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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 3, 2007 13 years ago

10 years: Ambition trumped good sense

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Navel gazing hasn't been our thing. You know, talking about yourself ... boring people with the most overused word in the dictionary: "I." But indulge us for a little of that - just for a little while. The Gulf Coast Business Review is 10.

10 years: Ambition trumped good sense

by Matt Walsh, Editor and Publisher

Navel gazing hasn't been our thing.

You know, talking about yourself ... boring people with the most overused word in the dictionary: "I."

But indulge us for a little of that - just for a little while.

The Gulf Coast Business Review is 10.

This edition celebrates our 10th anniversary of publishing.

Actually, we're late. The real anniversary date was Jan. 31, but we've been so busy with other projects - the Gulf Coast 400, our 40 Under 40 edition, Entrepreneur of the Year and just the day-to-day, week-to-week hullabaloos of everyday business - that we figured the earliest we could acknowledge this milestone is now.

Part of our celebration is this week's special package of features from 10 leading business figures from Tampa Bay to Naples. We pegged them as likely to have a big influence on the Gulf Coast over the next 10 years. And we asked them to pretend as if they were writing a letter in 2017, 10 years from now, to an old friend or family member they hadn't seen in a long time. What do they see in the future? How will things have changed in their worlds of endeavor?

To a great extent, it's rather remarkable to see the names of the 10 who contributed - especially when we think back to the Review's inauspicious beginnings. We've come a long way.

We almost didn't make it.

There were at least four or five times in these past 10 years that we came inches away from shutting down for good. Most of those times occurred early on. In fact, looking back, there actually was one time we did shut down.

It was a Friday in our second or third year. Advertising sales were far below our unrealistic projections; expenses were far above our projections; the losses were mounting and the staff ... well, the only thing that comes to mind is the old TV show, "The F Troop." Everything looked hopeless.

So late one Friday afternoon, we announced at a staff meeting that we had decided to cease operations. As of 5 p.m., the business was shut down. But come the following Monday, we told our team, we would reopen and start over. Anyone who wanted to continue to give this a try could re-apply for the five vacant positions.

The looks on their faces said it all: "This guy is a total wackadoo."

It worked. The keepers stuck with us; the losers didn't apply. We started over.

But word to the wise: It's not a tactic that is recommended at MBA school.

Market not ready

By most investment yardsticks, the Review should have been shut down seven years ago. It should have been shut down six years ago. And it should have been shut down five years ago.

A friend advised at one of those times that we suffered from the same disease that affects every entrepreneur. Said the friend: "They all say: 'If I just had a little more time and a little more money, I could have made it work.'"

Sarasota-Bradenton, the birth place of the Review, was not ready for a real business paper 10 years ago. Simply put, we didn't do the market research to learn what we learned the expensive way: There weren't enough businesses that needed to advertise, wanted to advertise or had the money to advertise.

Not until well after we started did we realize we were about five years ahead of the market. That point was driven through our heart one day, when, while browsing at a downtown Sarasota bookstore, we heard a voice from the other side of a rack say as he picked over a skinny copy of the paper: "Gulf Coast Business Review. Hah. When are those guys going to realize there's no business here."

So we went to Tampa. In 2001, we acquired what was then the Tampa Bay Review, a 50-year-old business weekly, albeit little known, whose livelihood came primarily from legal notice advertising.

We had big ambitions. The dotcom craze was in full mayhem, so we introduced a new technology section, Gulf Coast Digital, and a daily e-mail newsletter that focused on the region's technology news. This would take us to the promised land.

We sold subscriptions to the daily e-mail letter at an introductory price of $25 a year. It took us a few months for the bell to ring on why the subscription cash wasn't pouring in. After one person in an office bought a subscription, he simply forwarded the day's e-mail to everyone in his computer address book. We gave up on the e-mail blast and Gulf Coast Digital after about a year.

But we kept going. In 2004, we retired the name of the Tampa Bay Review and merged the two papers to become a single Gulf Coast Business Review, with staffs in Tampa Bay and Sarasota.

To an extent, that was another mistake. The words "Gulf Coast" don't ring in Tampa Bay.

But the name reflected one ambition we have always had and pursue to this day - to be the most relevant regional business publication that serves the entire southwest coast of Florida - from Tampa Bay to Naples.

