let them out, let them go. Refocus yourself on identifying the real problem and finding a solution. But whatever you do, don't waste your time calling management, filing complaints, talking to ombudsmen etc. because whatever victory you will have will be nothing compared to what you have lost in your emotional health and serenity. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Sales Pass $2,350 8 Days Into May and The Importance of Reflecting on One's Accomplishments to Maintain Perspective

My posts on this blog have become less and less frequent, and have gotten more and more business focused. This is a reflection on the reality of becoming an entrepreneur: In the summer of 2015 when I started this blog, I was excited by my newfound freedom. I was taking time to garden. I was literally stopping to smell the flowers. I was quitting at 5:00 pm every day. I was cooking gourmet meals and posting the recipes here. I was working out every day. But this was when my bank accounts were flush with one full year of my savings and when I either had fresh investor money coming into the bank account, or the promise of it. The reality of actually having to generate enough sales and re-invest to sustain the business had not hit.

In 2016 as the expenses of living in Toronto depleted our savings and I watched the bank balance go down, the reality hit me HARD. At the same time I became acutely aware that the interest clock was ticking on the money that the investors had put in. I was going to have to find a way to generate enough sales to:

  1. Make a living for Steph and I.
  2. Re-invest in inventory so that I don't run out.
  3. Pay my investors and have enough to buy them out when the time comes. 
It became apparent very quickly that as encouraging as it is to sell $100 in one day, I was going to have to get to a point where I'm selling between $300-$500 a day if I really want this to succeed. Little by little, as that realization set in, I began to sacrifice  and work harder and harder. Now, I am working late every weeknight until 2 am or 3 am, and I still don't feel like I'm getting enough done. 

What has happened in large part is that I have lost perspective. I have lost the ability to see my and Steph's accomplishments objectively. I've been so focused on putting one foot forward and then the other foot, that I haven't really sat back and reflected on what Steph and I have accomplished as a couple and what I have accomplished since I began this journey 4 years ago. 

So now, as our sales reach $2,350 in just 8 days, I want to reflect a bit and share our accomplishments as well as mine so far:

