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Subscribe to our Newsletter for first access to:
* New arrivals, catalogues, and special sales
* Upcoming book fairs (plus free or discounted passes!)
* Book collecting news
* Rare book trivia
We send our newsletters once per month.
You probably receive spam every day telling you “Make money while working from home!” This is a successful foot-in-the-door statement; years ago, I found myself opening emails from unknown contacts, against my better judgment, because it promised that very thing. I desperately wanted to work from home and own my own business.
Years later, I do own my own rare book business, operating it from a private home office. It has been scary at times: barely scraping by in lean months, especially in Fall 2008, when no one was spending money on collectibles. There have also been uplifting times: I realized I made the right decision to quit my 9-5 job when I made half my yearly salary in one weekend at a trade show.
Sound good? I thought so. So do you have what it takes to be your own boss? Here are some hurdles you will certainly face if you decide to go off on your own:
Obstacle: It’s Just You
If you become a sole proprietor or member of a small business, all responsibilities fall on you. Or maybe it’s not just you; perhaps you’ll have new employees or interns to manage, and this might be new territory. You’ll also be managing your own schedule, which can be difficult if you’re used to structure. You might be able to adapt to these changes, but personality can play a large role in what you’re comfortable with. Personally, I’m a bit of a control freak so I love having a hand in every aspect of our business. Time management took a bit longer to master, but I now know how to maximize my productivity.
Advantage: It’s just you! No more office politics, micromanagement, or working for someone who doesn’t appreciate you– the list goes on and on.
Obstacle: Blending Your Work Life with Your Home Life
Most people enjoy that an office job gives them the ability to, both physically and mentally, leave their work at the office. This can be tricky to maneuver if you’re now working in your home, and could also be an obstacle for those you live with. You may benefit from renting a separate office space, but this isn’t always practical. After years of working from home, setting up a separate area for our books and “office” has helped us to stay more organized. It also prevents our business from intruding into every aspect of our personal lives– for the most part.
Advantage: No commuting! And blending might not be bad at all if you build your business around something you’re personally passionate about.
Obstacle: You Will Work Longer and Harder Than Ever Before
You’ve probably heard entrepreneurs say “I work from the minute I wake up until the minute I go to sleep.” It may not be like this all the time, but for the most part, it is absolutely true. It will be especially true in the beginning, as you’ll need to do whatever it takes to get your startup going.
Advantage: You will work longer and harder, but it’s ultimately for your own gain. Nothing is more satisfying than that! While you will make time sacrifices, you’ll also have more flexibility. I’ve gotten over the fact that I will work during every Super Bowl for the foreseeable future (and I am a huge football fan!) because I have a trade show that weekend every year. But even though I work most weekends and many holidays, I ultimately have the ability to change my schedule when I really need to.
There are certainly sacrifices toward owning your own business, but for successful entrepreneurs, the advantages far outweigh the difficulties.
As a small business, we benefit from keeping things, well… small. An affordable payroll, an easy-to-manage yet robust inventory of rare books, and a lean overhead allow us, in a counterintuitive way, to compete with larger firms. There may be only two of us, but pound-for-pound, we believe we are one of the strongest independent book companies out there.
As I alluded to in last week’s post, however, there are times when small just can’t compete with large. A few years ago, we received a call from a man who wanted to have his father-in-law’s book collection appraised. He had met with a few other sellers and did not like their manner (some booksellers tend to be grumpy), so he eventually found us. We arranged to see the collection in order to provide him with an appraisal letter for insurance purposes.
We spent several days surveying the books, and there were some really fine gems. Among the collection was a signed Oscar Wilde, a limited edition of Hamlet illustrated and signed by Picasso, and a book inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. We documented and appraised the worth of the collection, and we gave him the letter of appraisal.
Mistake #1: This was one of our very first high-end appraisals, and we gave this man the list before we received payment. We assumed he would send the check when he said he would, but it never came. Drats! Never turn over an assignment until it is paid for in full.
Mistake #2: We never asked him if he was working with other booksellers. He could have lied, but had we asked, we might have been tipped off that he really only wanted the appraisal letter (with estimates in full retail, not fair market) so that he could shop the list around to other local booksellers and auction houses. Serendipitously, with the estimates in full retail, no bookseller was able to make an offer that came close to what he wanted and the collection remained unsold.
Mistake #3: We dealt only with the son-in-law, not his wife or her father (who owned the collection), so he was able to sidestep us by hiding behind the “I’m just the messenger” routine. We’ve found that if you’re going to make an offer on someone’s collectibles, it’s always ideal to avoid the proverbial middleman who can often stall, confuse, and sabotage negotiations.
