Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How Can I Make It In The Stained Glass Business?

I wrote this entry in response to a query from a businessman who is thinking about buying an existing stained glass business. He asked if I thought it was a good idea. When a person first embarks on starting into business, there is a tendency to be overly optimistic, so I felt it important to warn of the pitfalls he may encounter. I have to admit that when I re-read this blog page, I felt it was almost too honest, that it leaves me feeling a little vulnerable, like I've told too much.

Recently, one of the best stained glass supply and teaching centers in Salt Lake City, closed their doors. They were very aggressive and well run. They had been in business for over fifteen years (I don't know how long their actual years of operation were). Why did they fail? What was new? Two years previously, the long time run business was sold by the original owner who wanted to retire to a man who had made enough money for the purchase running a janitorial business. But the stained glass business is different than any other business. I have often said that I could probably make more money and be more successful in ANY OTHER BUSINESS that I chose to run. That recent business closure illustrates the fact that the stained glass business is very competitive and labor intensive.

When we started in the stained glass business in 1983, I soon discovered that the business was a real roller-coaster. Cash flow would go from nil to a modest influx of cash about every three months. When we sold a window or commission we would have enough cash to get another order of materials together. We never really felt we were making money, it felt that we were just using up supplies and then replenishing. I found that running a stained glass only business was very tough and discovered that by changing my business into a stained glass/video rental business worked much better. Eventually we ended up with 3 video rental stores which did quite well. (that would not be the case in today's market).

We quit doing stained glass as a living in the late 80's, but continued to do commissions and personal work in our spare time. This is an avenue that I recommend to students who think it might be fun to get into the business. This way they can test the waters and find whether they really want to expand into the business of glasswork. Most find that doing a little on the side is the perfect avenue for them.

I started back into the stained glass business, full time again, 5 years ago (1999) when I moved to Utah. My son thought the market here would be better than it had been in Missouri. While it is true that I'm able to sell more glass here, I find the increased rental prices for a store location to be a barrier that equalizes things to be about the same as Missouri.

So you may ask me, why are you working at stained glass if things are so difficult and I would answer that if I weren't stricken by diabetes, I would probably be working in a different industry. Since I have health problems, I had to go into business for myself since I can't be a dependable employee. I already knew the stained glass business and had stained glass ability. So I went into it again. It is tough, and rewarding but not so much in a financial sense but on an artistic level. I beat my head against the wall trying to figure how to make a living, but simply seem to scrape by each year. So far, in five years of internet presence, we have worked and worked on our site and not yet made a single sale from the site. (We have picked up the majority of our students from our website and have met many in the business from publishing our newsletter.) We have changed our product line, rewritten pages and registered with search engines. I have finally asked a designer to help me and offer him a percentage of all sales he makes. Maybe that will pay off.

We do make a small amount of money by offering stained glass classes. But after taking all expenses and costs into account, we find that we just break even on classes. If I made enough money to support myself well in this business, I would take the extra money and expand and hire help, but so far I'm just keeping my head above water. It is my belief that the key to making it in stained glass is to offer products that will help others to enhance their stained glass experience. I would advise you, that before you make a decision to get into the business to work for at least 3 months in the business, 90 days seems to be the point where you really get an eye opening. The honeymoon ends and you see what you're really getting yourself into.

Be very cautious about the valuation of the business that you are looking to purchase. Remember that you are looking at retail values versus the wholesale values of the business. Figure that the cost of buying all materials and starting a business from scratch is 1/3 to 1/4 of the retail value of the business. It is rare to find that an existing business really has a built up value of customer good will which has much, if any, value to the potential new owner. Customers are our friends and we love them, but because most people only have a limited interest in the business, their value to future income is smaller than the seller might lead you to believe.

It is true that warm glass has more to offer in a studio setting than just flat glass work, but look at the root of the matter. The stained glass industry knows that they are working with a craft which is fleeting. The normal student has one to three projects in them and then they are done. By expanding into warm glass, we are able to offer a wider range of techniques and projects which helps to hold the students interest longer. But what we've done is change a three month customer into a 6 month customer. We still face a huge attrition rate. Being a lover of glass work, I am often shocked at the number of students who start class and then drop out without even finishing their project.

When I talk to other businesses, I often ask if they will furnish me a copy of their business plan. I hope to learn from those plans ways that I might be able to find more success in my own business. If you come up with a business plan, I'd love to see a copy of it.

One word of encouragement, people in the business are in two camps. There are those who are secretive and afraid that you might want to steal their ideas. But the vast majority of business owners in stained glass are open and willing to share their knowledge and advice. They are those who realize that there really isn't any competition in the business. That shop down the corner doesn't create competition, they increase the knowledge and appreciation of stained glass in the community, so they actually help your business rather than hurting it.

Send me contact information and I'll put you on my newsletter mailing list. I hope my comments are enlightening.

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