How to Build an Entrepreneurial Empire From Scratch: A Conversation with InStore Audio Network’s Jeff Shapiro

Since buying his first radio station in 1984, Dartmouth graduate Jeff Shapiro has managed to build a radio empire, sell a radio empire and now re-purchase parts of that empire back again as he owns and operates radio stations throughout New England. In addition, he has diversified into other “radio-type” media ventures as he is currently the Chairman/Co-Owner of the InStore Audio Network, the largest instore audio advertising and marketing company in America. The Company serves over 33,000 retail stores, with music and radio-type ads right at the point of purchase.

Today Jeff shares with us the story of how his career in radio came about, explains the role of happenstance and open-mindedness in discovering passionate career opportunities, and lets us in on his best tips for business and entrepreneurial success.

A Discussion with Jeff Shapiro, Chairman/Co-Owner, InStore Audio Network

jshapiroQ:  What fueled you to start buying radio stations in the first place?

Jeff:  Think back to your extracurricular activities in college and high school. Chances are you loved them and you gave them all of your time. Whether it was the newspaper or the debate team, your sorority or fraternity, you gave it hundreds of hours without being asked. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to pursue a career that I did as an extracurricular activity in college, but the good news is that I even get  paid do it.

Taking a step back, my brothers and I started a kite store on the Nantucket Island together. We were in high school at the time. Our parents had always bought us things that would expand our abilities from Lego sets to models to build to early Apple computers, and they also bought us kites. There wasn’t a hip kite store in Nantucket, so my older brother and I spent the summers there running a tiny kite shop.

You could say I already had the entrepreneurial bug before I got to Dartmouth radio. The kite store showed me retail at the very basic level. Then I found radio.

Q:  What is the story of how you got started in the radio business?

Jeff:  It’s amazing how one happenstance conversation can change your entire life.  Sometimes people are so predisposed to a particular career — for example, a lawyer or a doctor — but sometimes you have to be like a pinball and be willing to bounce off of things, and that’s where you really find true opportunities.

My life in the radio business began when I was a freshman at Dartmouth. I was setting up my stereo in my dorm room, and an undergraduate advisor on our hall came by. As he was making conversation, he said, “Are you into radio?” My response to him was simply, “No, I just happen to own a stereo.” He happened to be the voice of Dartmouth hockey and did all of the hockey games. He asked if I was interested in training at the Dartmouth radio stations. That one 3-minute conversation changed my whole life.

Dartmouth was blessed to have a fully commercial, self supporting AM/FM radio stations that the students fully manage. It takes a lot of students to make it happen. I started off as the weatherman. There was zero meteorological training before I was put on the air, but instead I was just shown how to rip the weather off of the wire teletype and read it back. “Weatherman Jeff Shapiro is calling for temperatures…” was heard on both the Dartmouth AM and FM stations dozens of times per day.

Everything was going well until I predicted a beautiful sunny weekend, and it rained the entire weekend. A woman called me and said that I had ruined the most important day of her life. She was getting married and canceled her tents because of my forecast. Whoops.

That unhappy situation for her became fortuitous for me as I decided to leave the weather “profession” and join the business department at the station. I went from Controller to Business Manager to eventually becoming the General Manager of the stations when I was a junior.

Q:  You mentioned opportunity coming through happenstance. Do you think someone can put him or her self in a position to find opportunities or do you think it’s pure chance?

Jeff:  I think part of it is just being open-minded about new ideas, new people, and new ways of thinking. And part of it is staying in touch with people.

When I talk to college students, I tell them to look at the person sitting right next to them. That person might be their business partner some day. You just don’t know.  If you really spend a lot more time focusing on the people around you and stay open-minded, that’s when those opportunities will come.

In 2000, one of my college friends from Dartmouth Radio with whom I’d stayed in touch was selling newspaper coupons for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  He called me because he knew I was a radio guy and he had an opportunity that he wanted to discuss with me. Basically, News Corp had a product that played radio types of audio ads tied into the music playing in retail stores across America — in other words, radio that was playing right at the “point of purchase” in supermarkets and drugstores around the country.  They hadn’t been paying much attention to this part of their company and my college friend thought they might sell it to us.