Mistake #4: Even if we had known that he wanted to sell all along, we couldn’t have afforded the collection anyway. At this point in our early career, we only had our small bank account and had not yet applied for a business loan. We had been encouraged by our accountant to apply for a business line of credit, in case this very scenario were to happen, but we “never got around to it”. Now that we really needed a credit line to write this man a large check, we simply could not do it.
In the end, the family eventually paid us our appraisal fee (a few months later…whew!) and they consigned the entire collection to a local auction house. We waited for the sale and then bid on the items we really wanted (and could really afford), and actually won a few of them. We were lucky that this scenario didn’t turn out worse, as it certainly could have. Since then, we always demand payment ahead of time, and we’ve learned how to ask better questions with the goal of uncovering someone’s true motive. We applied for a business loan and are now able to buy books on credit so that we can grow our inventory and ultimately our business. We’re still rather small in the scheme of things, but are able to compete with larger firms (with larger bankrolls) now that we have the right tools.
My small business, a rare book company, has only two employees. There are many advantages to being small, our favorite being the ability to develop strong personal relationships with our customers. They have easy access to us, and it allows us to put their needs first. We also enjoy the many freedoms of small business ownership: the absence of large firm regulations, the ability to conduct business how and when we please, the liberty to take risks and to innovate. Never underestimate the power of small: even Shakespeare warned us “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
Then of course, there are times when it would be helpful to have a larger workforce. Traveling for trade shows, about 10-12 per year, is a time when we would really benefit from having as many employees as possible. Minions to scout for new stock and connect with customers on the sale floor would certainly grow our business. On the flip side, our few solo experiences have reinforced why we choose to run our company with at least two of us. At the NY Book Fair last year, I covered for my partner while he was dealing with a bookseller-related injury (seriously: he ran after the FedEx guy to retrieve a package, slipped and sprained his foot– bookselling is dangerous!) I set up the show on my own, and took over phone bidding at an auction that same day. This also proved to be dangerous—in the confusion, the auction house called both of us simultaneously, and we effectively bid against each other until I realized the mistake and stopped bidding.
Even if your company is small, you don’t always have to go it alone. Here are some suggestions for reaching out to your larger community of small business owners:
1) Make a list of your tasks and responsibilities, ideally with step-by-step ways of completing them. This way, you’ll be ready to delegate jobs right away when you’re sick or unable to work.
2) Maintain positive relationships with your co-workers and/or colleagues. Have someone in mind who can cover for you, so you don’t have to go through the process of finding someone when you’re already out of commission. Return the favor: help them out and they’ll be more likely to help you.
3) Join professional organizations to expand your network of colleagues. We’ve met dozens of booksellers across the country through our pro organization, the ABAA. These connections have referred us great clients, suggested better and faster ways of shipping, and packed, lifted, and driven our merchandise around the country. We’ve also been able to find reliable local referrals, for everything from photographers to lawyers, through our small business advocate and health care provider, Freelancers Union.
My partner and colleagues covered for me earlier this year while at a book fair in Pasadena. I was sick and our SoCal colleagues took me to their hospital and let me stay at their house while I recuperated. In return, my partner and a colleague from Connecticut helped them by running their shop for a few hours, entertaining customers and packing and shipping books. The presence, assistance, and advice of our colleagues have really helped our business to thrive over the past few years. Though we may be small, together we are all a bit more fierce.
Profound thanks to our generous colleagues: Jen & Brad Johnson of The Book Shop in Covina, CA; Teri Osborn of William Reese Company in New Haven, CT; Andrew Gaub of Bruce McKittrick Rare Books in Narberth, PA; Kent Tschanz of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, UT.
Last week, we were in London on a buying trip. We’ve always found our travels to be our favorite experiences; after all, traveling and moving to New York City was what inspired us to start our own business. Traveling is expensive, but finding great merchandise can offset the cost of a trip.
We find inspiration abroad for many reasons. First of all, Europe as a whole has a much longer history than the US does. The printing press was invented in Germany; the first book pressed was the famous Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. More books have been printed in Europe, so there are more books to be found there. We choose England specifically because we specialize in British and Irish literature. One of our first great finds was T.S. Eliot’s first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, a landmark work in English-language poetry, one of only 500 copies. Earlier this year, we sourced Twelve Poems by Edith Wharton. She is an American author, yes, but this work was published in London (only 130 copies, this one signed by her). Lastly, in a practical way, traveling gets us out of our home office and out meeting with customers and colleagues.
