A profession ago, I ran a repping firm, Lehman and Associates, in Illinois.  I represented close to 100 manufacturers and publishers over 19 years.  The second half of that career, from about 1989–1999, I handled mostly the chains.  My staff worked the sole proprietorships, driving from store to store, hauling in maybe 50–75 pounds of samples, mostly paper.

The paper we carried into shops was mostly greeting card samples, catalogs of greeting cards, calendars and the products of other giftware firms.  We’d spend from a half hour to three hours with store owners going through the product lines, often card by card.

The chains didn’t care to look at samples.  They let me pick out what would sell the best.  What the chains cared about was how much discount they could receive, special terms such as delayed payment dating and free shipping.

Regarding dating, they pretty much paid when they wanted to, sometimes in fewer than 90 days.  Shipping was often free.  Discounts were the painful part.  Those discounts often came straight out of my commission.  I was negotiating with the money I would receive after returns were subtracted.

I would commonly write an order in the winter and get paid three seasons later, with final payment coming through five seasons later after returns had been processed.

My largest clients were Walgreens, Osco, Montgomery Ward and Sears.  Buyers, the people I would work with, sometimes changed jobs.  They would be performing the same buyer job in a new chain, and I followed them to their new position.  I got used to working with a variety of people.  Sitting down to work out a year’s calendar order was a stressful stretch of minutes.  The perhaps 3-hour total I’d spend sitting down with those four buyers would determine three-fourths of my yearly income.

I had great product.  I sold mostly the Far Side page-a-day calendar to these various chains.  They often sold completely out.  No returns to deal with, no product that would come off of my commission.  So, as insecure as it was to have such a sizable portion of my annual income come from a single product sold to so few stores, at least that product was something I personally adored and sold well year to year, and it made me a predictable yearly income.

The exceptions to that rhythm, yearly big bucks from a single item sold to very few chains, had a powerful impact.  I don’t remember the year that Montgomery Ward went Chapter 11, but I think it was 1997 or 1998.  I was working with a buyer that I’d worked with at another chain, Carson Pirie Scott, and so I was pretty good at reading that buyer’s nonverbals.

Mark put through his massive calendar order, with a big discount coming out of my commission.  It would be about six months before the order would ship.  Mark’s communications showed signs of stress.  I was getting incongruent messages regarding seemingly unrelated issues.  I’d worked with many businesses before they went bankrupt, observing the unique dance of self denial and secrecy.  This was feeling bad.

I started keeping copious notes regarding communications, dating the various comments made.

I consulted with the publisher, and I noted worrisome behaviors.

Several hundred thousand dollars of product landed on the Montgomery Ward shipping docks.  Two days later, they declared Chapter 11.  They refused to return the product.  They refused to put the product out.  The buyer became very hard to get hold of.

In May of 1999, I departed that profession and began the web design firm about six months later.  I wanted a business model that would not have me relying upon large corporations.  The Montgomery Ward debacle cost me a sizable portion of my income.  In addition to anxiety, there was little experience that what I had to offer was appreciated.  I was looked at as the guy that would negotiate discounts.  Unlike my firm’s relationships with the small stores, I was not valued for the knowledge I could bring about our industry and its products to help our clients make a living.

When I structured the website design firm business model, it was grounded on the idea of having lots of small clients in a relatively small area, clients who I could help and be important to.  I wanted to be appreciated in the way that small stores valued our contributions when I had managed a repping firm.  It felt good to be appreciated.  Life was lots less stressful.  So, I developed a business model where what I offered regarding website design, maintenance and marketing could be useful and valued by our clients.  I sought a business plan that nurtured long-term relationships with many smaller businesses.

And so that is how we’ve done it.  Of the almost 400 clients paying us quarterly maintenance fees, almost none of them are multileveled corporations.  I almost always work with the owner/sole proprietor, making it easy to build websites quickly and inexpensively.  Life is FAR less stressful than when I worked almost exclusively with large corporations.  I don’t make as much money as I did then, and I work far more hours, but there is no comparison.  Working with people whose life you can positively influence, and feeling appreciated for the work you do, is a deeply rewarding experience.

Sometimes it takes a bad experience before you can see a positive alternative, embrace it and move on.


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