From Comic shops to Argyll Outdoors: learn about Cory MacRae's experience running a business here.

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

1.Tell us a bit about you. e.g.are you native to Dunoon or have you moved here from elsewhere? Do you have family or care responsibilities here? What did you do before you set up your current business?

My family moved to Dunoon in 1987 from Australia. My parents were both teachers at Dunoon Grammar and sadly passed away in 2007 and 2008. Following that, I became engaged and after conversations with my fiancée (and now wife), we decided to move to Dunoon and start our married life together here.

My business has run in various incarnations since 1996 as “alterego”, developing into Argyll Outdoors once we moved to Dunoon. Through the 1990s I owned a comic book shop in Glasgow, then went on to work in corporate retail at Borders Books in Glasgow at various levels of the business. Since moving to Dunoon I have worked at Visit Scotland and the Dunoon Burgh Hall, as well as running my business.

2. What sparked your business idea? e.g. Did you take on a family business; did you head out on a new adventure; or did circumstances force you to adapt?

When I closed the comic shop I was left with a great number of back issue comics, which I began selling at comic marts up and down the country, travelling to Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and London on an almost weekly basis. In 1998 I started to use a start-up website called eBay (how times change!) and began selling the older, more valuable comics online. eBay was very much an online community in those days and cash from the States came in envelopes to buy comics. The ongoing sales helped me finance my way through my degree. A hairdresser I knew he suggested selling hair irons on eBay and the online business started seriously at that point. Before too long I was making more selling online part-time, than I was working full time, so I decided to take the plunge and work solely on the business. From there on the business has seen a series of adaptations and new products that led to Argyll Outdoors as it stands today.

3. What was the best piece of business advice you have been given and who gave it to you?

There is actually an irony in this one. When I first became self-employed I had a business partner - a man who had a tenuous relationship with honesty at the best of times. He once told me that “Turnover is vanity; profit is sanity”. I still remember that as a brief, but very cogent piece of advice applicable to various levels of a business. So, when you begin a project, or look at a new stock item, you do the sums in your head to ensure that the time and effort you are going to invest in it will be worth your while.

4. What challenges have you faced to make use of online resources or promote your business digitally?

As online business has evolved, so have the challenges. At the outstart our connection to the internet was dial up and the buzzing of the modem meant that the phone was out of use. The speed of the internet connection precluded doing very much, and people were still very wary of those of us selling and trading online. Later on, working in Dunoon, I faced the slower broadband speeds that hampered what I could achieve on eBay, Amazon, the Argyll Outdoors website and other platforms. More recently, the challenges have largely been created by the success of online trading, competition being the primary one, but also knowing how to promote your business without spending a fortune. There are no traders out there that haven’t had a run in, or two, with “We can enhance your site with the dark arts of SEO” and those promising to make your Google adwords return massive dividends. Having tried both, I found I my work was principally benefiting Google, and that any increase in sales was draining my margin making the endeavor fruitless. This is where “profit is sanity” kicks in!

Social media became the new buzz, but use of Facebook and Twitter can cause a few issues and create new challenges. Ensuring access to the business by as many people as possible, while maintaining a positive and engaging online presence, is a daily challenge. It can be easy to get drawn into an argument online, so it is important to cultivate an appropriate online style that matches with the business, and encourages both existing and potential customers to engage.

5. What is unique or interesting about running a business here in Dunoon? (if you have a story that highlights this, we'd love to hear it)

Dunoon is a wonderful place and it is filled with amazing opportunities, but it is also a very hard nut to crack. The location for an online seller is filled with pitfalls. When I moved from Glasgow to Dunoon I had a fairly large account with a major courier, and talked to them a few times about the move, and the impact it would have on my service level. After all, Dunoon is considered “Highlands and Islands”, and I needed to be sure that I could survive once I took the keys to my first unit at Sandbank Business Estate. I was assured that the service would be the same and they would give me the same service as I experienced in Glasgow, but within 48 hours of opening in Dunoon I found that wasn’t the case. Instead of 24-hour delivery, it would now be 48 hours and there would be a surcharge for pick-ups of £33 per parcel! In the first two days of trading more than 30 parcels had been dispatched, so I was understandably pretty angry. I had become a mail order company without a delivery service and I was staring down the cost of over £1000 in charges I hadn’t been made aware of. Fortunately, I had the original communication assuring me of no change, so the additional costs were waived, but I quickly had to find another way of sending things out. This was by no means easy, but local guys carrying Parcelforce were terrific, although ‘48-hour delivery’ often means three days, and sometimes more. The challenge of trading from Dunoon!

