Jan 21, 2020
There is always a recession coming, we just don’t know when. The US is in one of the longest expansion periods ever known but many predict a recession in the next twelve to twenty-four months. Business owners can make money in a growing economy and they can make also money in an economy that is pulling back.
Today we are talking to Jonathan Slain, founder of Recession.com – a company he started in 2008 when he lost his fitness-based business. He saw an opening and borrowed the money to launch his successful recession-proof consulting business.
In his new book, Rock the Recession, Jonathan and his co-author highlight ways savvy entrepreneurs can bounce back from internal recession and make plans to be buyers when opportunity knocks.
Mark: Joe there’s a recession coming.
Joe: Is it? I’m not sure I thought it was here 18 months ago or was coming 18 months ago and now it’s going to be fall of 2020. What’s the story? How do you know this?
Mark: Well there’s always a recession coming, right?
Joe: Oh, yeah.
Mark: I mean we know we just don’t know when but if you look at; I would encourage people listening; when you’re in your car don’t pick up your phone but when you get back to your office or get back to in front of a computer do a search for a graph of recession gaps and you’ll get to see from 1900 until present when the recessionary periods were and when the non-recessionary periods were. And we are in a period of time right now, one of the longest expansion periods in our economy and so it’s not really soot saying or you know looking in a crystal ball to see that there’s a recession coming. We know it’s going to happen, we don’t know how bad, we don’t know when exactly but we do know it is. And I had an investment professor in college who would say all the time bears get rich, bulls get rich, pigs get slaughtered and I always thought well bears get rich too but you need to actually plan for; I screwed that up, it’s bulls and bears and pigs but whatever you need to plan for this…
Joe: I’m just trying to think through what you just said so thank you I thought I was not keeping up with you.
Mark: Well you know what I failed that class so maybe that’s why I don’t know the right answer. But bulls get rich, bears get rich, pigs get slaughtered. And the point was you can make money in a growing economy, you can make money in a declining economy don’t get greedy; that’s the lesson but there is an in lesson in there, you can make money in a down economy but how many of those listening right now are just looking at their last year being like that was awesome without any idea of what they’re going to do when; not if but when the economy pulls back or they haven’t pull backed within their own company. And I know you talked to somebody who specializes in this; he owns recession.com for goodness sake.
Joe: I know what a great URL, Recession.com, it’s Jonathan Slain and he’s been through this. He started his own company in 2008 and just had to fight through meeting payroll and all these different things and learned so much in terms of being ready for the next recession and preparing for the next recession. And he’s expanded beyond the actual economic recessions that we’re talking about and focuses a little bit in helping companies with internal recessions so that if they had a client that had a subscription or SaaS business but only had 10 major clients and they lost two or three within a month or two that’s an internal recession. If you’ve got a hero SKU that you’re selling and 70% of your revenue is from that hero SKU you are setting yourself up for an internal financial recession with your business if competition comes in and hurts that. So he has a readiness assessment test; a recession readiness assessment test on his website and it goes through and compares how you are prepared compared to others and helps people take advantage of upcoming recessions and avoid the major pitfalls in being one of those pigs that get slaughtered.
Mark: Well let’s get right to it because I think this is an important topic for anyone. Anyone out there that has an online business, don’t get too fat on your current earnings. Understand that businesses go through cycles, economies go through cycles, let’s all survive this next cycle and thrive in the next cycle and it sounds like that’s what we’re going to learn here.
Joe: Hey folks Joe here from Quiet Light Brokerage and today I’ve got Jonathan Slain with us. Jonathan is the author of Rock the Recession and is an expert in preparing for an economic downturn either in a worldwide situation or a nationwide situation or possibly in your own business. Jonathan welcome to the podcast.
Jonathan: Let’s rock. Good to be here.
Joe: Can you expand on that background a little bit? We don’t do any fancy introductions here. Can you tell the audience who you are what you’re all about and where you come from?
Jonathan: Yeah, so I come to you today from my home in Cleveland, Ohio but I really started my career; I have to disclose that I’m a recovering investment banker. And so that’s where I started. From there I went on to own my own business which was five gyms all located in Cleveland. I think you mentioned earlier that I borrowed some money from my mother in law in the Great Recession so we can talk about that. And since then now I am full time doing consulting for large companies looking to grow revenue in or profit and that is what brought me to writing the book. And then when we were talking before we started the show getting me on Fox News lately. So we can talk about any or all of that but that’s my story.
