Winter 2004 Inside the “Studio”
Karla Jordan has incredible on-target intuition about the market, and understands the tremendous retail opportunities carts and kiosks offer. She also understands how to multiply those opportunities substantially when they’re combined with other retail avenues. And it’s this understanding plus her personal commitment to her distributors’ success that keep her on top in a challenging industry.
Under the Studio Select, Inc. umbrella (based in Waukesha, WI), Jordan, its founder and president, operates Studio Designs, Studio Hair Designs, and FrameWorks. While the first two companies feature mature product lines with solid sales records, FrameWorks, with its exciting line of picture frames, is Jordan’s rising star. This latest company is expanding at a healthy pace, and offers tremendous opportunities for distributors across the country.
A former teacher with a Master’s degree, Jordan, 55, is no newcomer entrepreneur. Her first venture was a jewelry company, which she ran for 25 years. She had a showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York, sold to all the major department stores, and built a network marketing company with more than 40,000 distributors. But in 1992, changes in the market and suppliers, along with her desire as a single mother of four daughters to spend more time with them, contributed to her decision to close the company. She returned to teaching, but the lure of being in business for herself was irresistible.
Back to retail
Remember Pogs, the ubiquitous milk-bottle tops that were so popular with kids in the ’90s? That was Jordan’s first foray into specialty retailing. Remember how they were eventually banned by schools all over America? Jordan had seven carts at that point, and “the whole thing fell apart.” Then she happened on a candle concept that caught her attention. “I thought, ‘I could make this much better,’ and I started doing some designing at home,” she says. When she took her version of what are now known as oil candles to a craft show and sold out in an hour, she knew she’d hit a jackpot. So she quit teaching, and hasn’t looked back.
Jordan’s elegant, high-quality oil candle was the flagship product of Studio Designs, which has since expanded to include aromatherapy products, herbal wraps, FragranSalts, and spa products. Then she discovered hair extensions just as they were gaining popularity, so she created Studio Hair Designs to wholesale hair add-ons and accessories to distributors who retail them on carts, in salons, and at shows and home parties.
Although she says her latest venture, FrameWorks, “was not in the business plan,” her decision to develop the idea was clearly on target. She started with nine carts selling specialty photo frames for Christmas 2002. She has expanded the product line significantly in the past year and now has some 75 distributors who sell in a variety of venues. “I’ve taught them how to have a year-round business,” she says. “The cart business is so seasonal, so I’ve shown them how to do shows to make [FrameWorks] an all-year-round business, and they are having huge successes.”
Rather than dictating how distributors should operate, Jordan takes a mentoring approach. “We know what they need… and we help them get started,” she says. “I will work with any starting amount for anyone. Once they get going with it, they see what it can do.” She says some FrameWorks distributors selling the products year-round are already earning profits in excess of $100,000 a year, and the income potential for distributors is likely to increase as she continues to expand the product line.
“What gives me the most pleasure is to receive a phone call [from a distributor saying], ‘I’m going to quit my full-time job. I can make a living at this.’ Those words are so rewarding for me, especially when it’s someone who had been in a dead-end job or who hated what they were doing.” She encourages creative sales approaches, and doesn’t object if her distributors also carry complementary product lines. For example, someone selling personalized Christmas ornaments and personalized CDs is in a perfect position to add personalized frames from FrameWorks to their inventory.
In addition to selling well on carts, especially during the holiday season, FrameWorks products do well in other venues. “Where most products have a boundary, this product has no boundaries in any territory at all,” says Jordan. “Home parties, trade shows, art festivals, tech shows, home and garden shows—wherever there are people, you can take this product and be successful.” Distributors can even sell through the corporate Web site: customers enter their distributor’s ID number when they order, and the distributor gets the credit and a commission for that sale.
Jordan is in the process of expanding the line of wood frames to include a pewter version with a more contemporary look. Distributors can also tap into the corporate and business promotional
market because any frame can be customized with a company logo.
