“In a way, I’m an accidental publisher,” says Anita Campbell, the proprietor of Small Business Trends (often referred to informally as SmallBizTrends) and other online properties. Although these sites now command some 4,000,000 views a month, Campbell says she “didn’t start out aiming to be a digital publisher at all.”
In fact, she “didn’t even know that was a business at first, but it is, and it’s a perfect fit for me. Our business model, as we’ve evolved into a real business, is based on advertising earnings from sponsors and display ads, which means that at the core, the success of what we do is reliant on serving our visitors with useful business-related content.”
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes.com; Author, Ignore Your Customers (And They’ll Go Away): So if this wasn’t all planned out, how did you end up here, with a digital empire serving small businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
Anita Campbell, Publisher, Small Business Trends: My “empire” started with me plopping down into a comfortable chair and starting to blog for free on the then-hot Blogger platform (though I did switch to the then-new WordPress as soon as that was available). My first post was October 3, 2003, which makes this autumn our 16th anniversary. I set up an LLC, got a pretty reliable WiFi connection, and I was in business.
Solomon: Where was this comfortable chair–the chair where it all began?
Campbell: I started out in a home office, in greater Cleveland. “Office” is a generous term. At the time, my office consisted of a small desk niche in a wall of built-in bookcases in our sunroom. It was less than four feet wide, so less than 50 square feet, so tiny I didn’t even try to take a home office deduction, because it was a miniscule fraction of the whole house.
Solomon: Still, it worked.
Campbell: It worked because–and I want to emphasize this–it was a dedicated space. That’s the most important part — that it be specifically for work. I’m a big believer in having a dedicated workspace and desk, and always doing your work there. It adds a sense of discipline and order to your day. It keeps you focused on your business goals.
I know that some people like to work wherever. They’ll curl up with a laptop on the sofa or go out to coffeeshops, and of course I’ve done that in a pinch myself, on occasion. But if you want a home startup to take off and thrive, treat your daily routine as “more business, less home.”
Solomon: Your dedicated space was still within your house. Did that make it hard to concentrate?
Campbell: Me, I’ve never had the problem of getting distracted due to working at home.
Campbell: 100%. I sit down and I focus, often not looking up until it’s lunchtime. I love to get into a state of flow. I love to concentrate totally on something. Not only do I get a lot done when I’m in flow, but it has a calming effect on me. It calms the slightly manic side of me. I get satisfaction from accomplishing things. I feel more creative, and I have a sense of building something bigger than myself.
Solomon: And today, are you still in that comfortable chair, in that minuscule-but-dedicated space?
Campbell: Fast-forwarding to today, I have an entire room for my office! My husband and I built a house that has an office for him and one for me. Of course, Small Business Trends is no longer just me; now I have a team that I work with. Yet since my team is distributed, most of my time, when I’m not traveling, is still spent working alone in my home office.
Solomon: I saw in your bio that you’re a former corporate attorney. Why’d you take the leap to join the ranks of entrepreneurs?
Campbell: Business was always my first love. I call myself a business junkie; I have endless fascination with all business topics. Some people are interested in politics, some in music, some in sports. For me, it’s business.
My law background has been invaluable in business. But as a lawyer I was always in the position of recommending and advising. I was never the decisionmaker, but I wanted to be! At first I scratched this itch by gradually taking on other opportunities and roles in the company I was in.
But rather than this curing me, in the course of doing this I found that I liked being the one to drive creating a new product, or make decisions on a new initiative. Not just writing contracts or giving legal advice. I liked it so much, I realized I wanted to run my own operation.
Solomon: You could, I suppose, have started a division of the larger business that you represented, instead of going out on your own.
Campbell: But the fact is, even as an executive in a corporation, you have limits on decision making. Executives certainly have much bigger budget responsibility than a typical startup–by orders of magnitude. And they may have a lot more people reporting to them than you’ll ever have as a small business. But when you run your own business you decide everything. There’s no one else whose buy-in has to be obtained unless you choose to. The downside is, there’s no combined corporate knowledge you can tap into, but…
Solomon: …But it spoke to you to have this blank canvas.