I opened a shop in Ferry Brae and soon became involved with the local business community. Initially I was not keen on the BID process, but soon realised that it wasn’t about my personal benefit, it was about the area, so now I am a keen supporter, even though I work from home and am not a levy payer anymore. I show my support by taking a stall at the Dunoon Dazzles event, with the hope that it will bring people in to town and get them spending on the streets. The potential of the area can only be realised with the business community on board and pushing things forward. The strength of our smaller community can be harnessed and put to good use, especially in a post Covid era.

6. Tell us the one thing about your business that you are most proud of?

I am most proud of surviving through the changes and the challenges that have been placed in front of me. Facing downturns in business means that you need to be personally adaptable, as well as in a business sense, and adding to your income stream helps. I have become more engaged with the development of the town, and projects within it, and I continue to look for opportunities to bring what I have learned and the skills I have accrued to help develop the area I live in. So, I guess the survival of the business is something I am most proud of, along with the way it has helped me enhance my life in areas and ways I wasn’t expecting.

7. What changes do you think could help sustain and develop Dunoon as a place to do business?

There is a need for systemic change in the way Dunoon goes about things. Too many people are too focused on short term objectives, which is understandable when facing times of great hardship and stress, often with limited funding streams. Businesses should look at similar places in Glasgow and Gourock and consider the standards that they apply there. Helping your place develop means that you have to be better than other places in order to attract new business and developments to the area.

In the Dunoon area we also need to diversify those who are involved in organisations and development roles. Too few people are doing too many of the roles, and those roles are often part time and poorly funded. A development role should be a full-time role within an organization, making it possible to ensure continuity and genuine, meaningful progress. Growth and development organisations should reach out and embrace every single business in the town through proactive engagement and positive attitudes.

Dunoon needs to embrace the idea that change is a positive thing. Commonly, people will have fixed opinions on what a place “is”, but it is important to think beyond that and consider the town as a canvas on which something can be created. This can involve both what a place has been, as well as the potential for what it can be. Once we open the doors and embrace new ideas with the vigour and passion to get them realized, we will begin to profit from the potential that Dunoon and the Cowal area has in abundance.

8. What support do you think is missing for small businesses in the Dunoon Area?

There is need for an infrastructure of support, in the form of communication, events, rent and rates help, local promotion, and advertising/marketing of the area. The closure of the Visit Scotland visitor centre left a significant hurdle for the town to overcome. Dunoon needs to attract business events to the town - for example trade meetings, conventions, food and drink events. A regular local street market that is promoted properly (with help from ferry companies to make attendance by the public and traders easy and affordable) could be as successful in Dunoon as it is in Largs, Gourock, Paisley, or any other small town in Scotland.

9. What are your key business goals over the next 12 months?

Survival and potential growth. The lockdown has created new issues to overcome, but it also provided new opportunities to work on the business, tinker with my website and listings, and look at new and interesting stock ideas. I had considered a pop up shop in the town centre, as a way of encouraging people to shop local and to see what other businesses are in the area. Sadly, there were no available units that were financially viable for the level of footfall that Dunoon can offer. This is part of my answer about what is missing here for small businesses; the rent prices in Dunoon preclude many small businesses from any longer-term planning.

10. Promote your business. Tell people why we should come to you?

What I have always tried to offer is high quality products at sensible prices, matched with good customer service and advice; this is at the heart of Argyll Outdoors, whether someone is looking for a humble dry bag, high end water filters, sleeping mats, backpacks for long treks or day hikes, water bottles or cooking stoves. When people come to me they will get honest advice that won’t be about pushing the highest priced item I sell; it will do the job that they want the item to do. I hope that the experience of buying from me develops the trust that will make them think of using Argyll Outdoors again in the future. People should come to Argyll Outdoors for honesty and transparency, alongside great service, and a product that I will stand behind and that they can rely on.

Visit Argyll Outdoors here>

#dunoon #dunoonmeansbusiness #keepingitlocal #argylloutdoors

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