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From a Crab's Perspective

by Ann Ulrich Miller

Posted in May 2008 by Web Dreams

Chasing the Elusive Dream

Published in the New Mat Top Hat May 2008.


Have you ever chased a dream? Over the years I've chased my share. Six years ago I watched a dream of mine turn into reality.

Oh, at first it was wonderful...

"When are you going to start your paper?" my husband asked one day as we were driving home after a day of shopping in the nearest quasi-metropolis (50 miles away). I told him I didn't know. "Don't you think you'd better do it?" he prompted. "After all, you're turning 50 soon." That alone was enough to make me bristle.

It was the fall of 2001. The world was still reeling after the tragedy of 9-11, and my job satisfaction scale was at a low point. Not knowing what the future might hold, I took his question seriously this time. I began to manifest my own weekly newspaper. For years we had talked about how a shopper would do well in Colorado's San Luis Valley, an area that seemed to cry for an independent paper with classified ads as ingredients.

The Dream took root as I spent months researching potential advertisers, writing a detailed business plan, and visualizing every aspect of the operation, based on my 22 years of experience in the newspaper field.

In May, I succeeded at securing a bank loan, and with the rest of the money coming from private resources, I set out to bring the Cochetopa Weekly to southern Colorado. It did involve some sacrifices, however. I had to quit my day job at the environmental paper where I'd worked for the last 14 years. And I couldn't commute 400 miles every day. Yet I wasn't willing to leave our beautiful home and property and relocate to the Valley. I would have to rent a place during the week and commute home on weekends. My husband was agreeable to this, and who knows... maybe we'd end up moving south after the paper was a big success.

The Dream was wonderful at first...

With plenty of money in the bank, I rented a large office in downtown Monte Vista, then ordered tons of office supplies, including furniture, computers, printers, desks and those special non-repro blue felt tip pens I was so fond of at all the newspapers I d worked for. We needed a company car in which to carry 15,000 newspapers each week, so I found a used Chevy Suburban and paid three or four times more for it than the car was worth.

I was on my way to being taken advantage of at every turn...

My oldest son agreed to come work for me. Just having broken up with his girlfriend, his plans for moving to Albuquerque fell through. I was glad to have his help and, in particular, his art background. He arrived from the Midwest with his two cats, and I decided we needed to find a better place to live than the back room of the office.

Yes, the Dream was a blast at first...

I ran employment ads in the competing papers and managed to hire a competent woman my age with sales experience for my ad manager. Cathy was dynamite and really took off on my Dream. But she insisted I hire lots of sales people, the more the merrier. People came in for interviews and thought she was my boss, that's how domineering Cathy was over me. But she could bring in the ads, and the bigger the better. I had found a real treasure in this woman.

Unfortunately, the other people I hired left a lot to be desired. I ended up with two young girls for the receptionist job because I didn't have the heart to turn one of them down. So they job-shared. That lasted until one of the girls took a leave on account of a death in her family, and the other girl said she needed to work full time or she'd quit. I ended up dismissing the poor girl whose uncle had died. Why we had to have a receptionist at all was something I'd ask myself many months later. Being a start-up business, we rarely had anyone come in, and practically the only time the phone rang was when it was one of the girl's boyfriends.

My sales people included an experienced man in his 40s, who didn't want to fill out a job application. I never questioned him when I hired him, and at first he was an excellent salesman. But being naive about background checks did not help save the business. An older woman I hired to sell ads was sick half the time. A younger woman I hired couldn't stop talking. She chatted incessantly about the most trivial subjects. She literally drove me nuts. Cathy offered to fire her for me, but I wouldn't let her. Instead, I let the younger woman do some feature writing. She still never quit annoying me, but in a way I liked her.

I was soon so busy dealing with my employees and their petty problems that the only time I got any work done was early in the morning, before the office opened, or after 5:00, when everybody went home. I was "too nice" to be a boss. My son was eager to learn everything I could teach him, and he had a flare for creating display ads.