  • In January 2013 I moved out of my downtown Toronto home that I owned jointly with my now ex-wife, taking only my stamps and a few family heirloom furniture pieces with me. It was a major loss of nearly everything I had spent 15 years working hard for, as my ex had not contributed financially for more than half of our relationship. Yet, she got the house, which is now worth almost $600,000 more than we paid for it, at least. I was a new partner in a Toronto accounting firm, and although I made decent money, I owned nothing but my stamps. I was completely dependent on my position at the firm. Although I liked working with my clients, I grew to hate working in a firm environment. I hated the wasted time, pointless meetings that accomplished nothing and the constant politics, politics, politics. I spent the last year of my employment wanting to end my life - literally. 
  • In February 2013 I met Steph at a meetup for Beer Lovers, which is funny because Steph doesn't drink. She was wingwoman for her friend Jackie who was there to meet people. But she got more than she bargained for. She met me. Within 10 minutes of talking to her she revealed that she knew what a philatelist (stamp collector) was. I revealed my knowledge of gender politics, the Kinsey scale and fluidity of gender, and from that point on we were destined to become one. We dated for close to a year before we moved in together in January 2014.
  • In July 2014 I made the decision to leave my position as partner and to save as much money as I could to start my business. I spent 2 months on my business plan, and in November 2014, while I was attending a conference in New Delhi, India, I completed my financial projections which settled the question that had plagued me, which was "Is this business viable?".
  • In January 2015 I took the very difficult step of informing my partners that I would be leaving the partnership. That was one of the toughest discussions I have ever had with anyone. But I got though it and worked with them on a transition plan which would see me ease out of my role between then and July 2015. 
  • During my transition, several of my clients expressed an interest in investing in my business - something that completely took me by surprise. It stood as a testament to the level of trust and confidence that I had built with these people. While there were many people that couldn't understand how I could make a living selling stamps to collectors, not one person thought I was making bad decision, or at least no one said so. 
  • In July 2015 I left my position and started the business in earnest. I also started the three blogs that I write today. I have published well over 300 posts between all three blogs since July 2015 and I have grown the daily readership of my Canadian stamp blog to 300 visits a day and the others to 50-60 visits when the posts are published. Feedspot, a content reading service and feed-building service ranked our blogs among the top 60 stamp related blogs that are online just last month. I'm not sure how meaningful this award really is, but it is nice to be recognized. More and more of our customers are recognizing our blog and commenting on how much they like it, and there is no doubt about its role in driving sales. 
  • We started off with less than $20 a day in sales back in July 2015. In early 2016, we were getting $100 a day on average, and a good month was $3,000 gross. We were just starting to get the types of regular customers who would engage with us, but nearly everything happened within E-bay only. We were not generating enough sales to pay the bills, not by a long-shot, so we depleted savings. By the middle of 2016 all our savings was gone and we had to depend on two infusions of investor money to survive, while we continued to grow the business.
  • We suffered some major setbacks. One investor who had committed funds, which were essential to the execution of my business plan pulled out. I spent a good part of 2016 trying to line up another investor to replace the first one and he too pulled out in December last year. 
  • In October 2016 Steph and I got married. Steph managed through her incredible ingenuity to plan and execute a wedding for just over 60 guests, at a beautiful location in Toronto, with minimal help from me, and a weeklong honeymoon in New York, all for just under $8,000. Eight grand! She did this while we watched friends of ours spend $60,000 and $30,000 on their weddings. We paid for everything from savings and did not incur one scrap of debt to do it.
  • In September 2016 just before we got married, we drove 1,800 km from Toronto to Saint John, New Brunswick to look at houses. We found our house, which I have written about at length for $133,000. After we made our offer, we went to work to get the downpayment and financing together. As many of you who haven read the blog will recall, we nearly lost the house when our mortgage broker was negligent and the lender he was working with screwed us over. However, we found a local broker and we did manage to get our mortgage.
  • At the end of November 2016 we moved from Toronto to Saint John. Again, we managed to pay the entire moving expense bill with money we had saved. Steph, once again, managed to acquire the vast majority of our furniture for free or for very little from people in Toronto, who were trying to get rid of stuff. Again, she did virtually all of this on her own, so that I could focus on the business. 
  • We made it through the winter, with all its added expenses and set-up expenses of establishing a life in New Brunswick, including all the government fees associated with various licenses and registrations, fuel costs, water bills, property taxes, sewer bills etc. We have done this without going into debt.
  • We have now managed to grow the business to the point now where we are averaging between $150-$225 per day. I have established a relationship with a local accounting firm here and they value my work and send me work that I can do to make extra money. With all of that, we have been able to invest in turning the house into a Bed and Breakfast; I've been able to put $1,000 a month back into new stock for the business, and we will have enough to pay our investors - all without having to go into additional debt and raise more capital.
  • We went from renting a place in Toronto for $2,500 a month and literally pissing money away to owning a beautiful home here in Saint John. Sure, it may never be worth more than we paid, but even if it never goes up, it is still a worthwhile investment, give that the mortgage is less than it would cost to rent here. We are about to open a beautiful Bed and Breakfast, which probably won't get any guests this year, but eventually will. Once again, Steph all the work in this regard, so that I could focus on the business. 
  • We have customers who engage us by e-mail every day now. We do a lot of sales outside of e-bay and we have want lists and repeat customers who buy from us all the time.
  • We have our own logo and business cards that are building our brand recognition. Just this week, I have started including the cards in my mailings. 
  • We have been developing our own stand-alone website outside of E-bay, so that eventually, we won't have to pay $500 a month in E-bay fees, and we won't be at the whims of E-bay. Development on it has stalled, but at least we have a working website. 
  • After years and years of thinking I could never have pets because I was allergic, I got my first cat when I met Steph, and then in August 2015, Steph gave me Viktor. Viktor is a little black male Siamese, who looks just like a miniature panther. Every day, he jumps up onto my desk and curls up behind my computer screen and keeps me company. I am greeted by him first thing in the morning with his tail sticking straight up to tell me how excited he is to get food. He is a very dear friend, and I now understand after all these years why pet owners feel as they do about their pets. 
  • I have managed to maintain and deepen my relationship with my wonderful son Sequoia. I was worried back in 2013 that I would lose him in the divorce, as he was 18 at the time and the divorce was hard on him. Indeed it is one of the reasons why I don't think I will ever be able to fully forgive my ex, as she was the one who ultimately set in motion the events that lead to the divorce, and she chose to do it at a critical time in Sequoia's development. However, despite this difficulties that he has faced, I have watched him embark courageously on his own journey. He loves music. He loves to mix and produce music and that is what he is trying to make his career in. I have every confidence that he will succeed. I can feel it. I love that I get to be a part of that.  
  • Through all of this, I realize that my greatest accomplishment of all was finding Steph. Here is a woman who knows the value of a dollar, is thrifty with money and is happy to do stuff on her own. She understands that we are a team and she is happy to handle her responsibilities, while I handle mine. It is a complete 180 degree turnaround from my former marriage in which my ex demanded that I be involved in absolutely everything to the point where I couldn't focus on anything, or build anything. I am forever in this wonderful woman's debt because I see now just how unstoppable we are and have been. 
After writing this, I feel a new perspective: a much greater appreciation for Steph and a greater sense that we are ultimately going to be okay. If you are burning the candle at both ends and feel that constant sense of "there aren't enough hours in a day", I urge you to do the exercise that I have just done. Start at the beginning of your journey and make a timeline of events, important dates, setbacks you have overcome, things you have accomplished and savour it. This is especially important because your momentum moving forward is the best predictor of how your business will fare in the coming months. It is very easy to think that each month is just a fluke and to worry and stress about whether next month will be any good. This exercise should help alleviate some of that stress. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

