Mike Lessiter Speaks with MediaGrowth Executive Summit About Long-Term Growth

The following interview appeared as the July 18th, 2017 edition of Media Growth’s “Thought Leader.”

By Kathi Simonsen, President, MediaGrowth Executive Summit (MGES)

MGES: What can you tell us about your company’s origins and the way the business viewed itself as it grew?

Mike: My parents started Lessiter Media in 1981, when they purchased a newsletter, a magazine and a trade show from Reiman Publications, including No-Till Farmer, a 100% paid-subscription newsletter focused on a very specific farming practice, no-till farming, that offered farmers a different, economical method to farm more acres with less labor and machinery and conserve their soil. The title was, and still is, an example of a highly niched property. By the way, No-Till Farmer was recognized as the best overall newsletter of the year by the American Society of Business Press Editors this year.

The business had a rough go during the ag recession, which resulted in divesting a magazine and trade show. For a couple of years, the company was only three people. In 1992, they bought a title in the equine field that created some scale to grow from and started a national conference for No-Till Farmer the following year.

MGES: Lessiter Media has been following a strategic planning process for 10 years. Would you tell us a little bit about what that entails?

Mike: I came back to the business in 2003 after 12 years of as an editor and publisher of two metals industry titles in the Chicago area. When I came back to Wisconsin, there were 11 employees here. Frank had achieved success as an editor/entrepreneur who had his hands in everything. He had a great feel for the markets, sensed what the customer needed and he could deliver on it. But we both knew we had to get authority and decision-making spread around if we were going to grow, and to get the personnel we needed. My first year or so was mainly about trying to get the staff to think more strategically about the company. It was challenging.

We had just announced the launch of a national conference and trade show, the International Hoof-Care Summit, and then about a year later we bought three farm machinery titles from Cygnus Business Media. It was an exciting, high-growth time but we were giving everything we had just to get the work out the door. The classic working “in” the business instead of “on” it.

Part of the deal when I became president in 2007, was that we were going to ratchet things up on the transition from hands-on entrepreneurial mode to more of a management-oriented structure. We had organizational, budgetary, people and technology matters to deal with, while our markets and publishing in general were experiencing great change at the same time.

With the help of a retired publishing executive, Don Henning of Johnson Hill Press, we began a formal strategic planning process that forced us into uncomfortable, but needed, conversations. Did we have the right people in the right positions? Could some give up the command and control? Where exactly do we want to go in the next 3 years and how to get there? The next 10 years? Don was instrumental because we both trusted and respected him -- my dad had known him for 30 years -- and much of what we needed the most help with was with ourselves with managing succession and change.

Don “retired” from formal planning with us last year after 10 years. Knowing that day was coming, our leadership team immersed ourselves in the Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS, method of strategic planning. (Lessiter recommends the book, Traction, by Gino Wickman).

Over the years, we’ve bought some titles, and divested a similar amount, but most of the company’s growth has been organic, including segmenting our already niched-up titles for spinoff launches and adding new channels to deliver content. We know our team is very good at serving niche audiences, with content that goes deep and is highly valued. But we must keep high-stepping to keep and attract subscribers and advertisers.

MGES: You have 7 print publications as well as podcasts, webinars, a new webcast program, 4 national conferences and a tradeshow. Which products are working best for you?

Mike: We’ve had a lot of success with our educational event model, and we’ve rolled the same formula out in every market we’re in. My dad launched his first National No-Tillage Conference in 1993, a time before many small publishers had yet seen the power of adding events. He recognized an informational void that existed in farmers’ local areas and saw that they needed the support of a peer community who were also trying to make this very focused farming practice work, to share ideas and learn about successes and failures. He hoped for 250 to attend that first year. More than 800 showed up -- with some event planning lore to boot -- and it’s been the largest gathering in that segment ever since.

There are hundreds of events for farmers to attend -- many for free -- but the attendees we get aren’t passive tire-kickers. They’re serious, pre-qualified as technology-hungry who’ll open their wallet to educate themselves, and they come with serious, challenging questions that can overwhelm the sponsors’ personnel if they aren’t prepared for it. Our editors have a planning model that ensures the speakers are going to deliver the deep, high-value content that attendees expect.

But the secret sauce is the open networking that stems from the family-type atmosphere that my dad fostered from day one, and our attendees know it. The fact that 27% of our event attendees will pay their registration in full before a single speaker or topic is announced is proof of that. That number is 46% on our National No-Tillage Conference.

We added another event for the first time this summer and sold out every available seat 5 weeks in advance. A limited, pre-qualified audience is a very big attraction to the Title Sponsors who pay a premium for an exclusive exchange with the best of the best. We cap the number of companies who get that access.

We’re also proud of what the team has been doing in webinars, news webcasts, podcasts, sponsored content and custom-publishing. In addition to the revenue, each of these activities is so influential to attracting subscribers and moving them through the engagement funnel.

MGES: What do you see in the future?

Mike: I’m optimistic for small and agile publishers like us covering niche segments when they can commit to intimately knowing the industry. Our strategic plan calls for growth, which includes more M&A than we’ve done in the past. Some market diversification would be welcome, and one of my primary action items is seeking out acquisitions. We aren’t afraid to move into new markets as it makes sense, as we’ve done it before.

But we’ll only go into a new market it if it’s 1), a definable niche where the content is highly, highly valued and that 2), we can apply our formula to become the content leader. We think we make our formula work in those small arenas where the knowledge is so important that the subscriber can’t do their business well without it.

MGES: Thanks! Mike

Lessiter Media Inc. (www.lessitermedia.com) is a 36-year-old niche media company in Brookfield, Wis., that was founded by Frank and Pam Lessiter. Today, the family business has 38 employees and has media properties that cover conservation tillage, farm machinery, equipment retail and service, precision technologies and equine health (specifically the hoof). President Mike Lessiter is second-generation operator; while Frank is chairman (works 3.5 days per week). Pam is retired but remains active with the business as an owner.