guterman.clips.globeunspun

Around the time we launched Media Unspun, I contributed the following column to the Boston Globe's Sunday business section:

Despite climate, opportunity presents itself

By Jimmy Guterman, 3/10/2002

Starting a business in 2002 makes for a good story, as I've discovered in recent weeks. My small consulting firm is in the midst of launching a for-fee daily online newsletter. Are we nuts?

The precursor of our current project was a newsletter I edited for a business weekly that has since ascended to Magazine Heaven. When we published the final issue of that newsletter, I invited readers, almost as an afterthought, to send me their e-mail addresses if they wanted to know what the various writers were doing down the road.

Within 24 hours, more than 8,000 people had written back, most of them asking us to continue in some form, many of them offering to pay if that's what it took to continue receiving the newsletter. I thought I was saying good-bye; it turns out I was finding the best customers for my next endeavor.

We're not starting the new publication now because we think now is some charmed time to kick-start a new business.

Anyone in the trenches, anyone with a payroll to meet, knows it's tough out here. On the surface, I guess, it would seem this could be a great time to start a business. Competition is lighter than it would be during flush times, after all, and both investors and employees appear to have more reasonable expectations than they did three or four years ago. Few still lean back in the Aeron chairs they bought with their venture capital funding, dreaming of Nantucket beach houses and early retirement.

No, we're starting this now because it's our only opportunity to do so. Those 8,000 people didn't say they wanted us to restart the newsletter when the economy turns around and we all feel more secure. They said they wanted us back NOW. If we hesitate, they'll move on. So, despite the terrifying climate for new publishers, we're back in. If we wait, we'll never know. Don't try this at home. The key to launching the new publication was having those 8,000 names to start with. Our newsletter exists at the corner of publishing and technology, in the middle of one of the neighborhoods that has been smacked most viciously by the current recession. Our team enjoyed producing the defunct newsletter, and we're happy to be back (and even happier to be in more control of our own shared fate).

But we didn't restart the newsletter just because we liked it or because we are in denial about what has happened to the world of business publishing. I don't want to behave like some 14-year-old boy who just can't believe Becky across the street really broke up with him. We came back because we - and several investors - believe there's a business here. And we're lucky to be independent: we don't have to feed the infrastructure of a large magazine anymore. Most of what we take in goes right back into the product. We don't need to cover the costs of a big office before we can turn a (modest) profit.

Wait a minute: Didn't I just mention that others are getting out of a business that we're getting into? Doesn't it take a huge amount of hubris to think we can succeed where many others, with more experience and more funding, have failed, especially in today's uncertain climate? Well, sure. But we're reasonably certain that if we build a product that provides value and let people know about it, we'll succeed. But we have to be honest: we don't know.

Jimmy Guterman is president of The Vineyard Group Inc. (guterman.com) and publisher of Media Unspun (mediaunspun.com). Disclosure: one of his firm's clients is boston.com, the online sibling of t his newspaper.

This story ran on page C4 of the Boston Globe on 3/10/2002.

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