"They really should put these online. Oh, wait, there's no internet yet."
(Reading Soviet wall papers in 1990.)

Over the Hill?

Three Lessons from Three Decades

  • Mar 27, 2020
  • Paul E. Richardson

In the smog-choked twilight of the Soviet Union, David Kelley and I sat on a tiny concrete apartment balcony overlooking Moscow’s roaring Ring Road. We sipped Armenian cognac and chewed on Cuban cigars. And we created a company – by which I mean we hatched a plan to solve a problem for a specific audience. That company was officially registered 30 years ago today (fun fact: our first name was actually Russian River Trading Company).

The problem we set out to solve was a shortage of information on doing business in Russia. In 1990, Dave and I were two Americans struggling with varying success to make Western-Soviet joint ventures work in Moscow, and we were both young and naive enough to be cautiously optimistic. We foresaw a Russian Boom, precipitated by new political and economic freedoms, and, since we were among the first few westerners working on the ground in Russia, we decided we would sell picks and shovels to the prospectors of this coming boom. We would publish books and information materials that people needed to make better decisions, to thrive in the Russian muddle.

The world has changed at rocket speed over the last three decades, but our little company still plugs along (David moved on to other things a few years in), surviving recessions, coups, and many Vermont winters. Here is how we did it.

Stay in One Place, But Never Stand Still

Our company’s original mission (business to business publishing) lasted in its pure form for just a few months. Publishing is a capital intense, slow return business, so we had to adapt and build parallel revenue streams. Over the years we have consulted for trade groups, brokered Moscow real estate, translated books, and consulted on everything from market entry to marketing. We started and sold a mail order catalog business, bought a consumer magazine, put on vodka-taste-offs and festivals, and tried and tested many products and ideas.

Most of our greatest opportunities and successes were borne out of dogged persistence: after occupying the niche we had built, we held on tight and just kept going. Our basic self-prescription for business success was to persist long enough to outlast any competition, and to constantly learn and try new things, all the while accreting experience that few had. Slowly, opportunities made their way to us, and of course a few useful ideas arose from our accumulated knowledge.

Make Story The Center

Of all the things we have done over the years, with few exceptions, storytelling has played a major role. Whether it was explaining the rules, regulations, and trends in Russian business, doing journalism, translating fiction, consulting with companies that needed help crafting a message, or photography, story has always been at the center.

I love creating things, but I soon realized that creating is only about 15 percent of the battle. Selling what you make is the hard part, and stories make that easier. This is because humans are hard-wired for story. And if you can find and effectively communicate the story behind your good or service, playing the long ball and inviting people into your tribe or cause, you can survive and eve thrive.

Be A Little Bit Crazy

It takes a slightly unhinged mind to start and run a business. Who strives to create something from nothing, eschewing security in favor of freedom, slaving long, unpaid hours, alone, dedicated to a future only they can see? Well, artists, for one. But also entrepreneurs and idealists.

Long term survival in small business requires surrounding yourself with loving, supportive family and friends who do not share your craziness (you need reality checks, after all). And it also involves some regular communing with other crazies (entrepreneurs), to reinforce the notion that one can be a little bit crazy, run a business, and succeed. Getting the right mix between the two groups is a continual challenge. Too much reality and you can get discouraged; too much crazy and you go off the deep end.

What Really Matters

In the end, however, it is the tribe of customers and colleagues we have accumulated over 30 years that continue to make what we do possible. That they find value and worth in what we do, year after year, project after project, is something for which I am constantly grateful, particularly in the sort of difficult times we are all enduring now.

Ok, enough reminiscing. Back to work.