Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

A modest success

It really would have helped to have the rest of my shipment, because the first day I sacrificed a lot of full-priced candy in sampling. Word got around, so this got very expensive. Our rule of thumb for the first day was to give a sample to people with sample coupons, or to those that appeared engaged and interested in the story of the product. Due to the power of word of mouth, this got a little out of control, but we did sell more than we gave away.

On the second day, we changed the rule of thumb to accepting the coupons, or taking $1 for a sample to defray a portion of our costs. Those that actually bought full boxes received a credit toward their purchase. By the end of the day today, we were selling slightly better than Saturday, but with a much lower cost of sales.

The JACL, Japanese-American Citizens League, had a booth next to us, and Sharon Tomiko Santos, the Democratic Whip of Washington's state house of representatives, was helping the JACL booth out. She bought a nice quantity of our product.

The attention that Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post helped bring to our booth was apparently quite high, as many people remembered reading the article or seeing our ad. Even Yuuyake Shinbun of Portland and, to a limited extent, Soy Source helped attract a few customers.

Maggie, my Cantonese-speaking assistant at the festival, helped explain and convert a lot of Chinese visitors into customers. Erin, who speaks Korean, helped draw in a lot of people who had by approaching them and telling them the story of the product, and Kazue was good at explaining the product to people who approached the booth. Maggie also facilitated making connections with people who have retail stores or other networking value. She was operating on very little sleep, because she was also busy doing night club promotions Friday and Saturday nights.

All-in-all, we did reasonably well on sales and very well on the promotion side of things. It would have really helped to have the impulse-buy size (single tube with three pieces of candy) and the big box, because we received a lot of requests for lower-commitment options and also for the bigger boxes. One gift set sample with 4 kinds of tea and 4 tubes of candy appealed to a several customers who wanted to buy it outright, but, alas, it was my only production sample and isn't yet being produced in quantity, so we were unable to sell it.

It's been a pretty rough weekend. I was up late on Friday preparing, up early on Saturday packing everything into my car, and really exhausted at the end of the day each day. On Saturday, Amelia, Erin and I went to Tutta Bella in South Seattle, which is a pizza place run by some people who apparently studied in Naples. It was pretty nice pizza: wood fired, thinner than typical American internpretations, but a little pillowy in texture; relatively simple, relatively sparing use of toppings. They also served a caeser salad, which was too big for one person; we shared one between three of us.

Final days in Japan

I just arrived this morning... the last few days in Japan were somewhat busy, and though I started writing entries in my web journal a few times, I got distracted by other things. I will start to fill in the blanks tomorrow, if I can spare a few moments.

Kyoto Weekend

In front of Kyoto station
Hiromi and I departed to Kyoto Saturday morning... it was a trip full of amazingly close calls. We arrived at the Haneda airport just in time, after missing a connection. We had a few other complications involving catching buses, trains, and even the airplane back... Hiromi went to retrieve some items from a locker in Osaka station, which she had trouble finding because we turned out to be on the wrong side of the station. Already on a tight return schedule, I further messed things up when Hiromi and I were readjusting the two pieces of luggage, camera, and two shopping bags we were carrying back to Tokyo. Somehow, a strap on my backpack or maybe Hiromi's camera bag caught my eyeglass frame as I was removing heavy things from my body inside the train... My eyeglasses popped off my face, slid across the train car floor, and landed in the gap between the train and the platform, essentially unreachable to the most dexterous and skinny of human bodies. The station attendants suggested we wait for the train to depart before retrieving the items, and we lost about 10 minutes between trains, missing a monorail connection, and again arriving just in time for the return flight.

As for the trip itself, it was both pleasant and reasonably productive. We stopped at a yuzen fabric dye and painted fabric decoration workshop, and chatted with the someone who makes pillows, purses, and other fabric-based crafts. Although I suppose these items would be quite expensive if imported in the US, I like the work and would like to try to find a way to make it possible to bring into the US.

The labor involves traditional dying and decoration processes but the look would fit in with contemporary lifestyles. Hiromi bought a purse (pictured here) that has a pretty interesting cut and looks pretty good when worn...

Our first night in Kyoto was a kind of multicourse meal involving fresh yuba, skimmed by hand from the surface of thick soy milk. We had yuba in various preparations, yubadoufu, and other pleasant things. The entire meal was pleasantly sappari, although we decided to tempt fate and order a sort of spring roll made with yuba as the skin and what turned out to be typically Japanese processed cheese inside. This was pleasant, though if I did this back home I think I'd probably be using some camembert or raclette cheeses.