April Finishes With Revenue of Just Over $6,000 and Some Thoughts on The Role of Money in Starting A Business

It has been a few weeks since my last post, mostly because I have been flat out busy with both freelance accounting work and the continued growth of the business. April has continued the trend of good, strong sales, with total merchandise sales of just under $4,000, and total revenue of over $6,000. It was not quite as busy as last month, but it is very close. One thing that is rapidly becoming clear is that a $3,000 is now a slow month, whereas this time last year, it was our best month. Furthermore, the local firm I am doing freelance work for is quite happy with my work so far, so I expect that I will continue to get work as long as they have jobs that need doing.

While I have been very happy with how the business is doing, I can't help but be sad sometimes that I didn't start the process of building this business much sooner - at least 15 years ago when I first conceived of the idea. E-bay was around then, and with a few technological exceptions, everything that was critical to the success of my business model was available then. But I didn't do it because I believed that everything had to be perfect before I could start: I had to have a full inventory and I had to have enough money saved up to live on for years while my business got started. The flaw in that line of reasoning though is that it never got started. 15 years went by before it did. The main reason why I allowed that to happen is that I over-estimated the importance of money in starting my business. The other reason why it happened was that I had too much money.

Now, don't get me wrong. Money is a critical ingredient to a new business. Without money you can't hire people, and you cannot buy stock. So some money is critical. However, what I have learned over the past two years is that what is even more critical is the development of a reputation, and the mastery of a viable business model. What do I mean by these two things? I'll explain.

You can have the best product in the world, but chances are you are not the only one selling it. When you start an online business, your largest challenge is gaining exposure and getting people, who already suffer from information overload to engage with your brand. This engagement is critical and is the first step in the sales process. Far too many people labour under the illusion that if you have a good product that people will just come and buy it without engaging with you first, or with your brand. While a few will indeed do this, generally it won't be enough to sustain a business, because people don't buy when they don't trust, and they don't trust people or businesses they don't know. This is why I love "tire kickers" whereas other business owners are often annoyed by them. To me when someone asks a question about my stamps, it means that they were interested enough to engage. Even if I don't think I can help them, I will try. The only time I won't is when the person contacting me is trying to engage me through my business media to discuss something that has nothing to do with stamps. Eventually, some of these people will become customers, or will tell other people about the business. Also, many people are reluctant to purchase items online with businesses they don't know or cannot read reviews about. Thankfully, E-bay has a built in system for customer reviews called "feedback" that gives potential customers an idea of whether or not a seller is reputable. Building up a solid feedback score with a long history takes time and isn't something that can be rushed. Building rapport with customers takes time also. Without your customer base, it is very hard to make sales, but with a solid customer base, it is much easier. So you are better off starting to build your customer base as soon as you can, even if you aren't in a position to stock a comprehensive product range when you get started. As long as you explain to your customers that you are in the process of building your offerings and that you make sure that whatever you do supply is of the best quality, you will build a good reputation.

The second reason why it is good to just get started on a small scale is that it will allow you to see, before you sink in too much money whether your business model is as viable as you think it is. After all, a profitable business is just the summation of a very large number of individually profitable transactions. If you can ensure that all of your transactions are profitable, then it will go a long way towards you being able to secure financing for your business idea later on.

This is where the concept of having too much money comes into play. If you start your business and you have a year's savings, then you have just enough to give you a reasonable cushion to give you time to get your business established. But you don't have so much that you can afford to rest on your laurels. You don't have so much that you can just overlook unprofitable transactions thinking that the profitable ones will compensate for them. You don't have so much that you won't be constantly re-evaluating the viability of your business model as new information comes to light, as you gain experience. The other thing is. you won't have so much that you won't feel an immense hunger to get the business on solid ground as soon as possible. That's a hunger that will push you to come up with ideas to make the business successful that you would just not come up with if the hunger isn't there. That lack of hunger is the major reason why businesses that are started on the side, with the idea that "I'll quit my job when the business can support us" rarely get to that point. It is very difficult to create the momentum that builds your reputation and moves your business forward if all you are spending on it is your spare time outside of work and family obligations. For one thing, your customers won't see you as someone who is dedicated to what you are doing if they can't get a hold of you when they have a question or concern about your product or service.

