I’m a lucky man! My dad (who went by “Robert” or “Bob” Kelly) taught me early on to love business.
“Business is like a game. There are some rules you should follow and it can also be a lot of fun!” – my Dad
Growing Up On Wall Street
Dad (pictured below) studied business at Columbia University in the 1950’s under the legendary securities analyst Benjamin Graham (who had taught another legend, Warren Buffett, just a few years earlier). Ben Graham’s nephew Richard Graham and his wife Susan helped my parents find the Manhattan apartment I was raised in.
Dad emphasized Graham & Buffett’s principles to me at an early age, including how important it is to:
- Communicate using “Plain English”
- Find businesses that are valued by “Mr. Market” at less than their intrinsic value (aka “book value”)
- Think long-term — -dad invested in some companies whose stock price didn’t change for 10 years (that was contrarian back in the ’80s and still is now!).
Dad illustrated one Buffett philosophy – “always meet the people you do business with face to face” — when I was 16 years old. He asked me to attend the shareholders meeting of McIntosh Laboratories, the Binghampton, NY-based maker of high-end electronic equipment used by bands such as the Grateful Dead and high-end audiophiles.
I was eager for this McIntosh roadtrip: a 3 and ½ hour drive for me and my new drivers license. The shareholders meeting was uneventful but through curiousity, and likely misdirection, I suddenly found myself sitting in on the McIntosh board meeting where I attempted to vote yay and nay on a few board matters before an elderly board member explained that my vote didn’t count.
The teachings of Warren Buffett would later lead me to study Charlie Munger, Buffett’s close friend and business partner (and an amazing teacher!).
I loved business so much as a kid that by the time I graduated high school I was ready to work on Wall Street full time – dad’s colleague John “Wall Street” Walsh talked me into attending University instead: “Wall Street will always be here, kid,” he wisely told me.
My dad later died of pancreatic cancer (something I’d love to help cure in my lifetime!) on March 12th, 2000.
I attended University of Bridgeport (after a year at Green Mountain College). I was a horrible student back then (I’m better now!). But I did have some highlights in college:
- Writing a “Wall Street” column for Bridgeport’s Scribe newspaper.
- Surveying students on “The Most & Least Favorite Professors” (and publishing it in the Scribe newspaper in a popular – albeit controversial – year-end article). Some say it was the most demanded edition of the school newspaper ever.
- Finding a part-time job at New Science Associates, a management consultancy (spun out of, and later sold back to, Gartner Group). That job got me the technology bug.
Catching The Technology Bug
My junior role at New Science was eye-opening. I got to assist their analysts – including Ken Sonenclar, Bruce Barlag, Jerry Michalski, John Popolizio, and Bill Martorelli – in studying the impact of advanced technologies such as neural networks, expert systems, C.A.S.E. and image processing for such blue-chip companies as American Express and McDonald’s.
From there I joined Digital Information Group (DIG) – led by the sharp husband and wife team Jeff Silverstein (amazing at analytics) and Maureen Fleming (awesome marketer) along with Chris Elwell (folksy manager).
We published the Software Industry Bulletin (for software executives) and Information Industry Bulletin (for publishers of online services, textbooks, encyclopedias and CD-ROMs.).
DIG had solid content and was read by some terrific industry leaders (who I got to meet!) such as:
- Bill Gates of Microsoft
- Philippe Kahn of Borland
- Scott Cook of Intuit
- Bill Campbell of Claris and Go Corp.
- Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad (and Bill Gates’ ex-girlfriend!)
- Jim Manzi of Lotus
- Heidi Roizen of T/Maker
- John Warnock of Adobe
- Fred Gibbons of Software Publishing Corp.
- Mitch Kapor of Lotus
- Scott Kurnit of Prodigy
- Ken Williams of Sierra Online
- Bill Gross of Knowledge Adventure
- Bob Parsons of Parsons Technology and GoDaddy
- Martin Sacks of IMSI/TurboCAD
- David Roux of Central Point
- Steve Case of America Online
- Dan Eilers of Claris
- Doug Burgum of Great Plains Software
- Royal Farros of T/Maker
- Alan Ashton, Bruce Bastian and Pete Peterson of WordPerfect
- Michael Cowpland of Corel Corporation
- Paul and George Grayson of Micrografx
- Dan Levin of Books That Work (now COO of Box.net)
How could I not catch the Tech bug after that experience!
