Beginner’s luck? Differentiation tested in practice

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Way back when, in 1988, I had completed my second year as a real estate sales representative. It was a painful time. I had quit a secure government job to embark on the new real estate career, and in some respects, was doing reasonably well — certainly earning well above the norm for starting Realtors. Along with completing some significant transactions, I had accelerated my credentials by achieving a full real estate broker’s license.

But it wasn’t the right career for me. The reason: While I applied (with some success) a variety of innovations to do the work well, I felt the work lacked intellectual stimulation — a process I noticed when I closed a few significant commercial transactions and felt, “what’s next”.

So I decided to return to my journalistic roots, setting up a new local monthly trade newspaper for real estate agents. There were only, (er “only”) two problems. First, when I crunched the numbers for market viability, the idea didn’t exactly sing out with its potential. Second, several people told me that nine of 10 new publishing businesses fail within the fist year.

My solution: Use absolutely no cash to start the business. I would need to pre-sell the advertising enough to pay the printers and designers, who (rightfully) insisted on cash in advance for their services. And, with the help of my real estate broker/employer and my natural nervousness, I applied for government unemployment benefits. (The latter would normally be hard to achieve since, working on commission, there would be no reason for an employer to dismiss me — and I was, after all, selling real estate effectively.  But the broker agreed to fill out the unemployment paperwork, and I simply acted myself when I showed up for the unemployment interview, saying I was about to have a nervous breakdown doing the work.)

The process worked. I had some living income, and, with a “prepayment discount” offer, sold a few thousand dollars in advertising.

The designers produced the first issue of Ottawa Real Estate News, and after driving to the printers to pick up the 3,000 copies, I set out to drop them off personally at the real estate offices around the city.

Chaos ensued.

No one had ever seen a publication like I had produced.  It was just eight pages, but was full of news, including an interview with the then real-estate board chair who had taken a pot shot at discount brokers — just as the federal competition branch (in the US this would be the anti-trust government agency), announced it was starting an investigation into the real estate industry. I had taped the interview. He offered to resign.

Reportedly, there was fist fight in one real estate office because of an argument about one of my story’s contents. Others complained and wondered how the real estate board would publish such a newspaper. (I never claimed or even implied any “official” status — it was just the industry couldn’t fathom that someone would start an independent publication out of the blue.

As I heard the reaction, I thought indeed my first issue would be my last. Then I cautiously approached my advertisers.

The pager guy started off with this remark: “I’ve never had such good results from my advertising in my life. Where do I sign a contract?” Then I visited the district representative of a major real estate brokerage, who had taken a shot on the first issue. “I’ll sign a contract,” he said, “if you can tone it down a bit.” And so it went. I was in business.

The new publication lasted about two years, after various real estate brokers realized they were spending money on recruitment advertising to poach representatives from each other, without achieving a net gain. In the intervening period, I noticed a new construction trade show and realized the construction industry had a much greater scope and scale. So I decided in a second flash of inspiration to start Ottawa Construction News. That publication continues today, as an online magazine.

Obviously, I’ve lasted more than a year in business — in fact it now is more like three decades. But some fundamental marketing lessons can trace their roots to the start-up phase, and these are ones I think anyone trying to create or build a new business should remember.

  1. If you have a good idea, a test of its viability is whether you can find enough market/demand for it before investing significant funds, and if you are creative, get your first customers to bankroll the operation before you dig into your capital;
  2. It is good to be truly new and different, even when you rattle things;
  3. You are most likely to succeed when you apply your exceptional talents and skills, and if you can merge these skills from one world to another, you will likely have a major competitive advantage;
  4. Not every idea works, some fly high for a while, then crash back to earth. But if you manage your risk level — and you come up with enough new ideas to replace or enhance your original model, you’ll succeed.

I’m thankful for my experiences and the fact that one of my earliest publications remains in business today (with some of the original advertisers, included). But I had to go out on a limb to get started. It is reasonable to be fearful in making change and getting started. Just manage the risk — and proceed.

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