On October 4, 2005, I received a phone call that propelled me, kicking and screaming, from award-winning novelist and screenwriter into the life of a business owner. “We’re on our way to St. John’s hospital in Oxnard. Your brother Eddie has been in an accident,” my mother told me, her voice frantic as my father sped down the freeway. “Get there as soon as you can. They’ve called a priest to give him last rites.”
He was still alive when I arrived, but that didn’t last long. He had sustained massive internal injuries, and was bleeding out his nose, ears, and mouth. He was 45 years old, and the owner of a music store in the San Fernando Valley. He had been hit by a distracted driver on his way to pay for the security gates he had just installed in his brand new second location in Oxnard.
Since I was the only one of my four remaining siblings to have worked at his store before his death, I was the only choice to run the place while it was in probate. Despite the fact I had absolutely no training in business management, no background in music other than one semester of flute in High School, and no desire to ever work in retail, I took over the business.
I knew how he liked things done. I knew his employees. I knew the teachers he had working for him. I knew that he had died smack dab in the middle of the most critical time for survival in that industry: School Rental Season. Every kid in every music program in Southern California who couldn’t afford to own their own musical instrument was looking to rent one, and the recurring monthly revenue from those rentals provided the bulk of the store’s income for the entire year. Schools throughout the area held rental night events, putting vendors and parents together so that Juanita could go home with a trumpet, or Geoff could finally learn the oboe.
I had provided an extra hand during these rental nights ever since I had worked for my brother a few years prior, but now it was a completely different animal: I was the boss. I had four employees and twenty-two independent contractors (aka music teachers) who depended on me to make decisions that would continue to put food on their tables. The weight of this sudden responsibility, atop the grief of losing my big brother so unexpectedly, was crushing.
Even so, retail is all about sales. Selling musical instruments means you have to form relationships with your customers. You have to understand their needs, their hopes, their dreams, and their fears. For this industry (and for most industries, now that I think about it) selling is about meeting their needs while nurturing their dreams and allaying their fears. For a small, family-owned music store that needed to compete with giants like Guitar Center, relationships were gold. They were everything.
As an introvert with mild social anxiety disorder who disliked small talk, I was terrible at relationships. So how did I increase revenues by twenty-eight percent during the first year I ran that business?
I learned. I sucked it up, faced my fears, and gave grief the middle finger. I talked to parents and students at those rental nights. I found out what they needed to make their dreams happen. I organized recitals and participated in the community events, both in the schools and at the Chamber of Commerce. I took advantage of free and low-cost resources like SCORE (Service Core of Retired Executives) to help me better understand what I was doing and how to run and steer the business. That is the power of educating yourself.
Despite being entirely unprepared for what I was thrust into, I kept that store going for five long years, until the end of probate. I navigated it through the introduction of two new competitors in the area, and brought it to a successful exit in the form of selling it to two of the music teachers who worked for me, one of whom is still running it today. While that may not be the kind of exit that most investors are looking for, I like to think that for that community, and the kids it served, it was the absolute best return possible.