I Learn First Hand What an Outstanding Company Looks Like
I next joined CMP Media, a publisher of such killer tech trade magazines such Information Week Magazine and Computer Reseller News (CRN).
CMP was founded by Gerry & Lilo Leeds and they had instilled strong values.
Here’s how awesome CMP was as a company.
- They had day care (I walked by it on the ground floor EVERY work day — how’s that for showing employees that you’re family-friendly!?
- They provided after-school tutoring for underprivileged high schoolers with a single mission/guarantee: that 100% of them would get accepted to college.
- They embraced women way before most other large companies (I guess that’s what happened when one of 2 founders is a woman!)
- They celebrated employee tenure. If memory serves, at 5 years you got a gold watch, at 10 years you got a briefcase with a lot of cash and at 15 years you got a sabbatical with more cash.
- Integrity — In the mid 1990’s, I sat with Michael in the C-Suite office in Cupertino, CA of what was then called “Apple Computer” (“Apple”). Apple was hurting in those days and an Apple exec (not Steve Jobs) asked how much it would cost Apple to have CMP publish articles that were positive about Apple products. Michael’s response: “That’s called advertising. You buy it.”
- After CMP sold to United Business Media, Michael Leeds donated $30 million to his alma mater University of Colorado to name their business school in honor of his parents.
Steve Jobs Calls (Really)
My first job at CMP was a reporter for Information Week, a leading magazine for chief information officers.
I was a poor writer. But I worked my butt off on research and getting quotes from big-shot execs.
That’s when I got a bit lucky. In early 1992, I was given an assignment to write about NeXT Computer. NeXT was the startup founded by Steve Jobs (after he was fired by Apple).
I was just 25 years old with no reputation. But I took a chance and called NeXT’s PR team to ask to interview Steve Jobs. They said no way. Steve doesn’t do interviews. And, if he did, he’d do them for a big-time reporter at Time, Business Week, etc.
But then, I was working late one night (around 6:30pm) at 88 Kearny Street in San Francisco when the phone rang. I picked up.
Caller: Hey, is this Rob?
Caller: It’s Steve
Me: Steve who?
Caller: Steve Jobs
Me: Stop yankin’ my chain (I thought it was a friend of mine pranking me)
Caller: No, really, it’s Steve Jobs. Listen, I don’t have a lot of time. I hear you want to talk to me.
So, that’s how I got to interview Steve.
The big learning (as I reflect on that call years later)?
That even someone as successful as Steve Jobs needs a little help once in awhile.
Jobs would later famously sell NeXT back to Apple.
I Get to Sit Down with Bill Gates (Again, really!?)
My luck continued.
I had a great boss at InformationWeek named Jack Soat. He was a way better writer than me.
In the Spring of 1992, Jack was kind enough to invite me along on a trip to Redmond, WA. Assignment: interview Bill Gates and the Exec Team at Microsoft.
Bill’s PR folks warned us to make sure to not ask any “stupid” questions. They said if we did, Bill would simply walk out of the room.
I asked the PR rep: “How do we know if we’re asking smart questions?” She said: “If they are really smart questions, Bill will start to rock back and forth in his chair.”
Lucky for us (due to Jack’s excellent preparation), Bill was rocking back and forth almost the entire time.
Here’s the cover story we wrote (I had to pay an eBay seller $65 to buy this edition because it’s no longer available from the publisher who acquired InformationWeek):
I ended up meeting Bill a few more times — though those were impromptu. I once saw him eating a hamburger in the Seattle Airport and we had a quick chat; and I ambushed him at a couple of conferences such as backstage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco to interview him on a Windows launch.
Serendipitously, in 2005, I would get to ask both Gates & Jobs a question while they were on stage together at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference many years later. Here’s the embed of the video
(if it doesn’t work, here’s the link)
The full transcript is Rob Kelly asks Bill Gates and Steve Jobs a Question on Entrepreneurship
My time at CMP was full of meeting amazing people. I also got to have:
- Steve Ballmer (then Microsoft CEO and now LA Clippers owner) visit our low-budget office at 88 Kearny Street in San Francisco (he arrived at 830am and asked for the only beverage we didn’t have prepared (Diet Coke).
- An informal chat with Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy (again I ambushed him) before his COMDEX keynote speech in the early ’90s – -he ended up talking more about his love of playing hockey than talking tech. Coincidentally, he would soon have a son named Maverick and years later I’d name my son Maverick too. He got a kick out of that when I pinged him years later.
