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TURNING WEEKENDS INTO A BUSINESS Entrepreneur Susan Ratliff teaches craft-show exhibitors how to market their wares effectively

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

"Learn how to develop a dynamic display, using color, elevation and props, inexpensive stuff you can find in your house or garage, to create a focal point to differentiate your exhibit from the hundreds of other you're competing against."

"Develop a sales strategy," she continues. "The majority of people who do this are not sales-oriented. Especially the craft people. They love creating their product, but they'll sit in the back of the booth, waiting for people to come up and say, 'May I buy this?' "

Finally, she says, "Learn to promote yourself beyond the show. There are ways you can make money even after the event is over, if you set goals for yourself. For example, you can go to a show and not make much money, but you might book five home parties, you might find out about two really great shows you haven't heard about, and you might put another 150 names on your mailing list. Goal-setting is essential, because the more goals you have the more chances for success."

When she's not putting her tenets into practice at a show, Ms. Ratliff does her ordering, makes phone calls, and handles other "busy business work" in her home office.

"I get a lot done when Garrison is in bed -- he takes a three-hour nap, which works really well for me," she says. "I still consider myself part time, because any time of the day I can spend with him if I want to. I can take him swimming, or go to the park; I have that luxury.

"Then on the weekends, when I do have to work, my husband gets his special time for parenting."

Tips for entrepreneurs

Interested in getting started, and getting successful, as a weekend entrepreneur? Here are ten tips from Susan Ratliff:

*Find a product, skill or service you can market with enthusiasm. Even if you don't have a special talent or skill, opportunities abound for distributors of consumer products. For ideas and sources, check such magazines as Entrepreneur, Business Opportunities, and Success.

*Check the newspaper's calendar of events, entertainment section and classifieds for community activities and trade shows, and contact the local chamber of commerce, civic center and convention bureau for information about upcoming shows.

*Choose shows that cater to your target audience. Country-oriented shows and "baby fest" events would both be excellent markets for the maker of hand-stitched crib-quilts, but if you design avant-garde earrings, try elsewhere. Also, go for shows with a good location, easy parking, exposure, and a proven track record.

*Select the smaller, less expensive shows when you are getting started. As you get established and gain experience, develop a budget that will allow you to enter large, prestigious shows. If entry fees are very high, consider sharing booth space with another merchant whose wares complement your own.

*Create a dynamic display; a touch of showmanship will catch the potential customer's attention. Use a variety of elevations and props to make your booth stand out, and dress to accentuate your theme.

*Behave in a pleasant, professional manner. Don't bad-mouth your competition, don't smoke or eat in your booth, and leave the kids, dog and blaring boom-box at home.

*Develop a "shopper-stopper" -- a line that will get passers-by to make eye-contact with you and come into your booth. Don't say, "May I help you?" It's a conversation-killer.

*Where possible, demonstrate your wares. If you can show how a product is made or how it works, you can draw an interested crowd.

*Set concrete goals to be accomplished at each show: goals for how much money you will make, as well as for obtaining new leads and new ideas, making contacts, and building public recognition for your business.

*Take your business seriously. Be organized and well-informed. Keep sales records. Promote yourself with business cards and brochures. And pay your taxes.

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