We met up with Sachi, who visited me in Seattle during Golden Week, Sunday afternoon, but not before a breakfast that included a soy milk warabi-mochi. Warabi-mochi are a chewy confection which I think are actually made with kuzu (arrowroot) starch. Hiromi discovered the shop in a guidebook, and when we arrived, we realized it should have been in Fremont, were we in Seattle and if the King County Health Department didn't have an aversion to pets in restaurants. The shop was actually mostly selling dog toys and baked items for dogs, and the cafe was just there as a diversion for their customers. We had two orders of Warabi-mochi, and some Japanese interpretations of the Korean drinks soo jeong-gwa (persimmon punch with cinnamon and ginger) and yuja-cha (yuzu tea). The rest of the short menu was multiethnic and rarely Japanese. The soymilk smoothed out the texture of the warabi mochi and what we had were much creamier than the typical confection by the same name... I suppose that might be meaningless to most folks who don't spend a lot of time eating Japanese sweets, but it's the best I can do to describe it... Our dish was adorned with a maple leaf and dressed with kuromitsu (black sugar honey syrup) and kinako (toasted soybean powder).

With Sachiko, of course, we spent most of our time walking across the Kumo-gawa river toward Gion, eating nibbles at other Japanese confectioners and senbe-makers. We even sampled some usu-jio umeboshi that are typically sold for something approaching JPY 300 each (a shy $3). She had to head off within a couple of hours due to a fairly long train ride back to her home in Wakayama, and, I think, trying to match the schedule of her friends that she had visited Arashi-yama with earlier in the day.

After wandering around in search of an exciting dinner option, we backtracked to Gion and picked a restaurant where we had more tofu and yuba dishes, in addition to some stuffed Kyoto eggplant (almost Italian), grilled mushrooms with butter, salt, pepper and garlic), and some salt-roasted ginnan nuts. We had a nigori-sake (unfiltered) which was slightly effervescent, and some excellent pickled daikon served with a little grated ginger. 

Monday, we made a pilgrimage to Del Cook, in Nose, a rustic area in the north end of Osaka. We were perhaps too focused on eating and enjoying the view to take any photos of the food, but it suffices to say that everything was as beautifully presented as the rest of the scenery. We had the fancier of the two available lunch courses, and mine was altered to be suitable for a vegetarian. We started with a small bowl of chopped persimmons served, in my case, with unsweetened yogurt, some black sesame seeds, and, I think, ginnan or similar nuts. A little coarse salt provided a little contrast to the light sweetness. 

We had a creamy gobo (burdock root) soup with a little bit of milk foam, served in cute little cups and small spoons, providing a bit of an espresso machiatto deception. Some naturally leavened breads made by Del himself provided a nice accompaniment, which we soon devoured and of which we declined an offer for a second serving. The next course was a baby organic leaf salad, served with some charcoal grilled fish for Hiromi, and some similarly prepared Kyoto-sized eggplant halves in my case. Hiromi also had a course of risotto and grilled hotate (scallops), and mine was a similar risotto and some grilled matsutake mushrooms which had been hand gathered by an older woman who operates a similarly rustic Japanese restaurant next door.

Before dessert we had something of a palate cleanser course of black currant sorbet and finely chopped pears in a light syrup. A rustic apple tart was accompanied by chestnut ice cream.

After our lunch, we were able to stop in Del's kitchen and chat a bit. There was no dinner meal planned for the evening, so he was able to talk with more leisure than otherwise, although it was clear he was exhausted. He also gave us a sample of some very nice yuzu mascarpone sorbet which went out on the dessert plates of those in the second seating.

Hiromi and I took a little walk with Del and his dogs, meeting the neighboring restaurant's ducks and walking past a backyard garden. We had a beautiful view of the Nose valley facing down the hill. One of the dogs jumped into a reservoir and swam a bit, then delighted in shaking off the water as close to his human companions as possible. As we returned to the restaurant to gather our things and settle our bill, we saw the obaasan (granny, respectfully) who runs the neighboring restaurant ride up on a motorcycle after apparently running some errands. Del says that she's been known to dive for abalone herself and share the bounty with his restaurant.

