Making a Monster

The Story Behind the Story

Capt. Mike Genoun August 28, 2018

Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written over the years, this one is the most heartfelt. What you are about to read is not fiction. Good and bad, it is to the best of my recollection a brief summary of how we got to where we are today. While you may have little interest since it’s neither fishing nor boating related, I’ve earned the right to share it.

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The Beginning

“Be careful what you wish for.” It’s a common expression thrown around carelessly, but I call bullshit! No one has to be careful what he or she wishes for just as long as they’re truly prepared to tackle whatever it takes to achieve that wish, otherwise the words mean nothing. The truth is there are countless individuals who start companies with little more than a dollar and a dream, and through sheer determination they’ve been able to accomplish great things. Contrary to popular belief, money doesn’t always solve every problem. Sometimes, passion and the will to succeed prevail, no matter the obstacles.   

When my wife and I first discussed the idea of publishing a fishing magazine the truth is we didn’t have a clue what we were getting ourselves into. Pretty much everyone we talked to said the same thing—you can’t do it! They told us we don’t have the experience or the resources, and asked what in the world I knew about writing. With zero industry experience and living paycheck to paycheck, it was hard to argue. In a roundabout way we did have some experience, but we just didn’t know it. And while I may not have an English major, I figured if I could find a way to put my words on paper in some sort of make-sense order, we’d be fine.

Leah had managed a number of businesses, including a hotel and construction company. She knew how to run the front of the house and knew how to handle people. She was solid with accounting, human resources, payroll and already had the essential skills necessary for running an office. While I knew none of the above, I had a lifetime of fishing experience along with the natural ability to sell ice to an Eskimo. The both of us had also graduated from the Weichert School of Real Estate with top honors and dabbled in foreclosures. At one point we owned and operated a small telemarketing business for a couple of years, so we were no strangers to phone sales. More importantly, we had passion, determination and a strong desire to succeed.

Don’t forget, this was nearly 17 years ago when the idea first came to mind. Back then, we certainly didn’t have all of the resources that are available today. Everything was harder and much more time consuming. The World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Social networks didn’t exist and email was something we were all just getting used to.

At first, the idea was to create a free pocket-size guide that would provide tide tables, moon phases and coupons from local charter boats and marinas. We would include accurate fishing reports and useful tips to keep resident and visiting anglers hooked up. Of course, as we continued to discuss the idea in greater detail a free guide simply wasn’t good enough. The more we talked it out the more the end result came to light. Even though I had fished for my entire life and was already a licensed captain, I was hungry for solid information on Florida game fish and venues. I wanted to hone my skills and perfect my game and I was banking on an entire community of resident and visiting anglers wanting the same.

I made a decision right then and there. I would stop at nothing until I saw our magazine on newsstands alongside Sport Fishing, Saltwater Sportsman and the bible for Florida anglers at the time, Florida Sportsman. I would settle for nothing less than the best and now with a clear vision of exactly where I wanted to be, I believed there was only one way to get there, start at the beginning.

In hindsight, I’m thankful I wasn’t aware that nearly 90 percent of all new magazines never see year two, and 90 percent of the remaining 10 percent never see past year three. Basically, one out of a hundred makes it.   

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Karma

It was January 2002 and our initial plan was to wait 18 months before launching, though an unforeseen chain of events with our employer left us both jobless. I took it as a sign that now was the right time to start the next stage of our lives, even though we had less than $500 to our name. However before parting ways with our former employer, I made the mistake of sharing our business plan with an acquaintance. Marco was his name. I didn’t know it at the time but the clown would go on to stab us in the back with a very big knife.   

Convinced we had a viable concept and realizing we didn’t have the resources to get it off the ground, Marco introduced me to an associate of his who had made a boatload of cash licensing some sort of sunglass accessory. Jason was an avid angler and was fully prepared to back us. So much so, he was willing to provide a fully functional office, salaries for both my wife and I, and all of the financing needed to get started, all of this generosity for a mere 50 percent ownership in our company.

While you may believe retaining 50 percent of something is a hell of a lot better than owning 100 percent of nothing, I didn’t see it that way and when we finally met to sign the documents, I backed out. I simply couldn’t swallow the fact that a stranger would benefit equally from our vision and what would certainly require years of hard work just because he had a few bucks in the bank. While it was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, the choice was clear. We would have to find another way.

Determined to seek revenge, Marco and Jason went on to steal our website and intellectual property and proceeded to launch their own version of our exact concept. That was a hard blow, and it was only when we learned they lost nearly a hundred thousand dollars before throwing in the towel a few months later that I felt any satisfaction.

