At 20, we're just getting started

By: 
Jan. 20, 2017

You know how it is when you're 20.

If you're on the four-year plan at college, you're probably in your junior year, maybe studying what you think you want to be. But the fact is, at age 20, you really have no clue how much you don't know or how little you know.

That's why, when we hire 20-somethings in our company, I call them “pups.” They're young, frisky puppies just learning the business.

In business, on the other hand, if your venture makes it to the 20-year milestone, there is cause for some celebration. That's a long time. At least it is in the context of business life spans. Small businesses average 10 years.

With this edition, we're celebrating our 20th anniversary of publishing the Business Observer. The official date is Jan. 31.

Thinking of that milestone felt good. That is, until this past weekend, when news broke that the Ringling Brothers Circus — a Florida business icon — will be disbanding and shutting down after 146 years in business. Talk about making you feel like a “pup.”

At the same time, all of you entrepreneurs out there who gave birth to your business know that growing it, surviving and thriving for 20 years isn't easy. It's so much easier to grow up to be a 20-year-old college student than it is to have your business survive and thrive in the competitive world of capitalism.

Indeed, one piece of advice that came from one of many mentors before we started our company is etched in my mind. Just days before we officially began, Winter Park entrepreneur Phil Handy gave us one last chance:

“Are you sure you want to do this? Because I'm telling you: What you are about to do will be nasty ... dirty ... ugly. It will be the hardest thing you will ever do.” He said each of those adjectives with emphasis and short pauses, a clear attempt to darken the rose-colored glasses and excitement of the pending adventure.

He was right, of course. Totally.

But it has still been worth it. Totally. ... If only we knew then what we know now.

It's so true. When you start a business, or in this case a business paper, you don't know what you don't know.

When we began the Business Observer in 1997 — originally titled the Gulf Coast Business Review — we birthed it on a barrier in the converted dark room of our Longboat Observer weekly. The name reflected our ambitions.

We did no market research. We launched on two bets and a conviction.

The bets:

It didn't take rocket science to bet the West Coast of Florida would continue to be one of the fastest growing regions in Florida and in the nation in population and economic growth.

Likewise, there would continue to be a healthy and growing appetite among business people for economic and business information. Good information in the Information Age is currency.

To the first: No surprise there. Population growth in the nine counties on which we focus increased 40% from 1997 until now — up 1,538,836 people.

To the second: Our aim then, as it is now, was to provide information that business owners and CEOs could use and that illuminated how Gulf Coast entrepreneurs and companies did what they did. We tried for a level and value of information that was distinct from other sources. One of our editors coined the writers' mantra: What the boss needs to know.

Fertile market
The Gulf Coast was then and is still now a fertile market.

Fertile in terms of potential readers. Early on, we started with 1,100 subscribers. That number is up to 17,000 — print and online and not including what's known in the business as the “pass-along rate.” That number is far too few for our liking — an opportunity still to be tapped.

And the market was fertile on another level. When we began, there was a tendency in the daily newspaper business press to portray business as bad. Office developers bad. Shopping center developers bad. Home builders bad. Profits bad.

As usual, the mainstream media reveled in reporting on business scoundrels. It was — and still is — difficult to find business reporters who are on the side of capitalism. Indeed, when we started, if you were from outer space and read the daily business press, you'd get the impression free enterprise was a scourge and that anyone who became successful and achieved the America dream in business must have done so illegally.

That propelled our conviction. Someone needed to stand up for and be a voice for capitalism. We have been and remain unabashedly pro-capitalism. Some of you may even remember one of our early marketing themes — that poster on page 3: “Capitalists Unite.”

In hindsight now: Oops; you could say that poster had something of a Gestapo feel to it. But we were passionate then about sending the message to our readers to stand up for capitalism — especially amid all the no-growth factions that, to this day, continue to hold sway up and down the coast.

We didn't want to be a sappy shill for business. But by way of profiling several entrepreneurs and companies each week — which was reporting no other publications were doing to the extent we were and that we still do — we would help give capitalism its due. As Ayn Rand pointed out in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” no other socio-economic system ever has lifted more people out of poverty and been more compassionate than capitalism.

Indeed, if you put in a book all the stories about budding entrepreneurs and growing companies we have published over the past 20 years, you would see the extraordinary dynamism of capitalism and the rich, colorful tapestry of entrepreneurial talent on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Week after week, our reporters and editors show you unsung heroes who help make America great. These are the men and women who risk everything — their homes, their savings, their marriages, their families — on their passions to create products and services that improve society and people's lives. They are the inventors and doers who create the jobs that allow so many Florida families to have a
standard of living that is still the envy of the world.

These heroes of capitalism deserve to have their stories showcased. We love doing it. They are full of great lessons.

Reinvent and adapt
As we embark on our third decade, aspiring to reach adulthood at the Business Observer, we know — as all of you do in your businesses — we must continue to evolve, reinvent and adapt. In the Business Observer's two decades of existence, we have never seen so much disruptive innovation and creative destruction as now. Capitalism at work.

The newspaper industry has scrambled nearly all that time, trying to figure out how to monetize (profitably) the internet. Lately, many of the so-called media “pure plays” (internet-only and even legacy publishers such as Forbes) see their road to riches in scale — gazillions of clicks.

This, of course, has spawned click-bait stories and the proliferation of fake news. Where that is headed should be apparent.

Capitalism will work. Serious consumers of serious information (e.g. you, the business person) will sort out the wheat from the crap. Consumers will reward the information providers they can trust and who can provide it as a fair trade and fair value — subscription money for information.

We continue to believe there's a strong future and great opportunity for the Business Observer — in print and online. Serious business people on the Gulf Coast of Florida will always want to know who's winning, who's losing, who's buying, who's selling, who's expanding, who's contracting. We intend to continue delivering that valuable information better and more reliably than anyone else.

Just getting started
As we head into year 21, we are reminded of the story of Nucor, the entrepreneurial steel company. It became one of the darlings of the business press in the 1980s and early 1990s because of its innovative strategy and steel-like focus on execution. Reminded of its widespread stardom in the business press at the height of its glory, Nucor CEO Ken Iverson laughed. He said everyone thinks Nucor was a fast-growing rocket that came out of nowhere. But people overlooked the fact the company's first 16 to 20 years were full of starts and stops and struggles to get it right.

Once it reached adulthood, Nucor had perfected itself and reached what “Good to Great” author Jim Collins called the “flywheel.”

That's a great lesson.

Twenty years is a long time. It's also a short time. We're just getting started at the Business Observer. We have some reinventing and adapting to do. At the same time, we'll never forget the core of what we do and of capitalism: Understanding our customers' unmet needs and creating superior value to fill those needs.

Thanks for your support over the past 20 years. As we say: “Ad astra!” ... “To the stars!”

Oh, and: “Capitalists Unite!”

PREDICTIONS FOR THE NEXT 20
In spite of efforts to diversify away from tourism and real estate, in 2037, tourism and real estate still will be among Florida's top three industries. Some things never change.
Thanks to baby boomers, health care will be Florida's third-largest industry. Urn sales will boom from 2020 to 2037. Deceased relatives shipped to their home states will be a Top 5 export in the 2030s.
Sarasota County will be the slowest growing county along the West Coast of Florida between 2017 and 2037 — and the most expensive county for housing thanks to anti-growth activists.
Lee County will be the second-most populous county on the coast, topping more than 1 million population. In 2016, it had 680,578.