We're Not Out Of the Woods Yet

The last two years have been absolutely devastating for small businesses like ours (more info here ). Yet, despite all of the many difficulties that we've faced (and the ones we're currently facing), we haven't given up.

Thanks to the support of our customers, we're relatively stable through April and into May, but in order to find long-term stability, we need to move.  Reaching our goal will allow us to buy and fix up one of the thousands of old abandoned properties here in Italy so that we have not only have a permanent workshop, but a roof over our kids' heads that we won't have to worry about losing just because we have a low sales month.

So far, between orders and donations, we've raised
31% of what we need to be secure

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You may have noticed that in recent months we’ve sort of fallen off the face of the earth: rarely posting to social media, fewer updates, very few new products, etc.

Things have been rough.

Like, really rough.

Like our business is dying, we’re facing both housing and food insecurity, and we don’t really have anywhere to turn existential panic kind of rough.

Let’s rewind a bit.

Two years ago, we were averaging around $1,000,000 in sales per year, and we were supporting 10-12 employees with living wages and full benefits. 

Now, a million dollars may sound like a lot, but on the scale of even small businesses in the U.S., that amount is absolutely tiny.  For comparison, a business could make over $40 million a year or have more than 1,500 employees and still be considered a small business.

By the end of 2021, we had a modest workshop stocked with a wide variety of tools and equipment, and with plenty of room for social distancing so we could keep everyone healthy and safe.  That was enough for us.

It was never our goal to become rich, only to ensure that the basic needs for our family (food, shelter, healthcare, etc) were being met.  So instead of going to dividends or investors or shareholders or any of that capitalist trash, every penny extra that we had either went to our employees, or went to help others in our community as donations to artists and creators, DV shelters, childhood cancer support, voting rights, and more.

And for several years, it was good.

But, over the past two years everything slammed to a halt and we went from averaging around $1,000,000 USD in sales per year to bringing about $60,000 USD in 2023.

That’s about a 95% drop in 24 months.

We wish we could say that the sales cliff that we fell off of was because we screwed up, or had a scandal, or were bamboozled, or anything of the sort, but the reality is far, far more depressing: folks got broke.

The overwhelming majority of our customers are working class Americans who, these days, can barely afford both rent and food, let alone spend extra on a refill for a gaming notebook.  We certainly don’t blame them — we’re in exactly the same boat! It wasn’t all at once, and it wasn’t overnight, but it was the same steady and unwavering decline that we’ve all been feeling — the ceaseless tightening. 

In 2022, we had $250,000 in sales, which was about 25% of what had been our norm, and at the time that was the fewest orders we had ever had as a business, even than during our very first year, when we were still punching pages in our dining room.

With only 25% of the money coming in, we had to scale our business down drastically in order to keep going. Our first priority was to try to protect our employees.  We had worked out a plan that would have allowed us to sell off a bunch of unused and underused equipment and then to move everything to a smaller, less expensive workshop.  That would have allowed us to to keep most of our staff employed at a solid living wage.

However, there was a problem. Like most small businesses during the pandemic, we had received stimulus money from the government.  The stimulus allowed us to keep everyone on the payroll during the lockdowns and even helped us to hire more people as things opened up.  Unfortunately, that money had a crucial string attached to it: we could not make major changes to our business without permission from the Small Business Administration (SBA).  At the time, it was a no-brainer.  We knew people who worked at the SBA, and we had no reason to believe that if we would ever need to make big changes that we would have any trouble getting the necessary forms signed.

Unfortunately, at the exact same time that we were desperately trying to save as many jobs as we could, the SBA had laid off pretty much their entire staff (including every single person that we knew), so there was literally no one left to even answer the phones, let alone to approve changes for our business.  We were stuck.

After talking over our options with accountants and lawyers, not only were we unable to save our employees’ jobs, but because we couldn’t move or sell anything, we couldn’t even save the company. There were simply too many expenses that we were forbidden from changing and too few orders coming in to pay for them.

We began shutting down The Rook & The Raven.

And then, just as we were getting ready to announce our closure to the world, we hit upon a new idea.  While we couldn’t move or sell any of our machines or supplies, and we couldn’t simply start over with a similar business in the U.S., we did have one door open to us: Italy.  We packed up our lives, hopped the ocean, and started over from the ground up.  We arrived on New Years Day 2023, rented a space, bought some new equipment, and started making books.

We had planned carefully assuming that things would keep getting worse, but we simply weren’t prepared for just how much worse 2023 would end up being. As expected, our sales continued to drop throughout the year, but much faster and further. By the end of the year, we had to close our newly built-out workshop because we couldn’t afford even the modest rent, and crammed everything into our home. We’ve been having to pick up odd jobs here and there just to be able to keep food in our kids’ bellies.

Now, along with all of that, there have been all kinds of setbacks and frustrations that we’ve talked about over the past year (broken equipment, the departure of our last two employees, problems with the postal system, delayed or lost supply shipments, etc.), and there have been even more that we haven’t shared (physical and mental health issues, injuries, loss of family members, pet loss, the list goes on.)

Between the falling sales and more cancellations and chargebacks than we’ve ever seen before, we currently have hundreds of orders that are finished, packed up, and ready to go, but that we literally can’t afford to ship, because the money we had for shipping was literally yanked from our account without warning and what’s left won’t cover the rising shipping fees.  They’ve been sitting in boxes ready to go for months, while our customers patiently wait.

Any of those setbacks would have been frustrating, but manageable in years past, yet with us already running on fumes, each one has hit us a lot harder and cut a lot deeper.  All combined, they’ve all but broken us.

We’re exhausted, we’re scared, we’re frustrated

Things are rough