10 Lessons I Learned from the Circus Sideshow or what the bearded lady taught me about making money

I used to sell things from carts in malls. This was quite a few years ago when people still did most of their shopping there,

before the internet, I guess.

(or before anyone knew about the internet)

When did Al Gore invent that anyway?

(actually, I love Al Gore and he didn't say he "invented" the internet- he said he created it and he did support funding for it while in Congress. I wouldn't quite say he "created" it either, but I do forgive him because his book, "Earth in the Balance" rocked my world)

It started when I bought a business that I knew nothing about.

(I think it is easier to be fearless when you are young and have nothing to lose- it is harder and even more important that we continue to live fearlessly when we are maybe not so young)

All I knew is that this business looked pretty cool to me and I'd never seen anything like it and I was out of work and I had been selling things I made at craft shows and not making much money and I needed a change.

(preferably something that didn't include going door to door with cosmetic samples wearing opaque stockings and the wrong shade of lipstick)

The business was called Dream Scenes. Dream Scenes were personalized matted prints (there was a photo of a jet plane and I would put any name on the jet so the picture looked like the buyer owned a jet plane or a photo of Madison Square Garden where I would put any words on the marquee, you get the idea).

This is something that a 5th grader could Photoshop today, but you will have to trust me that this was very cutting edge at the time.

So, I approached the local mall manager about a Christmas cart location (this was even before I bought the business, but I did have a few sample pictures and I just pretended it was my business).

It was late September (mall holiday spaces were booked by May, luckily I didn't know this at the time). The manager had been on maternity leave and was way behind with her bookings. She thought my Dream Scenes were pretty cool, too and offered me the best location in the mall.

(even though I was probably wearing opaque stockings and the wrong shade of lipstick).

Lesson 1 - Timing is Everything - sometimes things like this just fall into place and I think it is like a huge green light is flashing at us from the universe.

(now, I think this is kind of a beginner's luck thing - because maybe next time the universe will flash a yellow proceed with caution at you and sometimes a flashing red STOP to see how badly you really want something or sometimes STOP really does mean STOP - figuring out which is which is the tricky part)

Then she dropped a bombshell- the rent was $10,000 for 2 months!

As the blood rushed from my face, she told me that top products had grossed $100,000 in 2 months and I could pay the rent as I went along. So, even though $10,000 was about 2 zeros greater than any check I had ever written and $100,000 sounded like a gazillion and I couldn't even factor it into my thinking-

I gulped, signed the lease, went home, bought the business and started cutting mats (the only part I already knew how to do).

(now I realize that things like rent are negotiable and I should have been negotiating that rent, but in those days I couldn't even negotiate my way into a parallel parking space and didn't even think of it)

Lesson 2 - When You Decide to Jump, Jump With Both Feet- you don't want to end up doing one of those "one leg in, one leg out" hokey-pokey things- where you will almost certainly fall on your ass. You have a better chance of a good landing with both feet. Commit.

The mall manager also told me that the year-round "cart people" were a pretty tight group, kind of like a side show circus within the larger circus of the mall. They wouldn't like me coming in at the last minute and grabbing the best space and I would have to get along with them.

(they had names like PinkPatty and HeatPress and OneEyedMac - I had dreams of being a barker in a traveling circus and slapping back cast iron skillets filled with greasy bacon and bottles of whiskey for breakfast - sometimes my performers would get mad at me and threaten to quit my circus and shave their beards, surgically remove their twins or slice off their snake's extra head)

Anyhoo, I set up on Halloween night with my cool new product and my gigantic laminated arrows that read ANY NAME HERE and pointed to the part of the picture that could be personalized (the cart people quickly christened me "anynamehere girl"). I had a brand new MAC and color printer (cutting edge in its day) that I was totally unfamiliar with.

(in fact, one day I had a paper jam and I couldn't get the top back on the printer after clearing the jam- my customer had to tell me I was trying to put the cover on backwards)

Lesson 3 - Sometimes you have to figure things out as you go along, you can't prepare for everything

(now it is good to be prepared, but if you are the kind of person who has to prepare for every eventuality- well, things may not ever go terribly wrong for you, but they may not ever go terribly right either)

Now, this is getting a bit lengthy, even for me, and I do have 10 valuable lessons to share here, so will continue this series tomorrow as I let the suspense build- ask yourself - Will Cat make $100,000 in 2 months? Will PinkPatty find Cat the correct shade of lipstick? Will Cat figure out how to change the ink in her printer? I hope you are not reading this late at night because I know you will be up for hours pondering these questions - please don't hate me for this.

