My (Regrettable) First
Mail-Order Venture

Dateline: 30 August 2013

Marlene and I (in the blue coats) with some high school friends, in the winter of 1976, We were about to go skiing at Greek Peak in Cortland, New York. None of us were any good at skiing, but that just made it all the more fun. Those blue coats figure into this tale.

I think I can now safely say that I have a successful mail-order business. My definition of successful is that the business makes enough money to pay the bills (without me or my wife working another job) and provides some beyond that. It is a business that I can run from home, and that is something I've desired for a very long time... Thirty-nine years to be specific.

The fact is, I've wanted a mail-order business since I was 16 years old. I bought books back then about how to start and run a successful mail order business. I studied mail-order ads in magazines. I put a lot of thought and vision into the idea. My problem was that I couldn't think of anything that I could sell with my limited resources.

Then I came up with an idea. 

It was an idea shaped by the times I lived in. Mother Earth News magazine was in it's heyday. A lot of people were looking to be more self-reliant. They were embracing the whole concept of working with their hands, of learning new skills and crafts, of making things themselves.

One of the things Marlene did back then was sew. Her mother had taught her to sew. She was in 4H and had sewn her own clothes for 4H projects. She enjoyed sewing. 

Back in those days, enough of America's population either sewed or was interested in sewing that a mail-order company by the name of Frostline became very successful selling sewing-project kits. The kits contained pre-cut fabric, thread, buttons, zippers, and such, along with instructions. Folks could buy Frostline kits to sew their own camping gear, like backpacks and tents and sleeping bags. Frostline also sold kits for making goose-down coats. The company had big ads in magazines and was very successful. I'm sure that many of you reading this remember the Frostline company. Here's a Frostline kit for a goose-down vest:

(Click here for information about the Frostline company)

Marlene bought Frostline kits to make matching goose-down coats for she and I, and we are wearing them in the picture at the top of this page. She also made me a sleeping bag as a gift when I was in school in Vermont. Even I sewed together a Frostline kit. It was a pair of gaiters that I could wear when snowshoeing.

I don't know what has become of those Frostline coats Marlene made. We wore them for many winters. But the sleeping bag, I know where that is. In the winter months, I use it like a blanket (the zipper has long been broken) under the bedcovers. It is over 30 years old but still very warm, and I couldn't imagine a winter without it.

All of this is background to the mail-order idea I devised...

I was enamored with the natural insulating properties of my Frostline goose-down coat. It was light in weight, puffy and oh so warm. Goose-down was very popular back in those days. And, for Marlene and I, so was going to estate auctions. We went to auctions a lot. I bought a fine old treadle sewing machine at an auction. It worked perfectly (I sewed my Frostline gaiters on it). We bought a lot of stuff at auctions, and one day at an auction I paid a couple bucks for a big, old, feather tick mattress. 

I brought the mattress home and opened it up and it was full of small feathers.... and down. Down was expensive to buy but for a couple bucks I had bought a mattress full of it (along with small feathers). That's when I got the mail order idea.

I can't remember the exact year. I think it was sometime between 1979 and 1982. If I took the time to sort through my stacks of old Mother Earth News magazines, I could find the single classified add I placed, and I could tell you exactly what it said. Nearly as I can remember, it went something like this:

Down & Feathers—ten cents a pound. FREE sample. Full Details. 
$2 with SASE. 

My mailing address was tacked on the end, and shortly after the magazine issue came out, envelopes with $2 in them started arriving in my rural mailbox.

For $2 I sent people a two-page printout that explained how I bought the old feather tick at an auction, that it was full of beautiful down and feathers, and that they could do the same thing. I included a small "baggie" with a sample of down & feathers from my old feather tick. 

I thought I was pretty clever, collecting my $2 and sending back the information and sample. But a couple customers were not pleased. I got a letter from a woman who was very angry. She said my ad was deceptive and she demanded her money back. Then another angry letter came in the mail.

My conscience was pricked. I had convinced myself that selling the "information" was was worth a couple bucks, but I came to realize that I was ripping people off. I sent everybody's money back with an apology.

It was a learning experience. Nobody besides Marlene (and my mother) has ever known about it. It has been the only serious skeleton in my closet. Now that I've confessed it here in public, I feel a lot better. Now, if I decide to run for high political office someday, I don't have to worry about some researcher digging up this sordid tale from my past.

The Irony Of 
My Eventual Success

My dreams of making it in mail-order were put on hold for a lot of years after that down-and-feathers scheme. Then, in 1997 I got the idea of starting a newsletter for kitchen remodelers, with a focus on cabinet refacing (I had just written a book on cabinet refacing for The Taunton Press). That was a mail-order sort of operation, and I provided legitimate information. Subscribers liked my newsletter, but the idea was a complete (and costly) financial failure. Fact is, the financial failure of that newsletter venture led me to a very low point in my life.

The newsletter was, however, another learning experience, as was writing the three how-to books for Taunton Press. The common denominator with the old down-and-feathers idea, the books, and the newsletter, was that I was providing written how-to information.

Then in 2002 I self-published a plan book about how Anyone Can Build a Whizbang Chicken Plucker. That idea proved to be a winner, and it was the beginning of my now-successful Planet Whizbang mail-order business. 

Do you see the ironic common denominator between my shameful first foray into mail-order and my eventual success in mail-order?  

Both ideas relate to down and feathers!

Feather Ticks For Sale

(photo link)
The down and feathers pictured above came out of an old feather tick. They are fluffy, and soft. If you would like to buy an old feather tick for the feathers, they often come up for sale at Ebay and on Etsy.


Cynthia (C.L) Lewis said...

I'm sure glad you chose to learn from your failures rather than give up! I think in this day and age your first attempt wouldn't garner such anger. Selling info is legitimate these days in the information age! Your entrepreneurial spirit is a blessing to your readers! Thank you.

Sunnybrook Farm said...

Reminds me of the guy who was selling an natural bug killer, no poisons involved. It was a block of wood with a X in the center and a small wooden hammer. Instructions said to place bug on the X and strike with the hammer. A few people were upset about that one as well.

Jonnyjumpup said...

I find it ironic that people didn't want to pay for information on how to get cheap down, but your big success with the chicken plucker book was an informational sale.