Lynn Freer: from French lit major to tax preparer to newsletter publisher.
Freer majored in French literature at two different California universities and taught English while a grad student at the University of California, San Diego. But she found what she thought was her calling by becoming an enrolled tax agent, licensed by the federal government to prepare taxes and represent clients before the IRS.
"I had a large practice but because I didn't like bookkeeping, I started teaching tax classes for tax professionals' continuing education credit," she said.
"At that time, Bob Spidell hired me to write the California Tax Letter and speak at Spidell's seminars."
"We struck a deal"
Bob Spidell founded his company in 1979, publishing the California Taxletter and hosting about 40 tax-update seminars a year. But by about eight years ago, "Bob was seriously looking toward retirement. We struck a deal," Freer said.
The "deal" was that she'd work as an employee for two years, during which time she'd decide whether or not she wanted to be a newsletter publisher and Spidell would decide whether or not she was up to the job--while at the same time teaching her the business.
At the end of the two years, they came to an agreement, including a purchase price and a contract whereby Spidell would continue teaching some of the seminars, fewer each year, "so people wouldn't see the transition."
The name "Spidell" has long been well known in California tax circles, so Freer has retained the name in both the newsletter and the seminars. "Bob is known as 'Mr. California Tax.' Now, I'm pleased to report, I'm known as 'Ms. California Tax.'"
Spidell has now been retired for six years.
Freer said, "The first challenge was the fear that a large company would try to drive me out of the business. But, because Bob and I had positioned me as his successor and the customers knew me as well as Bob from the seminars, that did not come to pass. Now, most of our customers don't know Bob and know me as Spidell.
"Second, going from a paper publisher to an electronic publisher is quite a challenge. Running parallel systems seems to be the only way to satisfy everyone. In truth, we provide our content on paper, on the web, and on a CD-ROM to make sure that everyone who needs it, gets it," Freer said.
Mistakes and triumphs
Asked what her biggest mistakes and triumphs have been, Freer said, "Some mistakes I have made are: I have done some seminars that didn't pull well and I have made some bad hires. I tested a newsletter that didn't get off the ground.
"However, I suppose my tax and accounting background has given me a cautious attitude and I call myself a risk mitigator. I always try to look at the downside of every decision and plan an exit strategy. I have learned to hire competent help when something is out of my area of expertise.
"I guess the biggest mistake I have made is not being aggressive enough in growth and expansion. Maybe my caution would be better rewarded by taking more risks," she said.
"The biggest triumph was publication of a new annual book entitled Spidell's Analysis and Explanation of California Taxes. Last year was the first edition and we met our sales goal and look to greatly increase it this year. We see this as a renewable product in the sense that it is a resource to be used when preparing California tax returns and will be updated each year," she said.
"The book directly competes with annual publications by large publishers who sell the book for a very cheap price as a loss leader. Our book is not that. We made a conscious decision not to degrade its value by 'giving it away.'
"We also listened to our subscribers and made it easy to understand. We took out the legalese and provided plain-English explanations, examples, and how-to tips. We even made it bigger with larger type for those late nights in April when the tax preparer is trying to finish a tax return," she said.
Freer said that now that Bob Spidell has retired, they meet once or twice a month. "He's always there to talk about new products and services and asks me good questions to help me think. He is wonderful because he believes that just because something didn't work before doesn't mean it won't work now. Test, test, test!," she said.
"I can't say how much time I spend on thinking up new products and services, but my staff will say it's too much and I don't think it's enough. I'm in the process of hiring an executive rice president so I can spend more time developing my ideas and less time actually running h the business," she said.
"I'm excited about a new newsletter that I hope to launch by mid-2004. You'll be the first to hear about it. It is in a related but not the same industry.
"We have also greatly expanded our seminar business. We will be doing about 40 update seminars this year and added a three-day Las Vegas seminar that has been very successful. We may expand the resort destination concept, although it doesn't fit our normal seminar template. You know, accountants love to write off their vacations!"
