A little over a year ago, I drove my dream car up the best coast and began my little Barbie business. Although it’s full of challenges, I continue to be glad I gave it a shot. I appreciate my friend asking to interview me so I could reflect on some of those challenges (and subsequent rewards) under the guise of helping her complete an assignment. Some of these questions are frequently asked, but they don’t belong in the FAQ because the answers often change with time. Here’s where I am now, and regardless of how much of this you care to read, thank you for joining me!
How long have you owned your company?
1 year, 1 week, and 4 days
Please describe your education and what, if any, part that played in starting your own business.
I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism. My formal education didn’t play a direct role with regard to starting my business, but I wouldn’t have been able to earn the capital to start it as quickly had I not earned a college degree. The type of degree was negligible in my case, since I entered the tech writing field, which is comprised of many backgrounds. The crucial common trait of a good tech writer is the ability to learn complex ideas and explain them in simpler terms to the average person. Practice with that helped me stay level-headed as I learned about cars and business, which were previously uncharted territory for me.
What led you to start Barbie Dream Hearse? Where did the idea come from?
In my mid-20s, I thought it would be fun to own a hearse, mostly because I thought the name “Barbie Dream Hearse” was a cute pun. I wasn’t at a place in my life where owning a second car made much sense, so I had lots of time to think about how the car would look, my logo, my brand image, and things like that. It all started to seem like big project, and I wanted it to stand out more than just a decal on the back door. So I decided to put seats in the back and make it a limo so people could enjoy it on a higher level.
Can you tell me about some of the jobs/types of clientele you have booked?
Last weekend I drove a costume party on Valentine’s Day. They were very anti-V-day, so they decided to celebrate Halloween twice every year. And that’s how I got to drive around Marie Antoinette, Captain Hook, Jem, and two Tron characters all at the same time.
A few months ago I drove a carload of transvestites to a red dress party. They were super-fun and off-the-wall… very sexually overt. At one point, they depantsed (depantied?) one of the she-males and told me to hang his underwear from my rearview mirror, which I did. All things considered, it was a pretty tame demand, and I like to keep my customers happy!
What would you say your target market is? Is that even applicable to a such a niche company as yours?
I thought I knew! I figured it would be mostly women in their 20s and 30s throwing bachelorette parties, but I was dead wrong (heh). Over the summer I did a bunch of weddings. I’ve driven a couple of guys’ birthday parties, a prom, some date nights, some people going to shows downtown… I usually book gigs in advance and get a good idea of what kind of party I’m driving beforehand, but there are always surprises.
Do you do any advertising? If not, would you consider it, and how might you go about it?
I made a bunch of glossy, postcard-sized fliers that I passed around my neighborhood and the surrounding ones. These areas are mostly comprised of young people, most of whom have some disposable income (which affords them to live in the central areas of Seattle and visit the bars, restaurants, and stores where I leave fliers). I have my website and phone number on the back of the car, which is how a lot of people say they found me. It’s usually when I’m on I-5 driving to my day job, oddly enough. I don’t advertise a whole lot though. I have a finite amount of car and a finite amount of time. Right now, I can say I love working for all types of parties and events that have booked me because the work doesn’t wear me out and I sincerely want to do it. I hope things stay that way!
What has been most challenging about your business? The most rewarding?
I’m constantly trying to get a feel for what my customers want so I can make their trip more fun and memorable. Sometimes I hit the music/movie/lighting/communication just right and I know they’re happy and it’s a great feeling. Other times, I think I have an idea of what they’ll want based on who they are or where they’re going, and they’ll tell me they want something completely different. I appreciate when folks tell me right away if they want me to play a certain kind of music, put in a movie, plug in their iPod, etc. I tend to attract outgoing, vocal types, so it’s rarely an issue!
How many hours a week/month do you dedicate to the hearse?
It varies by season. Over the summer, I was working on off-nights more frequently. The days are significantly longer and prettier then, and more people are out doing stuff, plus I was in a ton of parades. October was also busy because of Halloween. In addition to driving people, I parked in front of haunted houses and greeted people walking in. I did some Christmas/New Year’s events over the holiday season, but it wasn’t nearly as crazy as the summer.
Do you have any employees? Do you see any need to hire them in the future?
No, but I have a huge contact list of folks who have done once-off jobs for me, including maintaining and accessorizing the car, designing fliers, making T-shirts, improving my website, etc. If I can help it, I’d rather not hire employees. I’ve had several people offer to drive for me, but I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with someone else driving my car and representing my brand. Even weirder, the offers have been from men. I can’t imagine how I could communicate my central ideal of female independence with a dude behind the wheel of MY dream hearse. And of course, there’s the issue of something bad happening. If there’s a problem or an accident, right now I can only blame myself and I must rely on myself to handle it. I don’t want to have to worry about how someone else would handle it or think about how they could have prevented it in the first place.
What are your career goals for the next 5 years? 10 years?
Theoretically, if I could do this full-time, I would because it’s fun. Realistically, I don’t think I could sustain that for more than a few years and that’s if I did everything right. I would wear out, and the car would wear out. It wouldn’t be worth giving up my other activities (work, writing, volunteering, hobbies) that also make my life pleasurable and fulfilling.
When I started out, a bunch of people who really liked the idea said, “This is great! You’ll have a fleet in no time!” But I really don’t want a fleet. There should only be one Barbie Dream Hearse; that’s part of the charm of renting it. I don’t want Barbie Dream Hearses passing each other on the street. Also, the BDH required a lot of time and money to create. The year it took to materialize was one of the most difficult in my life. Rather than go through all that again, I just want to enjoy what I’ve made and share it with interested people. So to sum it all up, I suppose my goal is to sustain this balance, this proud excitement when I show people the car, so it keeps being fun for whoever sees/uses it.
What do you like most about your job/company?
It’s flexible, it’s fun, and I feel like I’m having a positive impact on the community. People are generally happy to see me drive up, I get fan mail, and people like riding in the car and what the brand stands for. Seattle is really big on giving patronage to local businesses, and we’ve also got a quirky, well educated, liberal population that has a taste for the unique. I like that people in Seattle “get the joke,” hokey as it may be. You’d be amazed at the weird reactions I get the further away I go. People either flat-out don’t understand, or they act like I must have some ulterior motive for buying a car and doing something fun with it.
What do you believe to be the “weakest” part of your company?
This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m 99% sure it’s something I can’t see. I have very little experience in car modification, marketing, customer service, and running a business. However, I have been and always will be a word-nerd. I love reading and writing, and having shed the insecurities of my younger years, I love talking now too. Starting my business was an uphill battle, but I think I can attribute most of my success to being sincere in my communication and staying motivated to learn as much as I can.
Can you describe the biggest success or awesome moment you’ve had in your business to date?
I finished the car, brought it to Seattle, and started my business. Those three things marked a huge turning point in my life in which I was living entirely for myself and doing exactly what I wanted to do. I kicked 2010′s ass like I never could have dreamed to… and it felt amazing.
I want to say I should have started sooner, but I don’t think I would have been able to deal with the roadblocks and other negative situations with the relative ease that comes with regular old life experience. That’s not to say this was a cake walk, but when you get a point where you can accept there is a lot you don’t know, a lot you can’t change, and bad things happen sometimes, you aren’t as afraid to move forward. It seems like most people live with such a paralyzing fear of being considered a failure that they don’t even try. You have to forgive yourself and get creative when things don’t go as planned. That’s usually the main issue. The secondary one is to ignore the people who want to give you a hard time about it. There are usually fewer of them than you think there will be, and they’re usually in no position to define failure except to provide an example!