Starting a new job can be tough under any circumstances. But starting a new job just weeks before one of the biggest global crises in modern history is nearly unthinkable. Yet, for Scott Omelianuk, editor-in-chief of Inc., that was his reality.
Omelianuk spent nearly 12 years as the top editor at This Old House, where he developed his pedigree for crafting multiplatform content strategies. However, his time there, along with his time as a professor, business owner and consultant, couldn’t have prepared him for the past few months. Nevertheless, he has adapted and has leaned into addressing the crisis by launching new editorial initiatives that align with his brand’s core purpose.
Given his unique situation, we wanted to check in with Omelianuk to hear his thoughts on a number of things. Here, we discuss his first six months on the job, how he pivoted his editorial strategy, his philosophies on multiplatform publishing, Inc.’s future in print and more.
Folio: You took on the EIC role about six months ago, and needless to say, a lot has happened. What was your initial plan for the brand when you joined, and how has that changed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis?
Scott Omelianuk: I’ve had two different careers at Inc. There’s the one that existed the first two months I was here, when we were having a really great looking first quarter and had a lot of plans around grand expansion, with other lines of business outside of traditional media. That’s something I did quite a bit of in the past. So I was coming in and understanding the landscape and getting to know all the folks who were here and what we needed to do to achieve the goals I talked about with the CEO.
I hadn’t been in media for four years prior to taking this job, and had no desire to be. I was teaching in the business school of Stevens Institute of Technology—innovation and entrepreneurship, among other things—and had an interest in a startup that I co-founded, had written a patent for and was doing some consulting. I quite enjoyed that life, but I was, by the way, a terrible consultant. I would pick businesses that interested me, rather than businesses that could afford me. That’s something I don’t recommend for anyone.
But one of the things I recognized, which is something I had at This Old House, is that the brand had an incredible amount of trust and an incredibly passionate audience that looked to it as something of a bible. So I realized that it was an opportunity to turn the consumer into a community. And that’s what was what was exciting for me about this.
I think there are a lot of things people overlook about entrepreneurship that need to be recognized. We hear all the sexy stories, but we don’t hear any of the more difficult ones—the grind of working or people having to mortgage their house and put their family’s future on the line to pursue an opportunity or dream, and how lonely it is to be a leader and having doors shut in your face all the time. So I thought there was a lot of opportunity to talk to those folks.
But then in early March or late February we realized our first big events like SXSW weren’t going to happen, and that was a big revenue hit. I also actually got sick before testing, and others here got sick, so we shut down the office. That was interesting timing because we had to close our “Best Work Places” issue, which was my first issue, and it was done from our own work places [at home].
We had to figure out how to pivot that conversation from things like who provided the best amenities and other perks to things that really mattered. We realized the best places all had something in common besides a Ping-Pong table and a nice reception area. And that’s that they were people-first organizations. For me it was a moment of clarity of who our audience really was and what mattered. The best workplaces aren’t physical, but places in our minds made up of people. It made me excited to work on the issue even though we had to reinvent it at the last moment.
Even more than that as we started to talking to businesses, and the economy started to trail down, we realized what a remarkable privilege it is to be at Inc., particularly at this time. We have an audience that’s ravenous for information and look to us to figure out how to stay in business, who need guidance and we have the honor of helping them figure it out. That’s pretty remarkable and clarifying for a brand I think. In the middle of a whole lot of carnage, it’s something that gets you up every day and back to the table and gets you to work because you feel these people place trust in you and you have to deliver on that.
Folio: So how else did you specifically respond to the crisis?
Omelianuk: We started to think about how to replace the things we lost with other opportunities. The first thing we did, almost overnight, was recreate our digital publishing operation to become a 24/7 news outlet. We were publishing every day around the clock, and not just in support of businesses but also providing them the information they needed to stay afloat.
We created a partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and launched a series of weekly town halls that we did for two months. We would average 10,000-12,500 registrants per event, and by the end of the weekend we’d see another half-million.
The town halls were sort of the meat and potatoes of PPP, the Cares Act, financing and all that stuff. But we were also looking to give an emotional boost. So we launched a weekly webinar called “Real Talk.” It’s people who have had success and are willing to give back to entrepreneurs and the small business community and answer questions for an hour.
We also orchestrated a million-dollar advertising giveaway on our website for small businesses. We structured it in a way so that a certain number of businesses could take advantage of it, and basically in the span of the first 20 minutes we were fully booked. That was something we were happy to do.
It has been a busy and hectic time. And I feel incredibly honored to be here because it’s such a purpose-driven organization right now. And the events we’re seeing in the last week only make us think about that more, and how we can extend even more support to a subset of the small business community that really needs our help.
Folio: Speaking of being purpose driven, we recently spoke with Adi Ignatius, who is the EIC at Harvard Business Review, and he said his business publication was “created for a moment like this,” do you have a similar point of view for Inc.?
Omelianuk: Absolutely. I can’t tell you the number of letters, emails and unsolicited LinkedIn notes saying how grateful people are that we’re here and providing the information that we are.
