Somehow, my business has survived 26 years (and marriage 22). This hasn’t been because of any brilliance — there certainly have been some blunders in the past — and probably some even more serious ones ahead. However, I learned some lessons along the way. So, here are three of my biggest errors, and how I recovered from them.
The Ottawa Transcript: A truly better business publication (that no one really wanted)
I started business in 1988 with a local publication for Realtors, Ottawa Real Estate News, and a year later, started what initially seemed to be a secondary initiative, Ottawa Construction News. There was a general business publication in the city that appeared to be failing — and really lacked some of the qualities and information that I thought could be published in a really solid publication.
So I started the Ottawa Transcript (named after a San Diego general business publication, where there would be no confusion or trademark issues.)
Big fail. We kept some of our real estate and construction business, but attracted no new clients for the general business theme. I ultimately shuttered the publication after selling out the bulk of my business for the grandly sum of, yes $30,000 — and the purchaser reneged on his part of the deal (leading to a reopening and the ultimate business I have today.)
Lesson learned: If someone else owns the niche, stay away, unless you want to burn yourself in red ink. You need to differentiate yourself in some substantial way and that differentiation provides some protection from competition. Hence, we continue to publish construction-industry publications and stay away from me-too initiatives.
Business systems and meetings: Who needs them?
Well, certainly I did, though I didn’t know this essential fact at the time.. We had no substantive controls or processes within the business as it spiralled out of growth control in 2002-2006. An initial expansion into the US seemed to be working quite well (our best single revenue/profit month turned out perhaps prophetically to be September, 2001 (with sales recorded in August.) But the 9-11 terrorism attack perhaps masked the deep hole I was putting the business, as I hired people without properly setting up screening/controls, and failed to implement simple processes to bring employees together in a cohesive whole and consultative spirit. Perhaps the low point was when I called an emergency meeting because of mounting losses and one employee, based in Toronto, insisted on me paying his travel costs to attend. His only contribution — he wanted to see me to request a pay increase.
I think it was pure luck that I survived this debacle, but as things were spiralling out of control, a consultant taught me to hold weekly meetings with agendas and action items, regular planning sessions, and organize policy/procedure manuals. We still stray from the rules, but when things go wrong, I often find it is because we’ve strayed from our systems.
Not seeing the writing on the wall (almost)
I should have panicked when a struggling salesperson in our then-important Washington DC market told me: “They think we are running a scam.” She was referring to potential clients. She wasn’t the best sales rep — we hired her on recommendation from her then-supervisor, without properly assessing her potential (see mistake above) — but she in fact had raised the issue that should have set even bigger alarm-bells ringing. Advertisers were rejecting our business. Associations were growing cold, even hostile. We were making enemies everywhere.
The issue: Our sales model, based on supply chain relationships, had become disconnected from any sense of community or respect for the actual clients. We were extracting money from reluctant customers who felt forced to do business with us. You can get away with that sort of brute power for a while, but eventually it will come back and bite you (and it did us). I had failed to really listen and truly understand our clients’ needs and frustrations.
The solution: We set out to do our best to ensure that every client receives value. I realized I could not guarantee advertising results but I could provide solid marketing and business development advice to clients. This blog and my books resulted. Most clients don’t take advantage of these services (which have started generating revenue in their own right), but they still have a sense they are treated fairly. As well, we increased our commitment to relevant associations and community groups. These relationships have built, not burned, bridges.
There . . . three blunders, lessons learned and thankfully I’m still around. If you have your own blunder/recovery stories you would like to share, please feel free to comment or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.