Turning Adversity into Opportunity: An Interview with Bruce Freeman ’73

Bruce Freeman ’73 is a successful entrepreneur. He founded Proline Communications in 1992; the firm’s clients included ViewSonic, Brother and TMS Sequoia. Freeman is an award-winning syndicated columnist, earning the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Journalist of the Year Award” for his column, “The Small Business Professor.”

Freeman co-wrote the book Birthing the Elephant (Penguin Random House, 2008). He speaks frequently at business events and universities, including the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Currently, Freeman is a professor at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and volunteers at children’s programs sponsored by Jewish Family Services. See more about his background at BruceFreemanSpeaks.com.

When you talk to students about career development, you emphasize the need to be flexible and ready to change gears. How have you done this in your career?

In the management classes I teach, I give the students a “Plan B” assignment. Every student has to tell what his or her career Plan A is. In other words, what is your dream job? Then, they have to list a Plan B. You planned on being a lawyer but there are no law jobs, what do you do?

When I lost my job as a publishing executive at Ziff Davis, I had a wife, a mortgage and a 2-year-old. I didn’t know what to do and I was in a panic. I made the decision that I was going to go off on my own. I didn’t want to get to a place where I had to worry about a daughter going off to college and that one person could pull the plug on my income, so I started my own business. There are a lot of ups and downs with that. You take your chances and make your mistakes.

The Wall Street Journal would define me as an “entrepreneur by necessity.” When I started my business, I sent announcement cards to 2,500 people in my database. The business was a consultancy in public relations and marketing but really could have been called, “Anything for a Buck, Inc.” After I was fired, I had lunch with a colleague and shared my ideas with him. He said, “Bruce, I’ll be straight with you. You have a lot of great ideas, but you have no goal or objective.” I said, “My goal is to pay the mortgage and my objective is to put three meals on the table.” That’s not what a college career center would tell you but it’s a reality in life.

The job I was let go from was at PC Magazine; I was director of operations for the testing lab. The business I started was in public relations for high-tech companies. I had a lot of big-name clients. In 2008, the economy tanked and I was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I had been teaching as an adjunct instructor and focused more on that when the business dried up. I made it my business to turn adversity into opportunity and I’ve always been able to overcome obstacles and do alright.

Can you talk more about the need to dream big but have a Plan B?

It’s great to think big but, in the real world, things happen. There are plenty of students at Binghamton University and where I teach who have to rethink things all of a sudden. The climate has changed because of COVID-19. Maybe you need to have a Plan B and an interim plan — something that will provide you with an income right now.

What skill sets should students work on?

I encourage everyone to develop a skills inventory. Take a look at what you’re good at and how you market yourself. Of course, today, you need technology skills and social media skills. Marketing skills are critically important; you need to differentiate yourself from other people looking for a job or selling a product. Networking is key because the more people you know, the better chance you have of moving ahead in your career.

Should students focus on being entrepreneurs?

If you can work well on your own, go for it! Not everyone has an entrepreneurial mind. I became an entrepreneur by necessity. That’s okay for Bruce Freeman but may not work as well for others. I personally think developing entrepreneurial skills is a plus because you don’t have to depend on one person who is going to hire you, or a person above who is going to fire you. But not everyone is built to be an entrepreneur and there’s nothing wrong if that’s not how you’re able to work.

What should I consider success if my dream job is not attainable?

I always say that if you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. That doesn’t always happen for everyone. Sometimes you get thrown into a situation where you’re doing something you didn’t plan on, so the best thing is to learn to love what you do.

Sometimes life throws you lemons, so you turn it into lemon meringue pie. I think the one thing I’ve learned along the way is there are no problems; there are only opportunities. Or, if you prefer, turn adversity into opportunity. There’s nothing more important than perseverance.

 

By Erica Kryst
Erica Kryst Senior Associate Director, Career Experiences and Education Erica Kryst