Building in Chicago: Embracing the US adventure and spirit

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We published our first issue of Chicago Construction News yesterday.

Yesterday, we launched Chicago Construction News. This publication’s early success connects a relatively long history and some important business management, marketing and survival lessons.

I had originally investigated the idea of launching in Chicago in 2003, at the peak of perhaps one of the most poorly managed and executed business expansion strategies you could imagine (one for which I bear full responsibility.) An initial initiative to start a publication in metropolitan Washington DC in 2000 appeared to be incredibly successful — at least for the first year. So I hatched plans to grow the concept in other US cities, initially Baltimore, then Atlanta and North Carolina (Charlotte).

Trouble is, we had no effective business management, hiring, or operating/reporting systems. Our initial foray outside of Washington in Baltimore went poorly. Rather than looking at the “why” properly, I decided to extend the concept to Atlanta. (I thought I was playing it safe by conducting some initial research without investing significant funds in personnel or cash, but effectively received a false positive.) By the time we expanded to North Carolina, the business was in an acute death-spiral — we survived, barely, by virtually shutting down the entire US business in 2005.

But what about Chicago? And how could we hold the fort for a decade to allow this re-launch. This is where the business textbook tale runs head-long into aspects of luck and fortunate accidents.

As the business reached its near-death experience in 2005/06 we switched our US compensation model from salary/commission to pure commission. This led to the departure of our original publisher (in Washington) and the closure of that publication. However, a few months earlier, Bob Kruhm called to say he would like to take on the North Carolina publication, on pure commission. Originally I was reluctant, knowing the ill-health of the overall business, and the fact that North Carolina, our last “expansion” point, should never have happened — at least if I was following any sort of conventional business management logic.

Then, things worsened. I called Bob and told him we would not be able to help on any expense reimbursements and could only pay his commissions when he actually sold the ads and we were paid. I thought he would leave. He stayed, living though the — for want of a better phrase — valley of death, in 2006, when at one point, I was down to one part-time (10 hours a week) employee, whose job was to collect overdue accounts. (She still works with us.)

Bob kept the US side of the business alive through the next eight years on numbers that would hardly support a part-time employee. Bob encouraged us to rethink our websites, which we redesigned, and helped co-ordinate the switch to an online magazine format. Then, two years ago, he said he would like to retire.

I used a commission-sales recruiting service, timetohire.com to find a replacement. Unfortunately, the first person didn’t work out — he left abruptly. The second person seemed to be okay, but it took many months to realize there were serious underlying problems.

Before that happened, however, I decided to conduct another search for a commission-based publisher and Brooke McDonald responded. However, she said she did not want to work on commission, or sell advertising, but would like to oversee social media marketing, for a monthly fee.

Again, in one of those decisions that seem astounding in retrospect, I decided to accept the proposal, because I knew we needed to improve our social media capacity.

Several months later, Brooke approached me and suggested she wouldn’t mind taking on the sales responsibilities.  I said: “Sure.” Just as she started, we received some out-of-the-blue advertising orders, including one from a university in Washington State.

Brooke has been incredibly successful in building relationships in Chicago. Meanwhile, she has (in co-operation with Bob, who helps out editorially) helped us to maintain our business in North Carolina, and started work developing our market in Florida.

It’s exciting to see this success, though I must admit that the best business planning in the world could not explain how things have happened.

Sure, there is a need for business structure, processes, systems and rules. Yet there is that incredible element of opportunity-catching chance that defines the foundations of lasting business success. I count my blessings.

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