"I never thought of myself as a business person or an entrepreneur. I just initially thought of myself as an editor and wanted to have a magazine to campaign against the Vietnamese War," said Richard Branson, on a Freakanomics Radio interview recently.
"But in order for the magazine to survive, I had to worry about printing and paper manufacturing and distribution and so on. And I sort of became an entrepreneur, just in order that I could fulfill my dream of being an editor of a magazine. And my education was being in the real world and learning the art of survival away from school, away from learning, and just being thrown in the deep end. And that's exactly the same way I learnt to swim, was going into a fast-flowing river and having to learn not to drown."
Branson was going to name the company either Slipped Disc Records or Virgin Records. "And fortunately we went Virgin, because Slipped Disc Airlines would not have been a great success, I think."
Branson's story—the journalistic beginning, the accidental but successful entrepreneurship—reminds me of many SIPA publishers I've spoken to over the years. (Okay, minus his signing of The Sex Pistols.) Guy Cecala, CEO and publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, was covering the mortgage industry for a newsletter company, "and customers would call up and ask where else they could get information on this? Those were the days when people would buy two or three publications on the same product. I was also being urged to go out on my own."
David Foster, CEO of BVR, was given 21% of a company—IOMA—that had zero revenue. "I had no experience with ownership or equity and was paid $200 a week, though I rarely collected the checks at the beginning. Every semester I would get another letter from Colorado asking if I was coming back to teaching. Our first product was a law firm management newsletter... It took off—over 2,000 subscribers in 4 months."
Bill Haight, president of Magna Publications, started out by creating the National On Campus Report when he was just out of college. "I had a job traveling around the country selling advertising. So I would usually stop at the local colleges to see what was going on. The campus newspaper normally listed a lot of events. I started subscribing to a couple hundred of these papers and started the newsletter.
"I didn't know what it would be or who would buy it," Haight continued. "I struggled for the first five years as the only employee but then went to one of [SIPA's] first newsletter conferences in New York—with folks like Lawrence Ragan and Howard Hudson. I found out that I had learned the hard way. Once I was active in the association, learning was easier. I eventually hired a professional writer/editor who took over the content, and I stuck to the business side."
That manuever would be highly praised by Branson. "I actually believe that people should delegate early on in their businesses, so they can start thinking about the bigger picture," he said. "If I'm ever giving a talk to a group of young business people, I will tell them, 'Go and take a week out to find somebody as good or better than yourself.' ...Let them get on and run your business day-to-day, and then you can start dealing with the bigger issues... Too many young entrepreneurs want to cling on to everything, and they're not good delegators."
Haight's mention of the enormous value of SIPA Annual also still rings true. SIPA's 42nd Annual Conference takes place June 5-7 in Washington, D.C., and will provide attendees a chance to meet face-to-face with many of the entrepreneurs who have made SIPA the long-running and progressive association that it is. There will be six tracks, two keynotes, two Pre-Conference workshops, an awards luncheon and two full networking evenings.
Even with everything scheduled, attendees will have plenty of time to network and hear the stories and successes—and yes, occasional failures—of their colleagues. Plan now to attend. And be sure to ask any company founders what their alternative company name might have been.