A glass of water appeared on my desk as I sat with my head in my hands in the middle of a news room in London. It was January 2006, it was cold and the boiler in my house had broken down. I had taken a shower at a neighbors that morning and we had electric heaters plugged in around my 15 month old son’s nursery to keep him warm. I had just had a screaming match on the telephone with British Gas – who were taking their time fixing my boiler. That day was the first day at a new job. The glass of water was from a colleague whom I hadn’t even been introduced to yet.
I know how to make a first impression.
But, I should back up a bit.
My husband and I spent around six years working as freelance journalists. We both lived in a relative, sorta-bohemian middle class poverty. The freedom was great – but while some months saw a bounty, other saw ‘less than bounty’. It was during this time I fell pregnant and we had our son (now 12 and a half). My husband went out and found a full time job, while I continued freelancing. However, when you have a baby at home, the fun of living off Costcutter frozen pizza and Bulgarian wine starts to wane. I went to look for a job.
I started my journalism career at a company called ‘Waters’. In the intervening years after I left the smallish publishing house the company had been bought by a UK firm called Risk, which had then been bought by a larger, multi-national publishing house called Incisive Media. The old group had a long running publication covering the real-time market data industry (started by Dennis Waters himself) called Inside Market Data. They were looking for an editor to launch a sister publication which covered enterprise data at banks – the publication was called Inside Reference Data. (it, as well as IMD, are still running today).
The editor would have six weeks to launch and it paid £28k a year. (let that sink in for a moment, because it will become relevant later on). I was offered the job, but I said I would rather the salary paid £32k. I was asked to start the job at £28k and if IRD gained a thousand subscribers in the first year, my salary would be raised to £32k. It was a job I knew I could do. It was a job I needed. I accepted and the ‘salary rise’ clause was written into my employment contract.
I got myself a new haircut, showered at a neighbors, and walked into Haymarket House on a cold January day in 2006 to create Inside Reference Data.
Before I even heard the terms ‘lean startup’ or customer valuation exercise – I knew that any trade publication because successful because it knew its audience – because it respected its readership. Most of the journalists I had worked with over the years used to lament that the most read portion of their publications was always the ‘people moves’ section. Good trade publications know the same gossip you do, they are reporting on a small pool, they are the public voice of a club. People will always care more about other people – rather than news about some new technology innovation. In a small world ‘that jerk they worked with three years ago who got promoted above his competency’ will get more views than a piece about a platform that is being ‘rolled out’ across the enterprise.
Before I started ‘looking for news’ I started calling every data person who worked at a bank that I knew to ask them what they wanted to see in monthly newsletter about reference data. I had quite a few reactions. Those reactions ranged from: ‘Why would you want to write about reference data?’ (Not a potential subscriber then) to ‘Great, what you need to do is create a huge glossary of all the standards (there are always lots of standards) and terms so people don’t get confused’.
I called John Bottega at Citi. He had news. ‘Hi Liz, it is great that you’re calling. I just found out today that I will be the new the Chief Data Officer at Citi.’ Now, at the time no bank had named a data person to the C-Suite, before. Creating a Chief Data Officer post was news in itself. A bank was recognizing that data was actually important (This was 2006, people – although some of you may argue, they still haven’t realized its importance.)
However, I had a problem. My publication didn’t come out for a month, My paper-based, monthly publication wouldn’t have this news on its front page … For. A. Month. I turned to the publisher. ‘Shit, we need to get the website up now!’ He looked at me. ‘Website….ah, the web teams are on the fourth floor, we haven’t budgeted for a website, you will need to speak to the CFO.’
I booked an appointment. The CFO looked at me. ‘Liz, is a website a ‘nice to have‘ or a ‘need to have‘? I stared at him. ‘I would say a website in 2006 is a ‘need‘ to have,’ I replied. I explained the John Bottega news. He promised me he would think about giving me budget to work with some people on the fourth floor in order to build a website, however….’Any news, you need to save for the print run – you shouldn’t break news on the website.’
A few years later, at another company, I would be ordered to ‘stop Tweeting the news’ that I was to ‘save it for the website’. I spend most of my time talking to and speaking about digital disruption at banks. If you ever want a real lesson on how woefully unprepared for digital disruption an industry can be – ask a journalist.
Let’s get back to Haymarket House. Inside Reference Data, did eventually get a website. But in early 2006 I watched as the days and weeks went by, before IRD was launched, as several publications – including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – reported on Citi’s new CDO. My scoop was de-scooped. In startup land execution is everything. In newspapers, publishing is everything.
By the summer Inside Reference Data had held events in New York, London and Singapore. It was cited by the CEO at the annual employee event, held at a cinema in Leicester Square, as ‘The most successful organic launch in Incisive Media history.’ It had well over a thousand subscribers.
And I had a rival offer.
A bunch of people had gathered together, with an investment from a group in the Netherlands, to start a new glossy magazine. They wanted me on the founding editorial team. The salary was £40k a year.
I mulled it over.
What I wanted was to be editorial director of the entire Waters group. I wanted control over the Waters glossy magazine. The London bureau chief asked me what I wanted. I gave him an editorial plan on how I would take the entire Waters cannon of newsletters – covering everything from data to trading floor infrastructure to foreign exchange trading – and reorganize it along a web strategy that see daily news on the web. Leaving just the glossy magazine, to be used as a marketing tool, having an actual print run.
I left that plan with him and went to catch up with the now new publisher of my group to ask when my salary rise, as was written into my contract, would be enacted. Inside Reference Data had 1,200 subscribers and the year was not even over.
The new publisher barely turned around to face me at his desk. He said he knew about the salary rise clause in my contract, but the budgets for 2007 had already been set. There was nothing he could do. My £28k salary would remain in place.
I resigned the next day. I was on three months notice.
A few weeks went by and news about this ‘rival’ publication being set up began to surface. (I hadn’t mentioned where I was going when I resigned). The CFO asked to speak with me at an early morning meeting on a Thursday. I came in to find the meeting needed to be pushed back. I sat at my desk. It was pushed back to after lunch.
Now, for those of you how don’t know Thursday afternoon, for weekly and bi-weekly publications (which almost all of the Incisive Media publications were on my floor) is prime time. The issues would be sent out to to the publishers that night, ready for proofing the next morning. So most of the reporters would be in the office finishing off the articles, creating headlines and working with the sub editors. Thursday afternoon in this newsroom would have ensured a full house. That I am sure is something the CFO knew all too well.
I met with him. He asked where I was going. I said I didn’t legally have to tell him, but they had offered me a £40k salary. He then informed me that ‘I wasn’t worth £40k, and that he didn’t have to consult with anyone (meaning my publisher) and that I was to leave, immediately. He called a security guard.
Myself, the CFO and a security guard took the lift down to my floor and the pair of them, along with the entire news room, watched as I emptied my desk and was walked out of the building.
To understand how strange this was, I got a call the next day, from security at Incisive Media asking me to surrender my ‘sales codes’. I informed them I did not have any ‘sales codes’ as I was a journalist – not a sales person. They replied ‘But, you were walked from the building?’
I don’t know this for sure, but I do believe that I am the only journalist ever to be walked out of the building by Incisive Media. Me – the founding editor of “the most successful organic launch in Incisive Media history.” Me – who wasn’t worth £40k a year. Me – who was so dangerous to their competitiveness that I was to be made an example of to fellow journalists and walked from the building by security.
To this day I consider it a badge of honor. And British Gas eventually fixed my boiler.