Joe: Well congratulations on stepping up to the Quiet Light Brokerage podcast from Fox, it’s a big show you’re on now.
Joe: Are you nervous?
Jonathan: A little bit.
Joe: We’ve got some pretty impressive people in the audience believe it or not; they’re both buyers and sellers of online businesses, entrepreneurs that are building businesses that they’re solopreneurs in some case sometimes they have remote VAs working for them sometimes they have staff. But what would your recommendations be for those that are; first we’ll talk about the owners of online businesses and how they prepare for a potential economic recession.
Jonathan: Yes. So the first thing that I would do is to assess where you are. So as a business owner it’s really to benchmark how you’re doing compared to where everybody else is in the market. So if you don’t know where you stand then you can’t figure out what you should do first to start to get better and improve. When it comes to benchmarking that was where my business partner and the co-author of the book; that’s where we started. And so we put up a free tool. It’s on our website so if the audience wants to go to recession.com they can go there. It’s 20 questions. It only takes about 5 to 10 minutes Joe and you’ll get a score from 0 to 100. If you’re a zero then it’s likely that you’re going to go bankrupt in the next recession, if you’re a hundred then you’re licking your chops; can’t wait to pounce when we hit the next downturn. So that’s where I’d start.
Joe: How do you benchmark in an industry like the online business with a lot of smaller businesses doing less than 10 million in revenue when none of the information is public?
Jonathan: Yeah. So what I can tell you is that from all of the responses we’ve received to the recession readiness assessment, the average score right now is a 37. So I think for people looking to benchmark themselves with other private companies 37 is where we’re seeing the mark. If you’re above that score that relative to we’ve got a thousand plus responses you’re probably doing better than the average and below that can be nervous. So I think that’s one piece but it brings up a good point and I think part of what I was listening to on some of your other episodes is that private businesses, small businesses need to have their own board of advisors. And so that’s one of the questions actually on our assessment is do you have a board of advisors? And I’m not talking about your lawyer, I’m not talking about your accountant, I’m talking about people that have a proven track record of making money in business preferably in a similar business to what you’re doing to your online business and that will just give you straight feedback. Again I know that some people bristle when I say don’t have your accountant or lawyer on the team. My issue is that your paid professionals may not want to tell you what you need to hear all the time for fear of losing your business.
Joe: And I think that’s a great idea. I call them mentors or board advisers whatever it might be. The question is I saw something on the hustle the other day, we focus on or I watched that and I know Sam and that was a question that someone came up with so like look I’m trying to find a local mentor or board of advisors; how do you find them? A lot of people gave a lot of different responses but what would your advice be in terms of trying to find the right type of mentor or board of advisor and is there a cost associated with it?
Jonathan: So I always have a list. I call it the list. I keep it with me at all times. It’s the 10 people I’d love to have on my board of advisors; the people I’d love to have as a mentor or a coach. And the issue is that most of them are not going to work with me right now. These are all folks that are super busy; they’re overcommitted, and so they’re on my list because once a quarter I bug them. I send them an email, I text them, I give them a phone call, I just drip on them and I try to wear them down until they finally get to the point where they’re like fine I’ll coach you; I’ll mentor you. And that’s literally I think how I’ve gotten a lot of my mentors because the people that I’m chasing don’t have discretionary time. And so I don’t think it’s as simple as we listen to the podcast and we decide I’m going to do this thing and you just all of a sudden have a board. It’s going to be a process that takes some time. In terms of the cost associated with it, I do think it depends on who you’re working with. But I would think an honorarium of 500 to $1,000 per board member per quarter is fair. And I’ll tell you that they shouldn’t need the money. If the reason they’re doing this is turning a little bit extra money I don’t think you have the right person on your board. I think that in most cases they should be donating whatever you are giving them to their favorite nonprofit. And I think they should want you to pay them the 500 just to keep you honest and actually listening to their counsel and to keep them honest so that they feel like they have some skin in the game that they need to do some research; they need to read your financials before they get to the meeting.
Joe: And how much time a quarter do you take up with someone like that?
Jonathan: Yes. So my thought would be a four-hour meeting once a quarter and that they should do anywhere between two and four hours of prep of reading whatever packet that you send to them before the meeting.
Joe: Okay, not too bad. What actionable advice can you give people that are running online businesses now in addition to the board members what could someone do now thinking okay, if there is an economic recession I want to do everything I can to prepare over the next 6 to 12 months. What can they do now?
