With the unemployment rate hovering around 9.8 percent, many people are having trouble finding work. Starting your own business may be the solution.
When I started Boardroom Inc. in my basement in 1972, I knew that I had a good idea. I saw a need for a publication that distilled practical how-to advice from America’s top business minds. Our writing would be clear and straightforward and would not bog the reader down in abstract philosophizing, jargon or wordy language. I titled the publication Boardroom Reports.
Of course, it takes much more than a good idea to make a venture successful. In launching my business, I used lessons and principles that I had learned from the best business books and my decades of experience in a variety of jobs -- from delivering milk as a 10-year-old to starting a mail-order book club and working as a business manager selling ads for a small magazine.
The strategies I used can help anyone start and grow a business...
• Invest in the best expertise. With my background in advertising sales, I knew I could do a good job of marketing my idea. I also knew that while I could write decent promotional copy myself, I would need a professional to write truly great copy. I hired one of the country’s leading copywriters, and he came up with what I considered an excellent headline.
I showed that copy to a group of luncheon buddies in the mail-order industry, and they thought I could do better. They pushed me to hire the well-known copywriting genius Gene Schwartz, who wrote a brilliant headline and very powerful copy. The extra investment paid off when customers responded better to Gene’s promotion. Brilliant copy is just as important today, whether you are marketing on the Internet or by mail.
• Test your ideas. Even though I believed passionately in my idea, I tested it before producing a single issue. I wanted to be sure that there was an audience that would be as excited about the publication as I was.
I did what is called a dry test. With a dry test, you measure interest through the response to a promotion without taking money for orders. I ran a series of small direct-mail campaigns and compared the response rates among different versions of the promotional copy. I then compared responses among the mailing lists rented from magazines and book programs.
Once I knew that there was a market for my idea, I hired a small staff -- an editor and a secretary -- to work with me on developing the product itself. I used the patterns revealed by the test to expand my mailing campaign and get paying customers.
• Look for low-risk ways to finance your business. I started Boardroom Inc. with $30,000, which is the equivalent of about $155,000 in today’s dollars. To protect cash flow, I introduced projects in phases rather than all at once. Example: Rather than launching one big, splashy direct-mail campaign, I did it a little at a time. Each week, I sent mailings to a new group of names on the lists I had rented. As payments came in, I was able to fund the next wave of promotion.
Revenue sharing is another financing method that always has worked well for me. Example: Instead of paying up front for an ad for our product to appear in another publication, we offered that publication a 50-50 share of revenue resulting from the ad.
• Involve your family. The company that was handling our fulfillment -- the industry term for receiving and processing subscription orders and billing -- couldn’t seem to get the details right. I sat down with my wife and said, "I have an idea. Let’s do the fulfillment ourselves. I’ll buy used equipment, and you’ll head the operation." She agreed, and we put together a small team for her to manage, including a colleague of mine with fulfillment experience, our former neighbor and my wife’s sister-in-law.
Everyone worked in our basement on top of the Ping-Pong table -- this was in the days before computers, when work was done mechanically or by hand. (The newsletter printing and mailing have always been handled by an outside company.) Within the first year, our three children also joined in. They were ages 9, 12 and 14 at the time, and they did an excellent job doing tasks such as stuffing envelopes and arranging subscription orders in zip code sequence -- surrounded by family and friends.
After two years, we moved the operation out of our house to an office that was within walking distance of the junior and senior high schools. This made it safe and easy for our children to come to the office after school. Today my three children run the business.
• Don’t micromanage. One reason my wife and I were able to work together successfully is that I didn’t tell her how to run her part of the operation. We had regular meetings to make sure that we promptly addressed questions and problems. It was important to treat the business part of our relationship as business so feelings weren’t hurt. During the workweek, while my wife supervised the fulfillment side, I continued commuting to my magazine job in Manhattan. I devoted evenings and weekends to developing our new business.
• Tend to relationships. I have made a point of staying in touch with a wide circle of colleagues and friends over many years. These relationships have provided emotional support as well as valuable ideas, insights and resources. Example: My network has helped us get office space more than once. In the early days, the inexpensive, temporary office I had arranged for my freelance editor was too cold. I realized how bad the situation was when I visited him one evening and saw him sitting at his typewriter wearing gloves with the fingers cut out. One of my neighbors had a branch office in a good location. I offered to pay my neighbor to rent us a desk in his office for my editor, but he insisted on accommodating us at no charge.
Years later, I was looking for office space near the New York Public Library, where we did a lot of our research. A longtime friend and colleague was a partner at one of New York’s top advertising agencies, and its headquarters was across the street from the library. My friend promised me a good deal and sent me to talk to his office manager. Boardroom Inc. wound up subletting a marvelous office in that building near the library, and the agency even threw in some used furniture.
My network of contacts also has alerted me to important trends. Example: After we had been in business a few years, I heard through the grapevine that several other companies were planning to come out with publications that would compete with Boardroom Reports. I realized that we needed a complementary publication to set us apart. After many discussions with friends, I launched Bottom Line/Personal.
• Give away a taste. After Bottom Line/Personal was well-established, I was having lunch with my favorite list broker. We were brainstorming about possible directions for Boardroom Inc. When we started talking about Bottom Line/Personal, he suggested that we give away copies to new subscribers rather than requiring payment up front -- this was a relatively new concept at the time. He told me that everyone who saw a copy wanted one -- he joked that he and his wife fought over who would get to read each issue first because the information was so useful.
Based on his suggestion, we began offering free trial subscriptions, a strategy that appealed to our customers then and still works for us today.