Many of those close to me have suggested to me that I shouldn't regret staying in the accounting profession for as long as I did. Usually, these well meaning friends and family members will point to the speed at which I was able to build my inventory and will say that I never could have done that if I were employed in a less lucrative field. While that is indeed true, I have found that I can only process and list so many stamps in the time that I have. It's wonderful to have such a large inventory at my disposal. But the reality is, most of it will just sit here until I get around to listing it, which could be up to 2 years. If I had started this business 15 years ago and taken a less lucrative, but less demanding job, I very likely would have been in a better position than I am today, for even though I may have had less stock to work with, it would all be listed. I wouldn't have the huge backlog that I have now. I would be light years ahead of the game in terms of having a reputation. By now, I would be a well known dealer in most professional circles, whereas right now I'm still relatively unknown. But probably most importantly, if I had started this earlier and earned less money, I would been a lot more careful about the financial decisions I did make during the last 15 years.  But having a large 6 figure salary allowed me to lie to myself. It allowed me to convince myself that it was OK to mortgage myself to the hilt and live a 6 figure lifestyle with my family, since "my day would eventually come". It never did though, and it was only after I left the profession that I got a second chance.

So I'm writing this post for those who want to pursue their dream and know very clearly what it is. Even if you know at 19 or 20 what that dream is, don't allow people to talk you out of pursuing it, or putting it on hold to "be responsible" by taking a high paying job. I say this because the longer you stay in that type of environment, the more difficult it will be to get out, and the more regret you will have from never having tried. You are much better off giving it your best shot and giving up only when it becomes clear that it is not viable economically. At what point is that? I would say that it is not at that point just because your revenue volume is low. A business idea is not economically viable when you cannot make an individual transaction profitable. In other words, if I couldn't sell stamps at enough of a margin to cover E-bay's fees and have a decent profit left after many, many tries then I would have known that my business model wasn't viable. Or let's take a different example. Suppose your dream is to be a disc jockey. If you couldn't get a gig that pays you enough to cover all your expenses of performing that gig, including a reasonable return on the equipment that you supplied, after many, many attempts, then your idea might not be viable.  But if you are able to turn a profit on even a small volume of transactions, and you know you can replicate those transactions, then your business is viable, even if it isn't yet self-sustaining. Your problem becomes how to sustain it until it can sustain itself. Your main options there are to seek financing from investors or to work part time or full time, though full time work has the major drawback that I have discussed.

Of course, it is much easier to secure financing when you can show that your fundamental business model is viable. That, you do, by showing what you have sold to date, and what profit you have been able to make. That is why on shows like Dragon's Den and Shark Tank the dragons and sharks ask all the time about sales volume. The contestants will go on these shows and talk about how wonderful their idea is and they will get interrupted with the question. "How much have you sold?", or "You mortgaged your house and put it all into the business. How much did you sell?". Most of the time when the person answers "none" of gives a low number like "$5,000" and they are turned down, it is not because of the sales volume being low. It is because their answer does not convince the dragons or the sharks that they have mastered their business model. If the contestants could show that their idea is profitable and scalable, then lack of funds is not a problem. But when somebody invests their life savings into an idea before they have proven its soundness to themselves, that is major red-flag to a prospective investor.

I want to go back to the example of the disc jockey for a minute though because it is much easier to judge viability of your business model when you are selling a product. Basically you will either be able to find or create a market for your product that is willing to pay you more for it than it cost you to buy it or you can't. In the case of a disc jockey or other artistic pursuit, you are still selling a product, but it is highly personal product (a personal service or your pre-mixed music). In that case your reputation and your connections became much, much more important to your success than they would be to someone selling a non-personal product that anyone can sell. I think the only time it would be appropriate to give up on something like this as a way to make a living would be if you had a very large following of fans but it was clear that those fans were not willing to pay you for your work. This often happens to bloggers for instance. I write two other blogs in addition to this one. My Canadian stamp blog gets up to 500 visits a day on a good day, and usually around 300. I have had a donation button on my blog now for over 4 months and I haven't received one dime from anybody for my posts. People are quite happy to read it for free. But none of my readers want to pay for me to write the posts that I write. All that means is that if my dream were to make a living writing stamp blogs, I know now that it probably isn't an economically viable dream. On the other hand if my dream is to become a stamp dealer, and to use my blogs to build my reputation and gain exposure within the collector community, then it can be very viable if that traffic leads to profitable stamp sales.

