In 1997, James Butler—the owner of a couple of appliance stores in the sleepy town of Cocoa, on Florida’s eastern seaboard—was wracking his brains to come up with an idea for making some extra cash. Inspiration came in the form of a resourceful college student going door to door in his neighborhood with a cordless drill, a pocketful of brass peepholes and a sales pitch about enhanced security. Impressed by the student’s success—the peephole business was paying for his college education—Butler thought he could hire a crew of kids to sell and install front-door peepholes. “I just thought,” he told us, “if I had several door-knocking teenagers, I could have a volume business.”
Like any sensible entrepreneur, Butler decided to do some market research. He drove 50 miles to Orlando, which had the potential of so many more residents who might be in need of a way to look out before they let someone into their homes. “I'll never forget how sad that day was. Why? Because nobody needed a peephole! They all had this ‘stupid skinny little window’ next to their front door and could see whoever was knocking. This ‘stupid little window’ was ruining my peephole business!”
Butler found out that the offending window is what is called a “sidelight.” Lots of customers who turned him down for peepholes told Butler that they’d be glad to buy a curtain for their sidelight window. So, he thought why not sell what the people want and refocused from selling peepholes to curtains.
Things have changed since then. “It's now a very competitive market,” Butler explained, “as every company out there sells sidelight curtains. But I had already established my place in the search engines, thanks to Yahoo!" [Butler runs his business on the Yahoo Small Business platform].
“When one door closes, another door opens.” —Alexander Graham Bell
For six years, Butler struggled to build his curtain business into a lucrative sideline to his brick-and-mortar appliance stores.And then something shifted for him. He decided to raise funds for a local orphanage, the Florida Children’s Home (part of Hope Children's Home)—and figured an e-commerce store selling sidelight curtains might be just the ticket. “I looked at it—and still do—like I was simply volunteering to do something like offering to sell Girl Scout cookies in front of the local grocery store. Except, of course, not selling cookies, but curtains.”
That first venture was the online version of his Sidelight Curtain Company.
With no previous experience in e-commerce, Butler turned to the Yahoo! Small Business Store, “because their e-commerce tools seemed so simple to use, and 24/7 support was provided. I can go on forever how wonderful my experience was with Yahoo in those first weeks! And in only six weeks, my site was finished and live. Two days later, the orders started coming in.”
Here’s Butler on how things went from there: “The first 17 months, we sold literally thousands of curtains, some to every state in the USA and even to customers in Canada.” Up to this point, explained Butler, the Sidelight Curtain Company was a not-for-profit business venture. “One hundred percent of the profits went to the Children's Home.”
And then along came Hurricane Frances in 2004, devastating many homes and businesses along the Florida coast. “The hurricane demolished my main appliance store,” Butler recalled, “Just destroyed it! So I sold that business and went full time in the curtain business—and also started taking a paycheck from it.”
Inspired to keep growing, Butler eventually expanded SidelightCurtain.com into half a dozen successful online e-commerce curtain and window-covering businesses, all related but each one with a distinct specialty.
Butler cautions aspiring online entrepreneurs not to make the mistake that almost wrecked his chances for success, right at the start. “I built the entire site without thinking about SEO [Search Engine Optimization]. I was so naive that I thought all I had to do was have a nice flowing site,with great pictures, fair prices, and easy ordering. Boy was I wrong! Just before I launched the site, I was researching Yahoo articles and tips and pointers and came across an acronym called SEO. And when I read what it meant, I yelled at the top of my lungs: ‘Es! Ee! Oh!’ I really did! I then said to myself, ‘This phrase is going to be with me for the rest of my life’ (and I was right).”
Stepping out in front of the curtain to give his thanks, Butler has plenty of other advice for would-be-entrepreneurs. “Of course, don't give up—no matter what, stay your course!” He also emphasizes the importance of doing research. “Read and study, and read even more.” He recommends researching all the topics featured on the Yahoo! Small Business support forums, which he characterizes as “the best, most complete source of excellent information.”
Butler credits his success to his faith, which has inspired his support of charitable projects worldwide. Expanding their involvement with orphanages to various institutions in other countries around the world, Custom Curtain Company now single-handedly supports an orphanage in Haiti called“Loving Hearts,” which shelters 31 children and has a staff mix of paid and volunteer workers.
For anyone wanting to support a charitable organization from their business efforts, or support a charitable organization in any way, Butler has the following advice: “Make sure you know and trust the organization, which is an obvious warning. Oh, and make sure your motives are pure and not self-seeking or glorifying.” Butler believes that the wrong motives can only lead to bad consequences for both parties – the giver and the receiver.
To learn more about and donate to the Loving Hearts Orphanage in Haiti, go to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LovingHeartsChildrensHome, where you’ll find a donation link. You can donate to the Hope Children's Home by finding the donation button at http://www.HopeChildrensHome.org/