In the Oscar-winning documentary, “Free Solo”, climber Alex Honnold incredibly scales El Capitan in Yosemite. There was no straight path. It was crooked, jagged and looked insane.
Sometimes the niche media business can seem like that–no clear path. Every publisher can tell us a story about being down in the trenches, working hard to keep going, reaching to success in surprising ways. And then everything changes again–the market goes up and down, the economy shifts, advancing technology disrupts.
So it’s always inspiring to hear from other niche publishers who have persevered. We asked Ben Lando, Publisher and Editor-at-Large of the Iraq Oil Report, to share with us how his organization overcame some significant roadblocks to find success.
Adapting to change is the key to success.
Ben: “Two crucial events impacted our operations starting in 2014: the oil price crashed, which led to our oil company clients curtailing spending. Simultaneously, ISIS took over broad swaths of Iraq, creating uncertainty in the country.
This couldn’t have happened at a worse time, or a better time. We were on an upward trajectory, posting record sales and profit in 2015. The events caught up with us, however, reducing company revenue over the following two years – the only two years of operations in which we were not profitable.
This gave our business model a useful stress test, which allowed us to then take three crucial steps:
- Streamline our operations to make sure that we weren’t pouring resources into efforts that weren’t bringing in sufficient revenue.
- Reinforce the focus on our high quality content by – to the extent possible – not cutting staff. We weren’t the only such company facing these headwinds, but we wanted to make sure our clients couldn’t tell. As needed, we drew down our cash reserves that we built up, in order to maintain appropriate staff to create and deliver that content.
- Diversify our clientele to be less oil-centric. While our primary focus is the oil sector and the variables that impact it, at this point we have the expertise to provide valuable insights to a broad range of readers outside the oil sector. This insight into Iraq cuts across all industries, including the private sector, governments, and international/ multilateral organizations and NGOs – any entity that has a physical presence or monetary investment in Iraq. So we began creating information products that catered to clients whose ability to spend wasn’t curtailed by the oil price crash, and those whose interest in Iraq was driven by – rather than reduced by – the ISIS threat and humanitarian crisis.
These steps helped us come out stronger on the other side of our revenue dip. Our revenues grew nearly 8% and profits 65% in 2018.”
Create new revenue programs to keep the momentum going.
Ben: “We have a growth agenda that we are at the early stages of executing. We are an independent, employee-owned company that to date has been self-funded, essentially reinvesting any profit back into the company to drive growth. We’ve proven our business model, and we are ripe for expansion. We’re dipping our toes in the investment waters, looking for the right strategic partner to achieve three specific, simultaneous goals:
First, creating a sales team. We’ve sold nearly all of our subscriptions and advertising via word of mouth. We have never employed a sales person, let alone a team. Our estimates are that our various subscription products are selling to between 20% and 50% of their respective markets, which means we are leaving potential revenue on the table.
Second, we want to free up capacity to develop new products that will appeal to our existing clients, and help generate new clients.
Lastly, having honed our business model in Iraq, we’re going to replicate it in other geographies.”
More about Ben: Ben Lando is founder, Publisher and Editor-at-Large of Iraq Oil Report, the best source for news, analysis and information from and about Iraq. He built a network of local and international reporters and researchers to cover stories about Iraq’s energy, politics and security.
Ben has briefed public and private investor groups, diplomats and American and other political leaders about Iraq. He has reported from a dozen countries on energy, political and security issues, and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Time Magazine.
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