Keys to Success

Success stories are everywhere in business. Sometimes you just have to look in unexpected places to find them. For this installment of Keys to Success, we peek into a stationery boutique, a small-town general store and an old-fashioned barbershop.

Nota Bene? Molto Bene

Here’s a nice small-business story from CNN Money ( It’s about two friends, Amy Bass and Evvy Diamond, who started a stationery company in Pittsburgh, Pa., called Nota Bene.

The journey these two women took to owning a small business is interesting. Bass was a vice president at a money-managing firm, earning a six-figure salary, but wanted to be her own boss. Diamond was a stay-at-home mom, but two of her children were soon to be college age, and she wanted to work.

Diamond has a lifelong affection for notepaper, so she bought a letterpress to experiment with card design. She opened a boutique, and put in $20,000 (which came from her home-based business and credit cards) for the rental retail space and supplies. Bass bought in with a $25,000 investment, becoming a full-time partner.

The two pay themselves $40,000 a year and put the rest of the profits back in the business. Their biggest sellers come from wedding invitations, but they also attract customers with personalized notecards along with calendars and pottery. They’re on track to make $500,000 this year, according to CNN Money, despite plenty of competition from online retailers.

“People still want the personal connection,” Diamond says.

A General Store Venture Learns About Protecting Cash

Over at the New York Times’ small business blog, there is a series of entries about an equally charming entrepreneurial effort, along with some valuable lessons on getting a business up and running. It’s the story of Caroline Scheeler, a co-buyer for a home furnishings store in Chicago, and her husband Joe Vajarsky, an artist.

They couple live in a small town outside of Chicago called Wayne. How small? There’s just one store — a general store. Scheeler had long been fascinated with these down-home one-stop shops:

“Even as a kid traveling around the Midwest going into those old-fashioned general stores, I became inspired with the very idea of owning a general store — an otherworldly, old-timey, mysterious, dark and dusty emporium: penny candy and nuts and bolts and ice cream and eggs and milk and books and bread and coffee and bait and pop. A place where kids and grown-ups would come and meet up with their friends. It was my dream.”

When the general store closed and stayed dormant for several years, the couple decided to take it on. They bought the building and set about renovating the interior and buying the essentials for running it.

That, Wheeler says, has turned into “a never-ending nightmare.” The costs involved — more than $100,000 — exceeded their expectations, which led the couple to max out their credit cards.

The good news is that the business had a successful opening, and a warm reception from the town. But due to the significant start-up costs, they hadn’t planned for enough inventory.

The author, Jay Goltz (who also employs Wheeler at the furniture store), says, “Protecting your cash is a critical part of surviving a start-up. The fact is, a company goes broke when it runs out of cash — not because it’s unprofitable.”

And Wheeler jokes — we think — about generating more cash: “There are four of us in the family,” she says. “How much can you get selling blood?” The Times’ series on Scheeler and Vajarsky will continue. Let’s hope the couple gets things moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Down at the Barber Shop

After stops at a general store and a stationery shop, a barber shop seems to fit right in. This comes from Shashi Bellamkonda, a vice president of digital marketing at, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. His story on details his inspiration from an old-school barber in Rockville, Md.

What he found were basic tips for for any business:

  • Signage that made the hours of operation clear.
  • A friendly greeting for all who come through the door.
  • Seeking customers’ guidance on what they want.
  • And, don’t forget to pay attention to the noncustomer, in this case the author’s son, who enjoyed watching his father’s haircut while digging into complimentary popcorn and soda.

It’s a nice little reminder about a universal truth of business: Customer service matters.