We hope and think we're getting there.

A little more than three years ago, we opened an office in Lee County. It lasted six months - wrong team. Then in the summer of 2005, good fortune came our way when we hired Jean Gruss as the Lee-Collier editor. We now have as many subscribers in those two counties as we do in Sarasota and Manatee. Soon we'll be opening an office in Collier County.

Buck conventional wisdom

This idea of a regional business weekly bucks conventional newspaper wisdom, which is that you must be hyperlocal in today's marketplace. Conventional wisdom says business leaders in Tampa Bay don't care about business in Naples, and Naples business leaders don't care about business in Tampa Bay. Ditto for Sarasota-Manatee.

But we don't subscribe to conventional wisdom. If it were correct, Rupert Murdoch wouldn't be paying $60 a share to buy DowJones and The Wall Street Journal.

For one, we've been watching the trends. More and more businesses are buying and selling in multiple Gulf Coast markets. As population grows, the Gulf Coast's major markets are getting closer and closer.

What's more, we remain convinced that serious chief executives, entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers along the Gulf Coast want to know who's winning, who's losing, who's expanding, who's contracting, who's buying, who's selling. They want to know for how much. They want to know when, where, what, why and how about their competitors. They want to learn from their peers. They want to know the trends and public policies that will affect their businesses and investments. And they want that information from a credible source.

Our mission is to provide all that and be that source.

We have one other mission: to be an unabashed proponent and voice for capitalism and entrepreneurism and to celebrate those who practice it - the heroes of the American economic miracle.

Time, capital, people

This is a slow, evolutionary process, and it is often hampered by the same obstacles that confront every expanding business - time, capital and people.

In the early days, it was difficult to afford a business writer who knew the difference between an asset and a liability, an income statement and a balance sheet. But one of the bragging rights the Review has today is its journalistic staff. The Review has five of the most experienced and astute business journalists in Florida - Rod Thomson (executive editor), Mark Gordon (managing editor), Jean Gruss (Lee-Charlotte-Collier), David Syzmanski (Tampa Bay) and Sean Roth (commercial real estate). They know their stuff; they can talk and write your language.

Ten years in the life of a child seems like a blink to an adult. A 10-year-old is still a pup who has tons to learn and live. But a 10-year-old business seems different.

It has been a long journey, but it also has gone by fast. Every day remains a challenge and an opportunity. "If it were easy," a partner said in the early days, "it wouldn't be worth doing."

It has been a great learning experience. Barely three years into this adventure, frustrated at the lack of quick financial progress, we sat in a Sarasota restaurant talking business with Carol Wimer, longtime owner and successful publisher of the Des Moines Business Record.

"Is there a silver bullet?" we asked. Every business owner craves that bullet.

Wimer smiled. "I'm afraid not," she said.

"What is it going to take?"

Said Wimer: "I hate to tell you." She paused. "Time."

We made it this far. We're looking forward to the second 10. The entire Gulf Coast is still an economic frontier, full of opportunity and growing with entrepreneurs who want to make a difference. We intend to keep chronicling who they are.

Thanks to all of you - our advertisers and readers - for your loyal support.

REVIEW HONOR ROLL

The following people deserve credit and thanks for their contributions, encouragement, efforts, support, patience and perseverance toward the Gulf Coast Business Review and its startup. They include friends, relatives, co-workers, mentors, partners, and inaugural and loyal advertisers who helped us start and keep the Review going.

Mark Anderson

Jerry Anthony

David Beliles

Peter Bermont

Ron Blunden

Don Burton

Michael Braga

Roland Caldwell

Diana Campbell

Tim Clarke

Chuck Cobb

Dan Devito

Derek Dunn-Rankin

Clarke Dvoskin

Herb Ehlers

Greg Ekizian

Jessica Eng

Marty Fugate

Tom Gaffney

Bill Griffin

Phil Handy

Tramm Hudson

G.W. Jacobs

Robert Jones

Skip Kitchner

Bill Klich

Frank Knautz

Janet Leiser

Bill Levensee

Candy Morton

Ray Neff

Richard Pierro

Sean Roth

Leo Russo

Diane Schaefer

Michael Saunders

Bill Sedgeman

Chuck Vollmer

Lisa Walsh

Johannes Werner

Williams Parker

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