Pretty awesome when business areas come together

So as mentioned below, we are doing an inventory project for badger that’s pretty extensive. Basically it will keep recent books in one area sorted by week, and then older books in another area collated together into one mass inventory. pretty simple.

Here’s the trick. I just created a universal order pull list application. Basically you can select any number of orders, click generate, and a list will be created for every item that needs to be pulled. pretty simple hey? It gets even better. This list generator will check the last five weeks and individually flag items for the week they came in if they happened to arrive (either in a new order or a reorder) that week. But we’re not done yet. It color codes them based on a coding system involving color sorted boxes and cycling the oldest colored box into inventory and replacing its contents with books from that week. whew.

But this isn’t really to talk about the workings of the inventory system. This is to talk about how cool (and interesting) it is when something you are really good at (programming in my case) perfectly coincides with something you have only a little experience with (business logistics and physical asset management in this case). I ended up creating a basic physical location based inventory system and programmed a picker application that can work within this system. Most reading this are probably saying “So what?”, but when you look at where I started this whole experiment from and where it’s arrived at now it is really an interesting road. This is something I wouldn’t have even realized I needed two years ago, but now here we are with a full custom built physical inventory management system.

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And that’s a wrap folks

Well, I am writing this at quarter to midnight. We just got every package out the door, every order shipped, billing done, and closed out the store’s single biggest day in its short but exciting history. To put it simply, we are currently past my modest expectations for our one year benchmark.. a ways past it. As we continue to grow there is one group of people who I genuinely want to thank, and every business owner out there should know who that is: our customers. It is the people who gave us a shot, the ones who passed our name on to their friends, and the ones who keep coming back every week, every couple of weeks, and every month. I can’t possibly begin to express how much we appreciate you guys.

And speaking of appreciation, we are throwing together some really great things for our one year anniversary. I know mentioning it on a blog seems kind of weird, especially one that’s not officially linked to the store, but I’ll save the “official” announcements for our store newsletters.

Anyway, I’m tired as hell and still have my regular job to attend to in a few short hours. Just one more quick shout out to .977 80s. This channel kept us going through the day and almost made me forget what time it was now.

Almost. Night all. And buy Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps Special #1. Probably one of the best comics to come out in.. well, a very long time. Whether a fan of superheroes or action this is a fantastic read.

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When you don’t have money to worry about…

So revenue flow is odd with our particular model. This is probably one of our biggest obstacles to work through in this business. We have a ton of great customers with excellent orders. The problem we face is that a large number of these customers are monthly. It is definitely the the most common way customers want their orders shipped. What this essentially means is we are “stocking” unsellable product for 1-3 weeks before we see it sold through on the last week. To make things even more interesting, as our subscription base grows (which it has been doing every month since we’ve opened) it means we are carrying even MORE throughout the month until that last week payday.

Here’s the conundrum. I hate the thought of a prepayment/deposit in this industry. Don’t get me wrong. If you’re not an established customer and you order a $100 hardcover we will require a deposit on it. Even if you are a good customer, if you order a $300 statue we will require a deposit on that also. However if you’re a regular comic buyer ordering $20-150 worth of floppy boks with a few trades a month, I don’t see what sense it makes in making you pay for that upfront. Ok, I see what sense it makes from OUR perspective, but I don’t think it makes for good customer relations, especially in this industry. If I would have had you pay for Ultimates 2 #13 back in October, you would have been out that $2.39 for eight months with nothing to show for it. Heck, under most merchant account agreements you are not even ALLOWED to charge a credit card for product shipping more than 14-30 days (depending on the provider) after the charge. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a part-time consumer. A customer who buys 20 small press independent books in a particular month will have to pay for them upfront, and then over the next year see them show up one or two at a time? No way.

Our philosophy has been to charge for normal purchases when they ship. Not when you place your Previews order, not a month or so before the order should ship, but when the items actually make it out the door. This has worked fine and has definitely kept customers ordering, but what I failed to take into consideration was that I was essentially extending our AR terms. Even though we aren’t shipping the product until scheduled, we are taking on the cost of the product (AP) and taking it off the market for sale to scheduled customers until we collect (AR). We are essentially working on NET terms, even if our customers don’t operate under these terms. So what I’m finding now is that I’m having to realign a portion of the business under essentially these NET terms. Not a major factor, but one I’m having to learn about as we go so I can keep things moving while I work terms to essentially float the inventory for 1-3 weeks until billing.