Underselling & Overdelivering

As fate would have it, Leah was able to go back to work on a per diem basis while I launched the business and picked up the phone for the very first time on April 1, 2002. That first call was to Mercury Marine. The room was barely large enough for myself and one other guy, who had to deliver pizza at night just to keep his head above water. Thanks to Terry, we ate a lot of Papa John’s at the time.    

Foreseeing the tough road ahead, I quickly went to work making deals with our landlord, utility companies, the used car lot where we purchased our vehicle, really with anyone I could defer payments with. I even made a deal with my parents to keep our refrigerator stocked until we got back on our feet. I pride myself knowing we went on to fully satisfy every one of those obligations.

Shortly after getting started, we set a hard launch date for our inaugural issue, the fall of the same year. We figured six months would be plenty of time to sell enough advertising space and produce enough editorial to fill an 80-page magazine. What I didn’t know was that it would prove to be nearly impossible to sell ad space in a magazine that didn’t exist. Everyone wanted a sample, of which I had nothing but a vision. My strategy had to change, and fast.

Instead, I counted on trust. My revised pitch was straightforward. This is who I am, this is what I’m doing, and this is what I want. By the way, you don’t have to pay me—at least not yet. The philosophy was simple. The advertising client was only responsible to pay the invoice if the issue they received exceeded their expectations. I knew this was a huge gamble, but I had no option. Within weeks of mailing that first issue, every single client paid their invoice. I keep a copy of that first issue on my desk for inspiration. The bull dolphin on the cover reminds me that nothing is impossible.

It’s important to note that when we first launched, the magazine was titled South Florida Sport Fishing, and it was distributed seasonally four times a year. I was afraid that charging out of the gate with greater frequency or attempting statewide coverage would spell disaster. It wasn’t until March 2005 when we finally increased frequency to six issues a year and July 2006 when we dropped South and expanded our distribution across the entire peninsula.

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Bitter Sweet

Working in a cramped home office quickly took its toll, especially with three kids coming and going. In only a few short months we moved into an official workspace and while it may have only been a few hundred square feet, it was ours and it was a huge moral boost. I’ll never forget the day when that first 18-wheeler pulled up in front of that little storefront and unloaded 20,000 copies of our very first issue. Overjoyed and terrified, Leah and I simultaneously laughed and cried. We had done it. We took an idea and turned it into reality. It was an incredibly gratifying moment though short lived, as we now had to distribute 20,000 copies, by hand. This is the same time we sold our 26-foot Sea Ox to pay the print bill.   

With day-to-day operations progressing through the week, weekends would be spent delivering boxes of magazines to tackle shops, marinas, boat dealerships, boat ramps and tournaments. It was grassroots marketing at its best, though I didn’t mind. Distributing South Florida Sport Fishing gave me a chance to interact with our audience and I’ve always believed that if I wasn’t willing to do every part of this job myself, then how could I expect anyone else to? This was also when we realized the meaning of a deadline-oriented business, as we now had less than three months to publish our next issue. Time was ticking fast!

Simultaneously, I had to educate myself about the newsstand industry, which took me all of two hours to master. New magazine, zero track record, zero interest…have a nice day!

Newsstand distribution turned out to be a gorilla. It was a long and hard fought battle that took many years to conquer, most of which I did on my own through sheer persistence. You know what they say, “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease!”

Fortunately, Florida fishermen were just as hungry as I was for information. We all had a common goal of wanting to catch more fish! They bought into our concept big time and strong sell-thru ratios resulted in increased distribution with every new issue. Copy by copy, store by store, we grew newsstand distribution from 300 copies, to over 30,000 per issue. Today, the magazine you’re holding is available at Publix, Winn-Dixie, Albertsons, Barns & Noble, CVS, Walgreens, 7-11, Wal-Mart, Bass Pro Shops, airports, military bases and many more locations. Nearly anywhere in Florida there is a newsstand you’ll find Florida Sport Fishing. It’s an accomplishment that I’m very proud of, even though months later we only see pennies on the dollar of every copy sold. What a monopoly that racket is. I bet you also didn’t know that all unsold magazines are recycled into toilet paper. Think about that the next time you’re sitting on the throne.

Growing Pains

With each new season, our knowledge of publishing and advertising, distribution and circulation, and all of the other facets associated with this crazy business continued to grow. Much of it was learned the hard way, including some really stupid mistakes that I promised we would never make again, like printing pages upside down or misspelling a word on the cover.

