This Week's Agenda: Peeling The Onion

  |  September 10, 2001   |  Comments

It's hard to run a business, and keep it running. It's even harder to be consistently funny. So imagine a funny outfit registering not only laughs but also some serious success in business. Peel away the layers, and you'll find lesson after lesson.

It's hard to be funny.

I learned this in high school. Jerry Seinfeld was a year ahead of me. He was funny and worked hard at it. Comedy looked too much like work, so I stuck with journalism. I'm his definition of "schoolyard funny," a wiseacre who remains an amateur.

I still admire people who can be funny on demand. It's a great skill to have, especially when times are tough. But it's also a demanding business to be in. You need a recognizable style ("what's this stuff about..."), you need consistency, and you need to deliver the goods.

I seldom visit Phil Kaplan's site anymore -- the joke has grown stale -- but he did manage recently to catch a memo to employees (which he claims he hasn't read) from a funny outfit with a lot of business wisdom inside it -- The Onion.

Onion Inc., based in Madison, WI, has some funny stuff, but it's actually a serious business. The memo, from President Pete Haise to all employees, also includes some valuable lessons all content sites need to memorize:

  • Be straight with your employees, even if that means you're boring.

  • A strong financial partner is the key to getting through a recession. Pete found David Schafer, who left the Strong Funds at the beginning of the year and specialized for 15 years in value stock investing. In a 1999 Business Week interview, Schafer comes across as open, up front, and mature.

  • Stay disciplined. Haise's memo goes on and on (past Kaplan's attention span) about keeping good books and brags about buying new accounting software.

  • Be in all media. Haise's memo mentions not just the Web site but also newspaper projects, radio, magazines, books -- even a movie deal.

  • Fish where the fish are. Haise's biggest move of the last year was to move his editorial staff to New York from The Onion's original home in Madison, "so that the comedy staff can continue to grow media relationships." There's a risk the best could get hired away, but that's called stepping up in class.

  • Audit your circulation. "An official, third-party audit will give us needed credibility with national advertisers in the evaluation process of our fine publication," Haise writes. (Stuff like that gives me goose pimples.)

  • Keep the salespeople well fed. Haise devotes a large section of his memo to giving the salespeople the resources they need to close deals. Read the list of those resources carefully.
Any media business (and that's what Web content sites are) that wants to be taken seriously should go to school on the kinds of things Haise's memo discusses. How does your effort stack up, in terms of professionalism and resources, to what The Onion is doing?

If the answer to that is "nothing," "nowhere," or "It's entirely too long, I'm tired, I haven't read it, have no clue what it's about, bleh," then you have a problem. Either find someone who isn't that bored and make him or her your boss (and accept your lowered financial horizons), or just get out of business.

Are you running a Web site or a Web business? Those who are running Web businesses not only read memos like Haise's, they write them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.

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