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How I Knew My Home Decor Retail Concept Was Solid

By Suzi West, Collier West, Columbus, Ohio
Corporate retail executive Suzi West had always wanted to go into business for herself. Before opening the doors at Collier West, her home décor store, West spent months working on her business plan, quizzing entrepreneurs she admired and gathering products for the store. In the end, her hard work paid off.
I sell interesting oddities at my shop-chandeliers made of glass and natural items, repurposed lighting fixtures and an assortment of antique items. You could say I'm bringing urban elegance to a Midwestern capital-Columbus, Ohio-that has big-city sensibilities.

Starting at home
I was working as a visual director at Limited Brands when I bought a modified country cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio. I'm a city mouse who likes the country. The cabin was in bad shape, with beer cans and hypodermics everywhere, and the previous owners had kept a pet pig indoors. I cleared out the cabin down to the frame and then rebuilt and refinished it myself, decorating it with sticks, bones, antlers, and other things from nature, along with some antiques. I brought a few lovely things in from the city, but I didn't have the budget to bring too much, so I decorated with things I found.

When the house was half done, I opened it to a local home tour, and the response was great. A couple of people said that I should decorate homes professionally. Ultimately, what appealed to people was the style. It didn't have a name; it was just a question of finding old things and polishing them up in such a way that they aren't tied to their old context.

I'd always wanted to own my own retail store. I just wasn't sure what type of retail I wanted to do. So I started asking around. I sought out several women entrepreneurs, three of whom were particularly useful. They had been in corporate environments before starting their own businesses, and each was doing something that was important to her: a paper store, a clothing boutique and a home-decorating store. I wrote out a set of questions that I asked each of them over lunch or dinner. These were straightforward questions: How did you get started? What made you take the leap? What are some of the financial obligations required?
I also read several books, one of which I still use when I mentor other entrepreneurs: Retail Business Kit for Dummies. I did most of the reading and interviews while still working at my corporate job. It's important to lay a lot of the groundwork for your startup while you're still being paid by someone else. Once you're on your own, the clock is ticking and it's amazing how quickly you can burn through money.

Baby steps
One of the entrepreneurs that I interviewed said she learned how to live a more frugal lifestyle before becoming an entrepreneur. Making that shift has a double benefit. It creates an easier transition to a time when money will be tight. And it helps you set aside capital to start your business or build up your rainy-day fund. This was just one of the small steps I took toward opening the doors of my new business.

By the time I was downsized from my corporate job in November of 2004, I was ready to launch. I was dismissed on a Friday, and by Tuesday of the next week I was already putting the wheels in motion for my new business. I spent the months after I was dismissed finalizing my business plan. I also traveled, took some courses and generally let myself recharge. I had entered my corporate career straight out of college so I'd never taken the time to feed my soul. Knowing I was about to start my own business made me want to enjoy my freedom while I could.

I incorporated in March 2005, but I didn't sign a lease until September. I spent a lot of the intervening time shopping around for products, writing a template on who my customer was, and reading more books on starting a business. (Another book that came in handy was Six-Week Start-Up.) Both before and after I lost my job, I would collect antiques and other things-ostensibly to furnish my home, but with the idea in the back of my mind that I would have it ready to sell when I finally started my business.

When I opened the doors of my shop in November of 2005, it was solely as a retail store. I didn't have a website nor did I offer any services. It was just a retail space. But the store acted as a visual resume. It wasn't long before people started asking if I would come and decorate their homes, and by my third year I was offering designing and staging services to clients. I've known designers who started designing first and got a showroom second, but this approach worked out for me. The business evolved as my business sense grew.

My online presence started with a Yahoo! store, but I really didn't know what I was doing so it wasn't that important to the business. It's only in the last couple of years that I set up a real e-commerce website that can be considered its own business. Things are really going well now: This past year we generated more than $480,000 in sales and we've been growing steadily-2008 was the only year when our sales dipped compared to the previous year. I have one full-time employee and some part-time help. I feel our success is due in large part to my preparation. -- As told to Peter McDougall

Suzi West is co-owner of Collier West, a retail store that sells antique furniture, reclaimed objects, items made of bone and antler, and all manner of chic, interesting oddities. Before opening her store, she was a visual director with Limited Brands' Express stores.

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