How to Start Your Own Multi-Million-Dollar Catalog Business


“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin. Boldness has genius, power, and umagic in it.” – Goethe

SL and his wife began their catalog business together 15 years ago with a tiny display ad for a reading lamp — and have grown it into one of the largest and most impressive businesses of its kind. In the first five years, it grew about 20-fold, from $1.4 million to $30 million. For four years running, it was on Inc. magazine’s “500 Fastest Growing Small Companies” list. One year, it was number eight.

“We were just about at the end of our tether when we cashed in our IRAs and went for broke,” said SL. “We figured that we were young and healthy — so what was the worst thing that could happen? We’d go broke and then go back and get jobs. Looked at from that point of view, the decision to start our own business didn’t seem crazy.

“We placed a small ad in a bunch of magazines and newspapers but got very little response. The thought of giving up did, indeed, pass through our minds. But being resilient (or stubborn) in nature, we continued. One day, when we were just about out of money, we bought a 1-inch ad in the back of the New Yorker.

It was October 12 — my birthday — 1987.

“The idea was a lamp that provided ‘serious lighting for serious readers.’ Happily for us, it worked. We got about 400 calls. I can’t tell you how happy I was. I remember break dancing on the floor each time another call came in. And that’s saying a lot, since I don’t know how to break dance.

“We sent the callers our first catalog — a single sheet of printed paper, folded twice. That very primitive effort pulled amazingly well. We recouped our advertising costs, paid for fulfillment, and had some money left over for ourselves. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to encourage us to keep on.

“Of course, in the beginning it was just me and my wife, working from the kitchen table, answering our own phones, doing our own research into lamps, sending out the brochures, and placing the ads.

“The business grew slowly at fist. In the first two months, we made about $10,000. Our first full year of sales was about $187,000. During this period of time, I was getting help from my dad and a guy named Leo Weiss. They were both very helpful.

“In 1989, we moved to Florida. In 1990, sales were up to $1.4 million. The next year, I met another mentor, Ric Leichtung, who had retired from the catalog business after a very successful career. Ric walked into our office warehouse and started asking questions of my assistant. I overheard him and struck up a conversation. He offered to give me a written critique of what we were doing, and I told him to go ahead. It wasn’t gentle, but I thanked him for it and asked for more. That began a period of regular correspondence (sometimes three faxes a day) that made a very big difference in our growth.”

SL went on to give our bootcamp attendees many good ideas. Here are a few that I think are particularly instructive:

* Don’t talk about what’s in the catalog photo. It’s unnecessary.

* In your copy, describe how the product feels, smells, and sounds. Readers need all the help they can get.

* When you make a mistake, fix it — and then “overkill” your customer with reparations.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you more of SL’s specific recommendations on writing catalog copy and starting/running your own business.