Jonathan: Yes. So the second step in the whole process would be to tune yourself and your business up. And by tune up I mean you’re going to be doing things like looking at your line of credit. So do you have the right line of credit to be able to grow in a recession?
Joe: Why do they need a line of credit?
Jonathan: So by that, I simply mean capital access to cash if we get into a downturn and you see an awesome opportunity to buy assets to buy inventory for cheap, to be able to afford talent that you couldn’t get access to during the recession or maybe they find a bolt-on opportunity for their business to purchase another business then you’re going to need access to capital in order to make all those things happen.
Joe: And what forms of credit would you advise someone seek?
Jonathan: Yes. So I think that the best would probably be a line of credit that isn’t secured by personal assets. If you can’t get that done then look at a home equity line of credit and if you can’t get that done then look at credit cards. The thing is to have access to capital; you don’t have to use it. But here’s the deal like right now when the economy is good this is the best possible time to go to your bank and ask for credits. When we’re in a recession, when we’re in a downturn the banks are not going to loan you money. They’re going to laugh at you if you come and you try to borrow from them. I mean one of my favorite sayings is that you can go to a bank; it’s like asking for an umbrella except when it’s raining. So banks operate in the same way. They want to extend credit now because all the banks are competing for your business. When we’re in a recession, when we’re in a downturn they’re going to start to contract their portfolios. They’re going to start to mitigate risk. They’re not going to want to open up new lines of credit especially for online businesses; especially for newer online businesses that they see as riskier and not asset-backed.
Joe: I’m going to back that up, folks. I sold my business as you all know in November of 2010. I bought a house in June of 2010. I paid mostly cash for it. I sold my business in November and then got busy got delayed and didn’t apply for that home equity line of credit until sometime in May the following year. Well, guess what? I had filed my tax returns. I didn’t have employment. I had a ridiculous amount of equity in my home and I got declined for a home equity line of credit because of timing. It was ridiculous. It was 2011 at that point as well. So the economy was just coming back and I had a ridiculous amount of credit but because I didn’t have a quote-unquote job or income at the time I got turned out for hillock. And I had been given previous advice exactly like this and this is from my mentor; a business person, a business advisor, always have some sort of line of credit available to you. Jonathan is right. Make sure if you can it’s not tied to personal assets but the reality in this solopreneur world that we live in for the most part that’s really hard to do. If you can’t get that non-secured get secured and get it backed up as a credit line with your investment advisors or on your home equity line of credit or any other way that you can. What about credit cards and revolving credit cards; do you advise people to mess around with that at all or is that something that they should avoid?
Jonathan: Well I would as a last resort. Again for me, you don’t have to use them. But I’m a business owner too; I’m an entrepreneur I always want to have a backup in case things don’t go as planned and so part of this is that I want everyone to look forward to the next recession. I know that’s weird but that was the idea behind why we wrote the book. I mean the traditional plan for a recession is fire people and cut overhead and just survive and that book’s already been written many times over. The idea here was what if we studied people that leverage recessions and use them as a way to hack the system to escape the usual need to hustle and grind to be able to grow your business and then sell it for a dream outcome. And so I’m always thinking of how can we use credit in downtimes to be able to buy assets to buy businesses from other people that weren’t smart enough to listen to our podcast; from everybody that didn’t prepare. And at the same time if all the stuff we’re talking about isn’t working; Joe, if people are listening and they’re like look my business isn’t growing and I’m in a recession myself then you need access to that capital just to survive. I mean at the end of the day we all need to protect the beehive as entrepreneurs because if the business doesn’t survive then none of the rest of this matters.
Joe: And that’s almost moving into the second type of recession and that’s just an internal business recession when someone has key employees that leave or hero SKUs where competition comes in. How do you help people in that regard or what actionable steps can you recommend to them that they take to avoid a situation like that or rectify it if it happens?
Jonathan: Perfect. I mean I know a lot of people don’t always agree with my predictions. I do think that we’re going to have some sort of a downturn in the US economy towards the end of 2020. I don’t think it’ll be a full-blown recession but I do think as we get closer to the election that consumers and businesses will hold up in terms of spending and that will slow our economy down. But if you’re rolling your eyes right now, if you’re saying I don’t agree with this guy I don’t think the next recession still 2021 or 2022 and you’re about to tune us out then just wait one sec. The idea here is that you brought up non-economic recessions so if your biggest customer leaves that would usually put most businesses into a recession. It could apply to a hero SKU in our case. If you have a competitor come in and attack your hero SKU; same difference, you’re in a recession. If your best one or two employees leave and they go start a competing business, you are in a recession. The other one that has recently come up is what about government and regulatory changes? I mean I know the audience understands that vaping is a huge new business and everybody wants to get into marijuana, get into vaping well in New England they recently passed a law putting a moratorium on vaping while they studied the after-effects of it after there were several deaths. All of a sudden all those online businesses that were selling vaping cartridges were vaporized. And that happened overnight. It happened very quickly. So I want everybody listening to have a plan for how they can leverage those opportunities.
