A Chat With May’s Profile, Suzanne Vlietstra, president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co.
CS: What has Hobby Horse Clothing done to offset the rising costs associated with mailing a catalog today?
SV: We kind of have to mail those catalogs. I’d say the main thing we’ve done to counteract the kind of random, slapshot increases is try and make a better catalog, to be very honest. We have a beautiful catalog. Because we mail so few of them and because people keep it, it’s kind of, they treat it a little more like a book than a catalog. We use really heavy paper, we have a beautiful coated cover. And with that “magalogish” format, people hang on to it and value it different than, “Oh, I already got this one,” and flip it into the trash. There’s a bit of a “boutiquey” kind of approach to it. Which is again another random happy accident. But honestly, in terms of operations, there’s not a lot you can do about the cost of postage. We try and analyze our list and try and mail to our best prospects, but because we know we’re supporting the stores, we’re much more generous in who we continue to mail to than most catalogers would be. Because we don’t have a great way to analyze it.
CS: You believe the catalog is driving prospects to buy in the store?
SV: We know it is, but how much and who? These are the questions that everybody faces. Ours kind of have an additional wrinkle in them. But honestly, the best thing that you can do in all these business challenges is send a better product. And that’s both the physical catalog itself and the contents of the catalog. Which of course we have total control over because we make all that stuff.
CS: Who are some of the mentors you’ve had in the business?
SV: Gosh, so many people have helped me. The first one was a guy that owned the magazine, remember I said we used to print in the magazine. His name was Nat Gorham. And he owned a magazine called Arabian Horse World. He was the one who printed our first catalogs; a really colorful fella. But he told me, “You know, pretty soon you’re going to be making these catalogs yourself. You’re going to be doing your own desktop publishing.” I was like, “You’re nuts.” He taught me a lot. He took a real shine to what we were trying to do and was super helpful. I’ve had a lot of stores that buy stuff from us that have been super important for feedback and helpful.
My business partner, Dick Naulty, is the guy that tried to teach me to be businesslike. I think I probably gave him a lot of his gray hair. But we had a really good partnership. And its come and gone and changed. I’d advise a lot of little dinky catalogers, if you don’t know the business nuts and bolts end of it, try and find somebody. This fella, Dick Naulty, he’d run a lot of small businesses and done a lot of bank assistance — helping businesses in trouble and stuff. And he just came along at the right time for me. If you can find a mentor, and I’ve never used like SCORE or any of those guys, but boy, if you find somebody that understands how to run a 7-11 that will help you, latch onto him and don’t let go. Or whatever the appropriate business is. There’s so much more in common in small businesses than different. And so many of us get into this from a creative or product angle, and we’re just dim about the nuts and bolts of business. And you got to have it. Like I say, being so slow on the uptake on that has kept our business growing, but growing just a teency bit. So many other business people with this business would have just blasted it to the moon. And maybe it’s OK I didn’t.