While checking out FuckedCompany.com, a publication that focuses on the faults and foibles of dead and dying dot-coms, I ran across a mention of WorkingWeekly.com. Apparently, it posted a “This web site for sale” button on its home page, which the editors of FuckedCompany found quite humorous.
One way we can all learn about how to develop successful, profitable business models is through understanding what caused others to fail. Fortunately for me, the publisher of WorkingWeekly.com Gail Bentley wrote a lengthy, heartfelt letter to her readers called “What to Do When Your Life Falls Apart” detailing the emotional and physical trauma she has gone through since the demise of her company, as well as some of the events that led up to it.
Designed as a vortal for working professionals primarily information workers WorkingWeekly.com offers advice on how to balance life and work; be a happier, more productive employee; and deal with work and life issues, etc. Within a fairly short period of time, WorkingWeekly launched a print newsletter, magazine, and web site. Funded with a modest angel investment, it quickly staffed up to 60 people, and just as it was signing the closing documents for a new round of financing coincidentally the same day the cash ran out the VCs changed their mind and pulled the plug. Instead of flying home to launch the next phase of the company’s growth, Gail had to break it to the employees that the company was broke. Sorry, end of game.
I found the whole story quite compelling, so I called Gail and spoke to her for about an hour. The picture she painted for me was one of go-go growth fueled by VCs encouraging her to “get big now” and not to worry about the numbers they’d be there when she needed more. Does this sound at ALL familiar?
I asked about her revenue model, and she had a number of things: e-commerce and affiliate deals, revenue sharing, advertising, la-di-da. The same set of things you hear about from most VC-funded operations. I asked if any of these had produced any revenues at any point, and… well, it didn’t sound like it had produced any.
As I cruised through the site, it became apparent that what really attracted and kept people there was not the articles with their “10 Ways to Deal With Depression in the Workplace” it was the “From the Publisher” editorials. Gail wrote straight from her heart, straight from her own life, in very plain English about her perspective on things. Readers engaged with her in a big way. They loved her passion, as evidenced in the “Let’s Talk” discussion area on her site.
What became plain to me is that when you get past all the window-dressing, the pretty site design, and all the other hoopla, Gail Bentley IS the brand, not WorkingWeekly. So when Gail and I had our little chitchat going, I had to get more details.
How many email subscribers do you have? Answer: 45,000.
What are you doing now? Answer: Running my weekly articles and occasional contributed pieces. I also have some potential buyers in the wings.
We went through some other items that weren’t terribly relevant, but I came away with a strong impression that WorkingWeekly is quite salvageable but not in its current incarnation.
I’d say that Gail should downsize the VC-driven, large-scale enterprise of the WorkingWeekly megasite that she originally envisioned and focus on exactly what her audience is interested in: Gail Bentley and what she has to say about things.
If I were you, Gail, I’d start sending a weekly missive to your loyal base of 45,000 subscribers. Let them know what’s on your mind. Give them that homespun advice you are known for. Love ’em up! Add some contributed pieces, some reader mail. Make it something that people look forward to receiving every week. It’s not WorkingWeekly; it’s email from Gail! It’s personal.
With each edition, encourage your readers to pass it along to their friends and watch the growth. It will be organic growth. Real growth. Passionate growth. Why? Because it’s not some VC-driven, phony “workstyle” magazine. It’s personal.
The cost of producing and distributing content at that level is minimal. The impact is incredible. Why? Because it’s personal.
What about revenues?
If you are really reaching the kind of middle-class to upper-middle-class working professionals you say you are, and you KNOW these people, you can parlay that relationship into something quite lucrative.
Think of the way Paul Harvey delivers his ads: He tells the audience in his Paul Harvey way why so and so is such a great insurance company. And you KNOW that he’s telling you the truth, because you BELIEVE in the Paul Harvey brand!
Aren’t there particular brands, products, and services that you totally believe in to the point where you’d recommend them even if they didn’t pay you? And wouldn’t some of these items be highly beneficial to your readers?
Well, Gail, I’d build that newsletter, cement the bond between you and your readers, and work methodically to cultivate a few sponsors who could back your effort.
I’d build upon your PR background and continue being the resident expert and talking head on TV and radio call-in shows. Book yourself as a speaker as often as possible. Do a GailStock gathering among your loyal readers. Build upon that GailBrand.
Forget staffing up to 60 people; go for 6, max. Forget VC, bootstrap it, and maintain your vision and integrity. Forget the grand vision; go small and let it grow to where it will but not according to an Excel spreadsheet some MBA has worked up for you.
In the go-go times that came to a crashing halt this past March, many of us lost sight of what was important and got wrapped up in the trappings of an online venture. In the post-bubble era we are living through, it’s a great opportunity to reconnect with what is really important.
If you can cost-effectively reach a valuable audience in a meaningful way and build a relationship with the audience that you can sustain over time, and if you can build the same kind of relationships with sponsoring companies that you believe in, you can build a successful online business.
It may not be “IPO-able.” You may not become a zillionaire. But you can make great money, live a life consistent with your values and vision, and be a slave to no one.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.