Booksellers Move Ahead With Plans Refined With Help of “Shark Tank”

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Three booksellers who presented ideas for changes to their business models at the Winter Institute’s advanced learning session “Bookseller ‘Shark Tank’ — Pitch an Idea for Business Expansion” are working to make their plans a reality. In a take on the television show Shark Tank, Nicole Sullivan of Denver’s BookBar, Ellen Klein of Alexandria, Virginia’s Hooray for Books! and Carol Spurling of Moscow, Idaho’s BookPeople of Moscow presented their ideas and welcomed feedback from judges Richard Howorth of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi; Valerie Lewis of Hicklebee’s Bookstore in San Jose, California; and Jessilynn Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, as well as from audience members.

BookBar’s Sullivan told the panel that since opening her store in May 2013 she discovered a need for a service to pair interested readers with local book clubs. It’s an idea she is developing and calling Book Club Hub, and she hopes to take the service to a national level.

Structured like a dating website, Book Club Hub enables registered users to be matched with the most appropriate book club in their area. Book club organizers can sign up to affiliate with their local store and set up their own book club page to keep members up-to-date, while booksellers can find book clubs to host and can offer incentives for club affiliations. In addition to finding clubs to join, readers can start their own clubs and find members through the site. The site requires no payment from bookstores, users, or book clubs.

Though Sullivan didn’t leave the Winter Institute session with resounding support for her plans, she did receive important feedback from both the judges and audience members, and she ultimately decided to pursue the idea. Based on their recommendations, she has been slowly rolling out the site’s features in order to test them and respond to feedback as Book Club Hub gains members. “My next step is to get it out to booksellers with the hopes that they will participate and encourage their customers to sign on,” said Sullivan. She has created a postcard for customers that offers details about the site, as well as a mailer that she will be sending out to other booksellers who may be interested in participating.

“Another great suggestion was that we need to find a way to make money,” said Sullivan, who is looking into advertising sales. “Just having this website will be very beneficial to my own business. That, in and of itself, would be well worth it, but it would be nice if it were a way to bring in some additional income as well.”

Klein of Hooray for Books! told the panel that she was contemplating an expansion of the 1,500-square-foot bookstore into an adjacent storefront, which was coming up for lease. The additional space would roughly triple the store’s retail floor and double its office and storage area for just 50 percent more rent. “The comments I received were helpful, given that my pitch was basically a go-or-no-go presentation,” said Klein. “But the devil is in the details, so receiving a ‘needs work’ in addition to a thumbs-up was not unexpected.”

Klein said that she came away from the panel with several ideas for modifying and improving on her expansion plan. “My experience pitching a business expansion for Hooray for Books! was definitely positive. The [judges] were thoughtful, respectful, and encouraging,” said Klein. “Receiving a ‘thumbs-up’ on the expansion was a significant factor in my decision to move ahead with my plan, even though it will be a major undertaking.”

One of her biggest concerns is how to make the additional space as profitable as possible. Klein is still pondering some suggestions from the session, including offering tutoring or other paid after-school programs. She also recently made a presentation to her area Small Business Development Center about the expansion and received further feedback to help her refine her plans.

As the space has just become available, Klein is in the process of negotiating terms with the landlord and hopes to expand in late summer or early fall.

Spurling explained to the judges that her plan was to add a commercial kitchen to the 3,000-square-foot BookPeople of Moscow. “For a person who really hates public speaking, I enjoyed the experience (surprisingly) because I knew I would be among supportive colleagues, and I knew the advice would be good because there are so many booksellers with so much more experience than me,” said Spurling, who has been a co-owner of the more than 40-year-old store since February 2012.

BookPeople’s plan was for a kitchen large enough to handle a café component, as well as to cater meetings and to host cookbook tasting events, special book parties, and cooking classes; however, following the session, Spurling made some big adjustments to the plans. The bookstore is now looking at adding a small kitchen that would meet its primary goal of being able to legally serve food at events. Approaching it on a smaller scale will allow BookPeople to pay for it on an ongoing basis without incurring debt, said Spurling. “I definitely hate crunching numbers, so it was good to be reminded that there are times, especially when $50,000 and an additional full-time position is on the line, that number crunching and using my head is way more important than how I feel.”

Revising the plan for the kitchen, Spurling cut back on several elements to make it more feasible in terms of cash flow and budget. “I also decided there’s no way I could add café management responsibilities to my workload,” she said. “I have to prioritize the bookstore, and that was a direct result of the Shark Tank experience, especially when someone asked if I would like to give up bookstore management to go into café management. That helped me realize that trying to do both would be nuts.”

The additional elements, like opening a café and hosting cooking classes, are on the back burner for now, said Spurling, while the store focuses on creating a kitchen to handle food for events. “It feels like I’m proceeding slowly and intelligently, and I think the panel would approve!” she said.

Now in the planning stage, Spurling is figuring out the logistics of shaping the current space and finding the best time to commence work on the project, which she said is second to her 2014 priorities of further developing the store’s website and working on business-to-business sales. Her hope is to be able to complete the kitchen project in 2015.

For judge Jessilynn Norcross, the session was a nerve-wracking but enjoyable experience. “It was really, really fun to look at their ideas and how everybody came at them from a different angle: the way they approached it, what part of the problem they had looked at, and what part of the problem they had not looked at,” she said. “From a personal standpoint, after seeing how other people approached their own problem solving, it’s helping me make better decisions.”

Pleased to hear that all three presenters are moving ahead with their plains, Norcross noted, “I did think that no matter what we said, they already had their hearts set on it, and I respect that. If you take the time and energy to really think about everything and break it down like that, you’re already invested.”

The learning experience was more than Norcross expected, especially as she was the one giving advice on the panel. “To go in knowing nothing about a store is really interesting because we don’t ever get to be the customer in our stores, so we got to be the customer in their stores — seeing everything from the outside,” she said. “We should do more of that in our own businesses.”

The three bookstore proposals were evaluated based on the criteria detailed in this handout.