Our first publication was almost a total disaster. I had planned to send the files electronically to the printer, 80 miles away, but panic set in around noon on production day when I realized there was no way I was going to get that paper put together on time. Besides, the only Internet was dial-up.

We ended up pasting everything up by hand. I didn't even have the light table I'd ordered yet. We finally slapped the last pages together the best we could and left, several hours late, with "our baby."

This was the company car's first professional run. On the way to the printer, on a lonely stretch of highway, something popped underneath the truck and we saw smoke gushing out behind us. We pulled the Suburban over to the side of the road, not knowing what to do now.

I was in a complete panic. I was ready to give up when, suddenly, this bearded man in an old white VW bus stopped. He was headed in the same direction and when he learned we were trying to get our paper to the printer, he fell into this tale about how he once published a paper and knew all the guys at the press. He was willing to drive us not only to the printer, but help us get back to our office in Monte Vista, if we'd pay his gas.

I couldn't believe our luck. We arrived at the press and they printed our paper. It was midnight by the time we got back to the office, and then my son and I had to bag up all the papers for the post office. We were drop shipping them at 5:00 the next morning.

You would think that after that first week, things would have gotten easier. That's what everyone kept telling me when I said I wanted to quit. But things didn't get easier. I was working 16 and 18 hour days, and people had not caught on to the idea of placing classified ads, even for free. The real estate companies loved us because we let them run as many free classifieds as they wanted... to fill the pages of our paper.

After the second week, Cathy quit. Her husband said she was too obsessed with the paper and it was keeping her up nights. She went back to substitute teaching. Dismayed, I made my 40-year-old male employee ad manager. He was thrilled with the promotion, but immediately began causing problems with the female sales people. Very soon I was in the middle of a battle between my ad manager and the women whose lives he was making miserable. I would have fired him except that he was the one bringing in the lion's share of ad revenue.

Then, just before Halloween, someone broke into the back of our office and stole the money box from the front desk. They left the checks, which were already stamped and endorsed, but made off with about eighty bucks in cash. I did not deal well with conflict. My ad people were at war with each other, and then I found out that the man I had hired had been convicted of a crime and sent to prison. So that was the reason he didn't fill out the job application...

Everyone kept urging me to keep the business going, that it would catch on. Longevity, they said, was the key. That may be true, but when you have to keep borrowing thousands of dollars each month just to make payroll, there comes a point where Reality kicks in.

When the Dream shattered, it was a sad day for all

I had put so much of myself into this venture and created a happy job for my son. I had quit taking my two-week draw when I saw that expenses exceeded ad revenue. I knew I couldn't keep on borrowing money.

Somehow I lost my grip on the Dream. I was stressed out to the max. The commute over the mountain pass each weekend was becoming a burden with winter coming on. My ad manager resented me for announcing we were taking a two-week break from publishing over New Year's. To punish me, he refused to sell ads for our last issue. Now isn't that like cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Finally, I made the decision to end publication after our employee Christmas party in December. I just couldn't live the Dream any longer. It was time to wake up, go home and start working at a job again where I could have a paycheck. My husband was sorry, but he understood.

A lot of people were disappointed. The Cochetopa Weekly had become known as the "little paper" and people were starting to pay attention to it. Things might have been different had I not stepped into the Dream at full force, starting off too big and expecting unrealistic results right away.

Time and money are not wasted if you've gained from an experience that fails. I've got to say that I definitely learned from my dream chasing. Cochetopa was a wonderful dream... and a good lesson from which I learned a lot about myself. It also taught me to appreciate those people who go into business for themselves, and what they are up against.

Would I do it again? It's hard to say. Dreams are definitely worth chasing, and not all of mine have ended the way of Cochetopa. Despite its failure, I'm happy I pursued that Dream. Had I not, I would have always wondered... what if I had lived that Dream?

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