Joe: Well the tariffs I guess could be considered a recession for some businesses. I’ve got a client who’s tariffs are 42.6% on top of his cost of goods sold; a pretty big impact.
Jonathan: They sell online?
Joe: No, they don’t.
Jonathan: Okay. Well so it’s thinking through if you’re in one of those businesses what can you do? So the question then becomes you want to start to think about how you can diversify. And I know that the more practical tips for this are that I like to use online research. There’s a site called Ibis World and it’s a paid site.
Joe: Is that I-B-I-S?
Jonathan: I-B-I-S. Ibis World. You would have to make an investment but they provide industry reports on where they believe the future of different industries are going. So if you’re selling line online they’ve got a report for that. If you’re selling widgets online they’ve got a report for that. And the idea there is that you want to think about industries that will do better in the downturn and industries that will do worse. So in the book, we write about some of our favorite; some of the ones that got pummeled in the last recession, in the Great Recession and the ones that did well. The ones that got pummeled think like jewelry stores not good in a recession. If you’re selling high-end jewelry online or in a store; not good, same thing with things like travel and tourism, discretionary goods. That’s why I was selling personal training services in the Great Recession; not good. We all know that insurance and finance got hit especially hard in the Great Recession. Not good. So the ones that did well would be things like consumer staples; so if you’re selling consumer staples like toothpaste, people are still going to need to brush their teeth in a downturn. If you start to get more exotic with your thinking; think about like veterinary clinics and veterinary supplies, people still spend money and take care of their pets in a downturn. And people don’t care; if their dog is sick they’ll put it on a credit card, if their dog likes Eukanuba and that’s one of the most expensive brands, people will not change their dog food brand if we’re in a recession. So if you’re an online seller of those high-end pet products; I actually like that market. I think it will continue moving forward. My point just to answer your question though is that if you slow down, if you do some of the deep work of thinking instead of just being busy then I think all the answers are actually out there for how I will position myself, how I would start to diversify if I am in that hero SKU situation.
Joe: In other words I had a neighbor tell me once; I was asking him, he was a bit of a mentor as well, he said Joe, you know exactly what to do. You just need somebody else to tell you to reinforce it. Same thing here folks; you’ve heard Mark and I say it and almost every guest that’s ever been on the podcast, focus on the business. It’s not about driving top-line revenue only, focus on the nuts and bolts of the bottom line part of the business and that’s going to bring value; improve transferability, the documentation, the growth trends, the data behind the business and that’s going to bring you more value in the short run and in the long run if you eventually do sell your business. And that leads Jonathan to talking about the other half of the audience; the people that are buying online businesses, those people that tune in week after week as they’re on the hunt for that next business that they want to buy and they listen to us. What advice can you give to someone if they’re out there hunting for a business in terms of looking for that business with a potential forthcoming recession?
Jonathan: Yeah. So I want to start with the story and that’s that Paul Belair who I wrote the book with; right before the Great Recession started Paul bought a business. He invested a million dollars with his management team to purchase the business and they grew it during the Great Recession. It was an HVAC business, so a business that helped out with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; not a sexy business. And they sold it 63 months later. They sold it for over 70 million.
Joe: He bought it for a million and sold it for over 70.
Jonathan: So the purchase price was higher than a million but they put in a million in cash.
Joe: I got you.
Jonathan: And then they had some debt to fund the rest of it.
Joe: Fair enough. That still sounds like a hell of a return on investment.
Jonathan: Yeah well it’s 70X on your cash plus; I can’t tell you the exact number. He’s under an NDA but in any case, it’s even over 70 million. So that’s why Paul writes the book with me but in terms of being on podcasts, you would prefer to be off playing pick-up ball in Florida.
Joe: So hopefully he’s using Amazing Aces. We’ve got a client that bought that business and it’s a great brand.
Joe: Jonathan: I love it. Well, it’s Amazing Aces?
Jonathan: All right I’m making; you know what? I’m still Christmas shopping for him.
Joe: There you go.
