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Eyes on the End User: JIST

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Career and job-search
publisher JIST Publishing Inc. follows the same advice it offers job seekers:
be honest; pay attention to details; listen to your customers, whether they’re
interviewers or book buyers; and use what you learn to deliver what each
customer wants. Do those things and you’ll succeed, whether you’re selling
books or convincing a company to hire you.

 

This year, as JIST celebrates its
25th anniversary, the Indianapolis-based company has 56 staff members,
including 16 who work in sales and two who work on textbook adoptions. Its
workbooks, assessments titles, reference books, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and videos had
net sales of slightly more than $8 million in 2005, and JIST projects growth of
15 percent for 2006, spurred by the release of newly revised books and by a
foray into textbook publishing.

 

With 25,000 active customers, the
company has roughly 300 titles in print, and will release about 50 in 2006.
JIST often issues revised editions. “A publisher in a different field might
give something a new title and count it as a new book,” founder Mike Farr says.
“We’d probably have more like 800 titles in print if we were a more traditional
trade publisher.”

 

Before founding JIST, Farr trained
as an industrial engineer and then managed an adult outpatient psychiatric
clinic in Indianapolis that offered vocational services and helped clients find
jobs. Although its job-search programs gained national recognition because of their
high success rates, funding problems persisted, and a frustrated Farr started
his own job-search services company.

 

Farr the entrepreneur still faced
the vagaries of government grants and contracts that came and went. Looking for
steady income to offset the peaks and valleys of federal funding, he says the
company “started selling more of our knowledge in print form—initially
just as a way to pay the rent and have some stable income—and it took
off.”

 

Eventually JIST jettisoned most of
its training business and devoted itself solely to career materials. Farr and
his employees pride themselves on intimate knowledge of the processes of job
search and career building gleaned from JIST’s training days. Because of that
background, Farr says, JIST knows what products in what formats will work best.

 

“It’s like the difference between
a war movie that’s directed by someone who has been in the war versus a war
movie that’s done by someone who hasn’t been in a war,” Farr says. “We have
experience in the trenches. We’ve developed those programs.”

 

Doing Well by Meeting
Needs

 

“Every time I have called I have
had my needs met, and that is just phenomenal,” says Cindy Frey, assistant
director of the Walker Career Center for high school students in Warren
Township in Indiana. The career center has bought JIST books for more than 10
years, Frey notes, adding that when an Internet search for career assessments
failed to turn up materials her center needed, she called JIST’s customer
service line, which quickly did research and found them.

 

“They never say, ‘I’m sorry, but
we don’t have that,’” Frey says. Instead they’ll say, ‘Hmmm, let’s see what we
can do about that.’”

 

Listening not only keeps customers
satisfied; it also often leads to new products and more sales. “We have a very
collaborative relationship with JIST,” Frey says, and Farr reports that many
ideas for new products come from interaction with customers, including its
distributors and people encountered at trade shows.

 

He credits JIST’s attention to
detail and knowledge of customers’ needs for a sell-through rate at bookstores
of more than 90 percent. But he also reports, “We don’t think about sales by
channel as much as about ‘Who is interested in our subject? Let’s go get
them.’”

 

Projects don’t need to have big
sales potential. A book or a video that rounds out JIST’s product offerings
helps meet the company’s goal of providing the most comprehensive selection of
materials in the career and job-search fields. He says there’s no topic the
company wouldn’t tackle—not even something like turtle grooming—“if
customers said there was a need.”

 

“I think the biggest challenge for
people in this business is a lack of fresh thinking,” Farr says. “I’m not
saying there isn’t a lot of innovation going on. . . . It’s just that a lot of
people are still doing things in a traditional way. They think book, instead of
content. They get hung up on books equaling publishing.”

 

A typical JIST book, like <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Developing Career and
Living Skills
, has add-ons, such as a Teacher’s “Wraparound
Edition,” a Student Activity Book, and an Instructor’s CD-ROM. And Farr posts
sample pages of the book and its supplements on the company’s Web site so
people can “look inside” before ordering.

 

Failure Paves the Way

 

A quarter of the company’s sales
are to bookstores, and 75 percent are to institutions, including schools, state
and local employee training programs, the military, and social service
programs—“anybody who is interested in employment,” Farr says.

 

His own employees are encouraged
to experiment and take chances, he reports, on the theory that little failures
lead to big successes. “If you’re not taking chances, you won’t be innovative,”
Farr says. “Lots of little failures can be a good thing.”

 

When customers requested
job-search materials in Spanish, JIST experimented with job-search titles in
that language, but they didn’t sell very well. “The programs told us that they
wanted these books, but they didn’t actually buy them,” Farr remembers. “Think
about it, if you are going to be successful in finding a job, you probably need
to speak English, so why teach job search in Spanish?” But that failure led to
a successful title, Best
Careers for Bilingual Latinos
.

 

Farr says the primary goal for him
and his employees is simply to play fair and do what’s best for the company’s
customers. “We are not a vicious competitor,” he says. “If we see a competitor
and we kind of like and are impressed by what they are doing, we won’t attack.”

 

As JIST and its founder have aged,
Farr has realized the need to step back. A bout with cancer a few years ago
spurred him to think about the succession. “I realized I’m not going to be
around forever,” he says, explaining that he’s been working with employees to
figure out ways for JIST to live beyond its founder and continue to be
successful.

 

Jenny McCune is a business
writer with experience in book publishing. To reach her, email
jennymccune@imt.net.

 

Mike Farr: Defeat Won’t
Do

 

What’s
in a name:
JIST originally stood
for Job Information Seeking Training. “It was just a clever name to describe
the business, a play on words.”

 

Financing: Farr used his own money and didn’t pay himself for
nine months.

 

The
plus side of a tight budget:
“I’ve
thought about how having more money in the beginning would have been nice. But
when I think things through, I realize that we would have wasted it. Things
being tight financially really forced me to be careful about what we spend on,
and about not throwing money around. We have a rule about no new desks. This
dates back to the beginning, and I continue to insist on it.”

 

Key
to success:
“Perseverance. Because
if you don’t have that, nothing else matters. . . . Apparently I have a
neurotic unwillingness to accept defeat.”

 

 

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