Jason, Del & one of the assistant chefs de dog

The neighbor ducks

Nose valley

 

Arrived, partially recovered

Over the holiday weekend I had the good fortune to be nearly unreachable, except via my prepaid Japanese cell phone, as I attempted to recover from jetlag in the hot springs of Hanamaki in Iwate prefecture, not far from Morioka. Monday was also a national holiday in Japan, so this was something of an international three day weekend... not completely work free, as I was always on the lookout for something interesting to import, and found lots of nifty stuff, but it was relaxing enough and helped me get enough sleep to be reasonably productive for the rest of the trip.

Alas, it meant also that I was blissfully unaware of some problems with some logistics issues with a few things that are being moved around right now, and I also discovered another couple of minor and major fire drills unrelated to products, but almost all of those were resolved in a few hours last night after I arrived in my weekly rental apartment in Shinjuku.

I need to take off to meet with a supplier... When I return, I'll talk about what I ate the last few days...

Madcap dash

I am getting out of town in about 12 hours, headed to Japan.

I've been trying to finalize a shipment of ceramics to a customer in San Francisco, take care of a few related and unrelated errands, and so on... the last few days have been maddening. Fortunately, I got the shipment off, and I even gave someone who was trying to sell me some services a few minutes, and the only thing I've got left is preparing some gift wrappers to go to a few customers and some checks that need to be mailed out for outstanding bills. I think I'll just try to do those things in the morning. Sleep is good. All I am absolutely concerned about now is that I know where my passport and my wallet are. (Bad things have happened before.)

Yesterday after taking care of some other things I realized I had almost no fall clothing that is free of damage, and this is one of those things that is somewhat embarrassing when I find myself in Japan. Everyone else is hipper than me. I won't be wearing suits when meeting with businesses in Japan, but I should at least be moderately stylish, and I don't want to be wearing short sleeved summer clothing in the middle of October. So I made a financially frustrating decision to add some items to my wardrobe before my departure. I'm not Mr. Trendy, but being decently dressed in Japan is a generally good idea. This is a perennial problem associated with international travel for me... the expectations are so much lower in Seattle. On the other hand, it may have more to do with the fact that I don't travel constantly and I don't usually buy clothing unless I absolutely have to... The time between trips is probably longer than the time between shopping trips that most people make.

I'm increasingly incoherent. I think sleep would be a good thing right now, so I'll indulge myself...

Kurikinton

I was mostly in rush-everywhere-mode today, going from customer to customer and errand to errand. I got a fair amount done but I’m still behind on a couple of things.

Actually, until tonight, I didn’t even get around to sending out shipping notifications for the large number of internet orders I sent out on Monday and Tuesday.

I never ate a proper dinner. I just nibbled on good bread from Le Fournil and dug in to some Brie. If I had been doing this on a park bench or at the dinner table, that would have been perfectly respectable, but actually I was mostly eating it while underway this evening, between tasks.

I got a bit hungry late tonight but I remembered I have some kuri-kinton, or sweet potato puree with chestnuts, that I made a few days ago.

Kuri-kinton is one of the humblest of Japanese confections. You won’t find a lot of middle-aged Japanese mothers who make the kinds of sweets that appear at fancy wagashi-ya-san, even if it’s as simple to replicate as dorayaki. Daifuku (usually ambiguously referred to as “mochi” in the U.S.) are rarely made at home except for special events. But a fair number of people are willing to attempt kuri-kinton.

I have attempted to make daifuku at a nursery school in Japan that a friend’s family managed. This was about 7 years ago, and my Japanese was even worse at that time. The teacher gently scolded me for making them inadeqately elegantly; the 4 year olds had more experience and seemed to understand the instructions on kneading the dough better than I did, and they managed to massage out any hint of seams in the bottom.

Homemade Kuri-Kinton

Kurikinton

Kuri-kinton, however, requires no such attention to detail. Boil some Japanese-style sweet potatoes, peeled and in pieces, until fork tender. Drain. Add a fair amount of sugar to taste, and optionally, a splash of mirin; I recommend adding a pinch of salt to add some richness. Smash with a fork or potato masher while still quite hot (about 160F sounds good to me).

When you have a nice, smooth paste, you will then incorporate some chestnuts. For convenience, canned or jarred chestnuts preserved in syrup work well; the syrup should be drained, and may used in something else if you so desire. Otherwise, you’re welcome to attempt to make them from scratch by boiling in your own syrup; this requires very careful peeling, and even with my nifty Japanese chestnut peeler I rarely quite get that right. I’ll save the chestnut peeling for roasted chestnuts or things that require a less sweet starting point.

