When was the last time you read a book with an introduction that read this way: “It all started with the Royal typewriter on a TV tray in the basement.”

Meet Roy Reiman, an Iowa farm boy who came to Wisconsin, and started a publishing empire that grew to 12 magazines with 16 million subscribers with not one word of advertising in any of them.

His book, “I Could Write a Book,” should be a must-read for anyone running or working in a business today.

What you learn from Roy is that business innovation is not necessarily about genius. Rather, it’s about persistence, a willingness to listen to customers, and the ability to deliver on your promises to them.

His first business venture was high risk and almost caused him to go bankrupt. He didn’t have the financial staying power to see his first publication to success. Losing most of our life savings would be enough to discourage any of us. But not Roy Reiman.

His philosophy in part: “I’ve never seen a monument erected to a pessimist.”
He claimed that this first business failure earned him a “master’s degree” in publishing. He concluded that he had not done his homework; that he didn’t know his audience’s buying habits sufficiently; and knew next to nothing about successfully testing a mailing list.

For his next publishing idea – a magazine for rural builders – he didn’t go out and hire a firm to conduct focus groups. Rather, he actually worked one day a month alongside construction crews erecting farm structures. He listened carefully to what his potential customers were telling him about their problems and what they needed … and he learned to speak their language.

The result was a rollout of Farm Building News. His test market strategy was more modest this time around – first mailing it to every 10th name on his list. Once he was convinced he had a hit on his hand, he ramped up production. The magazine was an immediate, huge success, and by 1981 he sold this successful publication for a handsome profit.

That formula was repeated over and over again while launching 12 publications that reached a combined circulation of over 16 million paid subscribers. Eventually, every eighth home in America received one of his magazines.

Amazingly, these latter magazines – including Country, Reminisce, Taste of Home, etc. – were all supported WITHOUT ADVERTISING. They included a wide variety of specialty niches from travel to cooking to country. Each publication addressed the needs and aspirations of its target readers so fully they were willing to pay high subscription fees and support the magazines solely by subscriptions.

In effect, his publications were an early version of social networking.

Roy Reiman proves that creativity is more about careful listening then inborn genius. The core to his philosophy is that: “every problem offers you an opportunity if you come up with the right solution.”

The take-home value for all of us:

  1. Get out of your office and spend time with your customers. The more you understand them, and the problems they face, the more likely you are to identify potential solutions.
  2. Do not break the bank on your latest idea. Find a modest way of testing it before you spend your financial resources and waste a lot of money.
  3. Be willing to change course and change the product or service offer based upon what you learn.

It’s incredible to see how many great entrepreneurs share the same quality of fully understanding the potential customers they sell to. Ray Kroc came to understand the appetites of Americans for quality fast food. Walt Disney understood the need for the American family to experience true fantasy and excitement. Michael Dell saw the opportunity to offer lower cost personal computers with technical help that facilitated the use of those computers by customers.

I might add, don’t rest on your laurels when you come up with a creative product or service. One of Roy Reiman’s favorite sayings: “Business is like a bicycle-if you don’t keep pedaling, you’ll fall over.”

Your take away is that the listening and learning from your customers and initiating new and creative ways to solve their problems will not only grow your business, but keep it growing.