The staff of Springfield Business Journal decided to adopt Jack Stack’s version of open-book management six years ago when we started playing The Great Game of Business. We all quickly agreed it wasn’t the most fun or lighthearted game we’d ever played.
The basic tenants are to play as a team, disclose the numbers, share profits and celebrate the little wins along the way. Much to our chagrin, in 2009 the team wasn’t really ready for this; the numbers were kind of ugly, we weren’t hitting the marks for profit sharing and, quite frankly, we weren’t winning.
We sent a few members of the management team back to basic training with the advisers at Great Game of Business.
I remember a specific session on minigames. We were instructed to identify a critical number in our business. Of course, my mind went straight to the bottom line. Though, I soon learned to think of our critical numbers as those elements of the business that were specific, measurable and that may have a direct or indirect impact on the bottom line. I likened these numbers to the gauges on the dashboard of a car. As long as you keep a roadmap handy and the gauges within acceptable tolerances, you ought to be able to arrive at the desired destination.
The staff agreed a critical number for SBJ should be total number of paid subscribers. Publishers all over the country were reporting declining circulation in 2009, and many still are. Since the number of paid subscribers has a direct relationship to advertising value, this was a number we couldn’t afford to watch slip.
At that time, we had about 4,200 paid subscribers, which was respectable for a niche publication in a city the size of Springfield. Total readership was just under 20,000. Since SBJ is entirely paid circulation, with the exception of a small number of trial subscriptions, the additional readership comes from multiplying the number of subscribers by the average number of readers of each copy as reported by a verified audit.
Initially we didn’t set a goal, we just said we’d chart circulation growth on a poster board and watch it go up like the mercury in a thermometer. We planned to celebrate incremental growth with little bonuses. We did make some slow progress, but we knew we would have to do more.
We started coming to the table on a regular basis, Great Game style. As more financial information became available to the staff, team members began acting and thinking a little more like owners. Work groups formed to grapple with Web and content strategies. There was a growing perception that SBJ content was available on the Web for free.
Yes, total number of paid subscribers was a critical number, but we weren’t going to get where we wanted to go simply by willing it to be. We needed to think like the people who were investing in us. Yes, investing. Our paid readers were and are spending money with us to access timely, accurate business-to-business content they can’t get anywhere else. We realized we had an obligation to protect that investment by not giving it away for free to noninvestors. In short order, we developed a Web strategy that involved locking down key content and making it available only to paid subscribers.
Circulation began to grow – and grow some more. Soon, we hit 5,000 subscribers – then 6,000. As 2015 began, we set our sights on 7,000 paid subscribers. We opened the floor for suggestions on how we would celebrate when (and if) we reached this lofty goal.
The staff unanimously decided we should celebrate at Mother’s Brewing Co. with dinner, an open tap and a personal tour from owner Jeff Schrag. That pretty much sealed the deal. After all these years, I learned the SBJ staff will work for beer. Who knew?
We reached our goal, an all-time high of 7,000 paid subscribers and over 33,000 readers on Nov. 11. Our beer bash is set for Dec. 1. Way to go team!
Circulation and Events Director Diana Weber deserves a shout out all her own, as she has led the charge. Kudos to the whole SBJ team who formed the pep squad. Thank you to all paid subscribers for your confidence in us. We work to uphold it.
Cheers all around!
Springfield Business Journal Publisher Jennifer Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.