You can serve the kuri-kinton warm, but it’s more typically served at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Kurikinton requires no artfulness in presentation and can simply be spooned onto a plate. If you feel so inclined, however, you may shape the kurikinton into little balls or other shapes. I chose to highlight one chestnut in the center.

 Serve with some good Japanese tea.

Umeboshi cheese no kushiyaki

Umeboshi cheese kushiyaki

Crazy, I know.

But umeboshi and cheese were always meant for each other. Grilled is even better.

I promise.

Camembert is probably a more natural fit, but I had some very respectable raw milk farmhouse-style cheddar from a Washington dairy farm snagged at last weekend's cheese festival. I was eating some pieces of the cheddar when a craving for umeboshi struck, and ate at least one pitted umeboshi on top of a cube of cheese, and it occurred to me: this needs to be grilled.

Where do such crazy ideas come from? Perhaps I owe the initial thought to some "yaki ume" I tasted at the Wakayama specialty shop in to Yūrakuchō... As far as I understood it, those premium umeboshi were at some point briefly cooked over charcoal, though the taste was barely noticeable, if present at all. I settled for some nice $16 umeboshi instead of the more than twice as extravagant "grilled" ones.

How do you make them?

Start by carefully pitting the umeboshi, taking care to pierce only one side; I suppose an olive or cherry pitter might work on some types of umeboshi. Medium-firm umeboshi probably work best; mine were already incredibly soft and I ruined a few while stuffing them.

I did the pitting by hand; I could feel the sharp side of the pit through the skin of the umeboshi, and squeezed the pit out through that pointy side.

Gently insert a small cube of cheese into the umeboshi. Carefully thread the stuffed umeboshi one-by-one onto the skewer.

Ideally, you should grill them over a shichirin grill, but I cheated and used my little gas konro, which I usually use for nabe; I fitted it with a little protective grating to keep the umeboshi from falling into the flame and disintegrating.

No need to use your best umeboshi on this, but please use umeboshi with a short ingredient list: Ideally, ume, salt, shiso, maybe shochu for initial curing. Use a creamy, rather than salty cheese.

Plate, then gently brush with a little olive oil.

Like umeboshi, they're tart. Like cheese, they're creamy. Like anything salty, they would go great with a little shochu, though on this occasion, they served as a little afternoon snack and I remained a teetotaler.

They're a little tricky to pull off, but worth it.

Planning and plotting revisions, Aki Matsuri

I had a slight change in plans for my departure to San Francisco, due to the fact that two key clients I want to meet with are on vacation this week and I don't want to go down to meet them without an appointment... accordingly, I'm now planning to head out to SF on September 20.

Fortunately, as I was starting to call for appointments, I found one customer who was willing to make a buy... apparently, it was a good fit for an upcoming event... I didn't expect such a quick commitment. That particular customer has some interest in the ceramics I've imported, as well.

Late in the week, my sales broker alerted me to some customer interest from a very large company... If that works out, it would be very favorable to long term revenue for my company. It will take a few months before I really know what's happening, but the possibility is very encouraging.

Today I dropped by the Aki Matsuri at Bellevue Community College, presented by an Eastside Japanese group. It was kind of surprising how many familiar faces I ran into. Even my attorney was there. I also did a little networking with some less familiar faces... Hopefully I didn't annoy anyone too much.

I think I didn't get enough sleep the last few days... I'm so tired tonight. I think I'll just be mellow and sleep early...

What I've learned this year

This year, I took a leap of faith to leave an unfulfilling job and start something completely new. I didn't quite know what to expect, but I knew that most of what would happen next was up to me. My primary goal for the year was really just to get my bearings and not lose too much money. I was hoping to get a full web store up and running with my ceramics products, and I wanted to import several products over the course of the year and build customer bases for each of them.

I was perhaps a little optimistic about how much I could take on in the first year, but I think I'm off to an acceptable start. When I started, I thought I could concentrate on three or four products simultaneously, but the products I am interested in are so unusual and have too many different countries of origin for me to be able to handle the logistics, sales, promotions and marketing work all on my own. I'm also no longer able to effectively invest a lot of time and energy into building web software, since it distracts from more important wholesale sales and promotion work.

I could probably do everything I want to if I had more cash to throw around. But I hesitate to take on inventory risk without a likely destination customer for each product, and I also didn't want to invest too much in the web store until I had a foundation of wholesale customers.

