Last month, we gave you a peek into the history - and future - of Juniper Books and we got a lot of questions about Thatcher and what inspired him to go into the book business.
JJ: Have you always envisioned yourself as an entrepreneur?
TW: I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family and always planned to have my own business, I just didn't know what it would be. My parents owned and operated a restaurant called The Quilted Giraffe in New York City. We lived above the restaurant for years, and I worked just about every job in the house at one point or another. I learned a lot about hard work, attention to detail, quality, customer service, resilience, creativity and much more from my parents and being in the restaurant business in the center of New York City in the 1980s.
I went to Dartmouth College and majored in History and Art History. I loved doing research and writing papers. I spent a lot of time in the special collections library and other libraries at Dartmouth, I loved viewing antiquarian and rare books as well as original manuscripts. At the time I had no idea that books would be a part of my future career. I also discovered Studio Art my junior year and found out that I was pretty good at Design and Painting, something which I had not realized before then. I certainly did not know at the time that my creative skills and interest in books might combine one day for a truly unique career of my own invention!
After college, I worked for a strategy consulting firm (Monitor Company) and then an early Internet development company (Digital Evolution, later named US Interactive after a merger). I worked on Internet strategies and websites for various clients, and saw a pattern that customer service was often being overlooked. Businesses were rushing to go online, but not building out the infrastructure to manage the customer communications that were sure to follow. I thought I had finally found my big entrepreneurial idea! I put together a business plan, raised some venture capital, built a team, and launched a business called Feedback Direct. The idea was to create a customer service portal where individuals could initiate a variety of interactions with virtually any business.
The business lasted for two years, we shut down in 2001 when many Internet businesses ran out of money and crashed. Even though the company did not succeed, Feedback Direct was a tremendous learning experience. From the intense pressure and extreme commitment of running a startup, I had gained a lifetime of experience with product development, marketing, sales, partnerships, investor relations, HR, operations, and of course customer service.
JJ: Why did you go into the book business after your tech startup? It seems like an unlikely transition.
TW: After Feedback Direct, I was burnt out on technology to be honest. I was tired of looking at screens, and this was before the invention of the smartphone or tablets - the year was 2001. In order to recover from my tech burnout, I sought out a variety of real world experiences. I learned to play Flamenco guitar, I re-learned French, I took pottery classes, and I wrote screenplays. Then after visiting with an old friend in New Hampshire and tagging along with him to country auctions and estate sales, I started to sell books on eBay as a hobby.
In the process of selling books, I rediscovered how much I loved research - in this case research to determine if a book was a first edition, and to discover and then tell the story of that particular book, it's author, and ownership history (provenance).
I loved holding books in my hands and selling them one at a time. This was a big contrast to starting an Internet business that was virtual and aimed to attract thousands of customers quickly. Books offered me the opportunity to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. I think this is one of the reasons people love books, whether or not they know it. Books help us slow down and offer us an antidote to our busy, often over scheduled, and highly distracted lives. For me, books were both a route to personally recover from tech burnout and a path to a new professional opportunity.
JJ: What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
TW: Having your own business is a wonderful thing, so definitely go for it! In order to increase your chances of being successful, it always helps to do some research and planning first - figure out who your customer is and why they will buy from you. Don't be shy about talking to potential customers and asking questions about how they make purchasing decisions, what they are willing to spend, and what they like and don't like about your "competition." See if you can find creative ways to test your idea without the need to raise or spend a lot of money up front - making a prototype for example, having a pop up shop, or selling on another platform before building your own site. I also recommend not trying to figure out everything up front, be open to learning and evolving as you go.