Quite a ways off from the ebay store I originally envisioned managing.

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So really, how is the business going?

I have received quite a few requests for me to provide an update on how Badger Comics is REALLY doing. It is actually difficult for me to go into in any great detail, mostly because the time I could spend talking about the store I could instead spend WORKING on the store. But to try and appease my few readers out there, here is my 9 month update…

The store is doing fine. My store sales have consistently grown month in and month out since opening. Even more importantly, my subscription base has grown tremendously every single month since opening. I really don’t feel it would be appropriate to talk about real numbers, dollars or percents, however I can say I set some goals up when I started this shop, and we are on a steady course to actually hit those goals. That part is kind of funny really. When I first established these goals, it was more along the line of “Here’s where I would love to be, but I would also love a million dollars, so we’ll see where it goes.” Now as we approach those targets it has been met with genuine shock by me.

Understand that I have put my sweat, tears, and even blood into this thing (check your packages to be sure). So while I seemingly have a nonchalant attitude about the success of the store, it isn’t because of any lack of effort. It also isn’t from a lack of caring. I am tickled by and proud of every accomplishment we’ve hit. The attitude comes from where this whole venture started out from. I wanted little time investment with no return. I wanted a way to buy cheap comics hoping to do so by putting very little effort into maintaining a business front. Yes, I know that is hardly the noblest of efforts, but it’s the truth. Thankfully the requirements of setting up various accounts nipped that in the butt. Thankfully? Really?

Yes, really. Had my initial plan moved forward I have no question in my mind that I would have closed up shop long ago. I certainly wouldn’t have built the site into what it is today, easily one of the most comprehensive online comic shops in the world. Requiring minimal effort to keep something running usually results in giving it minimal effort. And as we all know, minimal effort eventually turns into no effort which eventually turns into a proper shutdown, or atrophy followed by death.

So we are growing, expanding, blossoming, or whatever other positive word you would like to use for it. Knowing a little of what I do of some of the local shops, we are on par with some of the smaller retailers on the area. We still have a ways to go to hang with the local big boys, but I imagine we will be there in…. well, sooner than you might think. 😉 Do I have words of wisdom to anyone looking to do the same thing? Sure do! Whether looking to open a comic shop, an online business, or just something you need to commit to on a regular basis:

  1. Over-commit. Committing to something is a precise science that is almost impossible to nail down. Most people tend to under-commit to things. If you have to set your sights, choose to take on more than you can handle instead of less.
  2. Do your research. This sounds like a no-brainer but it still amazes me how many places out there don’t research something until it’s too late. You don’t even need to research it beforehand. During is just fine. But by all means, research it before it turns into an unsolvable problem.
  3. Brace yourself for an emotional roller coaster. Your very foundations will be shaken the first time a crisis happens, and they will. Jump right in, press on, and keep running even when you think you can’t any more.
  4. If you can take a break, do so. You deserve it. Then get back to work because there is obviously something else you could be doing.
  5. If you are doing everything right, you will be the hardest most demanding boss you have ever worked for. Never satisfied, always looking for more, and ready to lay into you when even the slightest thing pops up.

I have more, but right now I have to get back to work. The boss just walked in and is none to pleased that I’m blogging on the Internet.

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I FINALLY FIGURED OUT A USE FOR AJAX!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sorry for the over enthusiastic title, but I am freaking psyched. Beyond psyched. I feel like I’m somewhere between having found the cure for cancer and having found the answer to world peace.

