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Survival Skills

A toast to gutsy moves and forward thinking by entrepreneurs across all fields


No matter what kind of business you’re in, it can be hard to stay on your feet these days. There are a number of industries, however, for which the economic landscape has seemed especially wobbly. We take a look at six potentially vulnerable companies that have refused to lie down.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores are considered to be the diplodocus of bookselling, a single lumbering step away from extinction. one way to stay alive, according to the folks at Brooklyn’s Greenlight bookstore, is to play to your strengths, to make the fact that people have to physically visit your shop something to celebrate. “We believe that being a bookstore where people can come to shop and congregate is vital,” says co-owner Rebecca Fitting, who’s also a firm believer in the personal touch. Book lovers have responded: Greenlight’s sales have been growing at a rate of around 25 percent a year. Not bad for a business that’s supposed to have one foot in the tar pit.

DEEZER: The Router Less Traveled
While blamed for the demise of traditional distribution outlets, the digital music industry has troubles of its own. The big issues are piracy—more than 25 percent of Internet users admit to visiting sites that run roughshod over copyright laws—and an increasingly cluttered playing field. The music-streaming French outfit Deezer may have come up with a solution: Stay away from the most lucrative market of all. “Our success stems from our focus on growing markets, rather than following others into the U.S.,” says CEO Axel Dauchez. And how’s that working out? As of late last year Deezer had 26 million users in 160 countries and had nailed $130 million in investment capital, so … not too shabby.

FORD: Cars for Everyone
When the recession hit, certain U.S. automakers had to turn to the government for a bailout — but not Ford. In 2006 it had refinanced by offering its iconic blue oval logo (among other assets) as collateral in a series of hefty bank loans. “We had the eyes of the Ford family on us,” says Raj Nair, group VP of global product development. “We said we’d sell the furniture before we’d cut back on the product plan.” Six years later, Ford has consolidated its international fleets into one global set of vehicles, allowing it to bring cars to market faster. Ford has also invested extensively in R&D, partnering with Dow Automotive to work on such advances as low-cost carbon fiber-composite frame materials. it even got its blue oval back.

THE ATLANTIC: Cracking the Code
In 2007, the 150-year-old Atlantic Monthly was facing an existential threat from digital rivals. Five years on, The Atlantic (it dropped the “Monthly”) is a multimedia powerhouse. Its trio of Web-based titles publish 100-plus items a day, up from about five in 2007, and their online readership has doubled within a year to reach 18 million a month; revenues, too, have doubled. By meeting the challenges of the digital age while staying true to the magazine’s tradition, says Atlantic Media Co. president Justin B. Smith, “we are on our way to ‘cracking the code’ for developing a new sustainable business model for great journalism.”

GRANTLAND: Rising Above the Chatter
When ESPN’s Bill Simmons launched the online magazine Grantland in 2011, he was pitching his hat into a ring brimming with headwear. Described by senior editorial director Dan Fierman as “a home for smart, sophisticated sports and culture fans,” Grantland seemed to be overlooking the fact that such people were being pulled in a thousand directions. Yet the site has averaged 2.2 million unique visitors a month, and the numbers are rising. The secret, says Fierman, is to apply old-fashioned magazine principles—like quality journalism—to new media. “People are always looking for ways to waste time at work,” he says, “and we want to give them the best one possible.”

NEWBURY COMICS: A Different Tune
What’s the sound of a record store folding? The sighs of music fans who remember the clerk who sold them their first Bauhaus album. MIT dropout Mike Dreese, who co-founded Boston music mecca Newbury Comics in 1978, wasn’t about to let that happen to his stores. In 2009, faced with a nearly 80 percent drop in music and DVD sales, he diversified into clothing, toys and novelty items. While Newbury isn’t out of the woods yet, 2011 was the chain’s second most profitable year ever, and clothing sales are growing by about 60 percent a year. “The one advantage we had was that we actually started out as a comic book store,” Dreese says. “That’s all we sold for two years. So we never pigeonholed ourselves as only music merchants.”

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