Sometimes even people who know business need help starting a business. Case in point: John Leger, who was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal for 36 years. He spoke with countless business people and entrepreneurs over that time, and traveled the world to make sure business news got to everyone it could.
Yet, when it came time for him to strike out on his own, Leger enlisted the help of SCORE Princeton by taking its StartSMART series. This concise, five-session program taught him things about marketing, branding, and finances that decades at the world’s most famous business journal did not.
StartSMART is a recurring program offered by SCORE to guide new and aspiring entrepreneurs through the morass of starting a new business. The program begins again on Thursday, June 26, with a free first session, “Small Business/Startup Basics.” The entire series of five sessions costs $128. The sessions — “Business Concept & Market Research;” “Marketing Strategy & Planning;” “Financial Management of Your Business;” and “Funding Sources and Next Steps” — continue every two weeks, on Thursdays, at 5:45 p.m. at the Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman Law Offices at 100 Nassau Park. Visit http://princeton.score.org.
Leger, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, started his first newspaper at the ripe old age of 8, and it became immediately apparent that he would not be an electrician like his father. He took his urge to write the news to Indiana University at Bloomington, where he earned his bachelor’s in journalism and got his start in the field as an intern at the Wall Street Journal. The paper offered him a job in New York right from college, where he dove at the chance to be a paid copy editor. He worked on the paper’s foreign desk and as a reporter while in New York until the end of 1982, when the Journal sent Leger to Belgium to help start its European edition, which kicked off on January 30, 1983.
Leger stayed in Belgium for 10 years, where he counts himself fortunate to have been at the end of the 1980s. When asked what was the most memorable moment of his career, Leger doesn’t hesitate. “November 9, 1989,” he says. “The day the Berlin Wall came down. I was on the news desk in Brussels. That was so much fun. I remember thinking, ‘We better not screw this up.’”
Leger later shipped off to Hong Kong for six years to run the Far East Economic Review for the Journal. In 1998 he took over as deputy bureau chief of the Journal in London, and soon after covered European technology and trade. He returned to the United States in 2003 as an editor at the Journal Report, where he often spoke to businesses and entrepreneurs.
All the while, as Leger pieced together stories of news and trends in international business, he collected books. Particularly rare ones, although he jokes about how inflated it sounds to say it like that. “‘Book collector’ sounds kind of high-falutin’,” Leger says. “More like ‘book accumulator.’”
Collected or accumulated, Leger amassed roughly 8,000 volumes. So when it came time to figure out the future, as he neared age 60, he turned to his books. Yes, he loved his job at the Journal, and yes, sometimes he misses it, but he felt that 60 was a good point at which to try something new for the next 30 years.
Leger founded Le Bookiniste, a rare and antique book dealership, from his home in Hopewell at the beginning of the year. His collection is now down to about 2,000 or so volumes, which he sells through book fairs, so far two in New York, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Philadelphia. He is debating starting a storefront book shop, but that wouldn’t be for a while. After all, despite his years in business journalism, he’s still trying to figure out how to run a business.
In reflecting upon what StartSMART taught him about business, Leger acknowledges that had he known some of the finer points of marketing and financing, he might have approached his stories differently as a journalist. The course, he says, was a wonderful immersion in what it takes to be in business. It taught him what it might have otherwise taken him the next 30 years to learn.
Mentors. One great thing about StartSMART, Leger says, is that you get a mentor for the duration of the course. His, Gail Derby, SCORE’s director of marketing and longtime sales and marketing analyst who has worked for companies like Johnson & Johnson, taught him reams of knowledge about business plans and branding.
“I hear other journalists talk about their brand and it sounds sort of pretentious,” Leger says. “But branding really is important for getting people to know who you are.”
What’s more, Derby challenged Leger. She forced him to ask hard questions about who he was, what he had to offer, and how he was going to accomplish his goals. These were the kinds of inside tips his experience as a business journalist never showed him. And it was occasionally frustrating, but Leger says simply, “It’s good to be challenged.”
An entrepreneur’s life. One thing a lot of new entrepreneurs don’t expect (and are often sideswiped by) is the loneliness of operating a business. “It’s been an adjustment, for my wife and for me,” he says. In short, he’s home a lot now, whereas up until the latest rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” Leger was hobnobbing with his colleagues and some of the world’s top business leaders.
To go from that kind of environment to the life of a quiet bookseller, or any sort of solo-prenuer, takes a certain ability to cope with the slower pace and loss of income. “To do this, you need more self-discipline, you’ve got to really be committed,” he says. “When the cat wants some attention, you have to tell him no.”
And you know that old saw about passion being the key ingredient? Well, it’s true, and Leger already knows that. “If I didn’t have the passion, I wouldn’t do it,” he says.
Learning from others. Taking StartSMART exposed Leger to something he didn’t anticipate — other people’s dreams. One of his coursemates was a doctor who, with other doctors, wants to build a one-stop medical practice/managed care center to help patients circumvent referrals to outside specialists. Another wants to start a crepe restaurant.
Being exposed to these kinds of idea keyed Leger into the idea that there are numerous ways to be in business and just as many dreams — but challenges are universal. All the hoops someone has to jump through in order to open a restaurant, for example, surprised him. But to hear these challenges and see how people work through them got him thinking in broader ways about how he will develop his business as an antique book dealer.
Advice. Leger hurts when he sees people in their 40s and 50s slogging through jobs they hate, afraid to take a chance on their dreams and goals. Admittedly, the Wall Street Journal left him in a comfortable spot for retirement, and he acknowledges that having some money in the bank before starting out on your own is a better perch from which to take wing.
But for those who have always wanted to do something, Leger says there is a way. Start by asking what you really want and then whether it’s something that could make you a living — or at least a side income.
And if you don’t have the big 401k to fall back on, see how you can expose yourself to the kind of work you want to do. Perhaps volunteer with someone or offer them something in trade for them teaching you what you need to know for your new enterprise.
The point is, as basic as it sounds, talk to people and find a way. “You only get one chance in life,” Leger says. “You better make the most of it.”