AJAX. Asynchronous Javascript and XML. It’s a technology where using Javascript on a page, you can make asynchronous XML requests back to a script on a site and update the page you are on without having to reload the page. One of the most common uses out there for it is the “suggest a search” feature you see on a number of sites, including the search bar of IE7 and Firefox 2 along with Google’s site. I have been looking for a way to incorporate AJAX into something, anything, I’m working on as it seems like something fun I can play around with. My first thought was to work on an addition to Badger’s search bar but well… I’ll do it but it hardly seems fun to work on something that’s been done to death. Well damn.. what else is there? THAT’S what I’ve figured out.

When I am uploading the invoice for a week to insert inventory, I have to select the title/category these issues are going into. If it’s Batman #600, I have to stick it in the Batman (1940) title/category. I accomplish this with a simple drop down box. It works and works well. However my uploaded invoice appears as one huge editable form with our 100+ books on it simultaneously. Originally I would try and go through the entire invoice and create categories for all newly added titles not previously available on the site. What would frequently (re: always) happen is I would be 60 items down on the invoice and come across a book I missed. Oops. At that point I could either abandon the work on the previous 60 items, or I could stick the book in a placeholder section (usually ’68 heh) and fix it after I saved the upload. After a few weeks of this, I decided I had to come up with a better solution.

Version 2.0 of the invoice upload form simply added a text box. This text box was for generating a new category on the fly. I would enter in the coded new category information and the book would be automatically added to that category. This has worked well, except for a number of instances where multiple SKUs for a single new book might exist (most recently Hack/Slash #1). In this case, to properly create the book initially I would essentially create two categories identically. I then would have to go into the inventory system and move on book over to the same category and delete the duplicate. Still easier than before, but still not perfect.

Then it clicked, and by clicked I mean I honestly think there was a real lightbulb over my head that turned on. With AJAX, I can create new categories on the fly and actually have it update every drop down box on the page. When I come across a book that doesn’t exist, I just create a new category/title for it and say OK, and when I look at the list again the new category will be selectable on that book and every other book on the page. This will be one of the biggest time savers I’ll have done on the maintenance portion of the site.

The other one I can do, though a little more involved, is to dynamically save my progress on the invoice. It can take me up to 2-3 hours to get the invoice completed and uploaded. However that will require quite a bit of work and some new elements added to the database. So I figure I’ll start off small with this upgrade and upon its success move on to the bigger save feature.

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How does the second month look?

So I am right in the middle of my second month right now. How does it look? Well, it could be better, it could be worse. I have made a few sales, have a few subscribers, and for the time being look to be staying in business. I have started on my quest to actually carry different genres and styles of books and comics, and it has been met with a lukewarm reception (though still much better than cold). After I am done with the mechanics of the site (I am SO close) I will begin working on marketing. Specifically I will walk the walk and begin advertising on Google and elsewhere to people who read other types of fiction.

One of the things that I am coming across is a “damned if you do damned if you don’t” dillema. If I shun the standard superhero/sci-fi/fantasy genres, I will lose the bread and butter of the industry, and it’s called the bread and butter for a reason. On the other hand, if I carry the same superhero/sci-fi/fantasy items that every other shop routinely stocks, I really have nothing to set myself apart from the crowd. If this were a perfect world, I would be independently wealthy and would simply stock all books regardless of type or genre. However I have to figure what I can get away with (aka what Heidi will let me get away with) and what has to be cut back.

I am starting to see the site programming slow down a bit. This is an extremely good thing. After essentially coding for 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, I am done with it. Well ok, not done with it, but in desperate need of a real break. Luckily I finished out subscription invoicing which was one of the last major areas on the site that needed to be covered. I am also getting a hold on shipping. Talk about something I should have finished beforehand. Unfortunately my time was already stretched thin enough that a few hours extra to spend on shipping just wasn’t happening. My packaging time is down, and once I get a shaarp scissors will be down even further. I discovered the necessary evil of shipping peanuts. Yes, I hate them as much as everyone else, but they are commonly used for a single reason. they are cheap and convenient.

The post office has been nothing but aces. Since buying my own postal scale and printing up my own shipping at home, my trips to the post office (provided I make it a bit before last collection) involve simply walking in, dropping my packages into the package chute, and leaving. no more standing in line, waiting for the clerk to weigh and stamp the package, or standing in line (mentioned twice purposely).

Now I just have to figure out monthly sales tax and I should be set.

