Profile of Success: Ashton Harrison, founder/president, Shades of Light
Background: After helping another home furnishings marketer expand from seven retail stores to 40, Ashton Harrison decided to strike out on her own and founded Shades of Light as a retail store in 1986 in Richmond, Va.
Nearly a decade after starting her company, Harrison noted that many of the shoppers in her store were from out of town. Wanting to better serve these customers, she launched a catalog in 1995 so, “we didn’t have to open retail stores all over the place,” she reflects.
Biggest initial challenge: Although she had a valid reason for starting the catalog, Harrison admits she didn’t know what she was doing when she put the first book in the mail.
How she dealt with it: A friend of Children’s Wear Digest kids clothing catalog founder Philip Klaus, Harrison credits Klaus with teaching her about everything from catalog layout to what names would be appropriate to mail.
Most surprising part of the catalog startup: “You have to have a lot of money in your pocket before you can turn a profit with a catalog,” Harrison says. “The catalog cost us about $1 million to get started ... and it took probably five years to turn a profit.”
Biggest Mistake: Hiring the wrong people and not reacting to it quickly enough. “Some people are inherently negative, and have destructive effects on sales and morale,” she says. Learning from past hiring mistakes, Harrison looks for negative cues during the hiring process, such as talking poorly of previous employers or co-workers.
Keys to success:
• Exclusive products and product development. Harrison has been moving the company toward carrying nearly 100 percent exclusive products in order to combat price-slashing online competitors. And because Shades of Light has designers, painters and electricians on staff, the company can take advantage of the latest home décor trends; for example, turning a fashionable vase into an exclusive lamp.