On a side note, do you know there are literally dozens of options when it comes to magazine paper? You would think white is white, but not so much. Between the weight of the paper, the shade, its origin and composition, the options are mindboggling and the final decision plays a vital role in regards to readability, production costs, shipping weight and so on.

Saturation, image resolution, layout and design…it was all overwhelming for a husband and wife with zero publishing experience. Still, together as a team we made it happen. We worked on ad sales, collections, human resources and editorial during the day and spent nights with a freelance graphic artist designing each issue. It was exhausting to say the least. It took everything we had to push forward with little rest and little time to do anything else. Thinking about it, I really have to give Leah credit. I’ll always say that if it weren’t for her hard work and the sacrifices she made to see my dream come true, we wouldn’t be here today.     

As the years passed, we moved into a larger office and continued to refine our approach. Grassroots marketing took on a new meaning with boat shows, tournaments and other events becoming an integral part of our overall plan. Together, the two of us lugged heavy metal grates and a ton of magazines from event to event. We talked to tens of thousands of people until we literally couldn’t talk any longer. Plus, I’m not going to lie. Money was tight, as it often is with any growing family owned and operated business. Short-term bridge loans with outrageous vigs were commonplace just to carry us from one issue to the next.

Again, growing pains forced me to go back to the negotiating table, except this time the stakes were higher and the deals riskier. I begged and pleaded for credit terms with our printer, the trucking company that shipped our magazine and anyone else that would listen, always cautious to never dig a hole we couldn’t claw our way out of.   

When It Rains It Pours

By 2007, now five years into it, things really started to roll. The days of stuffing magazines into envelopes and hauling dozens of crates to the post office loading dock were long gone. Of course, this was only after Hurricane Wilma destroyed our entire office and left us without power for a month. Still, it was going to take more than a natural disaster to take me down. I was more determined than ever and failure simply wasn’t a word in my vocabulary. We had finally reached a point where bills were being paid on time and circulation and distribution were growing faster than we could keep up. Things were going so well that we got the bright idea to launch a second magazine. Being a multi-title publisher would give us more clout with distributors and newsstand consultants and even better rates and terms with vendors. Additional advertising space also meant additional revenue.

I falsely convinced myself that since we had already learned the ropes the hard way, the second time around was going to be easy and the system would work like a well-oiled machine. We expanded to nearly 20 full-time employees and an even larger office space. However, at the end of the day adding another magazine simply meant more deadlines, more work and more bills. Other than living expenses, we were already dumping every dollar back into the business, but we didn’t mind. Our goal was never to get rich trying, but rather to shoot for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a risky move as we may never reap the financial rewards for all of our efforts, but when you believe in yourself the way that I do it is a gamble you have to take. Plus, the truth is that this isn’t as much about money as most people think. Anyone with any inside knowledge of the publishing industry knows the margins are some of the worst anywhere. You’d probably earn more and work far fewer hours selling hot dogs in front of Home Depot.

For me, Florida Sport Fishing has always been about beating the odds and proving that determination and passion are worth much more than some stranger handing you an open checkbook. It has always been and continues to be about genuinely making a difference in people’s lives. I often joke with my wife and say, “If I died tomorrow, I wonder if anyone I’ve helped over the years would come to my funeral.” In all seriousness though, the overwhelmingly positive feedback we get at boat shows and seminars is all of the fuel that I need to drive my passion.

With our second title gaining momentum and a third in the pipeline, the unforeseeable happened. The housing market crashed and the economy took a dump. Practically overnight, we lost more than 70 percent of our advertisers. As you would imagine this had a huge impact on both magazines and ultimately forced us to take a big step backwards if there was to be any hope of saving the company. While we held on for as long as we could, we were ultimately left with no choice but to refocus all of our efforts on what got us here in the first place. We paused the second title, trimmed the fat by downsizing employees and office space, and scrutinized production costs, distribution fees and every other expense. We learned to operate the company smarter and leaner and were confident that we would come out the other side of the mess a better and more efficient business. Those tough times taught me a valuable lesson. You don’t know when you have it good until you have it bad. Only then do you have a legitimate gauge.

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Another Severe Blow

By 2010, the recession was over and things were bouncing back. We had a great team in place, for which I have immense praise. This is in no way a one-man show. Publishing a magazine of this caliber requires a synchronized effort by a team of qualified professionals who all have the same passion and drive. Our crewmembers have always been and continue to be instrumental in our growth. They are literally the lifeblood of this brand.   

With smooth seas on the horizon, the last thing we expected was to be dealt another severe blow. In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and proceeded to dump millions of barrels of oil into our fragile ecosystem. As days turned to weeks and then months with no solution in sight, contaminated beaches and polluted estuaries all over Florida seemed inevitable. If that happened, we knew the last thing anyone would be thinking about was fishing or boating. Fortunately, Florida was largely spared the brunt of the devastation.

