In 2005, my business had reached a crucial and desperate stage. Sales volume had declined significantly, we were racking up massive losses and increasing debt, and clients (and employees) were desperately unhappy. We were “publishing” in five U.S. cities as well as Ottawa and Toronto, Canada, but something needed to change, and fast, or the business would sink under the weight of mounting financial obligations and increasing debt.
I prepared for the worst and met with a lawyer specializing in bankruptcy and insolvency. We discussed strategies to protect my personal assets, but more importantly the lawyer suggested I not give up. I prepared to reduce costs by asking several employees to leave and others in the sales department to switch from salary to pure commission. (This type of shift is risky, to say the least, and resulted in the not-surprising departure of some formerly key employees.)
Where could we find the new commission-only representatives? I thought about our business model, which encouraged employees to work from their own homes, and realized that the Internet seemed full of offers for “work at home” opportunities, most of which appeared to be scams. If scam-operators could offer seemingly lucrative opportunities for “work at home” jobs, surely I could attract people with a legitimate offer.
However, this concept turned out to be a difficult challenge. You can’t easily or cheaply promote real opportunities on the web. Job banks and job boards restrict the number of postings and force you to localize your offer, and so-called “free sites” were loaded with crappy “get rich quick scams”. The scam operators also bid up the price for keyword advertising — after all, if you aren’t delivering anything of actual value, you can spend a small fortune on marketing.
As I researched the challenge, I came across a website that offered a work-at-home opportunity where you could purportedly become a millionaire for an initial investment of $49.00. This seemed ludicrous to me — especially since the brains behind this scheme operated anonymously, using the nickname “Midas” (with wife “Touch”). Yet dozens of sites — all collecting affiliate commission revenues — were promoting this “Reality Millions” offer, showing Midas on his fancy yacht, showing off his new-found wealth.
I discovered an anti-scam site that sought to expose the fraud behind the story, and set out to investigate things. The research took countless hours, and resulted in some rather incredible discoveries, as I was able to identify and “out” the scammer, track down his landlord, and expose the scam’s supposedly anonymous international Internet host (actually operated by one person from a modest, highly mortgaged home in Tuscon, Arizona).
Surely all of this activity could only be seen as a diversion. Here I was, trying to expose an Internet scam, while my business was failing, especially since the scam-fighting brought its own set of challenges, including a massive “Joe Job” attack on Christmas Eve 2005 (where the scammers set out to make it look like I was spamming the Internet.)
Yet, through the chaos, I enjoyed one diversion within a diversion that essentially saved my business — though it isn’t one of my proudest business moments.
A man in Maine (yeah, I know the alliteration here is overworked), approached me after reading my scam-fighting postings, and offered to work on pure commission to set up a regional construction industry publication in the northeastern U.S. state. He seemed to know his way around the land, and without a prototype, he sold near-record volumes of advertising for a single issue of a brand new publication. In the end, he generated $50,000 in sales in a matter of weeks.
I visited him, and he said he wanted me to offer him a full-time salaried job. However, with the crushing debt and my own sixth sense telling me not to take that risk, I declined, saying I would like to see signs of continuity in the marketplace first. He bailed. We issued the invoices, and the cash poured in just when we needed it the most — but I really thought my first issue of Maine Construction News would be the last.
However, one of my now commission-only sales reps said she would like to take on the challenge of continuing the publication. She set to work, and we sold $25,000 for the second issue, about six months later. This revenue proved to be helpful, but I knew something serious was wrong. We had no repeat advertisements from the first issue. We contracted with a local sales representative who knew his community and had lots of publishing experience. He scraped and struggled to sell $5,000 for issue number three. No repeat advertisers, as well.
The publication died, as, it seemed, the rest of the business was about to collapse into total failure.
Then, I discovered the insights that turned things around:
- We would operate systematically, with regular meetings, processes and accountability systems;
- We would respect our clients, and put their interests first;
- We would deliver absolute value to everyone — even if their advertisements didn’t directly “work” to draw business. (Maybe the ads in our publications wouldn’t draw results, but we could show our advertisers how to achieve maximum marketing effectiveness and results overall through free consulting and resources — like the then-new constructionmarketingideas.com blog.)
The business survived and now thrives.
However, what about those seeming sidetracks?: The anti-scam fight, and the ill-fated Maine Construction News.
The $50,000 in revenue arrived just at the time we needed the cash to fend off creditors, and allow for the downsizing that would be essential to weather the storm. The sidetrack, effectively, saved my business.