The Voice of Experience – A Conversation With Laurel Touby Founder of Mediabistro

The Voice of Experience – A Conversation With Laurel Touby Founder of Mediabistro

As the case with many successful businesses, Laurel Touby built a business out of her own need. She wanted a community of her peers to network with and mediabistro was born. For a few years I have admired what Laurel produced from afar. I asked her if I could interview her and she said yes. One of the lessons that came out very loud in the interview, is that persistence pays. Don’t take no for an answer, the more comfortable you become with hearing NO, the easier it becomes to work by what you perceive as rejection.

Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Laurel Touby: I started out as a journalist and made a living as a journalist. Somehow I found myself forming a community of professionals because of my own need. If you start any company, you quickly learn that your own need is often reflective of the needs of others. So once I discovered that I had this need to commune with other people who were like me – fellow journalists, media professionals. Other people came out of the woodworks and told me that they wanted to attend more parties. In the beginning, I didn’t realize it was a business, I just knew that I was filling a need. The need was community, and back then we didn’t have Facebook, we had bars and restaurants, we had local watering holes.

Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?

Laurel Touby: Now I work at mediabistro two days a week and I also work on my own. I sold the company in 2007 for $23 million. I decided I wanted to work on mediabistro part-time, and work on other projects for myself. I am the ambassador for mediabistro. I talk to the press, speak at events and attend conferences. I am nevertheless the confront of the company. And on the other few days of the week, I give advice to start-ups, sit on advisory boards, and I have a lot of meetings. I’m always in meetings. Those are my days, they are mixed up, there are so many different things that I’m working on at one time. Every day is different. It’s hard to have a typical day.

Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?

Laurel Touby: I have never had a problem with motivation. I think I was born trying to prove myself. It’s like that in New York. There are a lot of people in New York City struggling to be better than the next person. There is so much competition, and you feel it in the energy in the air. You can’t sit nevertheless because if you are sitting nevertheless, people are asking you, “What are you doing, what are you doing? What are you up to? What are you working on?” It’s impossible to live here and not do something. In terms of what motivates me, probably watching everyone around me doing better and working harder, that’s what motivates me. I think I should be working harder and doing better. It’s hard for me not to be motivated.

Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Laurel Touby: That’s a tricky question because everything is so much easier now. If I had to look back to then, it’s funny because I’m not one of those people who look back and say a ton of things they would have done differently. I could have been more “Craigslisty” and gone broader and not be just for media people. I ended up specializing in a niche, while Craig’s List went general – he is doing it for everybody. We started at exactly the same time, so when I look back, I might have gone a different route, I might have gone broader and worth a billion dollars instead of where we are, but I like the audience that I’m serving. In that sense it was a very conscious decision. So I don’t know if I would have done things differently.

Avil Beckford: Walk me by the evolution of mediabistro.

Laurel Touby: I started out at a bar with some friends, and we just called it a cocktail party, which happened once a month. People would bring their friends, and ultimately, the party grew to be bigger and bigger so we started collecting business cards and entered the information into a database. The big transformation happened when email came along, because once there was email, it made life a whole lot easier. We were able to leverage the technology to invite hundreds of people quickly and easily.

Today, is creating a whole business around the ease of organizing people within a vertical, an interest group, an enthusiast of one kind or another, and they are not the only one. Eventbrite, Evite, and all of the invitation software platforms are making it easy for people to self organize. Back then, I was doing it all by hand, so I would send out postcards and make phone calls and fax people and invite them to a cocktail party. Once they came, the magic happened, that’s when I figured out that these people really didn’t want to stand there by themselves drinking a cocktail. They wanted to be introduced, and it was a simple gesture of kindness to force people to meet. I would grab somebody by the hand and pull them over to another person and I would say, “You guys have something in shared, why don’t you figure out what it is and meet each other.” People loved that, so I became like a Party Event Dominatrix.

I started wearing a feather boa so people could find me in a crowd, and they would say to other attendees, “You have to meet Laurel, she will introduce you to everybody.” already though I couldn’t remember anybody’s name, I would force people to meet, and so that’s what I did. It could have just been that, a good, old-fashioned party, but in the mid 1990s, I figured out that there was this thing called the Web. So after email, someone suggested that I should have a website where people could meet 24/7, where I wouldn’t have to introduce them once a month, but all year round on this website. I thought how nifty. The person who suggested I get a website, her boyfriend was a programmer. He had a similar site so we copied the programming from his site, and that was the beginnings of this media community online,

Avil Beckford: Now that you have an online presence, what did you do next?

