Yup, I took the plunge: I started a (very) small online store, “The Pencil Case”, that’s selling European-style pencil cases for school children.
Is it successful? Um, no, not really; or better said, not yet.
I sold one pencil case so far, and not through the web store but to an acquaintance to whom I happened to mention about my endeavor. But I do hope that, eventually, the products will become better known and the demand for them will grow.
Plus, it’s kind of a seasonal product: you usually buy those in August – September when school starts, and maybe as a gift for Christmas or Easter. But in future I intend to diversify the offer and sell more products.
Why did I do it?
It was a spur-of-the moment decision, I guess, and the circumstances at that time did play a decisive role.
Both my hubby and I are the regular kind of people with regular 9 to 5 jobs and a relatively good income. We managed (though not without sacrifice) to send our girls to a good private school, and are delighted to see them thrive: the older one is in her third year in university studying neuroscience, and the younger one is in college and wants to study psychology. Yes, it costs a lot of money to keep them in school, but we’re happy to support them and not let them start life already in debt.
Then, last year in September, my husband got laid off. The company he was working at got in big financial trouble and fired almost half of their staff.
My husband was earning more than twice as much as me, so you can imagine that this was a big shock for us, both emotionally and financially. Thank God he received a nice severance pay that covered our expenses for the first few months. But what would we do afterwards?? It’s really hard to find a decent job in engineering these days, especially when you’re in your late fifties.
Therefore, in parallel with searching for jobs, my husband started a small company, sole proprietorship, for research, small-prototyping and consulting. But that’s another story, maybe for another post.
Why pencil cases?
We were in October and I was trying to figure out what Christmas gifts to buy for the people on my list. They needed to be nice, useful gifts, and needed to be in the $20 price range – the amount I could afford under the circumstances. I’m happy to report that I actually found those nice and inexpensive gifts, and they were appreciated.
Every year between Christmas and New Year we also meet with some friends, and it has become a tradition to exchange Christmas gifts for the occasion.
Their eight years old daughter had recently been accepted at a private school; naturally they were happy and proud about that. (I guess they saw our girls fare well and considered offering their daughter, too, a good education.)
Now, what nice, appropriate and reasonably-priced gift do you buy for a young school girl? A pencil case, of course!
But not those too small, too soft, too ugly and unpractical ones you find at Staples (or “Bureau en gros” in Quebec).
I wanted to offer her a pencil case like the ones we had in Europe. A pencil case big enough and sturdy enough to hold everything you need, and to keep it well-organized so you can find things easily and put them back in order easily.
With this in mind, I frenetically started searching the internet to find an “European-style”, or “German-style” pencil case – and found nothing that was even remotely similar to what I had envisioned.
Finally, after a long and exhausting search I found some on… e-bay Germany. I ordered one that looked nice and cost me about $23 including shipping. Mission accomplished!
But the fact that you cannot find these here in North America stuck with me.
Was it my dream to sell pencil cases?
Nope, not even close. However, there clearly is a marked for them here. And then I had this spur-of-the-moment thought: why don’t I import and sell them? I could make some extra money with that.
Opening a sole proprietorship is really easy, at least here in Quebec: you fill out an online form and pay $34, and within a few days you’re registered. I did it for my husband and I could do it for me, too.
Opening a business bank account is a tad more tricky, there are several forms to fill out (the bank clerk will do it), it takes a week or more for them to “study your case” –whatever that means, and it cost $50.
Furthermore I requested a business / GST / importer number (it’s the same number), which is free and can be done online.
Search and You Shall Find
It’s true, thank God and thanks to the internet!
I started another feverish search to find office and school supply manufacturers in Europe, and found one company that manufactured pencil cases like I wanted. They cost less than 4 EUR a piece, including contents. The people there were very friendly and open to helping me in my initiative. They even offered to ship the goods to me, and said that for bigger orders the prices can be discussed. Truly awesome.
I ordered my first 20 pencil cases in late November. It cost me $170 including shipping and bank fees, not too bad. I was hoping they would arrive before Christmas, but no such luck. Until the money reached their account it was already early December, and by the time they were mailed, plus the pre-Christmas backlog, I only received them around January 10.
Moreover, I had started building a website and it went really slow and tedious. I don’t have much experience in the field, and on top of that I wanted to do everything for free, or as inexpensive as possible.
If you search for “free website builder” you get tens of results, however most of them aren’t actually free. But I found webs.com. They are offering a free website, though now they have reduced it to only 5 pages; but it’s free and you can keep it as long as you like. And with their tools it is easy to build very nice websites; no programming required, just painstaking work and patience.Their premium (paid) versions are also very reasonably priced. Ultimately I had to upgrade to the lowest Premium package, because I needed a bit more than 5 pages, and custom HTML for my PayPal “Buy Now” buttons.
Then I asked my hubby to take pictures of the pencil cases, and I cleaned up the images and arranged them nicely with GIMP – a free program very similar to Photoshop. My younger daughter taught me how to work with the program.
Last but not least, since I didn’t like Webs’ web store, I opened a merchant account with PayPal. I already had an account with them so I just upgraded to a “Standard” merchant account, which is free. If you make a sale through them, PayPal charges you 2.9% + 0.30$, a reasonable fee for the service they provide.
So now I have everything set up. The website is published. With a little more exposure, I’m sure the sales will pick up.
Was it a scary endeavor?
OH YES. I won’t lie to you, I felt quite scared and discouraged at times.
What has gotten into me? I have a full-time job and a family, when will I find the time to run a business? I don’t have the slightest experience in retail. I have no training in accounting. I don’t know web design. I have no clue how to report my business income to the government. I don’t know this, I don’t know that…
Well, it turns out that everything can be learned with a little effort and patience. You don’t need to become an expert, just try to understand the basics. Use TurboTax or HR Block for your tax report, they walk you through it step by step – like a walk in the park. For accounting, just keep a book or use a free program in the beginning. I found one called Manager and it’s okay.
If something doesn’t work or feels too frightening, leave it for a few days and then start over. In time things will fall into place and will become easier.
With all the possibilities the internet has opened up for us it would be a pity not to grab the opportunity. I came to realize (and fairly late in life, for that matter), that one shouldn’t rely solely on a 9 to 5 job that is here now, but might not be there anymore tomorrow…
I have always liked writing but, being a mother of two and working full-time, it's not easy to find time for my hobbies.
I love nature and I'm committed to healthy cooking and clean, environment-friendly living. Oh, and I love coffee.