If you take inspiration one step further, traveling can be transformative. Allow yourself be changed and challenged by your experiences, and you can be influenced to do something out of the ordinary. Innovation is essential to being a successful entrepreneur.
This year, we felt “pushed” to look for books outside of our usual specialty of 20th century literature. On this (transformative) trip, we ended up with quite a few older books. A first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (printed in 1726), an 18th century Tom Jones with beautiful illustrations, and an English translation of Don Quixote from 1819.
Innovation is essential, but the trick is to also to make these trips profitable. Three years ago, we bought modestly, and made enough to cover the cost of our trip, with a little bit of profit to boot. To make traveling truly worth it though, we need to find true diamonds-in-the-rough. Now we push ourselves to look for scarcer and more valuable material, and this often happens to be older material. We’re really excited about the books we bought last week, and that excitement usually inspires our customers too.
We allow our business trips to inspire us to learn about and buy different types of merchandise. Expanding our business into other specialties ultimately allows us to reach more customers, and will keep our trips to Europe profitable. Allowing your travels to inspire you will help your business to succeed.
We just returned from a week-long buying trip to London. After catching up on some lost sleep, I can already feel the onset of a scratchy throat and achy joints. This always happens. A busy schedule, plus changes in environment and time zones, wears me down and makes me vulnerable to getting sick. The worst part though, is with only two employees in our company, we don’t have formal sick days or other people to delegate work to.
Traveling for business can be grueling. Sick and tired of being sick and tired? These are a few things that help us to rebound quickly after a long business trip.
This is not intended as medical advice, and be sure to consult your doctor if you feel sick or have problems when traveling.
-Avoid Junk Food – It’s so tempting: the sweet candy, salty snacks, and unhealthy meals offered at rest stops and the airport. Don’t do it! Stick to your regular diet as much as possible, as a change in diet can make the stresses of traveling even more intense. It’s certainly easier to eat what’s readily available when you’re busy and rushed, but planning ahead can help you to make better choices when traveling (more on this below).
-Use Moderation – OK, I admit that it’s really difficult to stick to a regular diet when you’re away from home. I see travel as an opportunity to sample local cuisines, and to indulge and imbibe a bit more than usual. If you find that this happens to you, think ahead about the food and drinks you will encounter on your trip. Understanding your behavior and cravings can help you to moderate your indulgences.
-Plan Ahead – A friend of ours who travels to South America frequently still manages to stick to a strict kosher diet. How is this possible? She plans ahead. Along with personal belongings, she brings plenty of food and bottled water for the trip, and researches places to eat at her destination. Taking a tip from her, my partner Josh and I now travel with a ready supply of water, granola bars, and protein bars.
-Bring Medications – Despite precautions taken, it’s still easy to come down with something when you’re sleep-deprived and stressed. Instead of waiting until you are home, or trying desperately to find your favorite brand of cold remedy in a strange place, bring medications and vitamins with you. Again, consult your doctor first. If he or she recommends a certain regimen for traveling, you can be well on your way to feeling better as soon as you start to feel sick.
-Drink Water and Wash Your Hands—Often – This is a no-brainer, but still good advice!
-Stay Active! – Working out, running, or getting exercise can keep your body strong and help you to sleep better. Don’t overdo it, but try to stick to whatever schedule you use at home. Josh packs a suspension training system he can hook up to any door in a hotel room, and I like yoga and my ballet DVD, which I can play on my computer. I also like swimming when my hotel has a pool (and a hot tub isn’t bad for relaxation, either.)
-Unpack Within One Day – Whether it’s in your hotel room or in a boardroom, unpacking and setting up your personal space like it’s your own will help you feel more at ease. This also goes for your return home. I admit it—this is something I almost never do, but when I do put in the extra effort to unpack right away, I get into my “home schedule” faster and feel more like I never left.
I’ve broken all of these rules on numerous occasions, and when I do, I usually return from travel in worse shape than when I left. This is not good for business. I need to catch up on work and follow up with contacts after a long trip. Having had a crappy day yesterday, I caught up on housekeeping tasks like email, unpacking, and organizing my work schedule for the week. I’ll tackle the tougher tasks today and tomorrow, and get back into my workout routine when my throat feels better.
Running your own business gives you flexibility, but you might not have others to rely on. Make it a priority to keep yourself healthy, even when traveling will stress you out.
