Women who own their own business can’t be good at just one thing. They have to be competent on a number of different levels to run a successful small business, says Kit Davis Barksdale, executive director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi Inc. in Jackson.
“I think the hardest thing for a small business owner is that you have to be able to do all things well,” Barksdale said. “You have to be the publicist, the sales rep, the designer and producer, you have to order the materials, do inventory and be the accountant. You don’t have one big job. You have all of them.”
For crafts women such as those represented by the guild, surviving means that you not only create a superior product, you also must have good business skills. If there are some things you can’t do well, it makes sense to hire someone else.
“If you really hate accounting and don’t do it well, then you probably need to get a good accountant,” Barksdale said. “But all those things are an expense and for some small business people, they have to do it all.”
Mississippi has a large number of successful artists/businesswomen. Barksdale says those women thrive by knowing their market — and their limitations.
“You can’t do everything, so you have to decide what it is you do well,” she said. “There are choices just like in any business. The craft business isn’t that different.”
Most of the time, ‘rewarding’
Katie McCarstle, owner of Katie’s Ladies Apparel in Natchez, is celebrating her 10th anniversary this year.
“There are days when I want to say, ‘What am I doing in this business?’” McCarstle said. “But 99% of the time, it has been very rewarding. I’ve enjoyed every minute of being here. I really have. It is a full-time job. You have to be here. People want to see the owner. They want us to help them with clothes. They want us to put outfits together with accessories. It doesn’t work to just hire someone else to do the work. It is very hands-on. I think that is true not just in the clothing business, but any of the shops downtown.”
She lists customer service as being the number one key to success. In her case, she attracts customers interested in a classic, tailored look rather than the latest fashion at the mall.
“I’m not for mall shoppers,” McCarstle said. “We are fortunate our customers don’t want to drive to a big mall. We have enough inventory that they feel they can find what they want here. It is all about catering to your customer, and not being so trendy.”
Her advice to other women considering going into the business is to start out with adequate capital. Women often make the mistake of thinking they can start a business on a shoestring.
“If I had a chance to talk to someone going into business, I would certainly say get enough money up front so you don’t have to worry about the financial part of it while working on selling the customers,” McCarstle said.
It is also critical to make sure you are advertising in the right places. McCarstle said there are cost-effective ways other than TV, radio and newspaper such as getting on the phone and personally calling customers, and doing mail-outs to customers.
“Your advertising is the most important thing, keeping customers abreast of when you are having a sale or have new stock coming in,” she said. “That is very important.”
Debra K. Shafer, Queen (she legally registered as Queen as a public relations tool) of Dux D’Lux, Starkville, an advertising and public relations firm, agrees that direct mail is one of the best marketing tools.
“Putting together creative direct mail is still pretty important,” Shafer said. “But I think you have to put together something unique and narrow your focus about your target. Possibly you could send a product, a happy, something that will remind them of your business.”
She also is convinced using the Internet is one of the most cost-effective methods of advertising.
“It is incredible to me after being in this business for 25 years how in the past four to five years the Internet is becoming so critically important that many of our clients are putting the bulk of their advertising dollars into their Web site,” Shafer said. “The Internet has become a strong force in the advertising world. The modern shopper or someone who wants a service goes first to the Internet to research it. People looking for our services often go to our Web site and then call us based on what they see online. An informational Web site is priceless, as long as you are far enough up in the Web search engines that you get noticed.”
Making an investment
Shafer acknowledges that it may be difficult for many small businesses to justify putting a lot of money into advertising. But that can be a big mistake, because the most likely thing the business will be advertising is a going-out-of-business sale.
“There are creative ways to advertise that don’t cost you an arm and a leg,” she said.
Maryalice Miner, co-owner of Miner’s Big Stuff Dolls and Toy Store in Ocean Springs, creates special activities as a marketing technique.
“For instance, right now we are in the process of planning to have a nurse who will give the little girls’ baby dolls a physical,” Miner said. “The nurse with a stethoscope will listen to their hearts and give them a good health certificate. We also have product play days like wooden train play day. We put the trains outside and let little boys have major play time. That is good advertising when people see that driving by.”
Rather than advertising sales alone, Miner prefers doing special events and pricing. That works well for her kind of business. Miner, who turns 80 next month, and has been operating Miner’s Toy Store for the past 18 years. It is clear how much she enjoys the work, and customers like that.
“I’m here most every day, including Saturday,” Miner said. “I love my store and I love the people who come in. It is so much fun I would never want to miss it.”
Miner also touts the importance of being involved with local community associations such as the chamber of commerce. Special events sponsored by the chamber help drive traffic to downtown businesses. And the chamber works overall to make the downtown area an attractive shopping destination.
Miner said men and women have different approaches to a retail business. And she favors that.
“I don’t think a woman in a retail business needs to emulate a man because the approaches are quite different,” Miner said. “Another thing a woman in business needs is a great sense of humor, and she needs to be simpatico. We have so much fun with our customers. We get to know them and their families well. We can call them up when something comes in we think might interest them. It is really fun to have a relationship with your customers.”
Being self employed has many rewards, says Beth Taylor, owner of Letter B Productions in Hattiesburg, which does video productions, script writing, print advertising and Web design/hosting.
“The rewards are that you pretty much can decide to work at your own pace,” Taylor said. “I do my best work late at night and early in the morning. Now I have the freedom to do that. I’m not a by-the-clock kind of person. Also, my mother is 75. I can drive to New Orleans to take her to every doctor’s appointment. I couldn’t do that working for someone else.”
Taylor was the first female sportscaster on television in Mississippi. She worked for WDAM television from 1978 until she left in 1989 to work at the Pine Grove Recovery Center. She has owned her own business since 1990.
One thing she likes about being self employed is the opportunity to branch out into other areas. She has written a series of children’s books, a feature-length animation movie and a children’s television show — areas where her career is heading at this time.
“The life expectancy for women is 80,” Taylor said. “I’m not willing to go through life without trying to do what I really want to do. Each time I have made a career move, it has been what I wanted. The sky really is the limit if you are willing to go for it. And I’m willing to go for it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.