Starting a small business can be daunting. You might have a family to support and any new endeavor isn’t a surefire success. When I started Gauntlet Press I was still employed as a teacher. At times, I felt I was working two jobs. What I was really doing was transitioning from one job to another.
Teaching paid my bills until my business became successful enough for me to retire. When I retired at sixty I had been operating Gauntlet Press for five years. I knew that with my pension and social security I could continue to grow my publishing company and pay the bills. So, just what did I do to begin my small business (which is now my full-time job).
(1) Decide What You Want To Do
A small business shouldn’t be an onerous job. You already had one. It should be something you’re passionate about. You do something you enjoy but at the same time you earn money. With the Internet starting a business is easier than ever. Use the knowledge you gained from your job or a hobby of yours and turn it into a new profession. A woman I know made jewelry literally from tossed-away junk and items she found at the seashore. She had been giving necklaces and bracelets to relatives as presents for years. With a website, she was able to turn her hobby into a lucrative business and she was eventually able to quit her mundane job.
I began Gauntlet Press by publishing a magazine devoted to censorship. I began small, publishing two issues per year. Two years later I branched out into selling signed limited editions by authors I treasured. And initially I published just two books a year. I now publish six books per year. I intentionally wanted to remain small so I could have a hands-on approach with each book. I didn’t just publish a signed edition of a classic. I published a definitive edition of books by masters such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker and Robert Bloch. As a writer, these had been my mentors. I had never met them but reading their literature taught me how to write. Now, I was able to work with them and in the case of Matheson a strong friendship developed.
I know too many small or specialty presses that become too large. They end up being assembly line producers with nothing added to the book except for the author’s signature. That wasn’t for me. I’m hands-on with each book.
(2) Develop a Business Plan
I know too many publishers who began publishing as a hobby and within a few years went belly up. They didn’t have a business plan. Initially, I took money from my savings to put into my business. I knew I had to pay my bills for each issue of Gauntlet Magazine and later the books I published. That’s why I started off small. The first issue of Gauntlet Magazine made a modest profit. Future issues also brought in money. My signed limited editions allowed me to repay my loan to myself. I make it a point to have enough money to pay all of my bills for a book I am publishing before I go to print.
I initially sold a large percentage of my books to dealers (but I had to give them a deep discount). I paid for someone to construct a website and now 80% of my sales come from the Internet. I dropped deadbeat dealers (those who were months late in paying me). I didn’t need the stress.
In my case I am one of two full-time employees. I have a full-time layout and design editor (who is actually an independent contractor). My home is my office. I have no secretary. I contact authors for books, take orders from my website and the few dealers I still work with, input orders into my database, send out invoices, ship books when they arrive and pay the bills. This doesn’t have to be your model. You can involve your spouse and/or children. You can interview and hire those you require. Just make sure you have money in the bank for your initial plans and later expansion.
(3) Find a Niche That Is Unique
Photographers are a dime a dozen if you do a Google search. Type in wedding photographers and while the list is still long it is shorter than the original. What makes your photography unique? What are you passionate about? Come up with a list of ideas and search the Internet for competitors. I know a photographer who makes more than a good living photographing solely partners of the LBGT community. And with the permission of those she photographs she also sells prints online. She found her niche. The woman I mentioned above who sells jewelry provides something unique. Her costs are minimal (seashells at the seashore don’t cost a penny). With her website, she was able to sell across the country and even internationally.
Another successful small business owner, who recently passed away, was quite religious. He also loved constructing stained glass windows with a religious theme. Most of the windows were of a modest size, but some were quite large. He combined his “hobby” with his religious leanings and began selling Christian-based stained glass windows online. He found a niche where he could make money from his passion and beliefs.
So, think outside the box. Say you have a hobby which hundreds or thousands might also take part in. Figure out what can you do to differentiate yourself and then open an online store to sell your creations?
(4) Have a professional construct a website
Websites now are not nearly as expensive to build as they were ten or twenty years ago. But don’t pinch pennies. Check out websites on the Internet both for their strengths and weaknesses. I’m driven crazy when I go to a website and can’t find contact information (an email address or phone number). Make your site unique but not too busy. Make it easy to navigate. Make ordering simple. Then you want a company (or individual) who will build the site you desire. Get references for those you consider using. Comparison shop.
You want someone who will explain what he/she or a company can do for you in simple English, not technobabble. You want someone who will listen to you to meet your needs. You want a site that can adapt with ever changing technology. You want ongoing support as glitches are inevitable. I had a Gauntlet Press site for fifteen years. Eventually, it was a technological dinosaur using an outdated shopping cart that frustrated customers. When I hired a company to construct a new site one of my requirements was that as technology advanced it could be added or substituted onto the site I had (WordPress is big now, for example, but will it even be around in ten years? I needed to know that I could replace WordPress with something new and better without having to pay to construct a new site).
(5) Communication/Customer Service
How do you differentiate yourself from large companies? By offering better customer service. Mass market publishers seldom deal with individual customers. If you have a question you have to go to a bookstore where you might get an answer. At Gauntlet if someone has a question they can email or give me a call (and I, as boss, answers — no menus please). My contact information is on my website. I respond to emails the day I receive them. If a book has been damaged in shipping I replace the book, no questions asked. A happy customer is one who returns.
(6) Hold Yourself Accountable
Everyone screws up. Own it. Fix it. Whatever your business doesn’t pass the buck. Customers will respect you if you admit to a mistake and quickly remedy the problem. When I was a teacher and had a boss, my principal would find someone to blame even if he was responsible. I had no respect for him. Think about your dealings with stores and businesses you deal with. If there is a problem do they acknowledge it? Do they do all they can to remedy the problem? Or do they pass the buck or tell you (not in so many words) to live with it?
(7) Mentor Others/Form A Community
I relied on other when I began Gauntlet Press. Now when a someone who is thinking of starting a small press contacts me I answer his/her questions. I don’t view others as competitors. We all have our own niche. So, I’m more than happy to offer advice. And when it comes to a community well, all of you reading this have GoRead. There are people who can offer advice on just about any topic. All you have to do is ask.
(8) Finally, Don’t Make Your Small Business All-Consuming
You started the business not just to make money but to be your own boss doing something that was your passion. Put too much time into your small business and it becomes a job, something you stress over. Take a day off. Two days, even a week now and then. Leave an “away” message on your email so customers know you are gone. Decompress and even revisit your business model. Have you grown too big? Do you need the extra stress? Or, on the other hand, can you modify your business to regain the passion you may have lost.
Starting your own business is no easy task, but the rewards far outweigh risks if you have a plan and seek advice before you plunge forward. Being your own boss is far better than having someone you don’t respect looking over your shoulder waiting for you to fail.
Guest Author: Barry Hoffman is known as a publisher for Gauntlet Press, however his true passion is writing. He has penned five different novels: Hungry Eyes, Eyes of Prey, Judas Eyes, Born Bad and Blindsided.