Tuesday, August 28, 2007

PR and the Girl

One of the fringe benefits of co-founding a company is giving yourself any job title you want. By the time the company was big enough to hire other people to do things like setting up trainings, billing/accounts payable, legal review et al., I had settled on Director of Communications.

While the only thing I've ever been able to convince anybody to pay me for in my professional life has been writing, my interviewing experiences, when we first moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1997, convinced me that PR was not for me.

The founder of one boutique tech agency asked me a series of validating questions along the lines of “Do you have many friends,” and, as I became progressively more self-conscious, she concluded “it’s obvious you are very ill-at-ease”--a doubtful prognosis, I imagine, of my ability to handle journalists.

My other interview was with a manager for a white shoe, pre-March 2000 “We-only-work-for-equity-thank-you-very-much,” plus enough retainer to keep its female staffers in Manolo Blahniks type firm. I read an interview with one of that agency’s founders, where she proudly mentioned how many software execs marry their PR girls, citing Steve Ballmer as an example. I considered the promise of “If you do well, you too can marry a future CEO.” I thought for a few seconds about Steve Ballmer. The monkey dance video (Developers, developers, developers!) hadn’t yet come out, but already the intimation of so much agitated, perspiration-drenched corpulence was there. I decided there were other professions where I could earn a living with writing.

I’d like to mention that I married the CEO BEFORE he was the CEO, six years before. When we did start JBoss, we were living at my parents’ house, and the only entity who even remotely reported to us was the family dog.

Ironically, I was once "Almost Featured in Rolling Stone." I had just graduated from Wellesley with a degree in English Literature. My success in getting interviews, coupled with equal success in remaining unemployed brought me to the attention of one of their writers doing a "getting the first job" profile for a series on Gen-X'ers. I am slightly embarrassed to say the prospect of anybody flying down from New York and paying attention to me quite went to my head. The article never got published, but we dined out on Rolling Stone's dollar (it was 1994, I was unemployed and Marc was a Ph.D. student), on stories of my unsuccessful interviews and bathos like "I used to write about Personality and Artistic Theory; now I write about evaporators and batch digesters." I even stooped so low as to play the Southern card, sharing some insight from my grandmother and her friends: "Honey we don't know what to tell you. After we graduated from college, we just joined the Junior League and started playing bridge."

So, it’s funny when some journalists tell Marc that other people in the industry ask about getting the JBoss treatment, like it was some option you could sign up for like PPO vs. HMO on your insurance coverage. ‘Cause I would imagine that to get the JBoss treatment, you’d kind a sorta have to be JBoss, or the people affiliated with JBoss, and there definitely were two sides to the treatment we got. If there was any defining insight in our communications strategy, it was the oh-so novel idea of saying exactly what we thought. As for communicating our thoughts credibly, you’d actually have to have done the things we did and lived the quirky experiences we lived.


Bill Pyne said...

My wife graduated from Wellesley College in the class of '91. I attended a reunion with her and had a chance to see it - BEAUTIFUL campus.

Does truthfully expressing your point of view actually work in the media? I thought you had to use canned, prepared statements to be successful.

Something about what you wrote reminds me of my friend Guy. He's a third generation baker from Paris. After immigrating to the US years ago he opened a bakery near my home. (His jambon et frommage croissant are still the best I've ever had.) The bakery did really well for 30 years or so before he sold it. During his ownership he would never be afraid to throw out problem customers. There was no "the customer is always right" pandering. He would just say "leave and don't come back". He business did well anyway.

There's something to be said for honesty.

Marcf said...

Well, you know, we always treated the customer with the utmost respect and all :)

But some of the stuff that came out of my mouth on competition was pretty out-there, stuff like "I am not afraid of IBM, IBM should be afraid of me" (investor's business daily, 2005, on my wall of fame at home).

What can I say, I really felt it at the time. Twas the truth. When we saw the kind of press response we got, they jokingly said "keep on doing what you are doing" and it kind of came naturally as I was completely delusional.

It was a great PR strategy :) BTW, getting a good PR agency is a must early on in any startup.

Bill Pyne said...

Amazing how you can get wrapped up in the moment!

Still, I respect my friend Guy for his candor. He tells it like he sees it. Even when he's not right, you know where he stands and where you stand with him.

BTW, just finished reading your most recent postings. It sounds like JBoss was one of those special "happenings" when the chemistry is right and you produce something greater than yourselves.

The two of you have hooked me. Your site is now a daily stop for me as a break from some dull coding. Keep it coming please.