The line, “Harry doesn’t know how to fail,” haunted me for years after I saw Armageddon. We fail often. There it is in its simplicity and its terror.
One of the first times I scaled our manufacturing, I made 500 soaps in a day, a new record for us. Unfortunately, some equipment changes muddled our temperature controls and the next day all the soaps were riddled with spots. They were okay to use, but not to sell. My heart sank. Things were financially thinner at the time and I reported to my wife the loss. Some failures recede with memory, but since we still sell these occasionally as 2nds, I have to inventory them every month. Literally counting my mistakes.
Running a business (and being alive) makes us want to highlight our successes and hide our failures. Whether it’s social media or coffee with friends, we tend to talk about new stores coming on, popular candle scents, and what’s on the horizon for next year. Failure rarely takes center stage.
Our biggest failure to date was the Boston Gift Show (BGS) in 2014.
Before participated in BGS, the most expensive events we had done were farmers markets and craft fairs. Tables or tent spaces usually cost $50-$100. Not long after taking on Joy Lane Farm, we had coffee with a former marketing rep from Stonewall Kitchen who recommended we try attending gift shows. There were some smaller, locally run shows that cost $800, but—to get the most out of the experiment–we thought we would skip over those to the big city. A booth in Boston cost $1,500. Since we had never done one before, we spent months researching, designing, and building a booth, coming up with line sheets, and printing order forms. We upcycled a set of kitchen cabinets into a portable kitchen so you could actually wash your hands with our soap at our booth. We were stubbornly committed to only using money we made through soap sales. Since we hadn’t had Joy Lane Farm very long, the show was a massive—albeit absorbable—chunk of our budget. Looking back, the time invested was much more valuable.
As we got ready, we pictured Black Friday and the stories you hear of shoppers who were almost trampled. After all, it was Boston. We daydreamed: Hordes of buyers. Frenzied excitement. People rushing from booth to booth snatching up show specials and placing orders that stretched the limits of our increased inventory.
On setup day, Katy stayed home to take care of Makayla. Right up to when I arrived, my hopes were high. I wound my way around the bases of Boston skyscrapers following my GPS to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. There were hundreds of booth spaces stretching out like a giant encampment. Birds flew around in the ceiling high above. I caught my breath and texted Katy, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I should have known during setup that something was wrong. The option of renting grungy grey carpets at exorbitant prices might have tipped me off. If I had wandered a couple aisles over from our “New England Made” section, I would have seen rows of cheap t-shirts and junky souvenirs made overseas. Instead, I went about nervously setting up our booth space. Buyers were coming.
With 250 sale sheets printed, I stood at my booth early the next day waiting for the show to begin. George, another business owner a few booths over, arrived late and was setting up as buyers entered. I remember wondering if floods of people would pass him by because he wasn’t ready.
Then the trickle started. A few buyers coming down the escalator at the end of the hall. Then the trickle stopped. It started again. It got slower. It ceased altogether. Looking down the corridor of booths, you could see vendors standing by expectantly as single buyers made their way from showcase to showcase.
We didn’t make back the money we invested in BGS. We definitely didn’t make back the time. Other vendors said to come again, that a lot of stores like to buy from you your second time, but the loss was a little too big to justify returning. Earlier this year, I received this email from BGS:
“Dear Valued Exhibitor,
We wanted to let you know that the 2017 Boston Gift Show has been indefinitely postponed. We are currently evaluating the New England marketplace and will keep you posted on any future changes or additions to the schedule.”
The big city wasn’t the land of Oz we thought it was. We should have researched more; we should have walked the show; we should have been less dazzled about vending down the road from the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Pops.
In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins talks about growing great companies amidst uncertain times and chaotic forces. His book changed my view of failure. Instead of a “never fail” model, his research points to companies that fail intentionally by trying lots of small things (knowing that most of them won’t work) and then investing in the ones that yield results.
The Portsmouth Farmers Market is a great example of that. Our expectations were low the first time we went, but we wanted to try it as a small experiment (around the same time that we did BGS). It was low cost and the preparation was minimal. Since it went well, we invested in better signs and better displays. We committed to being there every week and began the regimen of 5:30 a.m. Saturdays to make it possible.
And it’s been awesome. We love our customers. We love the stores that found us at the market. It’s part of why we’re able to do Joy Lane Farm full-time. A small experiment that worked well and turned into something bigger.
What are your small experiments? What are you trying out?
Neighbors setup and ready to go
Market View of Portsmouth