I thought it was a great idea and in 2003, my business partner and I purchased the small division of News Corp that has since become InStore Audio Network. We started with 2,000 stores and grew it to 33,000 stores. That business started with a phone call from my business partner, Gary, who was a year behind me in college, all because we stayed in touch.

Q:  What do you think the key to your success was in the early stages of your career?

Jeff:  This is something that I tell young people all the time: Adopt a mentor!

When I was a senior in college, one of my friends from Dartmouth radio and I heard about a local radio station in New Hampshire for sale. We called the owner and said we wanted to buy the radio station. The owner came to meet us for drinks — mind you I was barely old enough to drink legally. I remember the owner saying, “You guys don’t know anything. You’re a bunch of educated idiots. You have this great education, but you still don’t know anything. Come back when you know something.”

I remember thinking we really screwed up this chance to buy our first radio station. We didn’t have the money or the expertise, but we had the ability to ask at that point.

My friend and I eventually worked at a bank on Wall Street. We went through these training programs and came out with suits and business cards with this prestigious employer’s name. We had the accoutrements, but we probably still didn’t know anything about really buying a radio station and running it.

A year into our Wall Street experience, we called the owner of that radio station again and he  agreed to meet with us again. Knowing that we really still didn’t know anything more than before, I reached out to a friend of a friend who was actually in the radio business. I told him about our first meeting and asked if he would help us. He said yes, and that guy has been my mentor for 30 years. He helped us put together the deal, gave us ideas of financing it and changed the course of my entire life.

The most successful people in any industry have every accoutrement of life, but what makes them feel really great is helping somebody else.  Don’t ask for money. Don’t ask for a job. Just ask them for their time.

Once we had the deal in place to purchase that station, we then had to come up with the money. We literally went to friends of our parents, friends in college, and their parents and really bootstrapped  together the money to buy this first station. Plus, we found a small bank in NH that really believed in the local community and felt that its radio voice should be locally owned.  And then in November 1984, I quit my job and moved back to New Hampshire to turn those radio stations around.

So starting in 1984 and even continuing to today, what I really do is buy broken radio stations and fix them. We’d buy a station and work and work and fix it, and then we would save and save and save money until we could go buy another broken radio station. And then we’d work and work and work and save and save and save and then we’d buy the next one.  My father used to ask, “How come you don’t ever buy anything good?” and I told him that we couldn’t afford to! That saved us from making lots of mistakes, as we have to be very patient and disciplined buyers. The stations were typically doing so poorly, we thought the only place they could go was up!  I brought that same attitude to the InStore Audio Network, as the company was the opposite of “robust” when we bought it from News Corp

So, that has been my career path — it’s been a lot of building from scratch and fixing. That’s what I’ve always done:  Started with stations that had no signal, no transmitter, no nothing, and literally starting from scratch — zero billing, zero employees, and take it from worst to first.

Q:  What do you think separates those who are successful in business and entrepreneurship from those who are not?

Jeff:  There are a couple of sayings that I use in my business life. One of them is, “Success comes from the balance of determination and patience.” If you have too much determination, you’re reckless. If you have too much patience, you’re lazy. Sometimes people just push so hard that they become reckless in their business. Maybe you want to be worth $50M in 3 years and never work again. But that’s not realistic and a lot of failed businesses come from those Hail Mary passes.

People say to me all the time that I’m a risk taker. I respond to them that I am a “highly calculated” risk taker.  So in the end, I don’t really feel like I am taking that much risk in doing business transactions.  I’ve bought and sold over 90 radio stations and have never lost money — knock on wood.

I think it’s about being selective and doing things that make sense, but not trying to throw too many Hail Mary passes. Former football coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” People blame everyone or everything  else in their lives for their failures and their unhappiness, mainly because it’s the easiest thing to do. But in my business, we all roll up our sleeves to do the really hard things FIRST and we don’t accept that our environment necessarily controls our fate. When you do the hardest things first, it always feels the best!

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Learn more about Jeff Shapiro and his radio stations:

InStore Audio Network

Great Eastern Radio

True Island Radio Nantucket

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