Last updated on March 31st, 2021 at 12:59 pm
To commemorate our 25th year, BizTimes Media owners Dan and Kate Meyer sat down with reporter Maredithe Meyer, who is also their daughter, to discuss their experience of building and running a locally owned media company.
Dan, publisher, launched the business in January 1995, shortly after he was fired from his job as director of advertising at the Milwaukee Business Journal, and a month before Maredithe was born. At the time, Kate worked in sales at a national paper company and was able to provide both financial and emotional support as the then-monthly print publication – and young family – planted roots. Today, the company produces bi-weekly print magazine BizTimes Milwaukee and several annual publications while covering timely breaking news through its website and e-newsletters. The company also presents and sponsors about 20 events each year.
Sitting next to each other in their home in Bayside, the husband-and-wife duo reflected on the growing pains, lessons learned and what’s ahead for the business. Here is a transcript of portions of their conversation:
What did the transition of losing your job to coming up with the idea to launch your own business look like?
Kate: “From my standpoint, it was, ‘Wow.’ I was newly pregnant with you, and we had recently moved into a new home. At the same time, I had a wonderful job that I liked a lot, and I was fortunate that my career could support us during what seemed like a temporary period of time. My assumption was that Dan would just find another job. It was relatively soon after that we were driving Up North and he very definitively said, ‘I know what I’m going to do next.’
Dan: “I came home and said ‘I lost my job.’ Kate asked what happened and I explained. I don’t remember much.”
Kate: “I think you were shocked.”
Dan: “I think I was. … Somewhat quickly, I was pretty sure that I knew what I was going to do, partly because of this growing trend of publications designed to cover small, locally-owned businesses – a niche that made up 99% of businesses in the region but was underserved.”
And then six months later, you launched the company on January 1, 1995.
Dan: “Yeah, that was when we officially started paying rent in an office. We wanted a North Water Street address, an address that had a prominent name. When you’re starting out, you want to portray a brand or an image of strength, and we didn’t want to be in some obscure town on some obscure road. But if we said we had a Water Street or Wisconsin Avenue or Broadway address, it seemingly was better for the brand – instant credibility. You’re competing with others that have been in the business for quite some time.
“But before all that, I started to put a business plan together, and then got financing from the SBA and a business partner, found an editor.”
You two were starting a business and a family at the same time. How did you handle that?
Kate: “I was fortunate because I worked for a large corporation and I had the ability to take some significant time off. I knew part of it would be unpaid, but it would be worth it to tap in to some savings because Dan was working so much. I do recall holding you one night, probably around midnight or 1 a.m., and he was still working; he wasn’t home yet. I told you that everything was going to work out and (laughing) eventually you might get to meet your dad. (They both laugh.)
“Because honestly, he worked around the clock while I was home on my leave, really until he had to start helping out more. Not that he wasn’t helpful, but he was far more involved once I started commuting back to Chicago and traveling.”
Dan: “I just remember working a lot. When we first started putting the business together I was at home in one of the bedrooms, but then when our office opened up (in the basement of the Design Center building on North Water Street in downtown Milwaukee), I was down there 18 hours a day it seemed like, everyday.”
Was that difficult to be away?
Dan: “I was probably in the fight-or-flight mode at that time. (The business) had to work, so that was my number one priority and, looking back, that was the only thing I knew at the time. … We were making something out of nothing and there’s a lot you know that you don’t know, and you just try to do whatever you could at the time to make it work. I knew you were in great hands, so that really allowed me to spend the time getting things going, which took a while. It was probably a year to a year and a half before we started seeing positive financial return.”
Kate: “I remember that you said one of your main motivators was the fear of failure. Fear can be paralyzing for some, but for you, it was a motivator.”
Dan: “Yeah. Fear of failure for many years, every day.”
Is that still a fear of yours?
Dan: “Yeah. Steve Forbes said recently, ‘My father always said if you feel like you made it, you’re pretty much done.’”
Kate: “I think we revisited a lot of those early years right after the start of the pandemic. But that time, I was in fear mode with you, in a different way.”
What was the toughest point of the past 25 years?
Dan: “The toughest time was the partner buyout (in 2000). It was this very high amount of debt and stress, losing 20 pounds, and not knowing what the future would be.”
Kate: “We were undergoing lots and lots of stress. I was pregnant with our third child, and I was getting tired. I was traveling a lot and I had a bigger job working for a different company. While it was very secure financially for us with my job, it was getting really hard for me physically. Someone was losing, and it was me because I was trying to do a lot of different things, keeping up with three young kids and my own career.”
Would you say the buyout was tougher than the pandemic?
Dan: “The pandemic has been real tough, but looking back, that buyout was really, really, really tough.”
Kate: “We didn’t have the years of establishing ourselves the way we had before the pandemic started. We were still new – a young company trying to buy out a partner, at a period of time when there were a lot of sleepless nights just because you had three little kids. And then put that stress on top of it. Now, we have kids who are older, independent. We could really focus in on the business.”
(To Kate) What led you to get more involved?