Part II

So, I set up my cart on Halloween after the mall had closed and I was very happy with my display and I started walking around checking out my cart and signage from various angles and distances when suddenly ... I spied about 100 feet or so away from me ...

(maybe 1000 feet, maybe 10 feet, I am bad with things like this)

another cart selling prints and as I got closer I realized they were .. personalized prints ... uh, wasn't I selling personalized prints?!

Now, they were cartoon pictures with very simple illustrations (not the same prints I was selling) called Friendly Folks or something or other. And the prices were 20% less than my prices and the guy selling them was super nice

(the Friendly Folks people really got their money's worth with this guy)

and having been warned about "the cart people" he brought DONUTS!

Lesson 4- Bring treats (it can never hurt to be really nice to people and people always remember the guy who brought the donuts or the girl who baked the cupcakes- note- I was not that girl)

The first few weeks were very slow. The "cart people" were up in arms that the mall wasn't doing enough to bring in better foot traffic and they were complaining about the crazy high rents. I instinctively didn't join in the whining (well, maybe on Wednesdays)- something was telling me that my stuff was cool. Something was telling me to stay positive. People would find me. I would be ok (maybe not $100,000 ok, but ok, anyway).

(although everytime I saw a customer walking around with one of those Friendly Folks personalized prints wrapped up all, well, friendly-like under their arm I did get a little knot in my stomach - luckily I was close enough to the Cinnabon store to iron out that knot with a little pastry)

Lesson 5 - There's no Crying in Baseball Retail (or whining about business being slow because the complaining is re-active and when things get tough you need to be pro-active)

(the donut guy lowered his prices - they were now 30% lower than mine- I made bigger arrows)

Soon, it was Black Friday- I had always heard this was the busiest shopping day of the year and I was ready .. sort of. The day came and things definitely picked up- the mall was packed, but I did some quick math and realized if that was my busiest day, I wasn't going to be making alot of any money.

Luckily, that busiest day of the year thing turned out to be not true and my sales went up and up everyday. The mall hours got longer and longer. I was exhausted.

The mall management told me that a very busy day was approaching; it was Macy's last one day sale of the season and my cart was right outside of Macy's main entrance. They warned me that I needed help. I didn't listen.

That night with a line wrapping around my cart and past the cosmetics counters of Macys, I called my brother and managed to sputter out just one word - "HELP" - he was there within minutes. I have never forgotten it (thank you Vinnie).

I think I would have had a breakdown if he had been at the movies or the gym or cutting his toenails or something.

The rest of the night flew by. I was down to one frame and one mat. My last customer was buying a picture of a red, white and blue uniformed hockey player which she had personalized with her son's name and number. That last mat was mint green, the last frame was hot pink. I framed her picture and turned it toward her. I couldn't even look her in the eye.

"Gorgeous. I love it!" - she exclaimed.

Vinnie and I high fived each other (I was so thankful to live in Jersey).

Lesson 6 - Get help. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You can't do it alone. Studies show that providing support is just as important as getting support. People like to help. I know I like to help.

(well, unless someone asks me to do something I don't really want to do and since I am a wee bit lazy and most things are a wee bit efforty, this could include alot of things, unfortunately)

Seriously though, I am often quite helpful.

Part III - I will wrap up our week under the big top by answering those burning questions and my final 4 lessons, which I am pretty certain you will not want to miss- unless you have something better to do like a root canal or a makeover from your mother-in-law or something ...

penelope the sword swallower print from thestapeliacompany

The mall got so busy that I could never leave the cart. My sister started coming in on on her lunch hour so I could run to the restroom. She just pretended she knew what she was doing while I was gone. Once, a customer said to her, "You don't really work here, do you? You have no idea what you are doing, do you?" She just smiled. Luckily, she is pretty cute.

Lesson 7 - Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes; try to make them once and then move on to new mistakes.

I made alot of mistakes. I had no idea how much inventory I would need and spent alot of money having supplies overnighted to me and buying frames at Michael's. I took a large check from someone who gave me a really bad feeling and, of course, it bounced. I lost my mind one night and had an actual tug-of-war with a customer over a frame.

Lesson 8 - Get the Important Things Right

I did alot of things right. My products were unique and hit the right price points for impulse (and last minute desperation) purchases. I had easy to fill out order forms on clipboards and when I was busy, customers figured out how to fill these out without me and even helped each other.

I never closed early. I never opened late. I never unpacked during mall hours (which was against the rules) even when I saw other cart people doing it.

I parked on the far edges of the parking lot everyday even though I was pushing heavy hand trucks with glass and frames and even though I saw the other cart people grabbing front row parking spaces.

