My most commonly asked question: "So, how did you get into this business?" . . . PART 2

A retail stationery shop made sense for me for a variety of reasons: I'd always loved print media, loved customer service, loved how tangible the products are, loved how it felt to walk into a boutique shop, loved the idea of stocking the shelves with the cutest, wittiest, most distinctive products I could find.

The next step was to take my vision from concept to reality. In January 2007, I started researching business plans online, and put together some notes and ideas. A friend of mine told me about the Business Plan Clinic at Baldwin-Wallace, a program that teams entrepreneurs with local executives and accounting students, in order to fine-tune a business plan. By March of 2007, my 40-page business plan (yes, 40 pages) was nearly complete.

I can't overstate the importance of a well-thought business plan. Many people have asked me if they "really need one" or if they could just wing it. The answer is a definite YES - you really do need a business plan, and I think it may just be the only time in the history of your business where you actually have time to think strategically without getting bogged down in the daily operations.

I still reference my plan whenever I'm feeling confused or not feeling very strategic. There's something comforting about how optimistic I was three years ago, and it continues to inspire me. Here's a little snippet from my original plan, which still holds true today:

"As a boutique shop located in historic downtown Rocky River, Paper Trails will attract distinguished consumers with an exclusive taste for design flair and who will select high-quality, distinctive products over mass merchant warehouses. The store will have a branded identity within several niche markets, well-known and respected by its customer base. The company's mission statement is to attract, impress and retain sophisticated consumers who value charismatic, personal designs - on paper!"

That March, with my near-final business plan in hand, I decided to visit a few paper shops around the country. While there are a few in Cleveland, none of them were as large as the shop I was planning to create, and they didn't stock the variety of products that I was planning. I have a good friend in New York, so I hopped on a plane for a weekend and mapped out about 15 stores that I wanted to visit. Many of them were a testament to my vision and how it could work. That visit helped solidify my plan and propelled me forward. While in NYC, I had also scheduled a meeting with the owners of Kate's Paperie, chatting about a possible franchise opportunity. But in the end, I decided to begin this venture on my own, wanting to make a clean break from corporate America.

By May 2007, I had put the finishing touches on the financial portion of the plan (the toughest part), and started to think about financing. Once that was secure, I looked for the shopís location and narrowed it down to two venues: one on Linda Street and another on Old Detroit Road. (In case youíre wondering, the Linda street location was the little blue house in between Mitchellís and Treats. For a variety of reasons, Old Detroit was definitely the right decision ñ had I ended up on Linda, I would be spending WAY too much time at Wine Bar.)

I signed the lease for 19146 Old Detroit Road in July and my next thought was, "Oh crap, I think I need to quit my day job." Once there was a legal agreement binding the next 2 years of my life to the business plan I'd just written, it was time to make some changes.

I gave my employer three weeks notice, and they asked if I'd stay for six. Needless to say, August of 2007 was a grueling month, where I worked at my corporate job for four hours in the morning, then came to the shop and worked for another eight to ten. The space needed a TON of work, from removing a wall, re-plastering the walls, repainting and adding track lights, not to mention checking in over 1000 products into our POS software, labeling them and putting them out on 30 shelving units (that I put together by hand). Since most of the products were shipped before my lease was effective, I had them shipped to my house and then had to transport them to the shop. (Just remembering that month makes me start to hyperventilate.)

I planned to open the shop on September 7, 2007, and on the evening of September 6, I was nowhere near where I needed to be. There were still boxes of stationery and invitations everywhere, I didnít have time to fill all of the shelves so I had to drape a few of them off, along with the entire back section of the store. But we managed to pull it together, and the shop was ready at 10 am Tuesday morning.

Before I opened on the first day, I was driving to the shop and realized that I hadn't filled the cash register drawers with any money. I was so nervous about opening, that I went to the bank, walked up to the teller, and said "I need some money!" so fast that it sounded like I was going to commit a robbery. I think I followed with something like, "I mean, Iíd like to make a withdrawal from my account please." Ahhhh, one of the many completely dumb things that I've said!

And the rest is, as they say, history. Our doors opened on September 7, so we'll officially turn three years old this year. The shop has changed every day since we opened. We move things around, we try new things, we create new displays, we constantly make changes to keep everything fresh and exciting.

This job is the best job I've ever had. Itís rewarding, it's dynamic, it's personal. Yes, there are days when customers are unreasonable, days when vendors don't hold up their end of the bargain, days when we can't seem to make anyone happy, days when the economic downturn is too much to bear, days when my feet are killing me. But at the end of each day, Iím so proud of what Paper Trails has become, yet still have so many ideas about what it could be in the future.

I hope this long, two-part blog (over the course of, ahem, eight months) will finally answer our original question: "So, how did you get into that business?" And the short answer is: ten years of hard work and finding myself, combined with a lot of determination and inspiration.