How to Start a Multi-Million-Dollar Catalog Business, Part 2


“Watch the turtle. He only moves forward by sticking his neck out.” – Louis Gerstner, Chairman and CEO of IBM

I asked SL, “Is it still possible to start a successful business like yours working from home?” His quick, sure response was, “Yes — even in today’s tough business climate.”

Some of SL’s secrets for success in the catalog business apply equally to direct-mail marketing — a business I know very well. But some of his secrets are very specifically about how to use small display ads. Although I haven’t had a great deal of success in this area personally, I have a half-dozen ideas for selling products that seem like they just might work as space ads in the back of the New York Times Magazine or the New Yorker. After listening to what SL had to say, I think I’ll give it a shot. I’ll let you know what happens.

Meanwhile, here are the most valuable points that SL made about the catalog business in his speech to AWAI’s bootcamp attendees …

1. Catalog captions:

The most recent issue of SL’s catalog bears out his advice on writing captions: Never repeat what has already been “said” by the accompanying photo. Instead, highlight some important benefit that is not immediately obvious. It occurred to me that though catalog captions look like the headlines we use in direct mail and in space ads, they don’t have the same purpose. The primary purpose of a headline is to get itself noticed and then direct the reader to read the rest of the copy. The primary purpose of a caption is to say something instructive about the photo of the product, based on the assumption that the reader has already looked at the photo. That’s a world of difference — and was a major revelation to me.

2. Catalog copy:

“In terms of what affects the catalog shopper,” SL told us, “I’d say the photo is first, the headline and/or price line is second, and the copy comes last. Still, copy is very important — and we treat it that way.” SL’s No. 1 rule for copy? Clarity. Clarity. Clarity. “We work extremely hard to make all our copy as clean and clear as possible,” he said. “We like to think that we are the best in the business when it comes to that.”

3. Truth in advertising:

“Our readers are well-educated and skeptical,” said SL. “If we say ‘this is the best halogen desk lamp in the world,’ they would lose some respect for us. But if we say ‘this is possibly the best halogen desk lamp in the world,’ they take notice.” SL is happy to give up the extra zing he might get by being extreme in his claims for the long-term benefit of credibility.

4. Customer service:

“I probably write a half-dozen personal notes every week to unhappy customers that we’ve accidentally mis-serviced,” SL admitted. “I write them only after the problem has been completely rectified — and then we send them some very nice presents to make up for what we did. Often, we are able to convert a disgruntled customer into a very loyal one by this policy of overkill.”

5. Get a mentor:

“The best situation,” SL said, “is the one we had — a mentor who had been in the same business we are in. Someone who already did what we wanted to do. Someone who was willing to give us frank and sometimes harsh criticism. “The secret to taking advantage of a mentor is to be open to criticism. Sometimes, this requires thick skin. Always keep in mind that the mentor is repaid not so much financially as through the pleasure of knowing his ideas have helped you grow. So let his ideas do just that. And then be grateful to him for it.”

6. Respect your brand. “For a while,” SL told us, “we were selling T-shirts in our catalog. Very successfully. But a mentor I had at the time (‘Mr. Stanley,’ I called him) raked me over the coals about it. ‘I don’t care how many T-shirts you are selling,’ he said. ‘They don’t belong as part of your business. There is no such thing as a neutral product. If it doesn’t enhance your image, it detracts from it. And if the product is wrong for you, the more you sell, the worse it is.’ I took his advice to heart and have never regretted it.”

7. The obligation of your business:

“We believe we have an obligation to deliver good value,” said SL, “and that means good-quality products extremely well-designed for serious readers. We don’t just say it. We mean it.”

8. Marketing:

“Test your ideas as soon as possible after you get them — and as cheaply as possible,” said SL. “When you are wrong, accept it and try something else.”

9. Money management:

“Becoming good in business is a matter of surviving mistakes,” said SL “Expect to make mistakes — but make sure that none of them costs you so much money that you have to stop trying new things.”