Kate: “It was really the pandemic that got me involved in a greater way, without even really thinking about it. It was just what needed to happen, and I was in a position because our kids are more independent. … I was definitely in the process of being more involved already, but the pandemic just created a sense of urgency and one that made sense.”
Dan: “Kate’s a culture person so she’s brought a lot of culture-related ideas that have helped bring the employees physically together and to work better as a team when everybody is separate. Several times this past year, we’ve gotten together and worked on various culture-building exercises and collaborative types of things, and increased communication between departments and people within the same departments.”
How has it been working more closely together?
Kate: “I would say it can be very stressful. It becomes this all-consuming thing and it’s hard to step away from work. I think what was interesting during the early parts of the pandemic was that Dan was at the office and I was home, and while I was working I was also overseeing online learning for my middle schooler, and suddenly my college son was home and my high school son was home.
“There was a lot going on and, yet, Dan would come home and I wanted to get dialed into what his whole day had been and he was exhausted. He wanted to stop working and be part of this whole family scene here. And I wanted, and really needed, to hear more about the inner workings that I wasn’t involved in during the day. Because my outreach as a community engagement person and sales was speaking to potential customers and readers, I wasn’t as connected to the internal workings of our business. That was a stressor.”
Do you see yourself staying as involved?
Kate: “Yeah, from a sales standpoint we’re always going to need extra reinforcement, and if I can help with that I’m really happy to be that person. I think culture is really important in an organization, and I feel like we’re just sort of getting our feet wet, so there’s a lot of opportunity there. And the community engagement piece I think is really essential, especially because we are so focused on our community at large.”
Dan: “I would hope she would say that. There’s more than enough to do, with new projects that we have underway, like BT360 Content Solutions, and current and existing projects and services and the shifting media landscape.”
How did you navigate the financial and operational impacts of the pandemic?
Dan: “We pivoted – we switched our events to virtual, which didn’t make up all of what we would do during a normal non-pandemic year. That, combined with some digital-only issues and expense reductions. … We (also) had the PPP.”
Kate: “We were able to keep all of our employees, which was huge. And we didn’t know if we’d be able to do that.”
Dan: “And the fact that we started our Insider (paid-subscriber) program made the year in the black.
“We have amazing customers that have supported us, but they have high expectations and we have a team that has come through time and time again with quality content, which allows us to have events that (customers) feel are worthwhile to attend. Whether they’re pre-pandemic in-person events or the many Zoom and virtual events we had over the past year, even a virtual BizExpo.”
Kate: “I remember during the planning of BizExpo, Dan said that it feels like we are expending 50% more effort to create this and we’re going to bring in about 50% less revenue. And BizExpo is our Super Bowl of the year. We need that. Events have really been a big part of our revenue base as the whole newspaper industry has taken a hit over the years. Something that really infused us is now really in jeopardy – and it’s still changing.”
Dan: “Yeah, the online events seemingly have been far more work. … There are so many more moving parts for virtual events if they’re done well. There are all kinds of ways we can cut corners, but we’re the locally owned player, and through the support of our customers, we have built a reputation for having very high standards. If we compromise that, there’s no patience for it among customers. Failure’s not an option. You have to put on a good event. You have to have a good print product. You have to have a good e-newsletter because the expectations are so high.
Kate: “And the availability of quality opportunities for content are so prevalent now that there isn’t a lot of forgiveness – it’s either you’re worth their time or you’re not.”
Dan: “The biggest thing that has changed is people’s time.”
Kate: “And choices – there’s a plethora of choices.”
Dan: “Through quality editorial content and programming, we’ve been able, fortunately, to build. But every day is a new day. It’s like, ‘what have you done lately?’ ‘OK, that was yesterday, that was last week.’ You gotta do it again and it’s gotta be better next time because there are more choices tomorrow and the next day and the next day – that’s just how it is. But through our team, we’ve been able to step it up and make that happen.”
Kate: “We have such a resilient team; it’s really quite amazing.”
While demand for news content has increased, local news coverage across the U.S. has suffered, especially amid the pandemic. As players in the local news industry here in Milwaukee, what are your thoughts on that?
Dan: “I think local news is as important as anything in our country, to keep people honest. This city can’t exist effectively without the Journal Sentinel – without a daily, consumer-focused newspaper that’s reporting on things that consumers need to know about, from local government to corruption in the private sector.
“Niche publications like ours, we could have double the staff and there are still opportunities to report on things that are happening. We have a pretty big staff compared to others like us throughout the country. Former executive editor Steve Jagler would always say, ‘Pound for pound, our editorial team does more than anybody.’ We have a staff that produces a lot of stories, print and online.”
Kate: “I was in contact with a real cross-section of lots of different kinds of people at the onset of the pandemic, and I heard over and over that our product became their go-to. Because of the fact that it’s trustworthy, it has integrity and they knew it was locally produced.”
What’s the value in remaining locally owned?
Dan: “The beauty of a local ownership is that it all ends here. We grew up here; we know the community. The investment from our customers stays here. We have a vested interest in the community’s growth and challenging issues becoming resolved – from homelessness, to crime, to access to education. When those things improve, everybody wins.
