Ottawa Construction News staff writer
This month 35 years ago, I launched the business that publishes Ottawa Construction News. The original publication, a monthly newspaper for real estate agents and brokers, disappeared a few years later but business principles applied at the outset explain why we have remained in business for decades. (I conceived Ottawa Construction News, first published in 1989, while at the printers reviewing proofs for the real estate newspaper.)
Here are what I think are the foundations of a durable business.
Be ready to leap into the unknown
When I expressed interest in starting a publishing business, several people warned me that nine out of 10 new publications fail within the first year. When I tried to build out a business plan for the new publication, the numbers just didn’t add up. But I sensed the idea would work, and could lead to better things.
The challenge: Figuring out how to start the business without investing any cash or borrowing any money.
To do this, I needed to do two things. First, I obtained some help from my real estate broker in laying me off so I could qualify for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. (A few years earlier, I had worked for the Employment and Immigration Department and knew the government was planning to introduce a system to allow UI benefits for people starting new businesses. While this wasn’t in place when I applied, I felt the legal stretch was within reasonable grounds.)
Secondly, I determined that I would need to pre-sell enough advertising for my first issue to pay all of the hard production design and printing costs. I decided to offer a 25 per cent prepayment discount for the sight-unseen product. After selling several thousand dollars of advertising, I knew as well that there was certainly a market for the idea.
Be different, be unique
No one had ever published a local publication for Realtors, so I had no immediate competition. As well, while there were some construction-related publications serving very large cities in the US, no one had thought it possible to produce a similarly focused title for a city Ottawa’s size. This meant I could stake out territory and find customers without worrying about an established competitor owning most of the market.
Watch and (if possible) avoid secured and personally-liable debt
I realize many capital-intensive businesses cannot really function without debt, but if you don’t need loads of capital, you generally should avoid using bank debt to fund operations. Unsecured trade credit of course is another thing. Here, I didn’t entirely get things right, ultimately piling on about $80,000 in bank financing on top of about $150,000 in unsecured obligations to our former printer.
In the end, with some effective legal advice, I used personal reserves to pay off the secured debt and the printer accepted 10 cents on the dollar to write off that obligation. We seamlessly restructured just in time to launch Ontario Construction News in May, 2019 and the business is now debt-free.
Work with competent professional advisors
Our lawyers and accountants have helped to keep us out of trouble, and when we experienced problems, suggested solutions that allowed the business to survive. Excellent advice is well worth the fees.
Persevere as an individual and respect the contributions of others
Things aren’t always perfect. However I knew, starting with my first existential business crisis in 1991, that I wouldn’t give up as long as I held true to my principles and values. I respected as well the contributions and ideas from customers, peers and employees, who will ultimately take control of this business in the next few years. A truly enduring business is both a team and community enterprise.
Mark Buckshon is president of the Construction News and Report Group of Companies, which publishes Ottawa Construction News. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.