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Networld Media: How a “top-heavy” company’s leaders found their niches

5 min read

Small Business

SmartBrief is talking directly with small and medium-sized businesses to discover their journeys, challenges and lessons. Today’s post is a Q-and-A with Tom Harper, president and CEO of Networld Media Group, a Kentucky-based B2B media company. He has also founded a trade association and nonprofit organization, written “Leading from the Lions’ Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible” and co-written “Cash Box: The Invention and Globalization of the ATM.”

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Your current company, Networld Media Group, got its start as a printing supply company that also did industry news. Can you discuss the process of transitioning into a business primarily focused on industry news?

Back in 1997, we started our industry news site as a way to promote our supply business, but the site quickly took on a life of its own through advertising sales and original content. We also started an association (the ATM Industry Association) that ultimately went independent and brought on its own staff. I soon had to hand off the supply business as I got more involved in the news site and association. My background was in advertising sales and writing, so I naturally gravitated toward these new ventures.

Was it a difficult transition from founder to CEO? How did your job description change?

Networld was founded by three partners. I was president when we started, but I was only 30, and my on-the-job education for the next 14 years slowly prepared me to take on the CEO role. In the beginning I wrote articles, sold banners and built the sites, then as we grew I hired people to take each of those functions. That allowed us to start scaling. We launched a couple new sites a year until we got to about 10 news portals, then we moved into events and association management.

My job is now mostly focused on strategy, finance, M&A, IT and personnel. I still get to “play” in some of our vertical industries by chairing one of our executive summits, serving on association boards, writing an occasional blog and producing custom videos. My roots are on the creative side, and I have to work to balance that with the business side.

What difficulties, if any, lie in having more than one founder? How did you find it best to separate duties?

We used to say we were “top heavy” as a company. The founders were the chairman, CEO and president, plus we had various VPs. As principals, we were all very involved in the day-to-day. My partners are both a few decades older than I, so the company benefited from their wisdom and experience. But it also made for some interesting conversations when generational differences cropped up!

The CEO and chairman did most of our fundraising when we were in startup mode, while I focused on building the sites and creating the content. We brought in a VP of sales who added to our weight at the top. Our poor employees sometimes threw their hands up in the air when the four of us would bump heads. I have to admit this sometimes slowed our forward progress. But I also credit the older men with getting us through two recessions. Their conservative approach kept us afloat. I learned a lot.

The media world has changed a lot in the past 17 years since starting your online publication, and several other companies now also produce industry-specific B2B content. How do you try to keep yourself ahead of the pack?

We were ahead of the pack when we launched — very few companies were doing B2B online publishing. Because we were breaking new ground, we had to create our own content management system and back-end ad manager. There were no WordPress templates at the time, so we had to build every part of our sites from scratch.

Within about six years, however, we lost a bit of our advantage as many larger publishers went online and invested in Web technology. We spent a few years catching up, and now I feel we’re back at the front end with our sites again.

Today’s most successful b2b publishers are excelling in the event space, so in the past few years, we’ve launched several executive summits. This is the fastest-growing part of our business.

What hasn’t changed in the past 17 years?

It’s amazing how much has stayed the same in our business despite the drastic changes in the Web and social media. Industry professionals still want to stay up on news and trends. They still want to network in person. And advertisers still want to reach them. What’s changed are the content delivery methods.

The human need for connection is what drives our business, and always will.

You have also founded a trade association — the ATM Industry Association — and co-founded a professional association and nonprofit, the Society for Church Consulting. How has leading those organizations helped you in business?

Founding and serving on association boards is one of the best ways I know to build up your reputation in an industry, and to meet the main players. I’ve not only generated business from my involvement in associations, but I’ve made lifelong friends that have added a whole new dimension and depth to my career.