From Dan: As a way to honor the individuals who have taught me critical life lessons about people and business, I’ve invited several to write guest columns to run in this space over the next few weeks. Today’s voice of experience is provided by Robert L. Brady, who founded Business and Legal Resources (BLR®) in 1977. In 1978, he launched his first newsletter, The Personnel Manager’s Legal Reporter. Bob has recently retired from BLR, and I asked him to share how he created the company and the management insights he learned in the process.
by Robert L. Brady
I recently sold most of my stock in BLR, the company I started nearly 40 years ago. The occasion led me to think about the day I started the company.
I was working for a small but very successful publishing company. In the 3 years I was there, it had gone from 5 employees to 40. The founder was a difficult man. In retrospect, however, he was a lot smarter and a better businessperson than I then thought.
Anyway, one day I was stewing in my office after a particularly humiliating encounter. It occurred to me—with all the humility of an arrogant 28-year-old—that if I really, really thought I was smarter and more capable than he, there was only one way to prove it. The only difference between him and me was that he was “doing it.” (Again, in retrospect, I didn’t give him proper credit for his 20 years of experience.)
That thought kept gnawing at me for several weeks. Finally, I arrived at a “put up or shut up” moment. I would try to go off on my own.
Over the course of the next several months, I put together a very low-tech, homegrown business plan. Using “green sheets” (the paper ancestor of a digital spreadsheet program), I mapped out the cash flow requirements for a newsletter. In my notebook, I made editorial and operational plans. Finally, I came up with the idea for a newsletter called The Personnel Manager’s Legal Reporter.
I would research and write it. I would be the marketing manager, and I would be the production manager. The only salaries required would be for proofreading.
Cash would go toward direct-mail advertising, printing, and postage. Nearly everything else would be sweat equity. For research, I used the library at the law school where I was in my final year. My “office” was a closet in my apartment. Typesetting was via an old-fashioned typewriter.
After 20 “green sheet” iterations, I convinced myself I could launch with my savings since there was no bank willing to lend to a 28-year-old law student with no job and no assets other than a business plan that showed steep losses for the first 2 years. I had about $25,000, which I thought I could recycle over 12 months until renewals started coming in. (This turned out to be wrong.)
As I was finishing my plan and getting started on my direct-mail brochure, my girlfriend and I decided to get married. And we decided to go on a 5-week honeymoon to Yugoslavia, Romania, and Italy.
So, one weekend in July 1977, I quit my job, moved, got married, launched a business, and left on a 5-week honeymoon. Suffice to say, I was wired.
Despite having obsessed about my business and marketing plan for the prior 6 months, I thought about it not once while on the honeymoon. Well, maybe once or twice, and then only as the time to return approached. This was pre-Internet, pre-fax, practically pre-telephone (the idea of a transatlantic call was beyond the realm of possibility). I was newly married to a beautiful girl and adventuring in exotic places. The newsletter could wait.
Once I got back, we had to find a new apartment and register for law school classes, so it was a few days before I got the order cards from my direct-mail test from the classmate who had been collecting them.
In my one conversation with my classmate, he led me to think the test had failed. I was deflated and depressed. I’d have to go to Plan B and be a lawyer. But after I started counting the orders, it quickly became apparent that he had miscalculated. The test was successful.
Depression turned to euphoria. I thought I’d hyperventilate. I was in business!
The newsletter turned out to be very successful, becoming the basis for the company that for nearly 40 years has helped tens of thousands of business professionals train their employees and comply with regulations; and today, the company employs over 300 people.
So, what do I make of it as I head down the road to retirement? There are a lot of lessons, but here are a few.
Keys to success
- Don’t be afraid to take chances. Not everyone is cut out to start a business, but everyone should be trying to move on to new career and personal opportunities. If you think you want to try something, even in your existing job, show some initiative. Figure out what it would take to get started.
- Make a plan. I used green sheets. Today, I’d use Excel®. Whatever. You need to think through things step-by-step. You won’t get it completely right, but the planning will help you understand the risks and relationships. Remember the old saying, “If you don’t have a plan, any road will take you there.”
- Get started, sooner rather than later. You need to be ready with the skills required. But you don’t have to be perfectly ready. You have to know how to control risks and make sure you don’t hurt someone else or lose more than you can afford, but your plan doesn’t have to be “bulletproof.” No plan is. You need to manage risk, but if you avoid risk, you will have a tough time achieving success.
In a future post: My business was successful. Why so? I’ll be examining the first crucial years.