I’d Rather Be In The Game Than Watching It
But after seeing so many tech leaders close up, I wanted more in the game.
I no longer wanted to be a spectator – I wanted to create business rather than write about it –
I lobbied for a new business role at CMP and ended up with Ellen Pearlman & others on the founding team of Home PC Magazine, the first major magazine focused purely on people using their computer at home.
Favorite memories at Home PC included:
- Helping to write the business plan for the new magazine (the first of many business plans I’d write) and
- Interviewing Julia Childs for a story on cooking software: I cold-called Julia by calling Information for Cambridge, Massachusetts – and she answered the phone!
Creating a new magazine was fun – and we reached 500,000 readers — but after its startup phase, Home PC needed me to write full-time. I got to interview Julia Child (she had some recipe software) and that was fun. But I was more interested in creating new business (truth be told: I wasn’t that good of a writer!).
I had been lucky enough to cultivate a relationship with CMP’s CEO Michael Leeds and he generously created a new role for me called “Special Projects, Office of The President.”
Boy was that a fun job! Highlights included:
- Traveling to Japan, France & the United Kingdom to learn international business from such partners as eMap and Nikkei
- Exploring publishing opportunities for the youth market
- Scouting potential acquisition candidates
- Researching the viability of a strategic venture capital arm
None of it led to much but I learned a ton.
“This Internet Thing Is Going To Be Big”
Around this time, CMP had a new team led by Jerry Colonna (and later Mitch York) exploring this new thing called “The World Wide Web.” Our techie readers were telling us this thing could be big and CMP’s small team began a Web site called TechWeb.
CMP/TechWeb was a Web pioneer:
- CMP was the first major publisher who built Web sites for every one of our (the collection of which became TechWeb)
- TechWeb sold the second banner ad on the Web (to IBM), which I believe is the second monetization of the Web (Wired Magazine’s Web team sold the first online ad).
My manager Mike Leeds encouraged me to join that team to work on business development. My charter at first was to grow our content syndication business (we had 1 million articles that we licensed to electronic information services such as Lexis Nexus and Dow Jones).
I expanded my role to work on Web partnerships and that included getting CMPnet/TechWeb’s logo/link on Microsoft’s Active Desktop and fueling the Technology channel on Disney’s Infoseek search engine (now Go.com)
I was proud that CMPnet/TechWeb was at one point a Top-10 revenue-producing Web property.
CMP went public in 1997 and had gotten quite big: $473.9M in revenues that year (CMP would be acquired by United News & Media for $920 million in 1999).
I’ve Gotta Build My Own Startup
By 1998, I was so excited about the Web that I decided to go off on my own and build a business from scratch. CMP’s CEO Mike Leeds was gracious upon my exit, telling me he’d like to be my first investor.
I chose the music space, found a co-founder in Chris Dobosz, and Mojam was born.
We began trying to become “The MTV of The Internet” – that lofty dream receded to a smaller objective of providing the best listings of live music in the world. I was fortunate to find a neat company called Automatrix — founded by Bob Tatar and Python-aficionado George “Skip” Montanaro — that had built a neat concert database called Musi-Cal. We acquired their great assets and talked Skip — who I consider a pioneer on the Web — into joining us as our lead developer. Mojam was a blast! I was especially proud when Time Magazine said…
However, I was naive as an entrepreneur; especially when we expanded our mission to be an incubator and launched two additional businesses (Purchase.com and Express Doctors) with a very small team.
We had bitten off more than we could chew: Purchase.com was a non-starter and Express Doctors was a major failure (losing a Series A Round of financing).
And the Internet bubble was bursting around this time (2001) — I had to take a time-out from my own startup to make some income.
I discovered an email marketing company called Topica founded by serial entrepreneur Ariel Poler where I got to lead the effort of building a new product.
Highlights at Topica included:
- Launching a paid self-service email marketing platform (Topica Email Publisher) and
- Reaching huge scale of email delivery volume (we’d mail 100 million emails per day)
I was laid off from Topica in 2003 and went to recharge my batteries in New Zealand – where I skydived, swam with dolphins and learned organic farming as a WWOOFer – and in the Virgin Islands where I learned to scuba and watched a friend get married.
Selling My First Business!
But all was not lost. Mojam was still alive. While Purchase.com & Express Doctors were false-starters, we did have a win in turning Mojam into a profitable small business based on a content syndication model. We ended up selling it to Wolfgang’s Vault — a neat San Francisco company that acquired much of Bill Graham’s recordings and merchandise — in 2007.