No Risk, No Reward

Prior to the oil spill, I had another grandiose idea. While looking for a way to reach an even larger audience, I decided to launch Florida Sport Fishing TV and bring the pages of the magazine to life on cable television. My logic was simple. While not every angler purchases or subscribes to fishing magazines, everyone watches TV. Instead of waiting for readers to come to me I’ll go directly to them.

Again, everyone I discussed the idea with said the same thing—you can’t do it! They said we knew nothing about producing a television series and even less about being in front of a camera. Again, I threw common sense out the window and dove in head first, working with an outside production company before coming to my senses and bringing everything in house. Here it is seven years later and Florida Sport Fishing TV has been the recipient of nine prestigious Telly Awards and currently airs on Fox Sports Sun every single week of the year. Approaching 100 episodes, this is yet another accomplishment I will take to the grave.

While the two companies complement each other, finding a balance has always been a challenge but no matter what, Florida Sport Fishing Magazine remains the nucleus of the brand and nothing will ever change that.

Evolve or Be Left Behind

Times are changing and everyone knows it. The world we live in today simply isn’t the same as it was 15 years ago. Nowadays, there’s a whole new generation that looks at things differently than someone my age does. I’m almost 47. Instant gratification is now the name of the game. Tech-savvy readers have different expectations and I’ve made it our responsibility to valued industry partners and loyal readers to deliver our message in any and every way possible. That’s why among other things, including our YouTube channel, Extreme Seminar Series and extensive social network presence including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, we continue to make a big push toward our interactive digital edition. Florida Sport Fishing DigiMag is by no means designed to replace the print edition, rather to supplement it. As mentioned earlier, while I’m at the helm print will remain the core of this company, even though the interactive experience has numerous benefits much greater than simply saving trees.

Full Circle

Over the years, the few friends and family members I stay in touch with have told me again and again that we should be very proud of our accomplishments, and we certainly are. Personally, I’m humbled beyond belief, even though sometimes it feels like we’re moving a mountain with a shovel. I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve always remained true to myself while accepting that it’s simply impossible to make everyone happy all of the time. I made a commitment from day one with the magazine to write from the heart and from day one with the television series to speak from the heart. Some may like my raw style and some may not, but anyone who knows me knows they’re getting the real deal.

Over the years our production and multimedia work has won dozens of awards from a number of associations, and we’ve grown our distribution and reach far beyond what I could have ever imagined with readers and viewers all over the globe. Especially in today’s digital age, continuing to successfully publish a print magazine is no easy task and with everyone holding a video camera in their hand, filming a quality television series for seven years straight hasn’t been a walk in the park either.

On many occasions I’ve been told I’m an entrepreneur. I giggle when I hear this because even though I’m addicted to Shark Tank, I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur. I’m just a normal guy who loves to fish and spend time on the water.

I’d like to mention that I titled this article Making a Monster because that is exactly what this has become. Florida Sport Fishing is a monster that consumes every bit of my time and energy. Business owners devoted to their craft know exactly what I mean. This is no 9-5 where you can clock out at the end of the day. When you are as passionate about something it consumes every minute of your time. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but it’s just the way it is.

If there’s one thing I’d like to set the record straight about, it’s the misconception that if you publish a fishing magazine and host a fishing show that all of your time is spent traveling to exotic locales in search of trophy game fish. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. By choice, the vast majority of my obligations require me to be sitting right here behind this computer. I’m certainly not complaining though. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I earn a living doing exactly what I love to do and truly feel like I haven’t worked a single day in the last 15 years. How many people can say that?

It has certainly been a bumpy road, but along the way I’ve surpassed my wildest expectations and achieved a number of incredible accomplishments that no one can ever take away from me. I’m lucky as hell to have a gorgeous SeaVee at my dock and a garage full of the finest tackle and accessories. However, I truly believe I’m deserving of everything I’ve earned. I’ve never asked for anything without providing something in return and it all came from long hours and hard work with lots of sacrifices, of which there’s no substitute. I’ve also built solid relationships with many of the greatest individuals in the industry, people who I admire and will never forget.

As a man, employer, husband and father, I’m far from perfect. Throughout this arduous journey I have made mistakes and sadly, I’ve made certain decisions simply because I couldn’t balance my time properly. To the people I’ve hurt, I can only say I’m sorry. To our readers and viewers, I hope that I have somehow made a difference in your lives for the better.

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