Owner Close Buy Catalog, Portland
424 Fore St., Portland
President/founder: Masey Kaplan
Gross sales, 2012: Just over $400,000
Contact: 838-2567 www.closebuycatalog.com
Masey Kaplan, founder and owner of Close Buy Catalog, admits she knew next to nothing about starting a business when she launched her company in 2010. In fact, the Falmouth mother of two boys says it took a few years for the ideas behind it to percolate in her mind before she was ready to take on the challenge of creating a new approach to school fundraising.
The triggering event was her oldest son bringing home a gift-wrap catalog for a school fundraiser when he was in kindergarten.
"Wow, I remember this from when I was in grade school," Kaplan recalls, noting that she and her husband purchased some wrapping paper to support their son's school. The next year, her reaction was a bit more jaded: "Wow, we still have wrapping paper left over from last year …" The third year, with the economy tanking and her household's spending becoming more frugal, she thought, "Wow, if only these folks were selling something we really needed as a family…"
Kaplan says in 2009 she started thinking seriously about what goods would be a better offering than the dreaded gift-wrapping paper. Her friends volunteered an idea that took her further down a promising path. "Why aren't we helping other Maine businesses?" they asked.
She felt she was on to something — but, even so, it took another year to translate those ideas into a catalog company offering a sustainable fundraising system designed to boost local businesses and make lots of money for participating schools and nonprofits. From the start, she says, her business plan has been to offer only locally made products that people actually want.
In 2010, Kaplan tested the concept in only three schools: Falmouth Elementary, Friends School of Portland — where her two sons were enrolled — and Longfellow School in Portland.
"I didn't really know what I was doing, that's why I described it as a 'pilot' at that time," she says. "I don't have a business degree. I got a lot of help from some very smart people. My first catalog was a matter of trying it out, getting some answers, seeing what worked."
A trained graphic artist, Kaplan put those skills to good use, designing the first catalog herself, a practice she continues to this day. She acknowledges she didn't make a cent of profit that first year, but the pilot schools all raised more than they'd had with other fundraising programs and were eager to do it again.
Close Buy Catalog has been on steady trajectory of growth since its first year, doubling its customer base from 2011 to 2012 and expanding to 63 schools and nonprofits. Its catalog list has grown from a handful of vendors the first year to 130 this year. Gross sales revenues topped $400,000 in 2012, making it the company's first profitable year. This year, Kaplan has expanded her territory to include Massachusetts and New Hampshire — in part, to satisfy schools and vendors eager to use her fundraising catalog in those states.
Kaplan says the revenues from Close Buy Catalog's sales are split with 30% going to school groups or the nonprofit organization, 30% to 50% to the product-makers (depending on wholesale costs) and the rest to her company. Fundraising takes place between the start of school and the holidays, and all schools must run the sale at the same time. It's a narrow window of opportunity, particularly for Close Buy's food vendors who agree to make their goods on demand to ensure freshness.
Key allies are the dozens of school volunteers, the PTO and PTA fundraising organizers and corporate sponsors such as Shaw's, which for the second year in a row is donating a truck and driver to deliver pallets of the purchased goods to each school for distribution just before the holidays.
"It's very grassroots, and I want to keep it that way," Kaplan says.
This year's modest expansion into New Hampshire and Massachusetts — with just under a dozen schools between the two states — challenges that notion a bit. But Kaplan sees it as a two-way street, with Maine vendors getting a chance to broaden their market reach and Close Buy customers getting a wider mix of vendors.
"This is a replicable model, it can go anywhere there is a strong 'buy local' culture," she says. "At this point we're feeling very secure with New England. We'd like to grow more in the other New England states. Our infrastructure is in place. Beyond that, we're looking very carefully where it makes sense to go it next.
She's considering the mid-Atlantic states and perhaps New York as new markets in 2015. "Then the question becomes, say, if we expand into New York: Do we sell only New York stuff? Or stuff made in Maine and New York?"
Kaplan acknowledges those are good problems to be having, particularly since every step of the way so far has been on a shoestring budget.
"We had a profit last year, and I expect that to grow this year," she says. "But it's going to grow at its own pace. It's a lot of work. This is the first year I haven't worked 70-hour work weeks. Now I work regular-person hours most of the time."
As her company begins to build upon its success — it earned the 2013 Innovation Award from the Institute for Family-Owned Business — Kaplan says questions of sustainability rise in importance. Right now, she and her team of two employees work out of their homes. Going slow and doing much of the work herself, she says, seems to be the right way to grow.
"I started with no money, and wasn't willing to borrow money," she says. "We don't have investors, we don't have loans. It has made me do a lot of work myself, so I understand how this company works really well."