A few weeks ago, The World’s Longest Invoice was created online. Small business owners and freelancers contributed their unpaid invoices for deadbeat clients, encouraged by the Twitter hashtag #GetPaidNotPlayed. Thousands of independent workers shared their horror stories and, of course, the amounts they’ve been cheated. The total? Over $15.9 million.
So how does this happen? Why do clients (repeatedly and aggressively) rip off the small business owners of the world? One explanation is that clients think they can get away with it. Another is that they DO get away with it. Smaller companies, start-ups, and freelancers often don’t have the experience or resources to handle these legal battles. We were stiffed on a $250 invoice once. Not a huge sum, but non-payment nonetheless. A woman in Connecticut (you know who you are) failed to pay us for a first edition of The Call of the Wild. We repeatedly sent invoices by certified mail, but she ignored every single one. Calls and emails went unanswered. It was later suggested to us to pursue the matter in small claims court or with a collection agency. By the time we decided to do this, we were too busy running our business and just let it slide. But that’s just my point, and the point of The World’s Longest Invoice. Too many of us have been letting it slide, or pursuing deadbeats without any results, for far too long.
So what can you do when a client doesn’t pay? What can small business owners and freelancers do to protect themselves?
- First, standardize your business practices. Draw up a contract for every job, every client, every time. A contract should include a description of the work, payment information, and payment schedule. This will also help clients feel comfortable that you will uphold your end of the deal, as “deadbeating” can go both ways. Decide how to accept payment– many professionals suggest taking a down-payment (up to 50%) before the start of any project, and collecting the balance upon completion, before turning over any goods or services to your client.
- Take action! Bill your clients on time and address non-payment immediately. Send a late payment notice notifying them of the date you will follow up with legal action. Within your area’s statutory limits, pursue non-payment in small claims court, or work with a collection agency or mediator.
- Know your rights and have legal resources available. You don’t have to have a lawyer on retainer, but you should have a referral on hand in case you ever need one. Familiarize yourself with lawyers who specialize in business organization or contracts. Local lawyers will be particularly helpful, as your rights in court or with collections will vary by jurisdiction.
- Join a professional organization for your trade. You are not alone, so take advantage of the collective knowledge of your fellow professionals. Your group might even have access to legal staff. Since joining our professional organization, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, we have obtained invaluable advice and support from fellow booksellers who have seen it all and lived to tell their tales.
The World’s Longest Invoice will be submitted to New York State legislators today in support of the Payment Protection Act. With this legislation, freelancers would have the ability to submit non-payment complaints to the Department of Labor for follow-up. The Invoice was sponsored by the Freelancers Union, which provides advocacy, organization, and health insurance for independent workers and small business owners.
With the right resources on your side, you won’t have to worry about deadbeat clients. Then you can get back to doing what you do best– running your business.
When you own your business, decision making power is yours and yours alone. A risk can certainly pay off, but it could also land you in hot water. Here are some tips that can help you to make sound decisions when taking a chance on a new product, customer, or endeavor.
1. Take All (and Even Unusual) Precautions
Most of the time, a “good deal” really is too good to be true. With this adage in mind, rein in your enthusiasm and consider the consequences you’ll face if your risk doesn’t pay off. Having an exit strategy before you even begin could help. We let our excitement get the better of us when we found a few rare (or so we thought) books online from an unknown seller. This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, first editions in their original dust jackets, are extremely rare and each could be worth up to $200,000. We made a deal with the seller, received the books, and thoroughly examined them. They were identical to known copies, had appropriate wear, and even the paper felt right. It wasn’t until we bought another book from this seller that we noticed that the dust jacket artwork wasn’t quite right. We examined all of the books over again, did more research on off-set lithography printing, and purchased a microscope to examine ink splatter patterns (really? Yes, really!) Upon closer investigation, every dust jacket turned out to be a clever fake. Think of some different or unusual methods you could use to evaluate the risks of your endeavor. Then take the plunge.
2. Ask Advice of Colleagues and Mentors
Sometimes Googling someone just isn’t enough. When we buy or sell books from a person unknown to us, we ask for references from other booksellers. This sounds very responsible, but to be honest, we used to be lazy about actually checking the references. It is worth it to ask for more than one, and to check ALL of them. Also, if you ask for references, and then never hear from the person again, you probably avoided a problematic situation. Calling upon colleagues or mentors will expand your net of knowledge, often times from professionals more seasoned than yourself. From making just a few phone calls, we’ve avoided doing business with many known deadbeats, and even a guy that was recently in federal prison for violating US trade embargos. Yikes!
