Monday, October 08, 2012

The universe brought me a conveyor

2012 has been yet another year of organizing my company.  I've made a lot of progress, enough that about six weeks ago I was starting to become clueless about what the next steps were, and I knew I needed to make more changes. It occurred to me that Fedex had given me a free scale and a printer to improve my shipping so maybe they would also give me free advice. I asked my rep if there was anyone at Fedex who could come to my warehouse and tell me how to set up a more efficient shipping department.

Within a week, a very nice man came out, watched what we did and made just a few achievable suggestions:
  1. Give the staff specific job duties so that when they come in they just tear into their job. Before that, we kind of shared duties, one person jumping in when another needed help. My advisor pointed out that people are more relaxed when they know what their job is and they are faster and more efficient when they do the same thing over and again. At first my husband was worried that they would get bored doing the same thing over and over, but my staff all report "no". They much prefer working this way.
  2. Set specific goals for your staff. For example, tell the picking clerk exactly how many orders you expect them to pick in a shift, and then see what can be done to help them meet those goals. Of course find ways to reward them when they do. We do bonuses every quarter and it was really fun this quarter to start rewarding people based on real, definable achievements.
  3. Improve storage by making better use of the front room, getting rid of things that are obsolete, and going more vertical with existing shelving.
  4. I think he was trying to keep the list short and sweet so I wouldn't be overwhelmed but just as he left he paused and said softly, "Maybe you should get a conveyor".
Within the first couple weeks, I implemented all but the last of his suggestions and saw a huge change in attitudes and efficiencies. That last suggestion, though, it was just weird to me. I'm not a small thinker, but I'm also not a big thinker. When someone suggests to me that I need a conveyor a part of me starts laughing inside.

Then I began to pay attention to how my shipping staff was handling boxes. There was a lot of lifting and putting down, a lot of boxes getting in the way of foot traffic. Maybe we actually did need a conveyor. Something that they could pack the boxes on, then push the boxes out of the way into the waiting hands of the Fedex driver. Just maybe.

Last weekend, as hubby and I were tooling around town, I suggested we go to the Habitat for Humanity Reuse store just for fun. This is a shop like Goodwill or Salvation Army only more construction related, selling such things as door knobs and old paint. I wandered the shop for ten minutes before I saw my conveyor. Perfect width, perfect length, and perfect price.

At that moment, I heard that "ping" in my brain that happens when the universe brings me something.  That "ping" I heard the day I met my husband, the day I first touched the walls of my warehouse.  Never thought I'd hear that "ping" standing in front of a conveyor.

Maybe I'm getting better at hearing the "ping".  If I get better at hearing the "ping", then maybe, it's all going to work out just fine.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Inventory Talk

Eight months have passed since I wrote about inventory management and I am pleased to announce that we are finally putting our thoughts into action.

This process represents a huge challenge for me, because it is all new information and so it requires my complete attention. But the past few months have brought me a series of tough business dilemmas, one after the other, and I've finally realized that I will keep having such dilemmas until I knuckle down and get organized.

Coming very soon (because its the only thing I'm working on): a new website (the one we have now is about ten years old and very clunky), with newly-created SKU's for our products so that we can pick and pack more quickly, and with integration to our accounting software so that we know what we have and when to order!

I remember when I first learned accounting. My poor supervisor kept explaining double entry and whatnot to me and I swear every day I looked at the numbers they looked like a big plate of tangled spaghetti. Nothing made sense.

That's how I feel right now as I try to shepard all my non-existent systems together into a system. But we'll get there, and on the other side of this effort will be a much improved company and true freedom to be creative again, without the nagging feeling that things are out of control.

(p.s., the reason I'm posting here now is because I will be moving my blog over to the new site, and I needed to come over and check it out. I was surprised to see that there were over 30 page views of the blog just today. I guess it never occurred to me that people read it)!

Monday, November 08, 2010

Managing Inventory - Interesting Website

We recently worked with a tech person to help set up our Big Pour (an event where we invite local people to come in and shop in our warehouse), and he pointed out that even though we are an internet based company, most of our operations function "off the grid".

The way we handle our purchase orders, our accounting, our inventory, our payroll. Plenty of these things are done a very old fashioned pen-on-paper way. While this worked for a long time, we are pulling up our big girl boots and trying out new ways of doing things.

One of our areas of weakness is inventory control. So far, we have relied on Van's amazing memory, but that's not really working any more. In figuring out how we can improve, I stumbled on this very helpful, easy-to-read primer on the basics of inventory control.

The advice here is forehead-slapping simple.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Breaking through the Platitudes

Even the SBA likes to spread the rumor: Most startup businesses "fail" within the first five years. You've heard that, right? From the web, from your well-meaning friends, from your family.

This oft-repeated platitude has no doubt discouraged 1,000's of hopeful entreprenuers from making the leap towards self-employment and for this reason I consider it a bit evil.

The nay-sayers tell you that it is a lack of experience, money or sales that shut down 50% off all start-ups in the first five years. Umm. Yeah. That's kind of like advising a new bike-rider to stay in their seat and keep their feet on the pedals. We all kind of know that, don't we? No experience, no money, no sales = poor likelihood of success.

I haven't seen a lot of failures in my 15 years of entrepreneurship. What I have seen is my competitiors and business asssociates closing shop (not "failing"), and mostly due to personal reasons. Typically health (a sudden illness in the family or an inability to sustain the energy level it takes to run a business) or a family crisis (a divorce or a need to focus on the children).

