From digging ditches, loading Coke pallets on delivery trucks and waiting on tables, to teaching eighth grade English and producing award-winning content for more newspapers than you knew existed, Jeff M. Hardison, owner of HardisonInk.com, has lived a life full of variety and impressive accomplishments.
Hardison shared the story behind his entrepreneurial journey and how HardisonInk.com, which celebrates 10 years in business this February, provides a much-needed online daily news source for people interested in Levy, Dixie and Gilchrist counties, and beyond. Not only does it provide free online daily news stories, photos and videos, but advertisers see results, probably in no small part due to the high amount of traffic the website sees.
"I'm originally from St. Petersburg," Hardison said. "My mother was Miss St. Petersburg in 1947 and she was Miss Florida in the Miss America Pageant that year. My father was a World War II hero who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star with Oak Clusters and several other medals. He named the bomber he served on the City of St. Petersburg. So, there’s some if my heritage.
“I first started writing in high school for the Nor’easter which is the school newspaper of Northeast High School. I had fun being the editorial editor and moving people. That's really when I began to develop my love and appreciation for writing. After high school, I was in the first class of Newswriting and Editing at the Modern Media Institute, later renamed the Pointer Institute for Media Studies. I also spent time at St. Petersburg Junior College, and was the news editor of The Wooden Horse, before enrolling at the University of Florida."
Hardison continued, "While at UF, I wrote for the Independent Florida Alligator as a freelancer, and the Gainesville Sun and the High Springs Herald as a student journalist. Before I graduated, I worked for The Jasper News. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I ended up winning an award in 1983 for Investigative Reporting. I was soon hired by a rival two newspapers as editor, and convinced the College of Journalism and Communication to accept my work experience as credit towards completing my degree, because the only three hours I lacked were in public affairs reporting, and I essentially proved myself with my work as a reporter in that regard."
In April 1984, Hardison was let go from his position as a result of the newspaper being purchased and closed by a larger publisher. He relocated to Naples where he took a position as Business Writer, and later Managing Editor, for The Naples Star. From 1984 to 2010, Hardison moved a few more times, wrote and edited for several different newspapers, earned awards as an editor and reporter for weeklies and dailies, went back to college to become a teacher, taught all over the place, including at New World Language Institute, Eckerd College and Admiral Farragut Academy, did some freelance work and, prior to launching HardisonInk.com on February 1st, 2011, spent time writing for the Lake City Reporter and a start-up horse magazine in Ocala.
Hardison and others in the newspaper business were laid off, starting even more than 10 years ago, because of the Internet. Ad revenue was down considerably for daily newspapers and more people were using the Internet for their news. Despite the prospects of unemployment, Hardison immediately recognized an opportunity to combine his experience with the growing demand for online news.
"I put my faith in God and said this is it," Hardison said. "When I lived in Naples, I wrote a series of stories about what to do when starting a business. I went exactly 180-degrees contrary to what I advised for people to do if they were starting a business. I asked my friend the now late Bill Kilborn to create a website that would allow me to make daily updates to content. I sold my first ad, and started writing stories about local interests. As the site increased in reputation, I sold more ad space and, the business grew. It continues growing."
Hardison, and his wife, Sharon, who's a multiple award-winning Graphic Design Artist and Ad Creator, started the business with their last $1,000. Coming out of the recession, it wasn't the easiest time to start a business. However, through hard work and by committing to “straight journalism,” Hardison has developed HardisonInk.com into a well-known brand and resource that provides reliable news, community events, business, police and spiritual information for the Nature Coast and other parts of North Central Florida.
His site includes state, national and international news on occasion as well.
"We had an average monthly tally of 11,204 unique visitors in 2019," Hardison said. "We also had more than 1.2 million hits as the monthly average in 2019. It's great to have the numbers, but for me, it comes down to knowing I'm helping people. That's truly what I enjoy most. When I write stories that impact the public, such as my series on Fisheating Creek that ultimately gave the public the right to use that waterway, it makes me feel good."
Looking ahead, Hardison's plan is to keep going at his current pace and to sustain the business for as long as possible. To accomplish that, he admits that it'll come down to selling more ads and generating more readers. "The fun part is writing stories, taking photos and making videos," he said. "The work part, which I never thought I'd have to do, is selling ads. Luckily, I have a high-quality product and everyone sees what we're doing. Advertisers understand the value we provide."
What advice does Hardison have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
"Conduct plenty of market research," he said. "Hire an attorney. Hire a CPA. Do not start something based on only a pipe dream. Think about what you're doing and make sure you have enough money to live on, without depending on your business, for probably five years. Also, from my perspective, I would advise people to pray to God and listen. See if you feel moved by the Spirit to do the thing you want to do. Finally, since you asked, I’m going to say new business owners should try to be motivated by love rather than to be moved by greed."