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Jill Taplin, founder and CEO of Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In the city where an online bookseller turned into a global tech giant, Jill Haick Taplin is trying to take some of the lessons she learned while working in publishing at Amazon and apply it to her own business, as the founder and CEO of a small independent bookstore.

It’s an admittedly ironic twist, considering how much heat Amazon has taken over the years for its role in driving brick-and-mortar bookshops out of business. Taplin worked in book publishing for 15 years in New York City, Austin and Seattle, and spent just over six years at Amazon. She opened Outsider Comics & Geek Boutique 2 1/2 years ago in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

“I love books and have enjoyed creating them, and now I get to surround myself with them every day,” said our newest Geek of the Week.

As a conversion manager with Kindle Books and later as a senior production manager with Amazon Publishing, Taplin learned a lot about metrics and focusing on the customer experience.

“When I opened Outsider, I thought about what would make someone shop at a small local shop, where undoubtably merchandise costs more than Amazon,” she said. “The short answer to that is curation, and community. We focus on customer experience in the shop, and using data from their purchases and questions to drive decision making for Outsider. I’m also still a big fan of the Amazon leadership principles and still find myself referencing them years later.”

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

More than 20 years after Jeff Bezos got his start in a Bellevue, Wash., garage, booksellers and a wide range of other retailers and businesses have discovered how hard it is to compete against an e-commerce behemoth.

For Taplin, the toughest part of running a physical bookstore in 2019 is the stack of bills that pile up each month, and unexpected costs that jump ahead of rent and vendors getting paid. Even Seattle’s recent snow storms hurt the shop’s sales revenue considerably and put Outsider behind on yearly growth projections.

But Taplin is confident that business will pick up, especially in March with Emerald City Comic Con in town. And she’s clearly passionate about her mission to work with local creators and get their stories and art in front of customers.

“One of the greatest joys is making new fans and believers in sequential storytelling,” Taplin said. “It feels like an accomplishment because there is a large barrier to entry, even for avid prose readers. I am so happy to see repeat customers and make recommendations on what is next for them to read.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jill Taplin:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I opened Outsider Comics & Geek Boutique 2.5 years ago after leaving Amazon because I saw a need that wasn’t being met. As a fan of comics, I found that many shops were not physically and socially inviting — especially to women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted to create a space for people to discover comics and feel comfortable. Aside from comics we sell games, cosplay materials, geek-inspired jewelry and clothing including dresses, T-shirts, and sweaters.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Comics are for everyone. When I first opened the business and talked to banking and accounting professionals, they thought comics were for kids. There are great kids comics, but there are comics for every genre, taste, and age level with characters that have diverse perspectives. Artists from all backgrounds create comics; they’re not just drawing superheroes anymore. With so many compelling stories out there that people need to read, comics offer another format to engage with new characters and ideas.

Where do you find your inspiration? My customers inspire me. They build each other up, and the support and good feels are contagious. Sometimes the customers see our offerings and what we are trying to accomplish, and they let us know how excited that makes them. That always makes my day and reminds me that, yeah, running a brick and mortar business in 2019 is hard, but it is worth it when you have an awesome community that supports you.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? As we try to create a fun and exciting shop for diverse customers, we rely on data to identify well-loved items and keep them in stock. Our combined point of sale and inventory system, though typical of retail shops, is unusual for comics. Many comic shops have separate sales and inventory systems, often because the sole comic distributor provides a sales system that allows for catalog reference and subscription customers. Both our product selection and vendors are diverse like our customers and expand beyond comics, so integrating sales and inventory was a necessity, and so we manage subscriptions by ourselves. Having the combined system makes getting the data that helps serve our intentionally diverse customer base much easier.

The back room workspace at Outsider Comics in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? When it comes to laptop work, I have a desk in the back room, but don’t really use it, it’s mostly a staging area for things I need to do. I prefer to sit at the gaming table because of how social it can be when other Outsider employees are there working on stuff like inputting inventory. My husband works remotely for a startup and often does his work at the gaming table, too.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Eliminate your commute! I am lucky to live within walking distance of Outsider. We are still in our early years when I need to be here often, so I am happy to have cut out commute times and my sleep schedule thanks me.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Janeway! Voyager was MY SHOW when I was in college.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. Altruistic reason: To help address the refugee crisis. Selfish reason: Vacations wouldn’t be such pipe dreams for the folks who create business startups because I could pop back to the shop from the beach if someone needed me.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would work on an Outsider branded unisex clothing line that looked great on all body types. I’d also look to open a second Outsider in West Seattle or Vancouver, B.C, focusing on art, comics and fashion for those local areas.

I once waited in line for … Shake Shack in Seattle. I NEEDED the Mushroom Burger.

Your role models: Real Life: Lindy West, Beth Ditto, Emma Mcilroy (CEO of Wildfang), Lena Waithe, Amy Poehler, Jameela Jamil, Roxane Gay.
Character: Doreen Green (aka “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl”) because she never gives up and tries to understand the motivations of her adversary, and figures out a way that everyone wins.

My role models are feminists, mostly women, queer and are all sizes and backgrounds, real and fictitious. These are people who live their lives being kind, while still fighting the patriarchy and bring folding chairs so they have a seat at the table. They put themselves out there and do what they can to facilitate change for the better.

Greatest game in history: Video — “Fallout”; Card — “Star Realms” and “Dominion” … you’ll sometimes see an impromptu “Dominion” game in the back room if some of our friends drop by!

Best gadget ever: Bluetooth Speaker — saved us hundreds of dollars hardwiring a sound system, we can move them in the back for ambient roleplaying music and even take them camping.

First computer: Coleco Adam.

Current phone: iPhone 6S.

Favorite app: Star Realms and Slack.

Favorite cause: We can’t pick just one, so Outsider donates proceeds from the sales of a certain item to a rotating designated charity. Our current selection is local charity Pride Foundation. Past charities have included Trans Lifeline, Electronic Freedom Foundation, The Bureau of Fearless Ideas, and Planned Parenthood. To date, Outsider has donated $3,493 to these causes.

Most important technology of 2019 All dresses have pockets at Outsider. Anything less is outdated technology. Also roleplaying game podcasts because they reach out to people and give them a sense of belonging and leads to real life adventure!

Most important technology of 2021: Hoverboards. Please someone figure this out. We are tired of waiting, and you know I’m all about shortening my commute.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Following a dream can be difficult, but there are so many unexpected moments of gratitude that make it worthwhile. Don’t gate-keep a fandom just because you know a lot about it, contribute to building community. Work to be heard, not in a herd.

Website: Outsider Comics

Twitter: @outsider_comics

LinkedIn: Jill Taplin

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