So don't make the mistake of allowing a lack of money to stop you from developing your business idea. Work on your idea, build your reputation and connections, and prove to yourself that you can make money at it. I think you will find that if you do that, you will be able to find the money you need to continue developing your business. It may not be enough to become a big business, but it will be enough to allow you to make a living doing what you love.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Announcing the World's First Bed and Breakfast Aimed at Stamp Collectors!

As many of my readers are now aware, my partner Steph and I recently moved from Toronto to historic Saint John, New Brunswick as we had a dream of operating a Bed and Breakfast, in conjunction with my stamp business. We bought a lovely 140 year old house located in the west side of the city, which used to be a Bed and Breakfast. We decided that it would be a fabulous idea to operate it as a Bed and Breakfast with a twist: it will be the first Bed and Breakfast that I know of, which is aimed at providing a quiet and cozy, stamp filled getaway for those of you philatelists looking to immerse yourself in your stamps, while having all your needs catered to.

We offer two guest bedrooms, each with their own self-contained bathroom, so that you can be assured of complete privacy in your room. Our room rates range from a low $95 per night for our Rose Gold Room, to $105 per night for our large Grandma Green Room. You can bring your stamps with you and sit in our comfy office, at a large table, with excellent lighting, and access to all the equipment you could want or need to aid you in your study: watermark trays and fluid; a signoscope; micrometers, ultra-violet lamps, instanta gauges, colour keys and so on. You will have access to our bar and coffee and tea station at all times, so that you can sip a cup of tea, coffee or a glass of spirits while you work. We provide a tasty range of fresh baked goods throughout the day as well, so you never have to go hungry while you are here. We will also provide you with most any philatelic literature that you request to have available during your stay.

If you do not wish to bring stamps with you during your stay, then you can always browse our extensive, specialized stock of Canada and British West Africa material from the comfort of our office. Our Nigeria stock is one of the most extensive in the world, and contains many rare items.

During your stay you will have access to me and we can discuss any philatelic topic that you wish to discuss. Our basic package for $100 includes all the accouterments described, plus a 10% discount on any of our stock items, plus a scrumptious breakfast. We can recommend a variety of restaurants for lunch and dinner. For those wanting the ultimate, pampered experience, we offer an unlisted deluxe package, which includes lunch and a gourmet dinner with your choice of drinks for each day of your stay.

We are situated on a large corner property, with a large yard, where you can relax with a book and a drink, while you are not working on your stamps. New Brunswick, and Saint John itself offer a wide range of physical attractions that you can visit during the day, that are all within driving distance. Some of the attractions that are well worth the day trip to visit are pictured below:

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Here we have Hopewell Rocks Park where there are some of the highest and most rapidly rising tides in the world. It is located just 2 hours away from Saint John to the east of the city. When the tide is out, you can venture well past the rocks, and when it is fully in, the water level will be well above the heads of the people that you see on the beach in the above picture.

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Then there is the Hartland Bridge, which is the oldest and longest covered bridge in the world at 1282 feet long. It is also located 2 hours away from Saint John, but to the north.

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For those who like to golf, there is the Royal Oaks Golf Club in Moncton, which is an hour and a half to the north-east of the City.

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About 10 minutes away from us, by car, there is a large covered market in downtown Saint John, where there is a large selection of organic produce and artisan goods.

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Carlton Martello Tower, is located about 400 metres away from our property, and offers a beautiful view of the city. It dates from the War of 1812, and was built as a fortification to defend the city against outside hostilities.

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The main street downtown offers a lovely array of shops and restaurants that lead down to a picturesque waterfront.

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The reversing falls, located in the city, are a series of rapids where the Saint John River empties into the Bay of Fundy. The tides of the bay force the water to flow in the opposite direction to the current when the tide is high, which is a unique phenomenon, and well worth a look.

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These three pictures all show the Irving Nature Park, which is the second largest park in the province. It is located approximately 10 km from our property, and is easily accessible by car in about 5 minutes.

We believe that New Brunswick is one of Canada's best kept secrets, and we are confident that once you experience it for yourself, you will agree. The temperatures here during the summer months are always between about 20 and 25 degrees Celsius, which is ideal.

If you want to check out our website, and learn more, you can get there by clicking the following link:

Of course, if you don't collect stamps, we offer regular bed and breakfast packages as well.

We are accepting our first bookings in mid-May 2017.