This year I mourn/celebrate the loss of several well-established and successful businesses: Mineral Basics (finished mineral makeup) Aromaleigh (finished mineral makeup) and Southern Soapers (soapmaking supplies). Mourn because I know these women worked hard to build their companies and closing is bound to feel a bit like falling, celebrate because I know once they hit the ground they will pick the pebbles from their knees and get back up.

When you are young and dating, five years is a long time to be in a relationship that doesn't work.

When you are in college, five years is plenty of time to go from innocence to education.

When you work at a company, five years is a long time to be in one job, no question.

So here is my point: who cares if most businesses change (close) within five years. So do most relationships, schooling and jobs.

If you are thinking about starting a business and get stuck on the fear that your business will become a statistic, get over it. Starting a business, building a business and closing that business within five years is not a failure, it is an adventure, one that you will learn from and build on. Go for it!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

TKB's Big Pour, the quick recap

I'm not going to say our "Big Pour" event was particularly easy to host -- it was a huge distraction from our usual daily routine and I've got lots of catching up to do.

I'm also not going to boast that it was a lucrative & smart business move -- prices were pretty low and in some cases flat out loss leaders. Next time around I'll need to shop smarter.

What I am going to say is that after 12 years of standing toe-to-toe 50 hours a week pulling, packing, and generally running an online business with no public face, Van and I got to see 100 folks walk into our warehouse with smiles on their faces and stories to tell. It was a juicy, most welcome buzz.

We're doing it again, for sure. First Saturday in November.

I'll blog more on what we learned from this event. I've got lots of thoughts about how we can continue to connect with local people in a way which energizes all of us to be more successful and creative.

For now, I get an afternoon of relaxing. Maybe a hot chocolate in my future?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Shop Local Fast Buy Experiment

Even though our company has been in Oakland for nearly 15 years, we've never really opened our doors to the local community, instead we have been "online".

Lack of room and lack of English language skills amongst our staff were two big reasons for this, but there was also the comfort of the "we are an online business" cocoon. It's a warm, easy place to hide where your best foot forward can be shod in a fuzzy bedroom slipper because no one is looking.
Living in that cocoon has two major unintended pitfalls:
  • When you sell online, you tend to source your inventory and supplies online, which means you tend to not support your local economy;
  • Those online transactions you send out and bring in are all shipped, which impacts the environment both in terms of packaging and freight costs. (In fact, last year my freight and shipping costs were double what I paid to all my employees combined).

Early this year, I made a commitment to change. My first pass was to hire a woman (Ivy) to open a retail shop for us. Unfortunately, that relationship did not work out, but it was a helpful distraction because it gave me a better understanding of what kind of shop we could have at our warehouse.

Mid year, I hired two new employees who speak English as their first language and who are eager to see us open a shop. They pushed me to hire a designer to conceptualize the space (my sister, actually, Amber Westerman). Working with Amber really helped us get a better grasp on what we could do here and how it should lay out for the ease of customer use and the security and safety of all involved.

While Amber's design is still being finalized (and we think it will be awesome!), we wanted to start bringing in those local people and so we decided to host a Fast Buy.

The Fast Buy concept is simple, bring in Pails, Pallets, Bags and Buckets of raw materials that local soap/salt/bath and body folks might need for their upcoming craft shows, invite them down for a one day You Pack You Pour, and start the conversation going.....

.....What do you want? What do you need? Did you know you could get Olive Oil in Oakland from a third-generation company? Did you know you could get massage lotion from a second-generation company out by the airport? Aren't those increased container minimums horrible? I heard we could get them from .....

..... and such talk and so forth. If we know of each other, we can work together to support each other.

Our fingers are crossed, we hope to see Bay Area crafters here October 2, 2010 from 8am to noon! If you know someone who might be interested, please pass the word along!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Commerce and Cause: Found in Sioux Falls

I returned last night from a 24-hour whirl to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sioux Falls is the kind of America's heartland I had never much expected to find myself, but when your nephew marries the daughter of a windmill farmer it's also pretty much where you end up when you attend his wedding.

Exactly one week earlier I had been in Los Angeles, at the IMATS (international Makeup Artists Trade Show) and I had been feeling the conflict of commerce versus cause (see prior blog post). At that show, I rode the rapids of thousands of young Californian women clamouring for discounted color cosmetics and their accouterments.

Here in South Dakota, on my way to the early morning farmer's market to grab a coffee before the wedding, I was standing near the natural water rapids which give Sioux Falls its name. A dynamic water way which has been running in this same location for more than 10,000 years, before their was an American heartland, before the Lakota camped at its shores, when it was just nature and nature, cascading over shiny stone.

My whole family swarmed the small farmer's market, buying up fair trade coffee and sampling organic radishes with sea salt. Of course, there was a local soap maker as well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had expanded into mineral makeup and was a customer of mine. Meet Rebecca of Pearl Creek Goat Milk Soap (

I overheard Rebecca talking to my sister-in-law about her Breast Cancer Awareness lip gloss which was part of her mineral makeup line and of course I made a beeline to her booth to hear more!

Rebecca told me about her husband's grandmother, Barbara Turner, who had given to worthy causes all her life and in particular had supported the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Barbara Turner had passed away after battling breast cancer not too long ago, and when she did, she made Rebecca promise that there would always be something in her product line which would be dedicated to raising money for worthy causes. "Even if it isn't a lot of money, it's something", Rebecca explained.

The wedding was lovely, the champagne flowed.

I returned to California the next morning, with a precious Barbara Turner lip gloss tucked in my pocket. It was July 4th, America's day of independence. Each time I reached for a boarding pass or a check of the clock, I touched my lip gloss. Each time I took a moment to be proud that I was so truly American: buttons, banners, ribbons and all.