Entrepreneur Susan Ratliff teaches craft-show exhibitors how to market their wares effectively


September 21, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Many successful businesspeople credit a special, inspiring someone -- a mentor, perhaps, or a muse -- with helping pave their way to the top.

For one Maryland-born business owner, this pivotal person, who made her look at her professional life in a fresh light, was Garrison Weller Ratliff. Blond, adorable, and engrossed in a Ninja Turtles picture book, 3-year-old Garrison hardly looks like someone who inspired a thriving publishing venture. But he did. Just ask his mom.

For the past three years, Susan Ratliff has been the owner of About Me! of Arizona, a Scottsdale-based company specializing in personalized storybooks for children. More recently, she has begun a thriving sideline career as an expert on home-based businesses. Published late last month, her book "How to Be a WeekendEntrepreneur" is a step-by-step guide to making a living on the craft-fair, trade-show or flea-market circuit.

But then, Ms. Ratliff, who grew up in Catonsville, has always been a dedicated career woman. She began in the health spa business, starting as an aerobics instructor in the Baltimore area, then moving to Arizona to take over the management of another spa. When she married one of the spa's members, Steven Ratliff, she changed course and went into his family business, real estate.

And then came Garrison.

When Ms. Ratliff became a mother in her mid-30s, she says, "I set aside about 60 days to settle into motherhood, and put my clients aside for just that length of time. But when the 60 days started running out, I realized there was no way I wanted to leave my baby!"

It took four or five months for the old career yearnings -- for the thrill of the sale, the camaraderie of the office, the self-esteem of earning money -- to kick in again. But Ms. Ratliff didn't want a job that would take her away from her son all day. So she began scouting through magazines such as Success and Entrepreneur search of business opportunities she could handle from home.

The personalized children's book, in which the customer's child-of-choice becomes the star of the story, was a novel concept that strongly appealed to the new mother. Personalized with a computer and bound on the spot, the $10 books were an item that she could sell at weekend shows, leaving the rest of the week for Garrison. She invested $5,000, and became the Arizona distributor for "About Me!"

She did her first craft show in October 1988: "I carted in my two little 6-foot tables and my computer systems, and made a thousand dollars that weekend," she remembers. "I thought, 'Hey, this is all right!"

More than all right -- in her first three months in business, she grossed close to $20,000. She was soon ranked among her company's top five distributors, and in 1989 was named "Entrepreneurial Mother of the Year" by the Entrepreneurial Mothers Association, an Arizona support group for working moms.

But, Ms. Ratliff says, it wasn't always easy. "I sat through many an 8- and 10-hour show not making any money and wondering why," she admits. So she began to make notes on which shows were successful and which were not, and why some vendors thrived while others sat on their hands and looked glum.

"People I would vend with would ask me, 'How do you make all this money?' 'How do you set up your display?' 'What do you say to the customers to get them to buy?' " she offers. "So I started giving advice, then I started teaching little seminars. The Entrepreneurial Mothers Association has a big conference every year, and I gave this workshop called 'Turn Your Weekends Into Cash.' People were crawling the walls to get in. It hit me that this was a topic of real interest."

Discovering that there was no comprehensive guide to exhibit marketing available, Ms. Ratliff decided to turn her hard-learned lessons into a book. She found a publisher, Marketing Methods Press of Phoenix, practically on her doorstep. Although they are marketing the book through the usual channels, she has been selling it herself as well -- on the weekends, of course.

Weekend marketing is a natural, she believes, for anyone who wants an income but doesn't want a full-time job, including parents and retirees. Hobbyists can become weekend entrepreneurs by turning their homemade creations into a product line. Others might invest in a distributorship, or sell a service such as photography, landscape design, or financial planning. Or they can use their marketing savvy to sell the

work of others on consignment.

From all the nuts-and-bolts advice included in "How to Be a Weekend Entrepreneur," Ms. Ratliff chooses four points as essential for successful weekend entrepreneurship.

"Understand how to select the most profitable events for your product," she counsels. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is entering an event not geared to their target audience."

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