Wolfgang’s senior team of Bill Sagan and Eric Johnson were great guys to sell a business to (they gave me the 1967 Grateful Dead poster above as a signing bonus — now that’s my kinda business partner!).
And Mojam still lives on as a brand and service!
People will buy $100 million worth of dating advice?
Back to 2004…by the time I returned from New Zealand I had a few messages from an old CMP colleague Drew Kossoff who was working at Double Your Dating (aka DYD), a business founded by Eben Pagan that helped men become more successful at dating.
Eben (kneeling, far right in pic below) was the guru behind DYD (he used the stage named David DeAngelo) and Eben and Drew offered me a contract position helping them grow the Double Your Dating business that quickly turned into a full-time sales and marketing role.
I always got a kick out of the fact that both Eben and I were single (women didn’t seem to appreciate the irony).
I found the business intriguing for the following reasons:
- Eben was the smartest marketing mind I had ever met
- Our business model was unique (we gave away a free email newsletter and then converted those subscribers into customers of e-books and audio/video programs)
- We could branch out into additional brands
- We were self-funded
- We were 100% virtual (we had no physical office!)
Our team did indeed launch additional brands, rebranded our parent company to Hot Topic Media and before I knew it Eben offered me the CEO position, working closely with a wise CFO named Ralph Clark (top row/fifth from left in pic above) who had worked at Coca Cola and Knott’s Berry Farm (which he helped sell to Conagra).
I’m very proud of the team’s work over the years as Hot Topic Media. By the time I left in 2010, we had sold over $100 million worth of dating advice e-books and audio/video programs (all marketing via the Web), with no venture capital and were profitable.
I’m very proud of the strong values the team exhibited during some tough times and remain close with Eben and many others on the team.
I Love Coaching Leaders Smarter Than Me!
Throughout my journey I’ve been real lucky to get to coach some super-smart leaders out there.
I find it satisfying to sit on advisory boards of companies whose CEO’s I believe are “coachable rock-stars.”
Here is a list of some companies I’ve advised. Truth be told: I often learn more from them than they they have from me.
The Launch of Ongig: Job Description Writing Tool
In 2010, I was getting that itch to get my hands dirty again, to build something from scratch. Eben agreed to let me switch my role from CEO to Advisor (see the companies I advise) to free up time to help build some new Internet businesses.
I wanted to understand how Google and other search engines work better, so one project I tested was to blog about personality types (like Myers Briggs, Enneagram, etc) and that culminated in a side-project called TopTypes, a Web site that tells you what careers and famous people are associated with your personality type.
I also became very interested in online hiring after having met hiring guru Brad Smart (author of Topgrading) back in 2005; and also noticing that there had been very little innovation in how jobs are marketed online since the 1990’s (when Monster, DICE and job boards entered the scene).
That led me to start Ongig, a Web site that is on a mission to make all job descriptions awesome. I was lucky to talk recruiting star Jason Webster and engineering magician Kevin Lanik into joining me as co-founders.
Below is an example of Ongig’s first invention: an interactive job description (this one is built for Yelp:
It got some buzz but it wasn’t a very good business — it was not fully automated and we couldn’t show customers that it has a positive ROI
So we built our second piece of software: a SaaS tool to eliminate boring and biased job descriptions. Here’s a screenshot:
This new Ongig product is much more automated and were able to prove it increased candidate applications by 8% to 21% (it’s especially effective with women candidates).
One of the things I’m most proud about with Ongig is our blog. We receive 2 million visits per year and that’s how nearly all of our leads and sales are generated (we have no outbound sales — we don’t have to bug anyone!).
My Family Inspires Me To Write A Book
As my nephew Miles and niece Ruby were coming of age, I had a yearning to share my life-lessons with them — I know, it’s a bit self-important, but it feels purposeful for me to share things that I think can make the world a better place.
I so enjoyed the process of writing the book (which I also gave away freely to friends, family and new people I’d meet), that I decided to officially publish it.
I’d be honored if you checked it out on Amazon.com — it’s called An Enlightened Entrepreneur: 57 Meditations On Kicking @$$ In Business & Life.
Thanks for reading a bit about me. Feel free to ping me on LinkedIn or you can try the Contact Me link on this blog (though I’m not sure if that still works (haven’t tested it for awhile). 🙂