How I Almost Became a Plushie Vendor; How I Started Selling Stuff at Cons
Just a few days ago, Fire and Steel went to Anime Shogatsu 2017, a small convention in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Coming back, I’m inspired to dedicate this week’s blog post to talking about how I started selling stuff at conventions.
It might surprise you to know that in the very beginning, my first choice would have been to sell cute plushies.
My sisters and I had hundreds of stuffed animals growing up and I collected Beanie Babies. My bed was full of cuddly stuff (and daggers). The irony of scary stabby things beside cute and cuddly things is not lost on me.
My plushie vegetable and fruit collection.
However, there was a problem with this idea from the beginning.
I knew my friend Jen (www.TheLittlestGiftBoutique.com) was already selling that stuff and I ultimately did not want to compete against her. If you’re wondering why I didn’t offer to partner with her or work for her, I’ve heard too many stories about how going into business with a friend can possibly strain that relationship. I didn't want a business idea to get in the way of that.
So I decided against selling plushies and at the time, everything else aligned to point me in the direction of selling swords instead. For instance, my knee injury happened around that time and I wanted to still feel connected to kung fu.
I started by selling weaponry from my personal collection, stuff that I collected over the years from retail stores, flea markets, online, and items from other festivals/conventions. I never sold the stuff I got as gifts since there was sentimental value there, but everything I bought for myself was fair game. As you can imagine, the profit margins were practically non-existent from reselling stuff I got from retail stores, but it gave me a starting point to understand the world of business.
The first convention I did was a small toy con in 2012. In case you’re wondering why a toy convention, my collection also includes ‘toy’ weaponry like wood and foam swords and foam nunchuks, etc.
Unfortunately, the con was -- by all definitions -- a complete flop.
I think I literally sold nothing.
Rather than be discouraged, I went to the drawing board and figured out the million reasons why it didn’t work. The demographics of the crowd was all wrong, for instance. It seems obvious in retrospect but it wasn't obvious back then. My product quality at the time was also not the best it could be. I also didn’t necessarily have the most visible booth layout. There were basically a million reasons why it didn't end well.
Fortunately, the con was small so renting the booth was cheap (about 30$). From that show, I refined my business strategy and started to clue in on what people wanted. I did a comic con a month after, which cost about $100 for the booth. Instead of spending money on a new iPad I wanted for personal use, I used the money to buy more inventory for items I predicted would sell well based on what I learned at the previous con. My stuff sold out so I knew I was on to something.
Throughout all this, my family kept telling me that I’m crazy, what I’m doing is risky and my stuff won’t sell. Sometimes it probably seemed like I didn’t know what was going on. I always was conscious of what I was doing though and I tried to minimize the probability of failure by constantly creating hypotheses, testing and refining.
Let me emphasize that I don’t come from a family with money, nor do I have infinite amounts of money saved up. However, when I feel confident enough about certain things (be it learning opportunities, business ideas, social impact work, etc.), I’m willing to sink hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars into it just to see how it pans out.
Based on what I learned at the comic con, I stepped it up even further for Toronto Comic Con several months later. I sank several thousands of dollars into acquiring inventory and I had to figure out how the heck I was going to store all of it. The booth this time cost around $700. From an outsider looking in, this was all a huge gamble just to learn and test a hypothesis.
Naturally, I didn’t listen to everyone telling me I’m crazy because what they didn’t know was that, by then, I had been refining my understanding of the market for months. I felt I knew my market, I knew my audience and I knew my products. I was confident in what I was selling.
It was an extremely successful show for me. Many of my predicted “hot sellers” sold out.
I realize that for many people, when they want to figure out how to do something, they read about it first and then they imagine how they would do it. But they don’t actually try it out themselves.
I realize not everyone has thousands of dollars to just sink into a crazy new business idea, but not all ideas cost thousands to try out. When I started my business, I started on a small scale and slowly pushed to grow. It began with a $30 booth, selling stuff I already owned. Trying out my idea technically cost me very little.
It’s not about taking risks for the sake of taking risks. It’s about taking calculated risks and then increasing your risk tolerance when you test your hypothesis and it validates your idea.
Before I started all this, I did my readings on what it’s like to run a business, but actually doing it gave me a deeper level of understanding. There’s so many little things I would not have considered. Things like item sizes making it harder to transport, what is considered a restricted item in Canada, the process of actually importing goods, taxes on business revenues and expenses. It’s not the same reading about these things. I learned so much more from doing.
I learned by starting small, taking calculated risks and expanding as I became more successful and enjoyed what I was doing. People have called me crazy many times, but that’s okay. I don’t think there’s such thing as a successful person who’s fully sane.
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