As to growth, speed and size are not necessarily of the essence for Jordan. She says her company’s annual sales—approximately $3 million (which have steadily increased since she founded the company)—reflect a controlled-growth strategy. Her company is profitable and growing—she’s in it for the long term, unlike companies with fad products that burst onto the retail scene and disappear just as quickly. “In business, you must always be creating, designing, moving forward,” Jordan says. “But don’t try to do it all at one time. Take it in steps and enjoy the ride along the way.” Which also explains why she sets aside ample time for herself and her family.
Trends are critical to specialty retailers, perhaps more so than for many other industries. The ability to spot trends, capitalize on them and then move on to “the next big thing” when the time is right can mean the difference between long-range, ongoing success and a flash in the pan. “Being realistic is important,” Jordan says. “No trend lasts forever. It will have its upsurge, then it comes down and levels off. As you have one creative thing going and working well, start looking for the next thing. Add to it, so that you have a well-rounded business all year long.”
One trend Jordan not only spotted but sees holding firm is the demand for personalized and patriotic items since 9/11. Personalizing an item with an individual’s name seems to be in greater demand, and the “In service to our country” frame with its American flag is also extremely popular.
One of her biggest challenges, though, is managing production and having sufficient product on hand. She carefully tracks what’s selling well so she can keep substantial inventory of popular frame styles. It also helps that the manufacturer she contracts with can turn around a special order in about a week.
Jordan applies a stringent selection process when choosing manufacturers. “I do heavy interviews,” she says. “I want to know their purpose in business, their vision, their abilities.” She expects the owner of the company to work as hard, if not harder, than anybody else, and to be as personally committed to quality as she is. “The speed of the leader is the speed of the game,” she says.
Voice of experience
As savvy as she clearly is, Jordan admits to making plenty of mistakes over the years. She’s learned from them but refuses to dwell on them. “You can wallow in your mistakes, or you can learn, let go, and move on,” she says. Perhaps her most important learning experiences happened when she ignored her intuition. “Two or three times, a red flag has gone up in my mind, and I didn’t pay attention. Each time the result was a big, costly mistake.”
She’s also learned to keep her personal preferences and emotions out of product decisions. “People can get so hung up on their products that they lose all focus, and it just comes tumbling down,” she says. “They don’t understand why a design isn’t selling, and they take it personally. When you get emotionally involved with your product, you don’t make good decisions.”
For anyone considering specialty retail, Jordan has an abundance of advice. First, find out if the product has been sold in your area before. If so, try to find out why the person who sold it then isn’t selling it now. Also, how long has it been since the product was on the local market? If it’s been two or three years, maybe this is a good time to bring it back—or maybe the product peaked and is on the decline. If the product is new, study the demographics: Who is the market, and what is the potential of the mall you’re considering? But don’t focus exclusively on class A malls. “The A places don’t necessarily mean the most success,” Jordan says. “I find that B and C malls can be more profitable than A malls. They often have a strong local customer base, and the rent isn’t as high.”
If you plan to do a seasonal cart for Christmas, consider selling in appropriate shows or making other product presentations in September. “That will give you a following right to the cart for Christmas,” she says. Distribute a catalog and tell people where you’ll be in November and December.
Jordan believes the most profitable carts are the ones operated by hands-on owners. And if you have multiple locations and can’t be everywhere at once, give your managers and/or salespeople some type of sales incentive to motivate them to sell instead of just sitting there.
Recognize that you’ll have good and bad days. And learn to motivate and inspire yourself, she says, because you’re the only person who can. Don’t count on others to help drive you: “People are happy for you when you’re successful, but they’re happier when you fail.”
Finally, be sure your friends and associates know what you’re doing, so that they can be customers if they want, but don’t make your business the focal point of your personal relationships. “When you have hit on something, you’re so excited and you want to tell everybody about it. They’re happy for you in the beginning, but then they don’t want to hear it anymore.” So “don’t take your business into your social circle.” Instead, “talk about business to other business people.” Good advice from one who knows and cares—and has the track record to prove it.
Looking for more information on wholesalers and products? Check out our directory of useful links.
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