Another year, another anniversary — this time the 33rd anniversary of the launching of U.S. 1 back in 1984. For many years I have marked these anniversaries with a somewhat wry and heavily self-deprecating interview with myself. More recently I have ignored the milestone altogether.
But this year I am back at it, for two reasons. First is that I am realizing the value of a company’s, or institution’s, or a brand’s story. The point is made in this week’s cover story on TerraCycle, which recycles trash into materials for all sorts of different uses. The company has discovered that products with a “story” to tell can command a higher price than ones with no story. Hence plastic trash picked up from ocean waters and beaches can be sold at a premium to a shampoo manufacturer — consumers who buy that shampoo are fueling a demand for that trash, thereby helping to reduce that pollution.
If plastic trash has a story worth telling, then surely our little newspaper does as well.
The second reason is that I just shared the story of U.S. 1’s birth with a correspondent for the Huffington Post, Steve Mariotti. An MBA from the University of Michigan, Mariotti began his professional career as a treasury analyst for Ford Motor Company, where he was the youngest senior analyst in Ford’s history. In 1979 Mariotti moved to New York to start his own company, Mason Import/Export Services. Now living in Princeton, Mariotti is the founder of the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and also the author of “An Entrepreneur’s Manifesto” and “The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business.”
He has posted a series of interviews on Huffington Post, many asking businesspeople to share the details of their initial efforts.
The Mariotti interview subjects include people from all corners of the business world. From the Princeton area the interviewees include Mimi Omiecinski, founder of the Princeton Tour Company; architect and developer Bob Hillier; Jacqueline Fay of Grit & Polish Nail Salon; Brooks Powell, a recent Princeton graduate and the founder of Thrive+ Health, a start-up that markets a hangover cure; and Tracey Syphax, a Trenton native who rebounded from a prison sentence to become a successful entrepreneur, among others. In many cases, the emphasis of the interview is not so much on the mechanics of starting a business but rather on the anecdotal circumstances of the entrepreneur and the business.
Mariotti sent one of his team out to interview me. Here’s a transcript, edited and updated with some specific references in brackets that the HuffPo audience would not have appreciated but that readers closer to home might:
Has journalism always been your passion?
For a long time. When I was a kid my father suggested that I either learn to play the piano or join the student newspaper. The piano seemed too hard. I ended up loving the newspaper.
What made you start your own business?
Necessity was a big part of my invention. Back in the 1980s I had been a freelance writer for both national and local publications and I realized that more and more writers were competing for available assignments. I figured that if I owned my own paper I would always have at least one publication to write for. When I saw a new community emerging [in the new Route 1 business community just outside of Princeton] I was primed to take advantage of it.
What was your status in life when you launched your business?
I was single at the time, in good health, and had a house with a mortgage (with housemates to help meet the monthly payments). Things would have been different if I had a spouse, but I’m not sure it would have been any better. If you are thinking of starting a business, personal circumstances need to be weighed, but I wouldn’t automatically rule anything out.
Was it a big risk?
In the beginning it seemed like a high risk action. But I realized that my biggest fear really was just the potential public humiliation of starting something and then having it fail. But I was prepared: As a freelance writer I had acquired plenty of rejection slips, and I had had several promising opportunities to co-write books, and they had all blown up for various reasons.
Temperamentally I had always been a risk minimizer, not just a risk taker. I needed to develop my own distinct entrepreneurial voice. I decided to adopt a bare-bones, bootstrapping style that would forego most financial planning and analysis and instead just do everything as economically as possible. You could spend hours analyzing a decision and not end up doing any better.
What kind of planning and preparation did you take?
Given the bare-bones approach, I obviously did not bring in any outside consultants. Instead I found a model of a similar newspaper and followed it. Starting any new business generates a mind-boggling set of choices — about products, pricing, and personnel just for starters. Often there is no apparent correct choice. That’s the time to check out your model and just do what they do. I modeled U.S. 1 after a weekly paper [the Town Topics, where I had contributed as a freelancer]. In the beginning U.S. 1 came out once a month but in the back of my mind I knew the goal was to bring it out weekly, just like my model.
How did you find your support team?
The key was to be open minded. I put an ad (free, as I recall) with a networking group for someone who could help produce a community newspaper. The person [Connie Rafle] who answered was an English teacher who had followed her husband to town when he got transferred. I asked her to gather information on some editorial listings we were preparing. Several people asked her about paid advertising. Overnight she became an ad salesperson.
My first powerhouse reporter [Barbara Fox] had previously been a dance critic. As she said, if you can write about dance you can probably write about anything.
No matter how much you know about your core business, there are bound to be dozens of operational details about which you have no knowledge. It’s smart to trust the people who want to sell you stuff — the good ones have an incentive for you to succeed. U.S. 1’s first computer network was installed in 1988 by a guy running a small computer company and 25 years later I was still working with the same person [Lan Solutions’ Pete Soloway, who died a few years ago — we still miss him].
What were some of your mistakes?
I didn’t pivot quickly enough from the bare-bones, startup approach to a more mature business model. The start-up approach, just keeping your expenses as low as possible, eventually becomes a bad idea for two reasons: First, as you become profitable it gives you no incentive to establish the financial reporting methods to ensure the orderly operation of your business.
Second, there comes a time for every business when you need to spend money in order to make money, as well as to maintain your presence in the market. At U.S. 1 we were late launching any number of business initiatives until I finally realized we couldn’t afford not to spend some money.
[I also avoided one big mistake that many businesses make: I didn’t try to grow too quickly. For that I owe a debt to Don Stuart, the co-founder of the Town Topics, who used to share his business philosophy with me. “A tree can’t outgrow its roots,” he would say.]
How do you stay competitive?
You need to make it easy for people to do what you want them to. In the early days of U.S. 1 I applied that lesson to the editorial side of our operation. We want people to read the paper, and we want to make it as easy as possible.
I still believe that the reader is our customer, not the advertiser trying to reach that reader.
And while U.S. 1 is a free circulation paper, people pay for it with their time — the most precious commodity of all. As I ponder all the new media channels now in place, and contemplate the new ones looming on the horizon, I am at a loss to forecast who will still be standing 25 years from now. But whoever it is, I predict, will provide a communications medium that maximizes the time of its audience.
What’s the hardest thing about being in business?
Dealing with the public. Early on I followed the example of a bar owner I knew, who gave certain unruly customers “a life sentence” of never being permitted to return to his bar. I did the same with a tiny fraction of people who were just totally unreasonable. But even after separating out those people, the remaining customers — in our case readers as well as advertisers — come in all shapes and sizes, with needs you can’t even imagine. And the customer is always right.
[A question that the Mariotti team did not ask, but I now wish they had: What’s the easiest thing about being in business?
Dealing with the public. As difficult as our audience can sometimes be, it’s also the great payoff. Thirty-three years into this venture, I have to say that I have met more people than I could have imagined, and that I have been pleasantly surprised far more often than I would have predicted. We have our story and it turns out they have their stories, often far more compelling than ours.]