One crafty move

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Husband and wife team take scrapbooking business from hobby to multi-million dollar firm

Story by John Ingrisano

RULE # 1: The worst time to give up a secure job and start a business is in the middle of a severe economic downturn.

Rule # 2: A home-based business, especially one that sells artsy-craftsy supplies to scrap-bookers, is a cute-as-a-bug way to make a few extra bucks, but not much more.

Rule # 3: After meeting Carrie and Dean Duehring, owners of Craft-e-Corner, located in Oshkosh, you might rethink Rules 1 and 2. That’s because this husband-wife team – with three children under the age of six, by the way – took their business from hobby to $4.7 million in annual sales in two years.

Luck? Never hurts. However, more accurately, Dean and Carrie blended the right mix of skills, along with a relentless dedication to research and a ton and a half of well-placed sweat equity. Still, $4.7 million a year? That’s right around $90,000 a week.

Finding market opportunity

CRAFT-E-CORNER (www.craft-e-corner.com) IS AN ONLINE RETAIL business selling digital cutting machines and supplies to people who are into scrapbooking, the hobby of preserving personal photos and other memories in highly decorated albums. The “Cricut” – pronounced like ‘cricket’ and made popular by late-night infomercials – is their biggest seller.

As with many great ideas, it all came together by happenstance – right time, right place, right people. Carrie, age 32, is a risk-averse mother of three with a penchant for dogged research.

“I got a degree in psychology because I always wonder why people do the things they do,” she told New North B2B magazine. Not thrilled with the idea of returning to her corporate job in industrial organizational psychology after the birth of their third child, she started buying rummage sale items and selling them on eBay. “I was fascinated with why some items sold well and others did poorly,” she added. Then a scrapbook hobbyist herself, she received a Cricut machine as a gift.

Her husband Dean, 38, is a high school social studies and economics teacher, and also the son of an entrepreneur.

“I grew up in a family business, and I’ve always wanted to be in business for myself. I went through a lot of ideas. I have a thick file of ideas,” but there was always something missing.

“This idea just clicked,” added Carrie. “It was a thrill. I also wanted to be home with the girls. Selling on eBay, which still accounts for 80 percent of our business, I began learning what worked and what did not.

“I was excited at the idea of selling and of understanding why something sold and something didn’t. I gathered a lot of data.”

Managing quick growth

IN EARLY 2008 THEY LAUNCHED CRAFT-E-CORNER from their home. Carrie would do customer service and Dean would fill orders at night while he kept his job teaching at Oshkosh West High School. As sales took off and inventory began to overflow their garage, their basement storage, and every remaining amount of space in the closets of their home, the Duehrings eventually rented a warehouse in April.

First-year gross revenue hit $1.2 million; that skyrocketed to $4.7 million in 2009. Today, they offer 400 different products, have four employees, and ship about 2,000 items a week. On Cyber-Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend last November, they shipped a semi-trailer and a half full of product.

That’s not just pretty good. That’s amazing. The big question is: Why?

It’s a question they ask themselves a lot. Though the numbers suggest otherwise, they took very few blind leaps.

“What we do has a lot of risk involved,” said Dean. “But if you do your research and do your due diligence, you can take calculated risks.”

They studied margins, looked for trends as to when people buy (they noted an uptick on the first and fifteenth of each month, when many people got paid), and looked for ways to cut costs by buying larger quantities.

Their secrets? Here are some:

  • Do your homework …  and keep doing it. According to Dean, “If you do your research, you don’t get burned.” He refers back to the fact that he had explored numerous ideas, but waited for the right one. They both are relentless researchers, gathering and analyzing data.
  • Work with the right partner. Dean emphasized that the partnership between Carrie and him is the number one reason for their astonishing success. “We are fortunate in that we partnered an idea person with a relentless researcher. It is the complementary combo of skills we bring to the partnership that has made us successful so far.
  • Take calculated risks. Though Dean is a risk taker, he is not inclined to close his eyes and jump off a cliff. It goes back to calculated risks, stressed Dean, who didn’t just walk away from his teaching job. “I took a leave of absence, so I had the option to go back.”
  • Build reputation through quality customer service and dependability. As Carrie explained, “We have over 55,000 feedbacks on eBay, and our customer service is 99.9 percent positive. Reputation and feedback boost sales.”
  • Invest in your business. “We are always looking for ways to do things better and more efficiently,” Dean said. Starting out in their basement, “we have never been afraid to invest in innovation as we grew. We have systems in place so we are ready for growth.”
  • Hire for skills and values. As Carrie put it, “My biggest challenge was bringing in others and trusting them with my work. I initially hired for skills. Now we hire for both skills and values.” They focus on finding people who can do the work and who are willing to work.
  • Grow with a plan. “Create your niche,” said Dean. “Expand with care. Crawl. Walk. And then run.”
  • Think globally. Especially when you’re an online retailer, you have a global marketplace. “I think about the little scrapbook shop in a small town,” said Carrie, “that reaches maybe 20 people.” Craft-e-Corner reaches potentially millions of people in several countries.

Tossing and turning

STILL, THERE ARE CHALLENGES. What sometimes keeps Dean up at night is the huge and relentless number of decisions they must make. Plus, they’re a niche business and they know it.

“What happens if our main equipment supplier raises prices or has a recall?” said Dean. “The Cricut is 90 percent of our business.”

For Carrie, the toughest part is deciding when and how to set limits. “How far do we take the business? Yes, we love to work, but there are other priorities, such as the children.”

And that also leads to the best part: family. Key to Carrie and Dean was to start a business that allowed Carrie to be with the children, who are with them whether working at home or at the warehouse a few minutes away. “That’s one of the big reasons this business looked so attractive to us,” Dean explained.

“My thrill is being able to work with people I love,” added Carrie. “I do feel we are blessed. We always review our priorities,” and both pointed out that it is always family first. “I get to be in business with my friend and husband,” said Carrie. “It may seem like a little thing, but we all get to have lunch together, and Dean gets to share in the parenting roles” much more than when he was teaching.

The lifestyle also isn’t bad.

“Who doesn’t love freedom?” Carrie said. “You spend a lot of time, effort and risk, but at the same time you’re able to do more things you enjoy. We have the freedom and flexibility we desire.”

Dean agreed: “We work long hours, but some of that time may be in our pajamas on the couch from eight to midnight. I love that flexibility.”

When it comes to Carrie and Dean Duehring, they did not ignore the rules about economic recessions and home-based businesses. They just found a way to overcome them by applying sound business basics, including the right mix of caution and risk taking, research and hard work.

The result is that it has paid off big for Carrie and Dean and Craft-e-Corner.

John Ingrisano, president of Custom Communications, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. To reach John, contact him at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.