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Riches in niches

Rory Brown has enjoyed great success in business media. Having last year sold AgriBriefing and now following new paths in the B2B space, he takes some time out to tell us what he has learned on his journey so far…

By Rory Brown

Riches in niches

I never had any intention of working in business media.

After leaving university and travelling for a couple of years, my father became fed up with me.

“You’re going to have to get a job,” he said.

“But I’ve got no idea what I want to do,” I replied.

So, that weekend, we sat down together with the Sunday papers and went through all the graduate recruitment ads. “Apply for anything that takes your interest; if you get an interview, you can do a bit more research and work out whether it sounds like the type of thing you want to do.”

‘Marketing Assistant at Publishing Company in Surrey’, said the job ad.

That sounds good.

I applied. Was offered an interview and, subsequently, the job.

Metal Bulletin, at that time, was a relatively small privately owned publisher of a twice weekly subscription magazine. It sold about 10,000 subscriptions to an international client base of steel and metals producers, traders and end users. The magazine carried the usual business news and advertising but was most famous for its pricing information which formed the base for a huge global trade. Customers would write their contracts against the prices which Metal Bulletin published. We played a pivotal role in the industry, and non-subscribers had the significant competitive disadvantage of not knowing the current benchmark price when negotiating.

My job was to promote subscriptions, directories and a series of international conferences. This was done largely via direct mail, house ads and partnerships with trade associations and other media owners.

I went on some training courses focused on the art and science of direct marketing. I learned to always try to write from the perspective of the reader. To put myself in their shoes.

What problems did they have? Where were the information gaps? How could I save them time or make them more money with the products we offered?

If you could write in a way that appealed to your prospect – benefits rather than features; incentives to act now; quoting testimonials from their peers etc – you would be successful. And we were.

We charged premium prices for our products because we had absolute confidence in the must-have nature of our content and knew that our customers could not get the pricing information from anywhere else.

So began a career in this industry.

I haven’t looked back.

Climbing the corporate ladder and then going it alone

Over the course of the next ten years, I steadily climbed the corporate ladder at a variety of business media companies – Emap, Risk Waters and Incisive Media – becoming marketing director and then managing director of an acquired business unit in the US.

However, this all came crashing down in the global financial crisis of 2008. I was made redundant at 40.

I have seen this happen too often. Corporate executives who think they are in control and doing well are suddenly out of work with families and (often) large mortgages to support.

So, I set about building my own business with a kindred spirit, Neil Thackray. Taking back control…

Initially in media strategy (TheMediaBriefing), then moving to traditional business publishing with the private equity supported management purchase of a weekly newspaper, Farmers Guardian, and finally through the acquisition and development of a range of commodity pricing services in Europe and North America at AgriBriefing.

It all went pretty well with the eventual sale of that business in January 2023 for over 20x the initial private equity investment we received.

Lessons learned?

It always feels a bit strange to pen a retrospective. Almost like writing your own obituary. But James Evelegh – the editor of InPublishing asked me to look back on my career to date and share some of the lessons I had learned, so here goes…

Find your niche

The days of the big conglomerates in business media are fast disappearing. The economies of scale that Reed, UBM, Emap, Informa, Euromoney et al used to benefit from have gone. Today’s most successful companies are specialists. They focus on owning one or two niches and getting really deep into those sectors. There are riches in the niches – as they say in America – but you often must go another level down to properly ‘own’ your space.

Whereas, previously, a niche might have been thought of as ‘agriculture’ it is now about owning the leading scientific information service for animal nutrition or building supply / demand models for coffee. You should find the area where there is a scarcity of content but in a market segment which is big enough to support your business. Not just a gap in the market. But a market in the gap.

User-centric, not platform-centric

However you make your money from the segment you operate in, all good business models start with asking, “What is the problem I am solving?” It might be a data gap; a difficulty for suppliers to reach and engage with their prospects or an opacity in a supply chain that causes sub-optimal decisions to be made. Whatever the problem is, it is your job (opportunity) to try to solve that problem.

You might be a skilled exhibition organiser, magazine publisher, data provider or tech platform for lead generation but whatever you do, your business is ultimately about solving problems and delivering tangible value to your customers. There are usually many ways to do this and if you stick to just one platform, you are probably leaving money on the table.

Adopt a private equity, value creation mindset

For the past fifteen years, I have worked in private equity backed business information companies and I have found it the most creative and energising period of my working life.

Under private equity, the management team are generally focused on delivering a Value Creation Plan at pace, over a period of 3-5 years. Notice the word value rather than revenue or profit. What does that mean?

Start with the end in mind – where should your efforts be focused to create maximum value? Read up on private equity models and valuation metrics. Why can £1 of data subscription revenue be worth ten times as much as the same £1 of advertising revenue?

Product development is king

The closer you can get to your end-user audience the better. The best business information companies are fully integrated into, and seen as being part of, the industries they serve. The only way to do this is through developing a really deep understanding of the tasks and workflows of your customers.

Organise focus groups, spend a day in their offices, ask open questions about what your customers do either side of using your products, hire specialist interviewers. Find gaps and wireframe potential solutions to take back to them. Increasingly, our business at AgriBriefing resembled a tech company (with regular product releases and features) rather than a media business in the traditional sense. The largest customers took APIs of data that fed directly into their internal systems. That’s a very powerful place to be.

Subscriptions and the sale of premium information trump all other business models but…

…they are hard and take a lot of investment and time to develop.

There has been a fair amount of commentary about different business models in media. And lots of fads and pivots. But the truth is that the enterprise subscription business model is by far the best, if you can get there. The key is to make your products and services both mission critical and, even more importantly, renewable. Some buyer-meets-seller media have renewable elements (think on-site re-books for annual exhibitions) but the great information pricing and data services businesses command premium valuations for a reason. You often start the year with absolute certainty that your revenues are locked in for the next twelve months because of high renewal rates and annual pricing power. This allows you to budget and plan with confidence.

The key is to focus a significant chunk of your time and effort on retention and customer upgrade paths. You really only make money from managing your renewal book. New business efforts should largely pay for themselves, but it is your renewals that provide the revenue to plough back into further product development in a virtuous circle.

The team

Whether you are working in a corporate environment or building your own business, your number one focus should be on the people you hire and surround yourself with. I have been very lucky to work with some hugely talented and energising business partners, team members and colleagues over the course of my career. If you are responsible for hiring decisions, there are three key pieces of advice I would give.

  • Hire for attitude first, experience second.
  • Hire for the business you aspire to be rather than the business you are now.
  • If you have doubts about a candidate, it is better to leave the seat empty than hire the wrong person.

This is a never ending but crucial part of any success. Become an expert at identifying talent and persuading that talent to work with you. Network like crazy and help the industry get excited about your story. Over promote your most talented team members early. They will surprise you.

Over the course of nearly thirty years, I have grown to love the world of business information services and media. Despite digital developments, success in this world is remarkably similar to my first days at Metal Bulletin.

Identify and solve problems for your audience, in a niche that you own and where you have a scarcity and value advantage against any competitors. It’s really very simple.

Good luck on your journey.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.