So, by the end of the year, my goal morphed to be more about getting a reasonable number of retail outlets for the dragon beard candy and use it as a foundation for the next series of products. I now have 14-15 retail points of presence, and I think it's feasible to add another 12 or so stores by mid-February. If by fall of next year I've gotten my numbers up to about 60 stores, and get a little revenue trickle from some other products by summer, I'll actually start to have a healthy income.

Based on last month's in-store sales, January will probably be the first month where I actually start seeing enough revenue to cover most of my personal expenses. I've also minimized most of my advertising budget and switched to a more promotion-based approach, so the regular business expenses will start being properly covered by March or April. I am still nervous about three likely "irregular" business expenses related to travel and trade shows in January, March and July, but I think all three of those will pay off.

I learned that focus was the thing I needed most. Since I wear multiple hats, I really have to bet heavily on a small mix of products. I'm just starting to learn how to be a salesman. I'm incredibly naive as a marketer. I am not a genius at advertising. I'm not bad at promotions but I think I have a lot of work to do there as well. And I am not a great bookkeeper, though I am pretty conscious of where my money is going to and coming from. I'm relatively decent at planning, and even at accommodating dramatic changes on short notice. One thing I'm really good at, I think, is recognizing when a product is very distinctive and will bring something unique to the U.S. market. Of course, that's only a very small part of operating a business.

I need to be better organized and I need to make fewer dumb mistakes and miscalculations. I've made mistakes related to filling orders a few times (three, unfortunately all to the same customer). I've misplaced documents, which led at least once to a day-long distraction searching for an item. I underestimated the time it would take for an air freight order to leave the port of origin and to clear customs and FDA inspection. With varying degrees of severity, these have impacted the efficiency and momentum of my business.

When I was at Microsoft I often complained about being resource-constrained on very complex projects. But I never worked on anything as complex as operating all aspects of a business by myself, and I've never been more resource constrained in my life. I know how precarious my position is.

On the positive side, I'm starting to build momentum, and the long term key to my success is converting active sales work into passive revenue streams; I have to help my customers become successful with the products that I am selling them, so that people come to me and ask if they can start selling the products rather than mostly being the other way around.

I'm starting to see evidence of customer loyalty to the things that I sell; several people have become serious repeat customers, buying large quantities or with enough frequency that I have more confidence in the future of my products. Other than continued footwork, I don't know what it will take to transform my small business into a healthy, self-sustaining operation, but I think I'm mostly on the right track. I just need to be incredibly aggressive and execute my sales strategy in the next year.

Maybe one or two days off

Most people take Christmas Eve off, but I'll probably do a few hours of promotions at Uwajimaya Seattle before attending a family party.

The Hong Kong folks took off Wednesday, only a few hours after Hiromi arrived in Seattle for a two-week visit. Tuesday, our last full day, we ran around doing a few morning errands, although I dropped Mr. Wong's son Hong off at GameWorks, where he spent about 6 hours playing "Street Fighter 3."

Everyone else went shopping. We stopped at the Pike Place Market for a whirlwind tour and visited Bacco for lunch in their new "Bistro" location, where Mr. & Mrs. Wong and Lavina shared a crab sandwich and a lox bagel with some soup and salad. I had a panini of some sort suitable for vegetarians.

I think I added about 5 pounds to my waistline in the last two weeks due to constant restaurant eating, even though I tried to be more cautious about how much food I was putting down my throat. With no meaningful level of exercise and a plentiful supply of heavy food portions, I was feeling some serious stomach pressure by the end of the week.

We ate our last dinner together at Lark in Seattle, which roughly met expectations and was overall quite appealing to my supplier. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is decent, the portions are just right for sharing between four or five people. Not counting alcohol, I think we spent about $23-24/person including a reasonable tip. (Keep in mind that none of us were starving). With the alcohol I think it was a little higher, as the wine list tended to be pricy. We had a modestly priced sparkling wine at about $32/bottle and a couple of other drinks, but I don't recall seeing a red wine under $50/bottle on their wine list.

Today I ran around like a madman in the afternoon but it was mostly in search of food for the next few days. I fulfilled a wholesale order in the morning. Hiromi was driving tonight's dinner plan, featuring a tofu gnocchi and a gobo soup from a Japanese macrobiotic magazine I picked up on my last trip, and I prepared something for tomorrow's family gathering, basically filo cups filled with a savory cheesecake, upon which I will place some sauteed chanterelles with sage pesto and shallots, or probably some lox and capers for the non-vegetarians.

I need to eat more judiciously the next few weeks so that the holidays don't lead me back to my early Microsoft expansion...

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