Always Be Humble

June 14, 2013

Working at Wired magazine in the 1990’s did not lend itself to humbleness. Beginning with issue 1.0 in January 1993, the magazine featured a continuous stream of bold proclamations about the near-future that tended to come true pretty quickly: The internet isn’t a new thing, it’s everything! Media, communication and technology are all converging into one! Nerds are actually the most important people in your organization! Ask your parents, these were all revolutionary ideas at the time and the expression “no business as usual” evolved from an internal strategy meeting heuristic to a war cry very quickly.

My most important contribution to the company’s development was writing the original business plan for and then launching HotWired, the magazine’s online operations. Since Wired was an unprofitable year old magazine, anything we did online had to launch with a revenue model. In 1994, there was no realistic way of taking money from readers online, this was pre-SSH, pre-PayPal — in fact when we started development, it was pre-Netscape. Marc and Jim would found that company a month after I wrote the original HotWired business plan.

Bold people do bold things and we decided to introduce the advertising business to the internet. We weren’t the very first to put an ad on the web — a few others had made nascent stabs at the opportunity — but we created the first real business of it. We designed the banner that became ubiquitous, landed both consumer and technology advertisers, we targeted advertisers against endemic content and set standards for metrics and tracking (page views, click throughs and the like). We also charged what were in hindsight ridiculously high rates and were profitable at launch in October 1994.

By 1995, it was easy not to be humble. We raised a lot of money and grew the company quickly (sustainable profitability: hah!). We were setting the agenda both online and off and had created the business model that would lead everything into the future. I started reading books about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other folks whose accomplishments we’d no doubt some day be lumped with.

We were not only a year or two ahead of the world in advertising on the internet, we were also a few years ahead of the dotcom bubble. At Wired, we partied like it was 1999 in 1996.

One day in early 1996 or so, I got a call from Nolan Bushnell, who was looking to launch a series of cyber cafés and wanted Wired’s help. We had a nice conversation and towards the end, I mentioned that he was as close to a business hero as I’d ever had. Nolan is one of — if not the — founding father of the video game industry and the creator of Atari. Growing up, I liked Apple but I lived Atari. I even worked at Chuck E. Cheese one summer for not much more of a reason than he had felt it interesting enough to start.

After letting me gush for a few minutes about how much I admired everything he had done, Nolan responded with the very simple rejoinder “but what have I done for you lately?”. It was and is one of the few times in my life when I was truly speechless. If the inventor of Pong couldn’t rest on his laurels, there would be no glory for any of my meager accomplishments.

I’d like to think I’ve been far more humble about business ever since. Nolan’s admonishment prepared me well for the bursting of the Wired bubble when the company’s planned IPO fell through later that year. And it prepared me even better for my future as someone who used to be someone. These days when I talk about what I did in the 1990’s most people think I started HotWire the travel company (Wired’s digital assets disappeared into the morass of Lycos soon after I left). And needless to say, having had anything to do with the ad banner is not really something to talk too loudly about these days.

Thank you, Nolan.

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