3. When in Doubt, Go With Your Gut
Then there are times you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re walking right into a trap. This happened recently for us when we received a call from a guy who wanted to sell his “grandfather’s books”. We agreed to meet him outside of a Starbucks and evaluate the books, which were in the trunk of his car. Upon meeting him, we immediately got the vibe that these books were somehow stolen. With the usual questions (“Where did you get these books?” “How long have you had them?”), he was nervous and vague. There were old invoices inserted into some of the volumes, and when we tried to look at them, he snatched the books from our hands and tore up the slips. This is the point in time when we asked for a reference or two from another seller, but he insisted “You don’t need that! Do you want to make an offer, or what?” Needless to say, we walked away. I’m sure there are other sellers who would be comfortable buying books from just about anyone, but the consequences for selling stolen goods are just not something we want to face. Your gut reaction could save you from sticky situations like this.
Taking a risk is ultimately what will get you ahead in your business. When it’s possible however, turning blind risks into better-educated guesses will improve your chance of succeeding.
Going off on your own is not an easy feat. We know- it was a risky move when my partner and I quit our day jobs to pursue bookselling full-time. Our first few months were scary, but we had prepared ourselves for the shock of lost comforts and the gamble of living on one income. While you can’t be prepared for everything, here are some questions you should ask yourself before taking your big leap:
1. Do I have the foundation I need to start right now?
The best time to prepare for launching your own business is while you’re still working another job. With steady income as your safety net, you can experiment and take risks with various business opportunities before going solo. Use this time to build on your experience and establish a customer base. This is also the time to save money. You’ll need enough for business start-up, but don’t forget what you’ll need for the ongoing cost of running your business. New businesses need time to become established, and yours will not be able to grow if your new income is paying for your day-to-day expenses. By the time we quit our day jobs, we had been running our book business on the side for four years. Our financial safety net was enough to cover our running costs and living expenses for one year, plus extra so we could continue to buy inventory.
Note: This is also a good time to think about other expenses you’ll be taking on (health insurance, retirement savings, office rent and materials, etc.) These are often the easiest expenses to overlook when your employer has been providing them up to this point.
2. How do I handle the unknown?
When someone asks us for advice on starting a business, we tell them our horror stories: low sales months, deadbeat clients, the economic crash of 2008. This works as a litmus test of sorts, to test their readiness for dealing with challenges. The best business owners rely on their creativity and determination to get themselves through tough times. Do mistakes halt your progress, or do you treat every failure as a learning experience? We pressed our friends and colleagues for their horror stories first. Ask yourself (or other business owners) “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and “What’s the strangest thing that can happen?” When something goes wrong in your new business, there won’t be a superior to help you out. Write your own policies and solidify your business practices before these situations arise. Thinking about worst case scenarios can ready you for unsettling situations, and you’ll be less afraid of the unknown.
3. How will I fill my day?
One of the perks of business ownership is that you can manage your own schedule, but it could take some time before you’re used to this. Give yourself some structure before you fall head first into a time warp. Good business owners are naturally independent and self-starting. Do you have the training and expertise to be a good leader and a competent manager? I find that if too much freedom is getting the better of me, giving myself more structured hours increases my productivity. Treating my home office like a real office (and getting out of my pajamas) helps, too.
4. If all else fails, what’s my exit strategy?
This is not to get you discouraged before you even begin, but another part of preparing and planning ahead. Even solid business models can struggle, so consider ways of reducing your expenses to get yourself through lean times. If you can’t trim expenses, save for a larger safety net before you start (see Question #1). When you leave your job, make sure not to burn your bridges. Keep in touch with your old employer, especially for the first few months. If all failed for us, we planned to return to our old trades, and possibly move out of NYC for a while to reduce our living expenses. Thinking about our Plan B motivated us to work even harder so we could avoid resorting to it.
Running your own business takes much more than having passion and the belief that you will fill a need in the marketplace. Instead of taking a shot in the dark, plan your moves carefully to reduce your risk of failing.
Sunday specializes in 20th century writers, with a special affinity for Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and 1920’s literary expatriates. Sunday is the Vice Chair of Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the ABAA and was a keynote speaker at the York Antiquarian Book Seminar in England. Her appraisal skills were recently featured on Atlas Obscura. Sunday has a Master’s degree from NYU and was a Forbes Small Business Contributor. Her favorite book is Mrs. Dalloway.