(to be honest - this was partly an attempt to offset the Cinnabon 3 meal a day plan I was on, since it was the only food source within running distance of my cart)

I learned quickly that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd and had my daughter and hubby ooh and aah over my stuff and pretend to be customers.

I offered a full satisfaction guarantee so if something was spelled wrong by a customer, I would remake it. If they dropped their frame, I would replace the glass. If they changed their mind, I would give them their money back. These things rarely, rarely ever happen so making satisfaction guarantees is easy.

(this is how all that junk that is sold on TV at 2am works- they know they can offer the guarantee because so few people will take them up on it- not that I was selling junk, but I knew my customers were buying gifts and the receivers were not likely to return them ... and none did)

One day a very old man stopped by my cart and he could see that I was busy and he was a retired businessman and very intrigued by my little business and he asked me which item was my biggest seller.

"My biggest seller is my lowest priced item. My small matted print for $12.00"

"Get rid of it", he said.


"People are buying this for its uniqueness- force them to buy your next price point."

He said some other stuff and I found this old guy very interesting, but of course, I didn't want to do anything as dramatic as eliminating my top seller.

There came a day though, a couple weeks later, when I ran out of 8X10 mats and customers had to buy the 11X14 matted prints for $18.00 - and of course, it was my top money making day ever - when told I was out of stock of the 8X10's every single customer bought the 11X14!

Lesson 9 - I am not sure what this lesson is- maybe listen to the old guy/gal because there is alot to be said for experience

So, to get to the finish line here- I made alot of money in a couple months (I did not gross $100,000, but I did net in 2 months about what I had made the entire year before) and it allowed me to focus on my real crafts the rest of the year without stressing too much about sales.

I did the holiday mall carts for a few more years until one year when things had been slowing down alot a smart high school girl working for me told me her mother made $30,000 selling Beanie Babies on Ebay. Ebay? I'd never heard of it. Now I didn't jump into Beanie Babies, thank goodness, but I did truck my butt over to Ebay.

The "cart people" became my friends, even PinkPatty who actually found me a shade of lipstick I didn't hate. We had all bonded over slow times and crazy busy times. It must be like what happens to soldiers who go to war.

(well, except for the mortal danger and saving people's lives parts of it)

And, even though he didn't do very well that year, I saw the Friendly Folks guy at another mall a couple years later. He had higher prices and HUGE Any Name Here laminated signs.

I think the final lesson learned from my sideshow days is knowing when it's time to move on.

Lesson 10 - Know When to Fold 'Em

I see people at craft shows year after year with the same stuff complaining about how the show just isn't what it used to me. This could be true in some cases.

But, sometimes the seller is just too much what they used to be.

I have a friend who paints mailboxes. She paints flowers on plastic mailboxes. The same flowers she has painted for years. She sells less and less every year.

I have said to her- why don't you make something else into a mailbox or paint something else. When I saw vinyl lettering- I called her all excited- this is what you need to do with your mailboxes- you can do anything with this stuff!

She said she'd look into it. I just got a craft show invitation from her with pictures of painted mailboxes on it, plastic mailboxes, plastic mailboxes with flowers. It is sometimes hard to let go.

I never really missed the sideshow. It was nice to get my holidays back. And, I learned some priceless lessons about business and myself that I am pretty sure only the sideshow peeps could have taught me-

including how bigger isn't always better- the next year I did 2 malls, overstaffed (forgot my own Lesson 3) and netted less money - and that sometimes the best band-aid for a bad situation is an actual band-aid, like when my niece Miranda sliced her finger open when framing a print and I duct taped her up until we slowed down and she could go to the hospital

But it did teach her Lesson 5 - the no crying one - which I'm pretty sure is the reason for her success today and that she should probably be forking over a sizeable weekly percentage of her earnings to me for teaching her this so young.

I only wish I had learned the really useful sideshow stuff, like juggling some flaming hula hoops or walking on stilts or spinning plates on sticks all of which would make my family take my weekly threats to run away and join the circus alot more seriously ...

1. The Case of Shooting Charlotte necklace by Glowstoes
2. LOVE Pillow by PillowPallozza
3. Coney Island Carnivale photo by Depuis, also available on a locket
4. Couture necklace by Untamed Menagerie
5. Revival Boy vintage object sculpture by Artsy and she has locket, too
6. Life is a Balancing Act- original circus painting by Junkyard Glitter
7. Ike- the Strong Man Dog postcard by Le French Circus
8. Circus Tent pendant by RiskyBeads