Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: No. 2 :: August 1998
You don't need to be a woman to experience the pangs and joys of childbirth. You can also be an entrepreneur to experience them. Going into business is a fatal attraction. And it happens to many, somehow.
As it did to me. Journalism was on my mind even when at school, but the midnight hours spend on a weekend putting a scrap paper school magazine together must have given me the first feel of what it means to put a job together. If you experience the thrill, the downs and the highs of it all even at that stage, it remains with you when you run a small venture.
Journalism drove me to extremes. And I learnt my first and valuable lessons on the shop floor. And they have been the guiding and winning signposts right through. The hands-on, shop floor experiences are simply irreplaceble lessons for an entrepreneur, however landed and gifted he or she maybe. It wasn't only writing that interested me when I was still in college. I was fascinated by everything that concerned the business of writing, printing and publishing. So after college, or even while classes were in session, I took the train to one end of the city, to work in a printing press, and slowly began to assist the printers on a new weekly paper they set out to do. Soon, I had learnt every aspect of the business - of deadlines, paper costing, shopfloor employee mentality, accounting headaches, distribution pressures, editorial disagreements . . .
The valuable lessons were not just the positive experiences, but also the negative, the slipups, the faux pas. Lesson - be an all rounder early during your training days. It will stand in good stead later when you are the boss and you ought to know every aspect of the business lest you should get tripped by those who think they know it all. And there is a lot of homework to do - like the bright sparks do in business schools. I went home and kept analysing the business details and this gave better insight into my failings and scores. When I came out, I was richer in eperience by way of hands-on training.
Lesson - distribution is vital and can make or mar your business if yours is distribtuion-run. In the press, we had bad distribution agents who let us down often, and forced us to cart the newspapers to various points in the city in a single Ambassador. Often, because we did not respect editorial deadlines, the newspaper came out at odd times and we lost readers in no time.
Today, I am on the roads every now and then on my way to Sunday church service, pulling up the errant boy who flings my newspaper into the wet garden of a bungalow or checking the boy who arrives late at a particular shop. Lesson within a lesson - there are many roles an entreprenuer has to play. A small businessman's role is definitely multifaceted.
However, over the years, as you stablise, you must give up this great obssession to cling to all responsibilities. Holding on could be fatal. Bring in talent that can take care of various departments by themselves. If they are good, let them run it. Discourage the tendency for your colleagues to be overdependent on you. I encourage many youngsters from college and school to work with me as trainees and regulars. There used to be a Reporter who called me up faithfully every morning to check every bit of the week's assignments. At one point, I knew he could manage on his own and so, one weekend, I left suddenly on a holiday, forcing him to handle the job by himself. He came out fairly well.
Innovation wins the day for small businessmen.
Our newspapers (Adyar Times, Mylapore Times and Pondichery Times) aren't unique. Local or neighbourhood newspapers have been essentials in the West. What is unique is that we run ours inside a city: they focus on parts of the city which are leading neighbourhoods. Sometimes, I am amazed at the extent of our coverage. Small hotshots have the freedom, space and time to do things even giants cannot. They can even show the lead.
As we have done. First, we changed the manner in which mainline newspapers, who had forgotten to cover the city well, now looked at the city. Inertia is big business' weakness. They can be elephants. We can be ants - we can scamper and race, tickle and prick and even climb on top of the elephants! When you innovate, patience must run in your blood. Innovation takes time to be recognised. People look for change, alternatives. If you are the one to make them, provide them, you score.
Innovation was not limited to news coverage alone in our business. It is not vain to state that mainline newspapers now refer ours to follow up on stories that are important to their readers.
Innovation went down to advertising too. Our newspapers quickly proved that local advertising is not only crucial to our customers in the way they target their customers, but meant a lot of business sense to them too. Today, it not only builds our business but builds theirs too. From mere handbills, posters and banners, they have a a more focussed medium of a neighbourhood newspaper. And, advertising agencies, forced to work with fragmented markets, have also realised our potential.
We overturned the rules of pricing. Our newspapers are given free, and even today people ask the question, `how do you survive?' Mind you, the newspapers have been running for five years now! In not pricing this product, we rid ourselves the headaches of paid distribution network and departments. Instead, we concentrated on the product. And that is what is important to all - publishers, advertsiers. readers.