“Years ago, we made a commitment to cover the nonprofit industry, for example, and that’s probably something not every non-locally owned media company would do. There’s not an immediate payback. … But it’s a long-term approach where if we can connect our readers who are affluent and influential with the nonprofit community that has those needs, that’s a good thing for all kinds of obvious reasons.
Kate: “We came to understand over a decade ago that the health of the nonprofit sector was directly correlated with that of the for-profit sector. Because we are local, because we are both from here and because we are engaged in the community – Dan’s a product of Jesuit education and service has always been something that we’ve been interested in personally – we understood this and the bigger picture just became all the more clear. It was really a responsibility for us to make sure that our readers understood the incredible work being done in our local nonprofit community.”
Dan: “Yeah, because if education is improved, students who are products of those schools are going to become doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs and business owners, and potentially readers and advertisers of BizTimes and give back to the community. And if there is less homelessness and more options for those with challenges with mental health, we’re all going to be moving down this path of becoming productive citizens and good neighbors, and who doesn’t want that? It’ll be a better place to live, work and play, as they say.
“And now, I think Milwaukee has a really good opportunity to attract people around the country, with remote working. The pace, the beauty, the resources, the restaurants, the culture, the arts, the lake, access to bigger cities – it’s all right here.”
Kate: “It’s all right here, yet, Dan and I and the whole team understand the importance of initiatives like (the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) Region of Choice. We, as a community, need to work really hard to be able to attract people of all walks of life to live and work here.”
Is there hope for Milwaukee’s longstanding socioeconomic and racial disparities?
Kate: “It has a long way to go, but what keeps us up at night is the fact that you have so many of our young children who have been out of school for a year now, and the impact of that in 10, 20 and 30 years will be something that cities like ours will pay for dearly. And so, yes, I think there’s a lot of hope for progress in terms of attracting new and diverse talent to our community, but unfortunately, the long-term ramifications of keeping kids remote for a year will probably create ever greater challenges for local communities of cities like ours. … The disparities were already very wide and now they’re that much greater.”
Dan: “Yet, I have so much hope because some of the choice and charter schools – Milwaukee College Prep, Saint Marcus Lutheran School, Kingdom Prep Lutheran High School, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. … There are some great things happening and that’s given kids and families a great foundation.”
Kate: “The big question will be, will the graduates of those amazing programs stay in Milwaukee, come back after college?”
What role does BizTimes play in creating a brighter future for Milwaukee?
Dan: “A big part of that is our continued focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. Those two elements really allow companies to be relevant and grow, which means hiring people to help them grow and export work. … We continue to be committed to those issues – writing about best practices and lessons learned; if it’s an awards program, featuring some of those folks so they can share how others can start and grow and innovate their company.
“On the community-based side of things, we do have a voice. We’re like a connector. If somebody is doing something that is moving the community forward, we can shine the spotlight on that and let the reader decide how they want to agree or disagree. But we can bring it to light.”
Kate: “We also have an advantage because we’re not a traditional news outlet; we can really shine the light on the positive news stories.”
Dan: “We’ve always tended to shine a light on the positive side of things. We certainly cover the news if it’s not positive, but with an educational, inspirational purpose.”
As the media landscape continues to evolve, what’s in store for the next 25 years?
Dan: “We need to be wherever we need to be. … At one time, we were a monthly publication and then we were a bi-weekly, with several annuals. Now, we probably produce 19 or 20 total issues throughout the year. The industry has changed and continues to change. The beauty of those changes is that technology is much easier to work with and much more affordable. The current website that we have cost a fraction of what the first couple of websites did. It’s only going to become more affordable, and the playing field is level. We can compete with any media company, local or national, because of technology and that’s been huge.
“We’re constantly looking and researching and finding out the trends and where we need to be before we need to be there. Our association (the Alliance of Area Business Publishers), is very helpful with that. … That’s advice I’d give to anybody, whatever association you’re in. If you’re not, there are networking groups. Don’t go it alone. Find out what the best practices are.
“You have to constantly be learning, constantly be ready to adjust. Somebody told me a while ago, change equals opportunity, C.E.O. The world is constantly changing and you have to change with it.”
(To Dan) How does your original vision for the publication compare to what BizTimes is today?
Dan: “Twenty-five years ago, we were originally a monthly, tabloid-size, news-print magazine. The direction hasn’t changed. What’s changed is technology – who would ever say that we could compete with anybody in our market, anybody nationally, for news stories to get out in five minutes, 10 minutes, instantly? What’s probably changed more is we’ve become, in the last 15 years, a news organization. As a monthly magazine, you can’t be a news organization, but because of the daily deployment of content, we’re a news organization as much as we are anything else.
“The original intent of the magazine hasn’t changed – that’s to be informational, to provide trend analysis, operational insights for business owners, decision-maker-level CEO-types of people in businesses in all industries to have more information to make better decisions to run and grow their companies. That’s never changed. So we’re doing all that with the print magazine, with our events, virtual or in-person, and in addition to that we have news – breaking news, news as it’s happening – all housed on our website. … The mission has never changed, it’s continued to be … ‘roll up your sleeves, let’s work together with the business community to grow this region, build better leaders, build better businesses, and build a better community.’”