It takes a lot of self-reflection and guts, and likely many sleepless nights, to decide that it’s time to shut down a struggling business. Owning a business is a labor of love and grief.
Terri Gillis know the highs and the lows, the amount of work it all takes, all too well. A painter by training, Gillis maintained two studio work spaces as an artist in Manhattan during the '80s and '90s before starting her first small business in 1992.
Homeboy NYC was a wildly successful baseball hat and T-shirt company. That business evolved into TG170, a designer-clothing and accessory boutique. After doing well in one location, she switched to a new location just a year ago.
Gillis shuttered TG170 in January 2012 after a year in the new location and 20 years in business. Now, she’s content to take a break and re-evaluate things before starting the next chapter. Gillis shared a bit of her process.
How did you know it was time to close up shop?
A year ago, I was in a totally different place. I did not want to let the store go [but] I got into financial problems over the last three years. I was having a hard time paying off past debt, while trying to buy new merchandise and keep up with rent and everything else.
On top of the financial problems, the new location was a mistake. There wasn't enough traffic and because I didn't have money for new merchandise, the store wasn't the best it could be. I became stagnant and couldn't fix it without cash flow.
I wasn't happy or proud of it and I felt like I was wasting my time sitting there. I had started with confidence so I decided I needed to trust my intuition about closing and start over.
What was it like the first time around as a business owner?
That was a special, creative time with a lot of exciting things and people passing through: artists, designers, musicians and funny people. It became a different place over time. Creative people chased away because of expensive rents and the abundance of online stores, cheap knockoff stores and “hipster" boutiques.
How do you feel now that the shop is closed?
A lot of people thought I would be sad to close, but I see it as a chance to reinvent and get smarter from my past mistakes. [I made] sloppy money decisions and said yes to the wrong people to give them a chance against my better judgment.
I think when something is right you know it. I knew TG170 was right when I did it and I think now is a good time to restart.
What was your process for making that final decision? Did you have a list of pros and cons?
The pros outweighed the cons. The only con was I had done this one thing for so long that it was a part of me. A friend told me that when the store closed, [my] identity would be gone.
I thought about it and said: "No, I made TG170, and I'm still me. I can do other things, or not." One thing I will miss is the social aspect of meeting new people from the store, but I can open again in a new place, so that’s not really a con.
The pros were a new start, a new place, a new store, a new career. Maybe do something different or work part-time.
Do you have advice for those who are debating whether to close shop?
It's not bad to rethink something if it needs to be reinvigorated. The times have changed drastically in New York in the past 20 years—even in the last five years. Neighborhoods have changed. The economy, the way people shop, the way people perceive value.
What is considered valuable varies from one neighborhood to the next. To have a unique place to go and shop is difficult because everything seems to be a different variation of the same. You want the customer to have a great feeling and experience. You want to be their favorite place and for them to know they can trust you.
What advice do you have for those who are still wary of actually closing down?
If you are afraid to close, decide if you can tweak it and keep it alive. I tried that. There are so many variables that make things work or not work. If you can fix it and be happy, that's great. Maybe you can take a different direction and see where that leads you.
You have to believe you'll land on your feet. You're in business, so you are already a risk taker. If you close, you can cut costs and move to a different location, take a vacation, get better staff, and come up with a new solution. [You have time to] fall in love, buy a dog, make some new friends, get a divorce. Let your freak flag fly and don't worry what people think of you. It's your life.
What is the most challenging part of running a business for you?
[I’m] not responsible with the more day-to-day business stuff. I was bad with my choices concerning spending money. [I was] too careless, didn't separate business from friendship when [I was] buying products.
I was discerning at first, [but] got too caught up in the opinions of others and not able to say no. I burned out because I didn't learn to delegate. I had to do a lot of damage control.
I thought it was just a bad phase financially and got further and further in debt because of denial and not wanting to cut back on my spending and buying. I needed a person to manage financial budgeting.
What do you recommend people do to run a successful small business?
Get smart, creative people that you connect with to work for you. They will inspire you. If you are connected, they will be on your team because it's their team, too. They will work as hard as you do.
Ask yourself what you can do better than anyone else in this business. Get someone to do things you aren't good at and pay attention to what they do. Stick to a budget and keep costs down.
What should people not do if they're trying to run a successful small business?
Don't get too distracted. Don't trust in trends, unless you believe in them. Don't believe the hype. Make sure you don't ignore the things that are distasteful to you in business. Get expert help where you are weak.
If you open another store, what might that look like?
I believe the best store—maybe my next one—is a place to find things you need, and to discover things you didn't know you needed. You meet your new best friend there, and maybe hang out with your favorite singer or hear some new songs. Maybe you would find your next job there, or, your husband. I never want to shop in a place that doesn't have any soul.
What will you do now?
I want to still buy and sell clothes, but I am taking a break now. I want the right place and I'm not sure about renting a store, buying clothes and sitting there. It seems like the wrong time, at least right now.
Now, I'm going to work enough to support myself, but give myself some time to get some new ideas. I might sell some vintage online because I like the idea of recycling—finding fun, one-of-a-kind pieces and selling them online so lots of people can see them. It's affordable and cool. It gives me freedom and I still can be a hunter of style.
Are you willing to admit when something isn’t working before it's too late? Would you shut down before things get too bad?
Image credit: Munch Gallery