I am an “Accidental” Sales Rep!
Sales “repping”, or selling wholesale gifts for gift & gourmet manufacturers, was nothing I really planned, nothing I especially wanted to pursue, and something I would not have gravitated towards if circumstances and opportunity had not lead me in that direction.
I became an independent manufacturer’s sales representative virtually by accident.
Although I began life as a shy child, I obviously exhibited traits of an entrepreneur when very young. Growing up, I always wanted to start neighborhood clubs, or form a theater group, or coordinate local carnivals, or start and write newsletters on a wide range of socially invaluable topics. Sales also seemed to be a little bit in my blood, since I was selling Christmas cards to neighbors and friends as a 9-year-old. My father, a workaholic, self-starter with a passion for business opportunities, spent a career as an engineer before pursuing his dream in retirement with an ice cream store and a dry cleaner business … I think that was much of the source of my inspiration.
After high school, I enrolled at a “career” college for a one-year program in fashion merchandizing and salesmanship. Living in San Francisco during that year was an education in itself! I was exposed to the world of high fashion and subject to my first work experiences in the retail environment. Macy, Roos Atkins, J. & I. Magnum, and Saks Fifth Avenue were some of my early mentors. But (to my despair) I hated selling high fashion! I was never a high-fashion trend setter, but ended up in departments such as “accessories”, where I was expected to sell $300 worth of $3 choker necklaces in an eight hour shift. NOT!
I left the fashion industry (very quickly) and tried my hand at a number of jobs, including a joint venture with my father running an ice cream store. Note that I was not particularly fond of ice cream, while my father considered it a necessary food group! But, exposure to a retail service environment in a management capacity was an important piece of the puzzle on where my career path would take me.
Although work experiences outside the home slowed down while I got married and raised children, I eventually began working in a wide array of fields and positions, including accounting, health care, and education. But between jobs, and while raising kids, I always gravitated back to sales. I tried my hand at selling encyclopedias, long distance phone plans, and actually ended up doing rather well selling Avon. But selling during this period of my life was mostly just a part-time job to generate a little extra income.
In the late 1990’s (my early 40’s, ouch!) the kids were mostly on their own, I went back to work in retail when an opportunity opened up to help run a woodworker’s “co-op” gift store. Selling gift items was very different from the fashion retailing I had done in the 1970’s, and a difference I enjoyed very much. I left the co-op after a year, to manage a book department for Hastings, a chain of book, movie, and CD stores, which was opening a location near where I lived. I loved the business, and became dedicated to ‘working my way up the ladder’, even envisioning my retirement with the chain many years into the future.
Little did I know that there were other plans awaiting me.
My boss, whom I loved and respected, receive a promotion, moved out of state, and was replaced by a young, arrogant, ego-centric whom I found intolerable to work for. One day, I decided I was too old to put up with this nonsense, and asked Malcolm, my new husband and partner (and long-time independent entrepreneur himself) to set me up in my own business. He suggested I join him in an enterprise he’d just started.
Since the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial commemoration was about to begin, and an important stretch of the Lewis & Clark Trail came through our region, Malcolm started publishing a free newsletter, supported financially by advertising, to provide education about the original Lewis-Clark expedition, and showcase upcoming events and activities related to the Bicentennial. Things looked promising.
I gave notice at Hasting, and took that scary next step. Malcolm continued to write and format the newsletter while I distributed and sold advertising space. During this period, serendipity raised its welcome head!
While distributing the newsletter, largely to gift stores and visitor industry businesses, I was often asked where to find Lewis & Clark motif items to buy wholesale and sell retail as souvenirs to traveling tourists. Malcolm did some research on how to operate a business as a “manufacturer’s representative”, and went online to find Lewis & Clark products. One of the more interesting items we found, was a line of Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea candy bars from North Dakota. We pasted together a “rep agreement”, contacted the North Dakota chocolatier, and chocolate became our first line of offerings (and one we sold for six years, until new owners took over, and the celebration was over).
At the time we began our wholesale repping business, there were only a couple books written on the subject (both out-of-print and somewhat out-of-date), no “how to” trainings to attend, and no one to mentor us. We started the business from scratch, the hard way, learning what we needed to know as we grew the business. Most of our sales leads were ‘cold calls’ to stores, and lines were added willy nilly in those early years, wherever we could find a willing vendor.
For the first year, we were equally involved in the business, with Malcolm gravitating toward recruiting and working with vendors and developing of business systems, while I called on gift stores, and handled order processing and bookkeeping. But as I gained more confidence in what I was doing, we started to butt heads on how to best do things.
After a year, we saw an opportunity in the market, and Malcolm launched his own line of gourmet foods. Since we were already a gift and gourmet marketing company, with good sales systems in place, his line of products became successful very quickly. At that point, we split the business (he claims he ‘kicked me out of the nest!’) and I become the sole proprietor of the sales rep business. I resisted at first, feeling as if my safety net was gone. But his confidence in me and his desire to turn full-time gourmet entrepreneur, I grew to enjoy and prefer the opportunity to make all my own business decisions. And of course, he was always there to run ideas by, and give me his opinions, whether I wanted them or not!
Anyway, what started out as an answer to dissatisfaction with my “day job”, turned into an exciting and fun business, with all the joys and downsides of self-employment. Nothing compares to knowing the efforts I put forth result in income to my own household, and not some company or corporation that does not appreciate my dedication and hard work. And I found I loved the retail environment whether I was selling to the stores or selling to the consumers.
Now, as I am retiring from the road sales, I find that I have accumulated a vast store of experience and knowledge. Being self-employed is so ingrained in my system, that I doubt I would ever be happy again working in ‘corporate America’. The next logically growth step for me, is to share my knowledge and experience with budding gift and gourmet producers such as yourself and help some of you to find a rewarding home business, and overcome the same obstacles I dealt with when I first starting selling gifts!
PO Box 2374
Orofino, Idaho 83544