Asked about her acquisition plans, Freer said, "We are too small to look at acquisitions. Also, we are very well situated in our market, with good name recognition. We have been approached to purchase related small companies but feel that we would be better suited to launch our own new product than to invest in a purchase.
"When I was approached, I asked, 'Is it something we're interested in? How would it fit with our existing plan? Why are they selling (usually because they can't make money)?' We look at how much the new company would cost. What would it cost to launch the product ourselves?"
"Our competition is from large tax publishing companies. What we do to combat that is to constantly provide the most usuable information possible. We devote full time to California taxes. It is not a sideline attached to a big federal research company.
"We are here in California and experience all the frustrations that only California businesses suffer. We understand recall elections and we understand how Californians think. We are different from East-Coasters. Because of this, our customers trust us to tell them what they need to know and how they need to use it. We offer solutions, not information. We also have incredible customer service. We have resisted phone trees and our CSRs don't say 'No.' They offer alternatives," she said.
Asked about her incorporation of the internet into her marketing and delivery of the newsletter, Freer said, "Everything always costs more than you think it will, especially technology, and it never ends. We do not yet deliver our newsletter via the web or e-mail. We have the articles on the fee portion of the site.
"Our subscription includes a paper copy of the newsletter as well as access to the website, which includes the California Tax Letter articles as well as codes, regulations, cases, and other California tax research information.
"Our website marketing has worked better for our seminars than for our newsletter. We are working on this and think that different marketing techniques may help this. However, our seminar registrations via the web have increased exponentially each year."
Traditional DM promotion
"We use traditional DM and our seminars," Freer said of their marketing efforts. "Four years ago we began having a sales person at our seminars as well as having a booth at other tax seminar venues.
"This has been a good source of new customers to the newsletter, website, and our book."
"For Spidell, forced free trials are a disaster. They don't work--I think because accountants will take free stuff but then won't buy!," she said. NL/NL has often heard this same observation about attorneys and FFTs.
"Also, graphics don't work," Freer concluded. "For us, simple and cheap in advertising is what they want."
Spidell Publishing Co., 1158 N. Gilbert St., Anaheim, CA 92801, 714-776-7850, www.spidell.com
The California governor's race
Before interviewing California-based Lynn Freer, I told her that if she were running for governor we could postpone the interview until after the election and that if she won we could postpone it indefinitely.
She replied that she wasn't running because she's neither a movie star nor a child TV sitcom star nor a porn publisher.
"We have mailed a DM piece, though," she said, "coinciding with all the political promos in the mail right now. It reads, 'Bob Spidell will not run for governor, but no matter who wins you'll get everything you need from Spidell's California Taxletter.'"
Lynn Freer on the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association
"As far as NEPA, I will tell you three things," Freer said.
"First, at a NEPA conference, Bob and I were sitting and I was almost asleep. I usually have to take the red eye from California and don't have the stamina I had as a college student. David Foster said, 'When you're wondering if something is being done correctly, how do you even know it is being done at all?'
"I snapped to attention and looked at Bob. That was so like our office! Now all we have to say is, 'How do you know???' and we both laugh. It's as true today as it was that day.
"Second, I look at Leslie Norins as one of my idols. First, Leslie has taught me about being outrageous in your advertising and smart in management.
"But more than that, Leslie and Rainey [his wife and business partner] are so friendly and giving. When I went to my first publisher's conference they both treated me like I could help them more than they could help me.
"Third, I would like to say that I have found incredible support from NEPA members and believe that the price of membership and the cost of the conferences are well worth it. But, my staff hates when I come back because I have so many new ideas. They cringe.
"But they are a great staff. We're like a family, albeit dysfunctional, and I couldn't do what I do without each one of them," Freer said.
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|Title Annotation:||Publisher profile|
|Publication:||The Newsletter on Newsletters|
|Date:||Aug 31, 2003|
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