For designer Amanda Carroll, her "aha" moment came a year ago in July, when she suddenly saw her decade-plus-old business, Bead Boutique, the way a customer might.
She had a "Sage" sign in her storefront window. That's the name of her jewelry design venture, a brand she was cultivating separately from the bead store.
She realized she was sending a mixed message: that perhaps her brick-and-mortar business was competing with her other enterprise. "It was such a turning point," Carroll said.
So Carroll, 47, made a key decision: She would close her store and take her Sage business venture online.
Bead Boutique wasn't what it used to be. Since the recession, she noticed changes in her customers' spending habits. No longer were they filling up shopping baskets with beads and notions, regardless of price. While customer purchases dipped, costs for maintaining her 2,400-square-foot store in Matthews, North Carolina, stayed the same, Carroll said, at "thousands of dollars a month."
Going exclusively online would mean relying on the contacts she built since opening her storefront in 2001. And it eventually would lead Carroll to creating various other divisions with online platforms to cover all she wanted to do -- from jewelry design to representing artists to filling bulk wholesale orders.
But she hasn't regretted her decision to liquidate her inventory and downsize to an 800-square-foot studio based in her Concord, N.C., home. She creates, fills orders and updates her websites from a brightly lit space with a mannequin, one of her beaded jewelry lines displayed on a wall and classical music playing in the background.
Carroll shared her story of what she's learned in the year since taking her business online. Her story has been edited for clarity and brevity.
A 'glorified job': I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I went into the storefront with big expectations, and probably a little naive. And I learned. You're basically working to pay the landlord. In essence, you're no longer a business owner. You've created a glorified job.
When you're renting in a common space like we were, your insurance, your taxes and common area maintenance costs are a substantial part of your overhead. I also had four part-time employees when we closed. It's a lot. You don't realize.
I was ready for something different. I was sick of retail. I had no time for anything creative.
Diversifying the business: I really like the Sage name. Sage, for me, is about being wise. It means being open to opportunities, and recognizing them when they're staring at you. For me, it also means having multiple streams of income. Without the store, this became possible immediately.
I now have several divisions and found it necessary to create a new company to manage them. Sage Resource encompasses four businesses: Sage Resource Group designs jewelry lines, and also represents other jewelry lines for wholesale sales. This division is working with Mothering Across Continents on a special jewelry line to benefit the nonprofit.
Sage Jewelry Arts sells handcrafted jewelry online, including sterling silver cuffs with inspirational messages, and participates in retail opportunities such as the Southern Christmas Show. Sage Jewelry Supply fills bulk orders from wholesalers.
The Sage Art & Craft Show is a twice yearly retail show held at the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, N.C., that features juried artists who make pottery, handbags, clothing, woodworking and more. The next show is Dec. 6. It's a way for up and comers to get out there and be seen, and it's also affordable. Cost to vend runs $125-$150.
A calmer routine: My store schedule was 24/7. Nine a.m. to 8 p.m. was my day at the store; I'd come home and make notes for the next day. Here, I just have a nicer routine. I include regular breaks from being hunched over something. I make time to meditate.
I have days dedicated to researching potential markets and stores across the country. A lot of days are out in the field, at networking events, boutiques, stores and farmers markets to see artists' works. I'll look at Etsy for artists in North Carolina.
I also work on lines and update the websites regularly. I have a big calendar with tasks laid out months in advance.
I researched how to take photos that show off jewelry well. When I run into a problem, I ask Google.
Relying on networks: I had built up relationships over the years. One of my old bead vendors who used to do trunk shows at my store emailed me, asking if I'd do a show. That led to the art and craft show.
Because of the suppliers I'm able to work with, I don't have to keep a large stock to fill big orders. So if somebody orders 50 feet of ball chain, I can have that shipped by the manufacturer.
I was a member of a lot of organizations, and used that network to join forums and discussion boards and do a lot of research on how to go online. I discovered it's better to join an online platform with a force behind it, rather than create a site. So I created SageJewelryArts.com through Storenvy, a marketplace run through PayPal. OpenSky is another marketplace I use, too. The more of these you can be on, the more exposure you get. They're super-easy to create, and there's no HTML to worry about.
Always learning: I'm a big advocate of continuing to learn as much as I can, through webinars, and business and professional classes. One of the best courses I ever took was with (Charlotte-based business strategy expert) Sherese Duncan, called "Getting to the Core of Your Business." She asks: What's your vision? Are you the business, or do you have a business? If something happens to you tomorrow, does your business close or continue? She continues to be a good business coach for me.
Looking back a year later, gross revenue does not tell an honest picture. I was making a lot more gross revenue with brick and mortar. My net profit is more now. A lot of money coming in doesn't mean anything if the bottom line is not profit.