Monday, July 11, 2016

An Interview About Entrepreneurship

The Iowa Secretary of State's office has been interviewing small business owners to demonstrate the range, success, and experience of Iowan entrepreneurs. We were recently contacted by Erin Bunce, the business services and social media intern with the office, who asked some challenging and interesting questions about the store as a business. The owner, Nialle Sylvan, responded, and since some the questions are ones that business students and other young entrepreneurs have asked us as well, we thought we'd share the full text of the interview.

Q: What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?

A: I know that literally, it means "to undertake a risk for a benefit", and I'm also acutely aware of the necessity of continuing to take risks to improve benefit. This means making investments - by taking out loans or spending what's in the operations account - in capital that I think I can resell at a profit, but to me, it also means thinking constantly about what value I add to the capital (books) and whether my capital is good for my community. I'm not interested in selling products or services that are used up and thrown away. I want people to feel that the value they get from my products and services are not just worth the price in dollars, but worth their time and effort and worth continuing to use or circulate. It may not rocket me to the top of the Forbes 500, but it's - well - sustainable. A mutual relationship of trust and value.

Q: Why did you buy this business?

A: Some people know they want to be teachers. Some people feel a calling to religious leadership. I saw a movie when I was a kid in which there was a beautiful old used-book store, and though I was sure I'd never have a chance to own one or even work in one, somehow everything I learned during my haphazard education and work experience contributed to my ability to buy and run a bookstore when I got the chance. Nobody who knew me was surprised by my choice, but everybody was sure I would fail. Maybe I will. Still doing pretty well after twelve years though.

Q: What is the ultimate goal for your business?

A: To have my youngest customers bring their children and grandchildren back to my retail bookstore because they still want my products - and because they want to share the experience of being here with the next generation.

Q: What is/was your greatest fear about getting into this industry?

A: At the beginning, my biggest fear was debt. Now, my biggest fear is debt. That's why I restructured my company as an LLC rather than a sole proprietorship and intend to find an "apprentice" or young partner who can build up at least 50% ownership before I retire. I'll beat the debt, and I won't pass it along.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle you faced in the beginning?

A: Nobody wanted to loan $45,000 to some 26-year-old office clerk to buy a used bookstore in the days of newspapers reporting 10% or worse failure rates per year for bookstores. I didn't blame them then and I don't now. Fortunately my grandfather knew I was smart enough and stubborn enough to succeed, so he loaned me the money. All I have today, I owe to his trust in me.

Q: How will your business support your community in five years? In 20 years?

A: My business' primary mission is to circulate books. That will never change. How we do it, what the experience of shopping in this retail bookstore is like, what other products and services we offer, to what degree we partner with neighboring businesses to facilitate a walkable shopping district and with local charities to decrease inequalities in our community - all these will change. In five years, we will probably not change the layout of the store, the types of books or sideline items, quality measures, or civic and charitable activity very much, but we're at the beginning of a shift in how we acquire inventory, and the challenge of the next five years will be to figure out how to continue to source our inventory from the local community, so that our acquisitions money continues to return directly to consumers in our area. Twenty years from now? I'd like to see us working not just to mentor my replacement as owner, but to help young people acquire the three things they need most to build a lasting business: affordable premises and overhead, mentorship and peer support networks, and investors like my grandfather.

Q: What do you think will be the most challenging obstacle you will have to overcome as The Haunted Bookshop continues to thrive?

A: Same one booksellers have been facing since bookselling: convincing people that they do have time to read, that it is valuable to do so, that they can afford and make space for books, and that the community of book owners and readers is one that would welcome them to their benefit. The special challenge of my century (unlike those of previous times, when church or government censorship, ethnic and religious conflict, poor public emergency services, etc. were big threats) will be the declining production quality of print books, which are seldom made to be reused now, and the declining variety of published work. My business, by its very nature, keeps better quality books in circulation, but we'll have to find charitable and possibly additional entrepreneurial methods to improve the physical book and to get innovative and diverse writers into print.

Q: What words of encouragement would you give someone who is on the fence about starting a business?

A: Be precise and realistic as you compute the cost of starting your enterprise, running it, and changing it, and get a thorough knowledge of the clientele you want and how much they would spend, how often, for products and services like yours. Then ask yourself how much you believe that what you offer has value and how good you are at sharing your belief. You're filling a niche and can explain the reason? Make sure your cost and income projections show a strong profit within six months. You have a passion, you have relevant experience, and you’ve already gotten other people excited about what you love? Double the projected earnings and file your business name, because the worst thing that can happen to you is that your first run won't work out, but you'll have learned how to make the second time better.

Q: If it is a family business, how is your family involved in the business now/in the future?

A. My family are not allowed to work within my business except in really peripheral ways, like mowing the grass outside the building. I will "adopt" people to "inherit" the business. That worked for Julius Caesar and the Five Good Emperors of Rome as well as nearly every successful bookstore I've seen or learned about, and it also keeps business out of my house, which makes my house more comfortable and keeps my household income sources diverse.

Q: What is the most rewarding part about owning your own business?

A: The look on people's faces when they smell the books, see the tidy rows of well-made wooden cases, hear the cat's greeting meow, and notice the comfortable chairs, lack of muzak, and occasional goofy touches like the little Poe doll next to a book with an ominous title, a silly cartoon taped to the shelves, an employee using a puppet to show children around the kids' room. Outside my door, almost every person I see is worried or tired, but - even if it's only for a moment when they first walk in - people show me their sense of wonder. My entrepreneurship was to take a loan and make a return on it. My job is to do the things that bring in the returns, from identifying the language and printing place of old immigrants' books to prioritizing building improvements. My life is helping people to feel that sense of wonder again, a little more often, a little more strongly, in the most loving way I can.

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