Laurel Touby: In the beginning, everything was free, and it was a way for people to organize and meet each other. We had a bulletin board online, event listings, both of which we nevertheless have today. We also had job listings online, and we didn’t have much else. There was no content, it was very static. A associate of years later, I realized that – the job listings were doing really well, the bulletin board was doing well – this could be a business.

I noticed that Monster and Hot Jobs were making money off their job listings so I thought maybe I should start charging for this service. The first time I tried, no one wanted to pay, and they told me to keep it free. ultimately people agreed that it was worth their money so they paid $100 for each job listing, but only if they were happy. I didn’t want to charge any unhappy customers.

I had a real business and started making money every month, and that’s when I wrote a business plan and went out and tried to find investors. That’s always fun when you have no business background. I was nevertheless considered a journalist. I found someone who would take a chance on me in early 2000. That person suggested another person so there were two people invested in me. By March 2000, I had raised the money, and expansion you know what happened in March 2000, the internet crashed, the stock market crashed, everything went downhill so I had to survive that.

I had some money in the bank, but it wasn’t going to last forever because we had no real revenue. We survived that and additional classes, seminars, and membership very soon after. We had to figure out a business form that didn’t rely only on job listings. It included it, but it wasn’t just job listings, and that saved us in 2000, and again when 9/11 hit in 2001. Luckily we had the other revenue flows and we just slowly pulled out of it.

Avil Beckford: After you started paid membership, did you lose many subscribers?

Laurel Touby: No, because not everyone had to pay. You only paid if you wanted to use certain features of the website. If you wanted to get premium content on the website like How to Pitch, you had to take out an AvantGuild membership. If you use one of those articles you can possibly get work. A lot of people get work because of those articles – they are really helpful.

Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it.

Laurel Touby: The biggest challenge was getting by the internet crash and 9/11. Getting by 9/11 was a huge challenge living in New York. New York was coming apart at the seams, everybody was upset and worried, and hosting a community website felt really silly. You didn’t feel like you were doing anything really important, so it was a challenge to get past that reaction and feel like you were doing something that helped, that mattered. I didn’t get over the challenge myself. I looked around for role models and I saw them, I heard people in the government telling us to get back on your feet, go shopping or what have you. They told us not to stop doing business, but to keep moving.

Laurel Touby: My investors were very aggressive about moving forward and not stopping, so I looked around at these role models and said, “You know what, I cannot let my staff be “mopey” and depressed, I have to rule.” I took the advice of those role models and tried to rule, put up a good front and said, “Let’s fake it till we make it.” You pretend that everything is okay and that everything is going to be fine and plough forward. We scheduled cocktail parties and events that played off the worry and depression. We scheduled an event called, “How to Laugh When You Want to Cry,” and it was humor in a time of tragedy. It was an event talking about what everyone was feeling and talking about, and it was hugely successful. People came to the event because they wanted to talk about what they were feeling. We basically capitalized on our own upset, our own depression and turned it into an event that other people could feel good about coming to. You can’t ignore this hugely upsetting thing, but you can’t stop business either. And our business was having a lot of events and online stuff at that time. As they say, the show must go on.

Avil Beckford: What lessons did you learn in the time of action?

Laurel Touby: I learned that you can’t just be in your own head worrying. You have to reach out to people and listen to what they have to say. A lot of times when you are in your head, you are alone. You are running a company and don’t have anyone to turn to so you have to create a mini advisory board of people who are outside of your company that have nothing to gain or lose from your success or failure. You go to those people to seek their advice, their counsel and wisdom. Get a cup of coffee with them, and turn them into your informal advisory board.

Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?

Laurel Touby: I don’t know if there was a big failure, but there were many little ones along the way. I failed to be a good manager. I was a terrible manager, and I probably lost tons of money because of it. You lose good people when you aren’t a good manager. Did I learn from it? I learned that I shouldn’t manage. I average I’m not good at certain things, and once you learn that, you delegate those things to other people who do them better. So I got into a position where I could delegate those things. In the beginning, I would just manage horribly, and would tell people that I wasn’t a good manager, and would say, “Sorry I hurt your feelings, what can I do better?” and people just don’t take that. If there’s a good economy, they will quit, and you have to hire another person and teach them what to do and start out all over again. Learning that you are bad at something is a good thing to know, and I failed at managing. The lesson I learned is, maybe I cannot get better at this, but I can hire someone to be between me and the people. If you cannot provide to do that then you are going to keep paying a price because you are going to lose people regularly and have to rehire. That’s a price you have to pay.

Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?

Laurel Touby: I had mentors before I started mediabistro. I would also say that my investors were my mentors because they were pretty impressive. They had achieved so much and I looked up to them. I honestly thought the company was going to be worth, if I was lucky, $7 million when I was first starting out, but from day one when I got my investment, the investors said, “So what’s your number? Everybody has a number?” and I said, “I don’t know, $7 million?” and he yelled at me, “No it’s not, your number has to be $33 million. If you don’t make $33 million on the sale, we don’t get our money back, and this investment wouldn’t be worth it.”  I thought, “Holy cow! I really pulled the wool over his eyes.” There is no way I would sell for that much. Fast forward 10 years later, we sold for what we sold. He was right and I was wrong, that’s the funny part. He had vision that I didn’t have at the time, I didn’t see my value. ultimately, I produced that value.

Avil Beckford: How do you integrate your personal and specialized life?

Laurel Touby: It’s always mixed. I love all my people, my customers, and the business people who I deal with. I love them and it’s very important to be in an industry where you love the people because you have to use time with them off hours. I use an incredible amount of time at dinners, breakfast, and lunch. On vacation I’m meeting people in my industry and I’m happy to meet them. I consider it a total mix of personal and specialized.

Avil Beckford: What course of action do you use to generate great ideas?

Laurel Touby: Great ideas are always around you so you have to execute them. The hardest is not the generation of the ideas, but the execution. One of the things that I am good at is visioning. You have to be able to picture something in your mind and the steps to get there. If you can’t picture the steps to get there, you can’t get there, so sometimes that method that you have to start stepping in that direction, and the steps appear to you so you know what the second step is and so on.

When I started the website, the first thing was to put up the website, but I didn’t know what the next step was. I didn’t know how to get traffic to the website so that became apparent to me as I lived my life. I started talking up the website, sending email to people telling them about the website. I did very guerilla things to promote the website, and I learned by doing and I learned what worked and what didn’t. Inviting people to the cocktail party promoted the website. Going to the party and giving out little postcards with the website name on it worked to promote the website. It’s funny how offline stuff work for online stuff.

Avil Beckford: How do you define success?

Laurel Touby: Success is very subjective. It’s in any case makes you feel good about yourself. So if that’s learning how to bake a cake, you are a success, and you should make the best cake that you can make. Don’t look for external validation to tell you whether or not you are a success. Success can only come inside. I feel like I am successful at some things and not so at others. I am subjective so I am evaluating different things. I don’t think it’s money at all, I think it’s happiness. If you can live your day being happy, you are a success.

Avil Beckford: Which one book had a profound impact on your life? What was it about this book that impacted you so deeply?

Laurel Touby: It’s The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan tells you by science, the 12 things that make human beings happy, and you read it and go, “Oh my God, I have 11 of those 12 things, I’m happy and I had no idea.” It makes you realize that money does not make you happy. If you make a certain amount of money, beyond that, you are not any happier. If you can make $60,000 in America, you are at the happiness level. And people can unprotected to $60,000 no problem, it isn’t an impossible dream. If you think a million dollars is going to make you happy, it’s a total lie, it won’t make you happy.

Avil Beckford: If you had a personal genie and she gave you one wish, what would you wish for? Or, if I gave you a magic wand, what would you use it for?

Laurel Touby: To be a man! On the front page of the New York Times there was an article where they turned girls into boys in Afghanistan. Parents turned little girls into boys because they didn’t have a boy in the family. One little girl was asked if she minded because they cut her hair and dressed her like a boy, and the little girl said no because she didn’t get yelled at on the street when she is a boy. She didn’t get pinched or attacked when she is a boy. When she is a boy people treat her with respect. When you read that article, you go WOW! Women are reduced in our society and they always have been. I don’t know why.

Avil Beckford: Complete the following, I am happy when…..

Laurel Touby: I’m happy when I’m doing something well, in any case that something is.

leave your comment