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The highest highs and lowest lows

So here we are now, 3 weeks into opening the store, and you might be wondering… I wonder how Eric’s doing? The answer is a definitive: ok. I won’t go into yet again how much work it’s been (a lot) or the current state of the comic industry (light growth with potential). I won’t talk about the adventure of learning how to start and run your own business (exciting and complicated).

Instead what I’ll talk about is the sense of accomplishment. Sure it’s nothing big at this moment, but even still, to see what I’ve put out there is pretty awe inspiring, at least for myself. What is even more exciting at this point is that I’m in the process of adding little touches here and there. It might be your overall discount on an item or a subscription, or a few extra preferences/settings that you can now choose. There are some bigger things that I have coming down the pike, but it is SOOOO much different than when I was working to get fundamental areas in place. Back then it kind of felt like “My store sucks until I get this in place.” I mean who is going to shop at a store that can’t do credit card processing, or has to load a 100KB image as a thumbnail on every page. Hardly things to get excited over.

But now… Now when you are adding the little things, I DO get excited over them. Mainly because these are things that a customer might not come to expect, and it feels like a little something extra I am giving my customers that other sites might not even have. Also, it feels like I am almost rewarding my (few) existing customers by giving them these touches that they didn’t already have when they signed up. Quite a good feeling actually. They are these little touches, I feel, that take you from one of the tens of thousands of other ecommerce sites out there, to one of the few that actively develop and improve their site. The last good thing about these little improvements is that the necessity and stress isn’t there. I can actually take a day off from the improvements and not feel like I’m falling behind. Maybe actually take a day to read one of these hundreds of books I am getting in. Or play a game, see a movie, or spend time with Heidi (that should actually be listed first).

So what are the lowest of lows? Hmm.. realizing how much I have sacrificed over the past three months. Not spending as much time with my family as I really needed to. Not taking any time for myself (the last two weekend really have bveen the first time in three months that I have taken one day each off). I have developed a pain in my neck.. likely a combination of stress and sitting at a computer for like 12 hours a day 6-7 days a week. And of course I will always be wishing sales were up.

Ok, well, that’s about all I have. The store is really turning into something special, and I am starting to get in some books that really veer away from the standard super hero/sci-fi/fantasy genres. This week for example I have in Sock Monkey: The Inches Incident #1, Don’t Cry, True Story Swear to God #1, and Line Vol. 1 among quite a few others actually. Of course if you are into the typical comic book fair then there is always Ultimate Spider-Man #100, Justice League of America #2, X-Men #191, and Action Comics #843 in as well.

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Badger Comics Is Now Online

Well, after two months of solid work, Badger Comics is now online. I cannot express the amount of work I put into the site so far. Every thing on the site should be live now with the exception of the subscription service, which I can assure you I am diligently at work on even as I type this (no, really). The final parts not related to the subscription site went up tonight, including the banner ads, a general faq page, as well as quite a bit of cleaning up around the site. I still have a few things I am working on, pertaining to free shipping at a certain dollar amount, and many many things pertaining to the subscription service. Really, I have sampled many of the other services out there and I am not boasting when I say I really feel this will be one of the most comprehensive comic book subscription services on the internet. But I don’t want to give away too much right now, so you’ll have to wait for the rest later.

I really wanted to touch on something that is in the site’s FAQ page though. It’s in the “What Do You Stock” section of the FAQ. When I began working on getting the site going, I am not going to lie about my intentions. Essentially I wanted to look at buying around 150 or so comics a month (actual issues), throw them up on ebay, and make enough to cover the books that I actually wanted to keep for myself. Selfish, maybe, but then again most capitalism is at its roots. Along the way of starting this business however, and after much reading on the state of the industry, it became aware that the comic book market, though seeing year over year growth for a number of years now, is still at one of its lowest periods it has ever seen in its history. I have already gone into some of this in earlier posts, such as the direct market just striving to stay above water and the nature of collectibility in a retail market. However one of the things I haven’t gone into is actually reaching for different markets.