Then, we inverted the distrbution network itself when we convinced shops to stock our newspaper, all for a special gift on a festival day. Again, we added value for their business rather than paying them for ours. We said, `By sending people to pick the newsapaper regularly at your shop, we are sending you potential shoppers!' So when people pick up our newspaper at the paan shop, they also buy an India Today or snacks or bread and eggs! If small business must survive after it has established itself, it must innovate, innovate, and innovate.
We also have to compete with our big cousins. Nobody treats us like small cousins of the big newspapers. Now, we are all equal in many ways, be it advertising, business opportunties or market presence. There are ways small business can go far on that too. We have done something in this direction -- in Classifieds. The mainline newspapers hogged all the Classifieds. When we educated customers on the sense it made to advertise in a neighbourhood for the same results that they might have got from the big dads, they understood. Today, the Classifieds in one of our newspapers stand alone as a special.
All this comes also with a lot of things that small business learn from the big players in the segment. Adpating well and creatively fetches results.
Most small businesses do not attract the talent that is ideal or the best. It happened to us at the newspapers, and still does.
Young graduates have stars in their eyes and imagine themselves at a desk at Infosys or Levers or the Times of India; nothing wrong there. But if you can sell to them the pluses of starting out with your firm or business -- and you must have some strong pluses -- then you could get some good talent. How do I do it at our newspapers? we have managed to get a fair amount of publicity in the media world and in media-related institutions likes colleges and universities. From time to time, I take time off to teach on campuses. When I do this, I sell my newspapers and there are two or three young people who show interest in working for us; first during summer hols and later, as trainees when they pass out of college. Some decide to work for us on a regular basis. To all of them, I sell the idea that in a small p;lace like ours you get the opportunity to learn almost everything you would like to, get more exposure both inside and outside the office and in your line of business, and make a decent amount of money too. That is simply not the case in large organisations. The biggest plus is that you stand a big chance of stepping into the big firm when you have a CV that tops with work experience in a strongly related field.
Here I wish to share just one such successful case. When the neighbourhood newspaper for Anna Nagar was on the boards and I went out to look for people, I went straight to NIS (National Institute of Sales) and picked a smart student from the Anna Nagar neighbourhood who was too glad to earn a salary that would partly fund his course. Given the opportunity to tap advertising that was brand new and greenfield, he excelled in it. Later, having decided to move up, he applied for a job in The Hindu. He simply walked in.
Small business finds it very difficult to retain people whatever be the packages you can offer them. In our case, we have learnt to live with that problem. We choose a mix of people who will stay for many years and invite young people who are dedicated, vibrant and talented for the job. So we get the best from them during that short time they remain with us.
We have also found that there are many trained people who due to various circumstances cannot work full-time and on long hours but would love to work from home or part time ; we also tap such talent.
How do we get mileage and publcity for our products? Now that is one key area that small bsuiness suffers badly. Some burn their fingers fast because of bad planning and atrocious publicity campaigns, some fear to go out and trumpet their strengths and values. At the newspapers, we have never advertised or run such a campaign with the help of professional ad agencies. We say our newspaper is our advertising medium; it talks about us and of us, and I think it does it well, because, in a short time, our readers and customers know what we are and what we do.
But that is not enough. Innovation can play a good role in pushing your image and business.
One way we have gone About it has been to suport neighbourhood projects and activities. To give an example, in Adyar in south Chennai, our Adyar Times newspaper is in the forefront of a Keep The Beach Clean campaign. The paper not only provided the first cheque for the campaign, but runs reports on the campaign and puts it on top of the people's mind by having banners or boards on the beach with slogans and our name on them. I have found that almost all people who have seen the banners or read of the project are aware that the newspaper is involved in it. This earns goodwill and acknowledgement. It is also a way of telling our customers that part of their money to us goes to fund a neighbourhood project that affects their environment.
There are innovative and less costly ways to advertise your bsuiness - participating in small fairs and shows, designing unique mailers to your data-based customers, running a monthly or quarterly newsletter that helps your clients know all that is happening at your company. I sometimes hear many small business people say "Oh Well, all this is suited for bigger companies". It is not. If you want to be up there, it is for you and your team to trumpet all that you do. Small business can easily drown in the flood of enterprises.
And, when you have settled down and are in a class of your own, ensure your presence is felt in the places that matter. Nobody is going to trumpet all that you have done and can do. You need to blow your trumpet.
The author is associated with the Adyar Times, Mylapore Times, and Pondichery Times newspapers