When is a failure not a failure? Can a non-success be a failure? This is an ongoing discussion I have been having with a friend of mine who knows something about the history of my last business.
In early 1995, I decided to “get serious” about a business that I had started a few years earlier but had operated it more like a hobby than a real business. So I invested $1,500, opened a business account, modified my existing garage workshop and started to devote some serious time to the company. We made custom branding irons, and our primary target market were the thousands of amateur woodworkers across the United States.
We started out slowly with a few modest classified ads in woodworking magazines, and the business gradually started to grow. By the end of 1995, I was convinced the company had potential.
As we slowly added customers, we began to expand the line by adding electrically heated versions, drill press-mounted models and other variations to suit specific requests by woodworking customers. The business grew.
Then one day it occurred to me that we were in a “single-sale” business. Once we sold a custom branding iron to an individual, there was little possibility of selling him anything else unless he somehow broke or wore out his branding iron.
So I decided we needed to add more products to our line. But what?
It just so happened that at that moment, I was thinking about building a larger, stronger workbench for myself. Doing an Internet search, I discovered a company in Wisconsin that sold maple laminated “butcher-block” bench tops. (You bought the top and made the legs yourself.) When I contacted the company and checked their prices, I discovered that they were willing to discount the list price of their bench tops by 50 percent because their company owned their own maple forests and their costs were strictly under their total control. I bought one of their tops to be sure they were making a quality product.
Soon after that I flew to Wisconsin and arranged to be one of their U.S. distributors. I also arranged for them to drop ship the bench tops to my customers. Drop ship means that the manufacturer will take an order from one of his sellers and ship the product directly to the buyer. The huge advantage to me was that I didn’t have to maintain an inventory of bench tops, thus avoiding the costs and storage problems of such large, expensive items.
So we added maple bench tops to our website and began to add a bench-top flier and order form into every shipping box of a branding iron. (This is called “bounce-back” selling in the mail-order industry, and it is why you always get a catalog or brochure in the shipping box whenever you order anything by mail order. And it works.)
Over time we added many other products to our woodworking line. At one time or another we sold Gorilla Glue (I’m sure you’ve heard of that), Bloxygen (a product that prevents varnishes and other finishing materials from “skinning over”), Japanese pull saws, Hollowood (a tubular plywood product), exotic wood veneers, antique wagon plans and even pet memorial markers.
Now here’s where I answer my question of when is a non-success not a failure. Over time, none of the products mentioned above ever “took off” like we wished they had. None of them was ever what you could call a success. But we always made money on every one of them, and they always added a little bit to our gross sales. They helped the company grow. They were non-successes, but they were also not failures.
Eventually we dropped every one of them and decided that we were in the branding business and concentrated all our efforts in that area.
The lesson for business start-ups to be learned here? Keep trying new ideas and new products. As long as you don’t lose money, you never know when you’re going to hit a home run with one of them. But eventually you need to decide what business you are really in.