Now, I certainly don’t mean disrespect to any comic retailers out there, online or offline. Anyone who is able to stay in business in a market like this certainly deserves much credit. However the one thing the direct market has always pineed itself on is the sure thing. Order in loads what you know can sell and generally stay away from or order thin on items you have very little personal knowledge on or might tend to be slightly risky. Again, capitalism at its finest. And again, no disrespect to the stores that do this. It is difficult to be in the business of selling a little bit of everything vs. selling a lot of just a few things.

So where I’m going with this is I am going to see how or if I can make the former work. There are probably at least a dozen sites online where you can subscribe to Batman and Spider-Man comics. There are probably ten times that many sites on the internet where you can actually BUY those same comic books “off the shelf” so to speak. But what about Screwtooth #1, which according to Diamond Distributors only sold around 1,704 copies, and Jeremiah Harm #4, which only sold about 400 copies more? Are there really only 2000 people in the country who want to read these comics? Heck, your average trash techno-spy thriller typically sells 10 times those numbers. So why are many comics selling at under 2000 copies, and many more selling just above 2000 copies? Because the top books that dominate the charts are the ones that retailers have figured out for years now how to sell. They are the ones retailers have figured out how to predict sales for. They are the “safe” books. And unfortunately, as a retailer once you fill out your order booklet for your safe books, there isn’t a whole lot of spare change left over for the risky books. Especially the books that will sit on your shelves, or even worse, in the dreaded back issue bins. But don’t even get me started on those. I’ll save that for another post.

So if you haven’t figured out already, that is what my current goal is with my site. Sell those copies of Screwtooth #1 and Jeremiah Harm #4. Sell the romance books to the women (or guys), the teen romance books to the girls (or boys). Sell the techno thriller books to the Clancy fans and the courtroom dramas to the Grisham fans. Sell the autobigographical books to the people who are more interested in real life, and yes, sell the superhero, science fiction, fantasy and action books to the current buyers of comics. It is not my goal to lure away current buyers from stores. They can keep their customers. There are 300 million people in this country. There are more than enough customers to go around for the 3000 or so direct market stores. My goal is to go after people who don’t read comics, or even better yet the ones who are positive that comics and graphic novels don’t hold anything that they are interested in.

If you enjoy reading, there is a comic book for you. Just give me the opportunity to figure out which one it is.

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It takes 1000 miles…

So here I am sitting in a hotel in Springfield, OH watching One Tree Hill (because it happened to be on the channel I flipped on) wondering what to do.. and it occured to me I haven’t updated my site in a while. ok…. that was a lie.. It actually occurred to me well before this, but what can I say, “busy” is just a state of life for me at this moment. I have semi-permanently opened up my site. It still isn’t real, but I figure I can at least start generating some web spider traffic on it at this point. My site design is getting close to finalized; at least I am pleased with it where it’s at and just have to finish accomodating the rest of the site to the new design. I received my first shipment of books in today, and will hopefully have the site design done by this weekend so I can get my first actual inventory entered in by monday. heidi (my first employee… well, co-owner) is the one who actually picked up the books from UPS and just went over incoming inventory with me.

outside of the store, which at this point has now become self-evident, belle starts school in a mere 2.5 weeks. 5K, the good stuff. We bought new fish. 4 Oreochromis, 1 fuelronni (sp?) and 3 demonasi (sp?). well, the one dick fish (fuelronni) has decided to terrorize the entire tank. he tries eating the demonasi and cory catfish, both species of which are much faster than him, so not a big deal. the oreochromis on the other hand, are just getting their asses kicked on an hourly basis. at this point we realize that one of the groups has to be removed.. either the oreos or the fuel… which one is the question. the fuel is the obvious choice… being the ASSHOLE and all.. but the oreos are worth more in credit and are nowhere near as beautiful as the fuel… so who knows.

umm.. aside from that, I don’t know. one tree hill is over now (not a good show at all.. well, I’ve seen worse) and now Friends is on. always a classic show. like an episode or two after ross called out rachel’s name at his wedding to emily. sad that I remember all of this, but it’s Friends.

Good night world, and hopefully we’ll talk again sooner than 30 days from now.

:)

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