Campbell: Exactly. Think about a new business for a minute. When you start a business, there’s literally nothing there. Nothing exists until you create it. In the beginning, you are responsible for creating the products/services you offer, the prices you charge, the systems you deploy, the wording of the customer service emails you send out. You decide every single thing.
That’s amazing breadth of control. It’s also where a lot of entrepreneurs stumble. The entrepreneurs who succeed either learn quickly on the fly and/or are able to afford to bring in the people who do have the right skill sets, early enough in their business lifecycle to make a difference.
Once you develop a team, you spread out decisions; at that point, obtaining buy-in when you’re making big decisions becomes valuable. But ultimately, even then, you are the person who decides most things.
Solomon: When did you know that Small Business Trends was a success?
Campbell: I knew it was real as a business when we developed a predictable recurring revenue stream. That only happened within the last five years.
For the first decade we were pretty much in survival mode. It was feast or famine around here, based on individual ad sales that either happened or didn’t.
We were always profitable and got by somehow, but I also had some sleepless nights. And I watched every penny like a hawk. I agonized over every $20-a-month payment back then, because I never knew when sales would get slow.
Once we could count on a predictable revenue stream, it made all the difference. Suddenly, we could invest more in growth. We brought on more people and could devote more time to raise our quality. And we could spend more time developing internal systems that cut down on our inefficiency, enabling us to scale faster.
Solomon: What exactly is this recurring income stream?
Campbell: For us, it comes from programmatic display ads where we can predict (within a range) how much we will earn every month from the ads we display. The ads are placed automatically by a partner’s AI-powered automated system, which reduces the effort needed on our part to generate the sales revenue.
Instead, we can focus on creating content and growing the site traffic. That alone takes a lot of effort; 25,000 articles and millions of monthly visitors don’t happen without effort. And that’s where I want my team focused; I want us to devote the bulk of our resources directly toward serving our readers.
Solomon: From where you started to where you are now, you persisted, where so many haven’t. Any tips for how to stay motivated for the long haul?
Campbell: Months will go by where you don’t seem to be making any progress and you have to pump yourself up during those periods. One trick that’s worked for me: I have always–even when I was a one person operation–sent myself reports so that I could get pumped up by even a little progress. I’d send myself a traffic report or the like just so I could see that there was movement. When you’re down in the day-to-day grind, you don’t have any perspective on the bigger picture. You benefit by taking the time to reflect back to see the progress you’ve made.
Solomon: One thing that I’ve noticed about Small Business Trends is that even though its roots are those of a one-person operation, you’re notably good at delegating, now that you have a team. True?
Campbell: I try to be. Delegating is a hard thing to pull off when you’ve started a business and it’s your baby. You give up control. It takes a lot of trust.
Solomon: Since the core of what powers Small Business Trends is information intended to help small business owners, do you have any stories of an owner who was helped by you, maybe one that particularly warms your heart?
Campbell: Our editors had written a small feature about a little shop in Ohio. By coincidence, one day I wandered into that shop, and I happened to mention what I did. Right away, the shopkeeper said, “You know, your site just wrote about us and it was the best publicity–actually the only publicity–we’ve ever had.”
When you think about that, if you’re a small business and a national site writes about you, it may be the only publicity you have ever had and it may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you, in terms of coverage. Even though that type of article, where we’ll profile a small business, typically doesn’t make us a lot of money, because it doesn’t get very much traffic, I feel that’s beside the point. They’re consistent with our mission and when I hear feedback like that I did from that little shop, Micah, it makes it all worthwhile.
Micah Solomon, named the “new guru of customer service excellence” by The Financial Post, is a customer service consultant, customer experience consultant, keynote speaker, trainer, and bestselling author. Email him directly for an immediate response, or use his live chat feature to message with him in real time.