Jane Applegate considers herself "the Martha Stewart of the small-business world." A successful entrepreneur, author, journalist, mother, and wife, she is recognized as the U.S.'s most respected small-business expert. In recent years, she's represented the U.S. at women's business conferences in Moscow and Paris. She's keynoted more than 350 events and written three popular books on small-business management: 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business in 1998, Succeeding in Small Business: The 101 Toughest Problems and How to Solve Them in 1992, and Jane Applegate's Strategies for Small Business Success in 1995. In this exclusive interview, tompeters.com explores her new ventures, career moves, challenges and successes.
tompeters.com asks Jane Applegate ...
How do you describe what you do?
JA: Basically, I'm the Martha Stewart of the small-business world. I'm founder and CEO of SBTV.com, the world's first global, all small-business television network which launches on May 24. My company, based in Pelham, New York, already covers small-business news and trends in every format—print, radio, web and broadcast. Now, SBTV will expand the company, offering interviews with business people, experts and authors, plus business profiles and features for young entrepreneurs. When we launch in May, we'll have reporters and contributors across the country and in Europe.
Sounds very exciting—how did it come together?
JA: I've been working on this for about 2 years with my husband Joe, a copy editor at Newsweek, and it's been both grueling and thrilling. We're moving ahead now with the help of major corporate advertisers like IBM and Lexmark, but we're also raising our first round of venture capital. As for the concept, well, I've worked on nearly every small-business TV program that's come and gone in the last 10 years; I've worn every hat in the business, whether producing, writing, or being on air. And it's been incredibly frustrating for me, because traditional business broadcasters just don't know how to cover small-business issues. Despite all our efforts, business owners weren't watching the shows because they were all poorly funded and were broadcast in the worst time-slots, like at midnight, or 6 a.m. on Saturday before the cartoons. So ratings were invariably bad and we were blamed for not producing good shows. But I knew there had to be a way to provide inspiration and information, 24 hours a day. And that's when the light-bulb went on. I thought 'Oh my god—the Internet'!
The ball began to roll, and yes, it's been exciting. We're still about 6 months ahead of technology curve, since most small-business owners don't have the broadband Internet connections, but you can tune into SBTV.com with a 56K modem. And when people switch to DSL lines, there'll be no turning back.
Was this an obvious career trajectory for you, from small-business writer to Small-business media mogul?
JA: Actually, in the early 1980s I was an investigative reporter for the LA Times covering white-collar crime. But after winning a major award for investigative reporting, I realized I was tired of glorifying the dark side of business. A few years later, in 1988, I was on maternity leave and working from home when I was offered a chance to resurrect the defunct small-business column for the paper. I was warned it would ruin my career.
JA: Because in 1988 nobody cared about small business, not even a little. But the timing coincided with the era of big corporate layoffs. Between 1988 and 1993, 5 million corporate employees were given the ax, and there I was, one of the few columnists in the country offering advice about how to run your own business. It was just incredibly lucky. Then I sold my first book in 1991, Succeeding In Small Business, which was also the name of my column—and suddenly I became Dear Abby for small business owners around the country. And even though this was not the life I'd intended or planned, I felt that I was really helping people, that I finally had a mission in life.
So 1991 was a turning point?
JA: Yes. That was the year I left the LA Times and founded my own company. My column had gone into syndication and was becoming very popular, and my husband challenged me to create a multimedia communications business dedicated to serving the entrepreneurial market. Today, my company, The Applegate Group Inc., has two divisions: the news division, which provides content; and the educational division, which creates events on behalf of corporate sponsors. SBTV.com is our play for an online presence.
Tell us about the learning curve—assuming there was one—that you experienced through the SBTV launch.
JA: Well, I learned that it's one thing to tell millions of readers and viewers how to launch a new business, but it's very challenging doing it for myself and trying to follow my own advice! For instance, I had to bring in professional help, which is what I've always recommended. I've been president of three very profitable, successful companies since 1991, but for the first time I'm dealing with outside investors. And the toughest part for me is being on other side of an intense interview. I'm used to interviewing venture capitalists about the deals they do, not being asked questions about my deal. So I brought in a fabulous board of advisors—some very high level media and financial experts, plus an experienced securities lawyer and a former venture capitalist who can help us kick some butt.
