This 10th installment of Being My Boss is special. Most businesses want their customers to keep coming back – but Renee Wood, founder and owner of The Comfort Company, wishes otherwise.
The comfort company, a one of its kind company that specilizes in sympathy gifts for the grieving. And within four years, it’s sales have grown to a half million dollars.
Read on to learn more her story and the her struggle to strike a balance between her right brain and left brain.
You were on the Oprah show?
Yes. I started by business after reading an article in the preimier issue of O magazine. The article was called, “Make your dreams come true.” It was about being able to start a business and having it be about your dreams. That’s where I started thinking that I could do something that really fulfills me. I wrote a letter to thank them after I started my business and they had me on the show for the 5th anniversary of the magazine.
So is that where you got your idea?
No, the article really just propelled me into officializing my business. I started my business about 4 years back. Infact, we just celebrated our 4th anniversary in Nov. I could have never imagined being a business owner. My background is in social work. I worked as a medical social worker in a neo-natal unit. I worked in a patient load where there was a high mortality rate. I was through my job, always in touch with grief and loss issues. I thank God- I haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one yet….But I watched my patients go through it…When you see something like that, you wish there was something more that you could do.
I think the seed for my business was planted then. It’s really a chain of events that led me into starting my own business. During that time, my sister-in-law lost her father unexpectedly and I looked for a sympathy gift for her and didn’t find anything. So I end up designing a pendant for her. I designed it, made it in wax first and then got it made in silver. It was a long process, but she really appreciated it. After that, friends and family around me started asking for the pendant and I end up making 150 of them! They all sold and it got picked up by a catalog. Everything just fell into place.
But the real breaking point was 9/11. My husband was a pilto for United American airlines and we were not sure what was going to hapen to his career. He lost his job and at that moment, I understood that I was going to start a job. I had just had my third child and I didn’t want to go back to corporate America. I loved being a social worker, but I wanted to be able to put my kids first. So that’s when I decided that I was going to start my own business.
What did you do next?
First it was a hobby and then it became a necessity. It was very difficult in the begining. I didn’t have a business background, my husband didnt’ know anything about running a business… We didn’t have money to invest… I knew I needed a website but I didn’t have the money to pay someone to do it for me. I had to learn it myself. I didn’t even have an email address before I stared ! It was a huge learning curve for me. I would put the kids in bed and then sit on the computer. I’d log into various forums and ask around until my questions were answered. Some strangers I met on those forums were awesome -they helped me so much.
How did you market such a business? It is a unique idea but no one wants to be marketed to about sympathy gifts.
I did have my items in some local stores and I had goten some press in our local newspapers. That’s how I began getting my first orders. I didn’t spend a dime on marketing. My business spread via word of mouth. The first time I got an order from Texas, I thought– I don’t know anyone in Texas, how is this possible? Because it was only local people who knew about me! But then I started getting orders from Arizona and other pars of the country. It was great.
I didn’t know anything about Search Engine Optimization but I think there were so few people doing what I do that when I typed in sympathy gifts in Google, my site is number one. But once I learnt that, I sat down again and figured out SEO.
About 2 years into the business, I thought I played around with Pay Per Click. But I just didn’t have time to stay on top of the campaign. I was getting enough business already so I quit Pay per Click after 4 weeks.
How exactly does this business work? Does it not get emotionally demanding?
I try to go to as many trade shows and merchant marts around my area (Chicago) I try to meet artists who will do custom work for me. We did some research and when it comes to loss, people want two things from people 1) Acknowledgement of their loss 2) Not to mimimize it.
So the more specific gift I have for their loss, the better I am able to serve my customers. And yes, this busienss is very emotionally demanding. When I worked at the hospital, it was a 9 to 5 job. When I was done, I came home and I had a life separate from my job. But now, my business, my life, my job is all one thing. It can get very challenging to keep them separate.
It is difficult.. having 4 kids and then readin some of the stories that come in or having to help a customer what kind of engraving or letter they want for a lost child or a loved one. You can’t help but take that home with you, It’s just there all the time. I step back a little from it on weekends, but I’m always keeping my eye on the email, checking in for new orders, answering questions…
Finally last year, we had to seperate the business from the household. We found an office space and a store room. And things have been MUCH better. I also just hired a woman to work with me part-time.
What was the most difficult challenge or task you had to overcome in your business?
It took me a VERY long time to gain confidence in myself. Enough confidence to make business decisions. I remember one of the first things I did for a product that I had recently introduced — it was a tear drop bottle. In 19th century, over the loss of a loved one women collected their tears in bottles. I re-introduced them and I added a beautiful foil-stamped card with it. It cost me $800 to print those cards and I remember being extremely upset about that expense. I just wasn’t able to think of it as a business investment, instead it felt like I just wasted a ton of money.
One of the biggest mistakes I made with myself to grow when the business naturally was growing. That was not a good decision. When the business started to grow, I should have taken it outside the house, gotten a office.. I kept smothering the fire. My concerns that I wasn’t going to make good decisions ….it came down to not having built up this steady stream of successes that would make me feel comfortable. Social work and business are very different– two completely different sides of the brain.
What would you advice budding entrepreneurs?
Just one piece of advice — Fake it till you make it. I didn’t have a steady stream of successes behind me and so I didn’t feel confident about my business or myself until much later. I wished I could’ve known to fake it– but I’ve learnt now that if you act like you are successful, you will become successful. Do what you need to do for your business — invest in yourself, your business… let it grow organically. I was risk averse and may have missed out some opportunities. Do what it takes.
And what’s the best thing about being your own boss?
That I can work my day around my family’s needs. Hours can be greulling, but they are what I want them to be.