I do think there’s a practical difference between Inc. and HBR. We’re talking about every day survival and how to practice that in less academic or larger-picture perspectives. We’re talking to people who are telling us they have been subscribing to Inc. for 40 years and it’s never been more important to them. It’s the difference between day-to-day survival versus long-term survival and I think we’re very much in the trenches with entrepreneurs.
Folio: Long before the COVID-19 crisis, and the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing, we were seeing a steady increase of businesses leaning into corporate social responsibility. Why has this become so important, even when it can be controversial to some?
Omelianuk: I think crises accelerate change that already is beginning to bubble up in society. So, to me, when the situation becomes much more existential, the things that matter are allowed to assert their importance.
I think brand purpose is more important, which is different than corporate social responsibility, because it’s the relationship you have with your consumer and why they choose you over someone else. And that’s not because you donate to National Parks or some other cause, it’s who you are and why you exist. I think there’s a difference there. [We’re here] to make sure there’s somebody giving voice to the entrepreneurial community.
We’ve had a conversation around race and Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, but I think unfortunately those conversations don’t move the needle fast enough until there’s some external force acting on them. My hope is, as awful as the last week or several months have been, we’ll use this as a learning opportunity to be in a better place.
Folio: Given the sensitivity of these issues, how do you strike a balance between responding to a crisis versus exploiting one?
Omelianuk: There’s something of a journalistic Hippocratic oath that needs to be applied. We’re fortunate because we are something of a specialist publication. Business is a broad category, but we cover stories differently. So we don’t need to talk about the sensational, we can talk about solutions because we know that’s what our audience wants. We have to wake up every day and ask ourselves what a business owner needs. When we have our meeting every morning we go around the horn and ask, “What’s going on? How does it impact business owners? And how in our coverage of this event can we make a positive difference?”
It’s not about clicks for us; it would be a very different story if it was. It’s about being of service. The hope is that in being there in an informative, sober and helpful way, and when things get better they’ll remember that hand we extended and we’ll benefit that way. Ultimately, if we don’t, that’s okay too, because we can live with ourselves knowing we did the right thing.
Folio: As you look ahead to a post-crisis moment, what’s your plan to move the brand forward, and where do you see a lot of opportunity?
Omelianuk: We have plans for more significant activity around communities of small business owners and entrepreneurs and putting people together who benefit from conversations together. We have some curriculums we’re working on.
I have a background in television and I think there are a couple of opportunities there—whatever television means these days. Whether it’s linear or OTT, I think there’s opportunity there.
I think there’s opportunity in helping small business owners get the technical resources they need to succeed. It’s easy for a large enterprise to understand AI and all the different SaaS applications, but it’s much harder for the smaller operations. So how do we equip them in a way that doesn’t leave them at a disadvantage?
I definitely think there’s a need for replicating the town hall for the Hispanic entrepreneurial community. There’s a need for our outreach to minority business owners, if for no other reason, the fact that they are capitalized at about half of what white businesses owners are, meaning credit is harder to get, so it’s harder to build generational wealth. There is a significant drag on the broader economy by not giving minority business owners the same tools, whether they are financial instruments or otherwise, that we give white-owned businesses. We are leaving lots of wealth and standards of living on the table that doesn’t have to be left there. So I think there’s a part of Inc. that needs to address that. All of that comes back to the whole reason Inc. exists. And that’s to support the small business community, which is the engine of our economy.
Folio: With a magazine, a website, podcasts, webinars and much more, you’re a definitely a multi-platform publisher. So how important and sustainable is print for you at this point?
Omelianuk: I ultimately think it doesn’t matter. To answer the question directly, all the plans I have seen include a print magazine. I had Daymond John say something really interesting about Inc. and the magazine. One of the core things we do is provide recognition to those who have been successful. He was talking about promoting his book and I said he could get it on the website on the [book’s] publication date. But his publicist said, “No, no, no, that’s not what we want. We want to be in the magazine.” I asked why and Daymond said that anyone can have a website, but not anyone can have a printing press. That means something more. I think that’s an interesting thought. While there’s no question that we don’t break stories in print anymore, print has become a very different thing and will continue to evolve. It’s one of our assets. I love all of my children equally, whether they’re events or digital, or podcast or anything that comes in the future. They are all individual tools that help us connect with the consumer. So what I am most mindful of is how they want to connect.
If one of our platforms is print I think that’s terrific. We have a lot of vitality there. We have a good subscriber base and good interest from advertisers. If the day comes that it’s not appropriate then we will be on the platforms that are appropriate. Ultimately, that is the whole point of understanding your brand purpose. We don’t exist to print a magazine. We exist to give our community the information it needs. Our purpose isn’t to put ink on paper. Our purpose is to provide inspiration and information.
Folio: Given the current state of things, we’ve talked about a lot of heavy issues. Despite everything that’s happening in the world today, what gives you hope?
Omelianuk: One of the things that’s really exciting to me is the outreach and the communication people have had, and the collaboration that’s gone on that we would not have seen otherwise. It’s encouraging and I hope some of that sticks around. I think the broader economy and all of us will be better for it.