In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
It is never too early or too late to pursue an idea whose time has come. Leah and Bea Koch understand better than anyone, that if you see a gap and want to fill it, you should not be afraid to take the leap.
Growing up in Chicago, the sisters were — and still are — voracious readers. They have long been fans of of romance novels, everything from Jane Austen to more contemporary fare. But when they went to search for new titles, they often found themselves in stores that didn’t carry them at all or were met with booksellers that didn’t think much of the genre.
But according to the Romance Writers of America, $1.08 billion worth of romance novels were sold in 2013. Forty-four percent of romance readers are 18 to 44 years old and have an average income of $55,000 a year.
Leah and Bea, who are now 25 and 27, always wanted to work together, and there was clearly an opportunity to be had. They were going to open the only bookstore in the United States dedicated to romance novels, and they were going to make it happen by reaching out to others who felt the same way they did.
So in November of 2015, they launched a Kickstarter campaign. They raised $91,187 thanks to 599 backers. On March 4, 2016, The Ripped Bodice opened in Culver City, Calif. Leah Koch says that without crowdfunding, their dream would not have become a reality.
“It’s such an amazing resource for young entrepreneurs. We didn’t even try to go to a bank and ask for a loan but I can guess what would have happened if we had,” Koch told Entrepreneur. “And we also weren’t interested in having to prove our concept to like some old dude at a bank, when we had the ability to go directly to [the people] who would be our customers.”
Koch says that while business has been going well, she and her sister decided when they opened that they wouldn’t think about expansion until they were three years in. However, they have their eyes on not only more brick-and-mortar locations, but also developing their digital presence.
“We have quite a lot of customers and people who interact with the store who are not in L.A.,” Koch says. “And we’d like to continue expanding that reach to that group of people who need a romance bookstore even though there’s not one in their town.”
One of the goals the Koch sisters have with The Ripped Bodice is to champion readers and writers who might otherwise be marginalized. To that end, they recently put together a report called The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing.
“We felt that conversation in romance publishing had stalled. This is not a new concept that we need more racially diverse authors, but the hard data didn’t exist to the point that we wanted it to,” Koch explained. “There are people who have been working as advocates for so many years, who’ve been working on this so hard. And what we hope to contribute is hard data to assist in their arguments and fights and successes.”
Read on for more insights from Koch about crowdfunding lessons, building a community of entrepreneurs and what every first time entrepreneur should know.
What inspired you to launch the Ripped Bodice? Why was now the right time for this opportunity?
My sister and I wanted to go into business together and really felt like there was a hole in the bookstore world. There was no bookstore devoted to the genre that we loved and we decided we didn’t want to wait for somebody else to open it. We wanted to open it ourselves.
I do think ultimately we felt that because we were doing something so specific that it was really going to stand out. And there were some very encouraging numbers about indie bookstores that have opened in the past five years. We had a little trepidation, but honestly not that much.
We felt aside from it being a good idea and that people would like it that it was financially sound, given the enormous amount of money that romance generates each year. The latest figures are $1.08 billion. Nobody was catering to romance fans, and most indie bookstores don’t have a romance section and we really wanted to create a space for women and a bookstore they really felt comfortable in.
What did you learn about the pros and cons of crowdfunding?
I just think crowdfunding is amazing. And more entrepreneurs should take advantage of it. That being said, if you’re going to do it, you need to do it in the right way and that means understanding that it’s going to be a full-time job for the life of your campaign. And it’s an incredible amount of work that goes into it depending on how much you want to raise. But ultimately I think it’s a really fantastic tool.
I think the thing that surprised us is when you go from 10 to 20 people knowing your idea, knowing your concept and when you hit publish and you have hundreds and thousands of people suddenly giving input on your concept, it’s very jarring. I don’t think we were prepared the first day, because you’re basically putting your business plan out for people to comment on.
I don’t know that it’s a downside but it’s definitely a consequence of crowdfunding, that more people get to comment on a business that doesn’t exist yet, which can be kind of tricky. So just to keep that in mind. And I think it’s a very bad idea to go to crowdfunding with a half-formed idea, because you won’t stand up to the scrutiny of people’s valid questions and concerns about the viability of your business.
What have been some of the challenges of getting the store up and running.
I think [the main challenge is] time more than anything. We’re just over a year and a half in. We have one employee. So there are three people working all hours and that employee basically works like 10 hours a week so it’s basically still us running everything. And especially when we were in the very early stages and still doing a lot of grunt work and prep work it’s time more than anything. And other than that, I think there’s is a very steep learning curve but it’s a fast learning curve.
Neither of us had owned a bookstore before. So you got to figure things out and there aren’t that many manuals out there for how to do it. There are some. So [for example], you got to figure out your [book] ordering really fast and it’s a steep curve to figure it out. But you’ve got to do it fast. So once you know once you’ve got it you’re good to go. I think the challenges are what any small business faces — getting customers in the door and retaining those customers.
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road. What have you done to build a community of other business owners?
We have two different groups. One is local, which is the female-owned businesses on our street. And that’s us, a hair salon and an art gallery, all owned by women, all on our block. And we just like walk across the street to each other’s stores and talk about issues that we’re having with parking and traffic and events that are coming up. The woman who owns the hair salon cuts our hair. We go over there and gab about being small-business owners — which is delightful.
Then there’s a second group of female-owned independent bookstores that’s around the country that we are really interacting with on Instagram and Twitter. It’s virtual, but it’s a networks of people who can signal boost things for you, and we see what other bookstores are doing and try to let our customers know about that. And that’s a really fantastic community to be a part of as well.
What is your best advice for other first-time entrepreneurs?
I think the question you should ask is who do I want on my team? Don’t do this by yourself. Really carefully think about the people that you want around you. And that’s obviously very important for us because my business partner is my sister. And that’s not feasible for a lot of people, but for us it means that you have to support at every level and you have somebody who, in addition to considering the needs of the business is going to consider your emotional, mental and physical needs.
You should go into business with somebody who values you as a person. And then beyond that, even people that you’re going to have on your team — publicists, lawyers interns, employees. Every one of those relationships matters and you should think about who you want to interact with. And also what other businesses you want to support.