I was a small business owner in the mid-’90s, and I failed miserably. Without going into specifics, my noted mistakes were threefold: I did not conduct market research and I did not have a business plan. Instead, I made the mistake of running the business on credit. It was the mistake that ultimately ended the business and motivated me to return to school.
In 2015, after 15 years in marketing and public relations for government and higher education, I needed a rest from the daily, 8-to-5 grind. While I loved my work, and I was good at it — a previous boss claimed I was “the best public information officer in Northern Nevada” — politics and management by those lacking management experience — and worse, common sense and wisdom — were telling signs to move on.
I had a great run at my jobs, no doubt, and have built friendships I hope will last a lifetime, but mismanagement in all kinds of organizations is toxic, endemic and had I not left, I predicted I would have a heart-attack by age 50. Similar ailments were commonplace in these environments.
Concurrently, ThisisReno’s site stats were going crazy at the start of 2015. What had been, essentially, a multi-year experiment, the site was now in a position to be monetized. This was another huge impetus to move on. Moreover, a nice contract fell into my lap that would have been a conflict with my then state position. I was given an ultimatum — take the contract and quit your job, or keep your job and don’t take the contract. I decided for the former and haven’t looked back.
I went solo in March with a two-pronged business plan: continue consulting and become a journalistic entrepreneur by growing ThisisReno and trying to enhance Reno’s news ecosystem. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been very rewarding.
I’ve learned nine very important things:
- Expect rejection. There’s no free lunch, which means you have to always be on the hustle; connections must be made constantly, and rejection is also a constant. For inexplicable reasons, even after months of pursuit and time dedicated to potential clientele, you will be shown the door, but they’ll often never actually say no to your face. They simply won’t call back. Perseverance is key, expect to be rejected and listen to the ever brilliant Invisibilia podcast on how to make ‘no’ an expected and even rewarding experience. Despite what might sound like a negative, building and nourishing relationships is paramount. And: Despite constant rejection, give unconditionally. It will be noticed, but it will also take time.
- Work with what you got. Secret: A huge chunk of ThisisReno’s production is done with iPhones, iPads and low-budget gear; yet, we consistently produce content that goes viral in our local market. Steve Albini explains it better than I can, and his words about working within your means are well taken. For me, having investors and partners would put me in a more complicated position, similar to what I could find working a regular job. Though I’m open to all options — never say never — for now, working on a shoestring is, well, working, and we’re growing.
- Seize opportunities. I was very, very fortunate to be selected for the beat business training at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in May. It was an amazing experience and could not have taken place at a better time. As much as I can, I try to take advantage to as many of these kinds of opportunities. Read “The Luck Factor” for more on why this is important.
- It’s a personality thing. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. I failed at it in the ‘90s, but I’ve also learned a lot since then. I still question whether I’m suited for this business, but so far, I can say I’m much healthier despite my wallet being thinner. That’s not to say I would not return to a regular job; I’ve flirted with academia many times, and having worked in higher education previously, but not on the teaching or research side, it is still something I am interested in (I currently teach part time as an adjunct and enjoy the heck out of it). Nevertheless, the freedom of running your own business is priceless for some of us.
- Planning is key. This is basic good business practice, but so many business owners launch their businesses with the attitude of, “If I build it, they will come.” They have no business plan; they have no marketing plan. Many treat marketing as an interference rather than a common, daily responsibility to the business. You need a plan, and you need to revisit it constantly. Your goals should be attached to your computer monitor to stay focused. Mine are. You also need to be flexible and make changes when necessary. Darwin’s (paraphrased) dictum is appropriate here: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
- Solidify your market position. Along with planning, knowing your niche and nourishing it is key. A market niche by definition means somebody else has failed in, or left open, some aspect of their business, which means there is opportunity for you, the entrepreneur. For ThisisReno, a strict, online, local focus to news, as well as being honest and transparent about our processes and errors, is something lacking in our news ecosystem, a landscape that is dominated by operations owned by out-of-state corporations whose economic interests, arguably, are focused out of market. Make no mistake: You will likely gain detractors by nourishing your niche, especially if you see some measure of success.
- Have realistic expectations. Expect to work hard. It’s said it takes a new business a least three years to show a profit. I had the advantage of already having ThisisReno up and running already for five years as a volunteer effort, and my first-year goal was to make it solvent. Mission accomplished! Year two has an expanded goal, and I’m looking forward to further growing the site and its assets.
- Minimize distractions and attempts to derail from your market niche. Many will want to rope you to their personal dramas, issues, their own business interests and whatnot. Avoid temptations to get wrapped up in what others want or need from you if it is not directly relevant to your business’s mission. It’s okay to say no and still be compassionate. Stay focused on your positioning, unless it’s not working, of course. Reduce distractions as much as possible. Fire quickly and early if you sense somebody is not working out; the greatest sign is those who are into the work solely for their own needs (of course, we all need a job) versus the needs and vision of the business — there should be a balance focused on the business.
- Depend on others. You are never in this alone. I could not have made this transition without the support of my wife and family. Along with seizing opportunities, don’t be afraid to depend on friends, colleagues and family. They will help you along the way. You may just have to ask.
Although less than a year out, I could not have made it this far without the help of many. My wife, Deb, has been the anchor for this drifting ship, and I could not have done it without her. My coach from the CUNY training, Joe Michaud, and his colleagues at Coats2Coats helped refine ThisisReno’s vision and helped us progress. The training was the brainchild of Jeff Jarvis, and my fondness for my time in New York City ultimately could not have happened without his constant advocacy for local journalism, from which the training emerged. As well, my classmates were a regular source of ideas and inspiration.
My family stood by me with encouragement, and my dad has even been sleuthing story ideas for ThisisReno. Reno Public Radio entertained the idea of having ThisisReno be a local media partner, so I get to contribute to their stories and share their content as well, which is amazing. Our crew of volunteers and freelancers are amazing as well, many coming to ThisisReno simply because they like what we do. Lastly, ThisisReno’s advertisers and my clients have put faith in me, and most continue hopefully see positive results that keep them coming back.
Thanks all to an adventurous 2015!