With a desire to work for herself and a vision of what her small town needed, Stephanie took the plunge and opened her own store.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
When Mike and I first moved our family to the suburbs of Chicago, I stopped working in the consulting firm where I was a partner in order to raise our young girls, Kate and Bella. In Glencoe, I kept busy tending to our home, making new friends, and volunteering. I led Kate’s Girl Scout troop, ran Bella’s preschool’s auction, volunteered at the library, was President of the school Parent Teacher Organization, etc.
When the girls were older and in middle school, they were busy all day and I had more time on my hands. That’s when I started thinking about what was next for me…
What is your Next Act?
I organized and opened BlackSheep General Store, a retail gift shop in Glencoe. The store sells gifts, housewares, baby items, spa products, jewelry, retro candy, and more, with a focus on local, handmade, small batch merchandise. It’s been a bit of a family project with my girls helping decide what to sell in the store and coming over after school or on the weekends to work.
Both the community and my family/friends have been very supportive. My daughters, now 14 and 12, love working at the store and I have been a lot busier than I anticipated. I opened on Sept 23, 2014 and have been swamped ever since! I have sold more than budgeted and I enjoy interacting with the customers and the challenge of something new every day. I am now hunkering down for the long winter and the inevitable slowdown in sales.
I know many stores don’t make it but think I have realistic expectations and have budgeted conservatively so hopefully I’ll be one of the exceptions.
I enjoy interacting with the customers and the challenge of something new every day.
Why did you choose this Next Act?
I’ve often thought my accounting background would be helpful in running a small business and owning a store has always appealed to me. I like the various components of running a business, as well as interacting with the public.
I wanted to do something in Glencoe so I would be around when my kids got out of school and I tried to think of something that our town could use. If a gift was needed, Glencoe did not have many store options: for kids’ birthdays… Walgreens? For dinner parties… Foodstuffs? Otherwise, it was off to the mall, the web, or one of the surrounding communities. I thought the area could support a store that was a go-to place for gifts for many occasions.
I also investigated going back to school and working for a non-profit, but working for myself was the idea I kept coming back to and offered me the most schedule flexibility.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
Two years ago, at age 48, I started by going to a trade show in New York, the International Gift Fair, to get a sense of items I might purchase. In the following year, I went to more local markets in the Chicago area such as DOSE Market, Renegade Craft Fair, Randolph Street Market, and started to hone my idea of carrying small batch, handcrafted items.
I prepared a business plan and budget and started looking for space in town. With my background in accounting, I was familiar with business plans and had reviewed plans prepared by colleagues and clients. It is also easy to find business plan templates and examples online. I made a budget of what I thought it would take to open including rent, build-out, opening inventory, and supplies. I used my own money to fund these costs; I didn’t talk to a bank.
I looked for a year before a retail space opened up in Glencoe that was a good size for me – not too big and too small – and that was affordably priced. I signed my lease in spring, 2014 and started to order merchandise.
Kate and Bella helped me come up with a name. Somehow we focused pretty quickly on colors and animals. I liked BlackSheep and it sounded like a general store name to me. I also wanted the inventory I carry to be a little different, so the name fit in with that theme.
What challenges did you encounter?
Ordering inventory was very time consuming. Since Glencoe is a small community, I wanted to appeal to as many people as possible so I ordered lots of different items, but not a lot of any one thing. And although I had collected numerous catalogs, cards, and price lists, sorting through all of the information and placing detailed orders took a lot of time. I think having a different set of expectations would have helped; I would have started ordering sooner and maybe not spent so much time thinking about my initial orders. I would have made some decisions and then moved on faster.
When I couldn’t initially find a suitable space, I decided not to force the issue. If I couldn’t find a good location with affordable rent, I wasn’t going to move forward. But once I signed the lease, I was in for the long haul. I also had to re-do the physical space, which was sometimes challenging but fun.
I had an architect measure out the store and provide me with a printout of the empty space. I knew what general areas of merchandise I wanted (baby, housewares, t-shirts, etc.). I cut out little pieces of paper that represented each merchandise area and I started moving them around on the space printout and experimenting with different layouts until I had some options I thought would work. Once I bought display furniture for the store, I tweaked the plan some more.
As for renovating the space, I had a crew tear out the office because I wanted as much retail space as possible and I didn’t need an office. They also took down the grass-cloth wallpaper and ripped out the carpet because neither fit my idea of a general store aesthetic. I wanted wood floors, so I bought wood from a building supply recycling company in the city (my floors are actually the walls of an old Detroit factory). Besides that, all I did was paint, add some more lighting, and buy some display pieces.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Know yourself. In my previous career, I traveled extensively and worked a lot of hours. I had to find something that would utilize my abilities but also fit into my new priorities and lifestyle. A realistic assessment of my skills and interests helped me find a good fit.
Ask for advice from other small retailers. I did not have any previous experience in retail and have seen many shops come and go in our town. My business background helped me estimate the costs involved and prepare a budget. I also sought out other shop owners about any advice they might have. I mostly talked to them about initial steps such as incorporating, village licenses needed, and state registration. I also asked about the rent they paid, sales I might expect, break-even points, and how/where they ordered inventory.
A realistic assessment of my skills and interests helped me find a good fit.
Enlist help from experts when needed. I have a friend who is an attorney and she reviewed the lease for my space. I also have a friend who is an accountant and she sat down with me a couple of times to make sure I was using QuickBooks, my accounting software, properly. If you don’t have business experience, I would definitely recommend hiring an accountant to get you started and think through sales needed to cover rent and monthly expenses
Try it out. Although I did not do this, if someone were interested in opening a store, it might be helpful to work at a similar store to see if she likes it and how the store is run.
Find some helping hands. I hired a friend to work on a contract basis to help me merchandise the store, i.e., she helps the store “look good.” My kids have also worked at the store and so have a few of their friends. I have recently collected a list of friends who are interested in helping out on an ad hoc basis, so if I have an appointment or need to be out of town, they can work at the store for me.
Consider theft and security issues. I thought of putting in security cameras but decided I did not want to do that. I don’t want to watch the tape or call some kid’s parents. That is not the type of atmosphere I want to promote. If it turns out to be a large problem, I’ll reconsider, but so far I don’t think it’s been an issue.
Promotion is key. I had a sign up in the windows of my store that said when I was going to open. I had a pre-opening party for friends. I had a Facebook page that said when I was opening. I’ve also done a bit of press, including stories in the local papers and magazines. I use Instagram. I now have a website but it is essentially just a placeholder and another avenue where people can find me. I’m not currently selling online or running ads, although I might in the future.
Support your community. In the three months I’ve been open, I have already had 7 requests to donate merchandise for local non-profit fundraisers; I have given to every one. I want to support the community so hopefully I will be able to continue to contribute.
What resources do you recommend?
There are numerous resources available a click away on the Internet: I started out by Googling “how to open a retail shop”! I also read a few books: The Specialty Shop by Dorothy Finell and Start Your Own Retail Business and More by Entrepreneur Press. In addition, I made use of the Nolo books at the library that summarized incorporation options, necessary licenses, and tax obligations.
What’s next for you?
I plan on running my shop for ten years or so, at which point my girls will be out of college and my husband will in all likelihood be retired. At that point, we’ll travel more and seek out opportunities in the non-profit area.
Contact Stephanie Macakanja at Stephanie@blacksheepgeneral.com or 847-242-0130
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