“I have this idea.” That is a common statement I have heard from Ron Brent over the years. But one idea he uttered 25 years ago seemed to have merit. At the time, Ron was selling mailing and shipping equipment for his father John’s company in Madison, Wisconsin. As he went from business to business, his customers would ask him, “Where can I get ABC?” or “Do you know anyone who does XYZ?” It dawned on him that here was an industry — the mailing and shipping industry — that didn’t have a source of information about mailing and shipping operations. There were some newsletters that addressed Postal Service issues, but none that touched on equipment and management. And the light bulb went on.
Ron approached Greg Rice, who at the time leased space to Brent’s Mailing Equipment, to seek business advice about starting a publishing company. Greg, realizing the company did serve a “hole in the marketplace,” wanted to become an equal partner in the business and would help Ron seek financing for the venture. With Ron’s industry expertise and Greg’s business savvy, they needed someone to run the day-to-day operations of the company since Ron needed to continue to work for his father during the startup. They asked if I would like to work for the company, and they would give me 10% ownership. I chuckled and turned the offer down, but countered with “I’ll do it as an equal partner.” So I quit my secure job, pulled out my retirement money to live on, and took a leap. The three partners were now ready to start a “publishing empire.”
Building the Empire
Our first major task was to get money to fund our first issue. When we approached the banker, his response was: “Mailing? I can see you having enough information to produce one magazine, but what will you write about after that?” If only you could have seen into the future, Mr. Banker! Twenty-five years later and we still have plenty to write about. But while he had concerns, he did give us $40,000; unfortunately, it was not enough, at the time, to cover printing, postage, and our operating expenses. Advertisers were not jumping on board for the first issue, either.
· “A mailing magazine has never been done.”
· “Will it last?”
· “Who will you send it to?”
· “It really isn’t needed”
were among the reasons Ron heard from advertiser after advertiser. Maybe they didn’t believe, but we did. So, we gave away ads in the first issue.
With little startup money, Ron headed to the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism to find students who would be willing to write articles in exchange for getting them published in a national magazine. It worked. We had a team of about six writers to tackle the articles. Ron also found a budding graphic artist at the school who would lay out our first issue. Looking back, the technology used to produce a magazine was cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive. Old typesetters were on their way out, and that new-fangled Apple computer promised to make publishing easier. But it seemed to take forever to take handwritten articles or articles on incompatible IBM floppy discs and type them into the Apple computer, lay out the article column by column, print out the columns then paste them up on boards which we shipped to the printer, who made the proofs, who shipped us the proofs, which we shipped back to the printer, who made the plates, who printed the issue… Ah, thank you almighty geeks for technology. What took more than a month, now can take less than a business week.
I remember delivering the premier issue of MAST (Mailing and Shipping Technology, the original name) as if it were one of my very own daughters. Unlike my “perfect” baby daughters, however, the first magazine had some flaws! None of us had experience in publishing and it showed. The content, conversely, was excellent according to our first readers. The articles were first-rate because we had gathered a group of advisors who worked in the industry and guided us as to what they would want to read about in a mailing and shipping magazine. They defined our editorial content around equipment/technology, management, and Postal Service know-how — themes we continue today.
The premier issue was unveiled at the National Postal Forum, and the response from industry vendors was encouraging as well. In fact, Don and Dave with Mail Solutions gave Ron a contract on the spot. They believed in the magazine, they recognized the need for it in the industry, and they understood the importance of signed contracts for a startup business because they had faced similar issues in the startup of their (now very successful) company.
Subscriptions began trickling in; not exactly the response we had hoped for. But the publishing and business world were in flux. We were charging for a subscription, and as companies were making budget cuts back in the day, subscriptions were the first to go. So the publishing world was changing its model to have business magazines be free to subscribers and be fully supported by advertisers. Wow, what a quandary for a start-up! We couldn’t get the advertisers and couldn’t get paid subscriptions.
But by the end of the first year, we had advertisers and plenty of subscribers! We saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And we kept growing over the next 25 years. There were difficult times for sure, but the industry — both mailing professionals and vendors — kept valuing our efforts, which made us continue to strive in good times and bad.
For me personally, there was risk, but the reward far outweighed the risk. I feel we helped shape the mailing industry over the years, taking it out of the “basement” (as Dan O’Rourke wrote about in the first issues) and elevating it to the powerful and well-respected industry it is today. We often said that mailing is the lifeblood of any business. And even today in the e-everything world, mail continues to play a pivotal role in business communications with their customers.
After 25 years, it has been a pleasure to turn over the reins of our company to our very dedicated, long-term staff who are carrying on with excellence. I thank our staff over the years, the countless article authors, the many, many advertisers, our business partners (who were so patient in the lean years), but especially to the mailing professionals who have been our loyal subscribers. To all of us involved in the greatest industry, may we all have another 25 years of success!
Sidebar: The Original Board of Advisors
Ron Betz, Wisconsin Power & Light
Jim Bodi, Bodi Engineering
Bob Johnson, Print & Mail
Bill Kalscheur, USPS
Paul Lewandowski, American Family Insurance
Dale Miller, Perry Printing
Gail Nickel, USPS
Dan O’Rourke, University of Wisconsin (later Editor)
Bob Pierce, TDS Computing Services
Deborah Thomas, Garrett Thomas Company