Front and Center: Keokee marketing firm succeeds by adapting as it grows
Chris Bessler grew up loving books.
“We lived out in the sticks near Glide, Ore., a little logging town between Interstate 5 and Crater Lake,” Bessler said. “We didn’t get television reception, so every week my mom would take us to the library and we’d load up as many books as we could carry.”
Having worked his way through Walter Brooks’ Freddy the Pig series, Bessler moved on to Steinbeck and Twain.
Yet it was a book of a totally different nature that has played a major role in the survival of Keokee Co., Bessler’s Sandpoint media and marketing business.
“I was at a trade show in the early ’90s, and a booth down the way had a big, fat volume called the HTML Bible. I bought it, and a month later built our first Web page. That decision is probably going to keep us in the (publishing) game, because our industry is rapidly moving online, and over the years we’ve accrued a lot of experience with how the digital realm works.”
Almost two-thirds of Keokee’s revenue still comes from traditional publishing: three magazines, plus one or two new books a year. The rest is generated by website design, which has proved a more reliable enterprise.
During a recent interview, Bessler discussed his company’s evolution, and the challenges publishers face in the digital age.
S-R: What drew you to a career in publishing?
Bessler: As a teenager, I really enjoyed writing and photography, and gravitated to journalism at the University of Oregon.
S-R: What was your first job after college?
Bessler: Reporting for the Bonners Ferry Herald. I was hired over the phone when someone else they’d hired didn’t show up, and I said I could start in three days. A year and a half later I was made editor.
S-R: Then what?
Bessler: I stayed there another three years, then traveled for a year. When I ran out of money, I took a reporting job at the Sandpoint Daily Bee, and became editor about a year later.
S-R: Did you have mentors?
Bessler: Several. One was Pete Thompson (then owner of the Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint newspapers). He had strong community values, and would do things that made the newspaper better, even if they didn’t make sense financially. The Hagadone Corp. bought the papers in 1985, and I left in ’86.
S-R: Where’d you go from there?
Bessler: My wife, Sandy, and I traveled. Then I joined Good Times, an alternative newspaper in Santa Cruz, Calif. The publisher there, Jay Shore, has been my biggest mentor. Jay is very entrepreneurial, and taught me the importance of balancing quality journalism with the need to make money.
S-R: Why did you leave California?
Bessler: One big reason was the Loma Prieta earthquake, which hit the Bay Area in 1989. And I was ready to start my own thing, so Sandy and I decided to move back to Sandpoint, where I already had a lot of connections, having been editor of the local newspaper.
S-R: Why did you name of your company, Keokee (pronounced kee-OH-kee)?
Bessler: Just north of Schweitzer is Keokee Mountain, and below it is Keokee Lake and Keokee Creek. I liked the name, and there were already a lot of businesses with Kaniksu or Pend Oreille in their name. I assumed Keokee was a local Indian word, but years later I discovered it’s Cherokee, and there’s a Keokee, Va. So maybe some settler brought it West.
S-R: How much did it cost to start your publishing business?
Bessler: Two thousand dollars, plus a Macintosh desktop publishing computer my California boss let me salvage from his office after the earthquake.
S-R: What was your first big project?
Bessler: Two months after I started Keokee, Schweitzer (ski resort) said they were unhappy with a magazine being produced for them by a Montana company, but would support a new magazine with a focus on the town. So I started Sandpoint Magazine.
S-R: How about your first book?
Bessler: When I was editor of the Bonners Ferry Herald, I became acquainted with a diary written by Albert Klockmann, one of Bonners Ferry’s early settlers, and we serialized it in the Herald. I’d always had my eye on it as a potential book, so in 1990 I published it. We printed 500 copies, and sold out in two months.
S-R: You don’t do the actual printing, do you?
Bessler: No, we’re publishers, not printers. We’ve never had a press. Back in those days, we’d compose almost entirely on the Macintosh and then paste it up for the printers. With today’s technology, we totally skip the paste-up step.
S-R: How did your business evolve from a one-man operation?
Bessler: We scaled up pretty quickly between 1990 and ’94, growing Sandpoint Magazine and picking up Flyfisher, a semiannual magazine produced by the Bozeman-based International Federation of Fly Fishers. We also started developing more books, including “Pavlov’s Trout” (by Cheney psychologist Paul Quinnett), which has been our best seller (22,000 copies). We got into Web design in 1995.
S-R: Did you ever worry about the business failing?
Bessler: Of course (laugh). The first tough time was in 1994, when we temporarily lost the Flyfisher contract. Then in 1999, I went off on a two-year dot-com adventure called iCARamba.com – an auto services website – and handed off Keokee’s operations to my employees. When iCARamba shut down in 2001, I again turned my attention to Keokee, and in 2008 we had our biggest year. Then the recession hit, and our revenue dropped 25 percent. But we’re coming back slowly.
S-R: What lessons did you learn from those tough times?
Bessler: If you’re serious about what you’re doing, look for ways to economize on expenses and steer your business into areas with higher margins. That’s why we’re not doing as many books as we used to. Books are a passion with us, but producing books takes more time and yields a smaller return than any other work we do.
S-R: How has the Internet affected publishing?
Bessler: It’s completely changed the business model for print publications, which used to be large revenue generators. Advertising money has migrated from print to digital, but you can’t sell digital advertising for nearly the rate that print advertising cost.
S-R: What’s your typical schedule?
Bessler: I go in around 8 or 8:30 and get out around 6:30 or 7. I do that five days a week, and sometimes on Saturday. My job is mainly operations management, but I do a little bit of everything.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Bessler: The creative freedom. If I see something I want to do, I can point all our resources toward doing it. And I like the fact that it lets me live in Sandpoint, close to mountains, water and outdoor activities.
S-R: What do you like least?
Bessler: I like what I do, but wish I could do it a little less. It would be nice to work 40 hours a week instead of 50 or 60.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Bessler: I wish I’d gotten a better education in the business side of things.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for this industry?
Bessler: Traditional media is only going to get tougher, but there’s a lot of opportunity if young people can figure out where things are going, and can get the right skill sets to take advantage of opportunities online, in video and other emerging mediums. Five years ago, I was saying niche publications like Sandpoint Magazine and Flyfisher would always survive. But now, if you read stuff online, you start wondering why you get anything in the mail.
S-R: Are there common misconceptions about your business?
Bessler: There’s a ton of misconceptions about books. We get calls every week from someone saying, “I have a book I want to publish.”
S-R: What do you tell them?
Bessler: Do a lot of research to find out which publisher is right for your book. And if you publish it yourself, be prepared to work like crazy to market and distribute it.
S-R: How much would it cost to start a business like yours today?
Bessler: If you came into it with the right skills and were starting a one-man operation like I did, you’d need $50,000 to $100,000. But if you were going to write a business plan to produce a new publication – whether online or in print – I’d say you’d need $500,000 to $1 million.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.