Why was it hard for you to take your own advice?
JA: I think because I really wanted to establish my credibility as an expert, besides as an author and a speaker. Most people still see me as a journalist rather than a successful entrepreneur, since I've kept my business fairly private until now, and there's been very little publicity about my entrepreneurial success. So this is the first time I've come out of the closet as a full-blown media mogul-ette, and it's really terrifying. In the past, if I didn't succeed with something, no one ever knew. But this will be the most public thing I've ever done. We'll be telling the whole world and the network will be open May 24.
How about sexism? Was any of this more challenging for you, being a woman?
JA: I was definitely one of the pioneers, since I started as a business journalist back in 1976 when there were very few females covering the topic. Now there are a lot—especially on TV side. But look how many more men than women are covering news in general! I agree with Tom Peters' view that women are an untapped, under-appreciated resource, and I think it's terrible that in the year 2000 most corporate board members are still male, that there are only a handful of female CEOs, and yet women own half the small businesses in this country right now. That's why so many women want to own their own companies. That's why I left a major corporation—TIMES/Mirror—because I knew I had no future in management as an editor. I was actually written up for insubordination.
Bad girl! What kind of insubordination?
JA: Oh, let's just say I was quite a rabble-rowser. I was nearly fired from every job I had, not because of my work quality, but because of poor attitude. I have a low tolerance for authority, and I always tell people I was a bad employee. Which I think makes you a good entrepreneur.
So what do you think is the biggest mistake consistently made by small business owners?
JA: It is always that they don't set their egos aside and ask for help. I study business success as well as failure, and the fact is that small business owners would rather go down in flames than admit they can't do everything themselves.
Is that true for both men and women?
JA: Actually, I think that because women have so much more to lose, they are much more open to seeking help—she's risking her family, her reputation and her money. And that's why I'm so popular among women business owners. Yet, when I'm speaking to a group of men, you can feel the resistance n the room. It's palpable. Women take notes and absorb everything I say. Men are generally looking out the window. It's the same reason men don't ask for directions.
With your own Internet company and your own website [Editor's note, 07/2005: website no longer exists], janeapplegate.com, are you a real techie?
JA: Not at all! I'm a very low-tech person. I didn't even use an ATM card until 3 years ago, and was very slow getting email. But I worked with Bloomberg television, which was so far ahead in terms of technology, and this was from 1996–1998, when businesses were just beginning to realize the power of the Internet. And I realized there was no turning back. But I'm the content queen: I don't deal with the technology.
You must have some favorite Web destinations?
JA: I don't have too much time to surf around but probably the place I visit most is the VH1 site. I am obsessed with the whole rock music industry, and if I had to pick one role model it would be Tina Turner. In fact, I've patterned my business ventures on the way she merchandises herself and the fact she's still going strong at 60. Because at 47, I'm a real, grown-up dot-com CEO! Most of the dot-com millionaires are in their twenties or early thirties.
From your now-global view, how about a prediction for what's ahead?
JA: I see more and more women starting their own companies, because I think there's a strong backlash in the corporate world against female executives, making it even harder now to climb corporate ladder. It's actually worse than ten years ago. I also see more young women going straight from college into their own businesses and skipping the corporate stuff altogether. One of the channels on SBTV is geared toward college-age kids, since there'll be an explosion of companies started by young people. And I think as the price of technology continues to plummet, you'll be able to run a global business from your bedroom.
Good luck with the SBTV launch. Any chance it will fail?
JA: Of course, we think it'll be a huge hit, and so do our partners. It's kind of a No Guts No Glory play! If it blows up, we'll move to our property in Vermont and I'll sell hand-made quilts for the rest of my life.
201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business
Succeeding in Small Business: The 101 Toughest Problems and How to Solve Them