Some secrets of surviving 28 years in business

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Can you change your marketing habits. It takes effort at the start, but the rewards will last you for decades.

This isn’t a brag session. After almost three decades in business, I cannot claim great success. The company is not flush with cash, and my wife remarks when I tell her the income I draw from the organization: “That’s nuts, you are working for practically nothing.”

Yet there are decisions made — and to be made — in the next few years as I prepare to transition to the digital age, and to the next generation. Although I haven’t grown rich from the business, there will be enough money for retirement, though there is no reason to retire because I enjoy my work. But I’ll still proceed with the transition, because this is part of the process of enabling enduring success.

Many competitors have come and gone, and the publishing and media business has evolved tremendously from when I started, when it cost $100 or more to prepare a single colour image (from film) at a service bureau for publication.

Here are the lessons learned and applied over the years:

Focus, discipline and specialization are vital — you can’t do everything for everyone.

After some initial experiments, I decided that we develop architectural, engineering and construction community publications, with a focus on regional titles. At least one national project emerged from this initiative (Canadian Design and Construction Report, cadcr.com) and I discovered I could export the regional publication concept to the US, and so have some interest in markets down south.

Debt is a pain. Bank debt can be a killer.

While I fear our business has too much debt, thankfully most of the it isn’t the type that can be destructive. We’ve avoided the level of secured bank debt that would result in the possibility of extreme personal hardship if the business failed. Trade credit is unsecured. Paradoxically, in part because there is little risk of hardship if the business fails, the business is much less likely to fail.

Respect and service are vital for customers, employees, contractors, suppliers and yourself.

Several years ago, a former employee decided to set up a competing business. For a while it looked like he was blowing me away. He came in with incredible force and achieved some impressive victories.Then he began burning bridges, as I built them. His business went into decline. I knew the story was over for him when his final employee called me to ask if he could join our organization after he was burned through funds misappropriation.

You need to adapt, listen, change and learn.

I certainly have made many mistakes, some of which could have killed the business. We have alienated clients, offended key associations, failed at selfish short-term decisions, and lost touch with delivering value to our clients. However I recognized the problems, accepted responsibility for them, and then took measures (fortunately, perhaps just in time) to solve the errors and make things right. We survived.

Technology and business practices evolve but the basic principles remain the same. You need to keep in tune with the times, but remember essential core values.

Advertising-supported print media is in a major decline. We’ve adjusted our product and media formula to the new order, but I know more changes are needed.

Yet we have not forgotten the foundations. You need to be able to have systems to deliver your services, get paid and when you aren’t paid in a timely manner, find ways to collect the delayed cash. (Our systems so good here that we do have to worry about bad debt; in fact we budget 2 to 3 per cent net revenue from late charge payments.)

Your business needs to be at your heart, but you need to respect the rest of your life (and that of everyone around you).

I enjoy my work and indeed take it home with me (as I work now mostly from home). But equally I enjoy other aspects of life including my family, physical health and an intellectual curiosity in new things. You can’t get lazy (as my former competitor did); but equally you can’t let your business consume you.

Now it is time to begin preparing the transition and it will be interesting to hand over the reins. Yet it won’t be too hard, I expect, because I’ve always respected that I don’t know everything, can’t do all the work, and need to give employees the keys to run the show with responsibility and continuity. As I’m in good health, I can imagine the business continuing for 30 years after I leave it – and therefore look forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2036.

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