Jonathan: So I tell you that story because part of the way that they did that huge one million to 70 million dollar exit is that they picked a business and then they moved it such that it would have a tailwind in a downturn. And so if you’re a buyer right now it’s thinking about what kinds of businesses would get an economic tailwind if we were in a downturn and then like my mom says you’ve got to put yourself in the middle of the street if you want to get run over. So Paul…
Joe: Very bad parenting; I don’t know what the deal is with your mom but I got to say that’s not very good advice. Alright.
Jonathan: Paul put himself in the middle of the street because what he did was when he bought that HVAC business they moved it from doing mostly construction; so by construction I just mean when you buy a new HVAC system and they install it on the roof of your building that’s a construction project.
Jonathan: Those units cost 5 to 20,000; that’s a big project, a big investment. They moved it to doing service. So how could they take the equipment that was existing for a business owner and repair it because in a downturn; in a recession, people would rather repair their equipment than replace it. And so Paul saw that trend coming with his management team and totally changed the business to really capitalize on that. And that’s how they were able to grow it into this recurring revenue business which again is another big thing I’d be looking out for your buyers.
Jonathan: Yeah. How do we get into a business that has recurring revenue? How can we be selling the razor cartridges instead of that one-time transaction?
Joe: So find a business in a niche that’s not going to be impacted by a downturn whether it’s a critical service business or something like the pet space where people will spend money on their pets no matter what and adding some sort of recurring revenue aspect to it. Beyond that any thoughts in terms of their own personal financials and how to prepare for it in terms of buying; is it the same thing lining up as much line of credit and purchasing power as possible?
Jonathan: Yeah well actually my favorite tip there is on the personal guarantee side. So I know right now with the economy booming; I mean consumer confidence is at record highs, unemployment is at record lows, the economy is still booming so banks are still willing to do more than they will at any other point in our economic cycle. I love the idea of capping, reducing, or eliminating personal guarantees especially for your buyers. So what does that look like to go to the bank and ask them to do the deal but to do it without a personal guarantee or to put a cap on that personal guarantee? Right now I think bankers are willing to have that conversation. You don’t have to give up a blanket personal guarantee on all of your stuff. So this isn’t possible generally with an SBA loan so don’t worry about writing to me about that because I get it. But if you can do a conventional loan product can you get it so that you can cap those personal guarantees or reduce them? And it may mean that you have to shop banks, maybe you have to go to four or five banks, maybe you have to talk to your local credit union to make that possible. I just think it’s worth having that conversation so that if we get into a downturn; if your business does go sideways that you’ve mitigated some of the risks that you would otherwise have. And it’s free to ask.
Joe: And on that aspect folks we’ve had Shakil Prasla on the podcast and Shakil has bought half a dozen businesses and he’s done it mostly with non-SBA money and building up credit with banks and probably is avoiding that personal guarantee as well. So Google Shakil Prasla and Quiet Light Podcast and you’ll find that episode. In fact, I think if you Google Shakil he’s got a new course on how to purchase an online business as well so check that out. Jonathan before we go any last-minute thoughts or advice for anybody listening in terms of rocking the recession that may be coming in like 2020 in your words?
Jonathan: Yes. The main thing is to put together the recession plan in the cool rational light of day as opposed to the emotional heat of the night. I want the audience to be thinking about putting together a plan now and then putting it under glass and then if you do have a recession in your business or you see on Fox or CNN that they’re announcing that the economy’s in a recession you can go over the glass break the glass take out your plan and start to execute it. The issue most of the time is that we don’t have a plan and so when we get into a recession whether it’s personal or affecting the entire country you’re huddled in the fetal position in the corner of your office like I was when the Great Recession hit. I didn’t have a plan. I had people knocking on my office door asking me what was going to happen with the business. And I just spent months trying to figure out what the plan was while all my competitors were executing and taking the best opportunities off the shelf. Well if you’re still graciously listening to us that’s what I really want for you is to be one of the people that can actually be looking forward to the recession and that can just move into execution mode when the next recession is announced.
Joe: That’s great advice. Thank you, Jonathan. How do the audience find out about more about what you do online and helping them rocking the recession? How can they find you?
Jonathan: Sure. Recession.com is the website and yes we really do own recession.com. All my contact information is on there. They can get me at Jonathan@Recession.com or all the infos are on the site if they want to go do that. Recession Readiness Assessment. They’ll see all my contact info right at the site.
Joe: Excellent. Thanks for your time today Jonathan. I appreciate it.
Jonathan: Alright. Rock on.
Links and Resources: