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From Chaos to Leadership

Laurel Touby, founder of mediabistro.com, discusses how the September 11 attacks and the economic downturn affected her business and tested her abilities as a company leader .
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Reprinted courtesy of EntreWorld.org

Last August, I was struggling to stay optimistic about the prospects for my small media community web site, www.mediabistro.com. Job Listing Classified advertisements -- our main source of revenues -- were in a slow, perilous decline, having slid from a high of 300 listings per month to as low as 130. The media economy was in a downward spiral and companies such as Primedia and Ziff-Davis were calculated on slashing their head counts, not adding to them.

My anti-recession strategy was to diversify -- and quickly. I had just written my investors asking them for more money to build a freelance marketplace on the Web site, figuring that employers who couldn't afford high-cost full-time staff would pay to search through a database of freelancers-for-hire. My investor meeting was set for Thursday, September 13th. I had to convince them that the investment was worth it.

With money on my mind as I rushed to the gym the morning of September 11, I barely noticed the people gathering on the street outside my building. I did notice that all the channels on the muted monitors above my recumbent bicycle were playing footage from what looked like a weird new action flick about the World Trade center. "What is this?" I asked no one in particular. Then, I realized with a dull ache in my stomach that it was CNN and it was live news coverage. I rushed back to my apartment to witness Tower 2 crumbling in the background behind a surreally composed newscaster. (Why wasn't he more surprised? How could he continue his rambling, meaningless monologue?) I wanted to scream or cry or just DO something, anything. But what was there to do? Pacing my apartment, eyes riveted to the television set, I waited for something to happen that would help me make sense of this. When Tower 1 was hit, it became clear what that something was, that this was no accident, and that we were under attack. Even the newscaster had figured this one out.

Acting Instinctively

By now, most of my seven employees were beginning to call my cell phone. While watching CNN, I had momentarily forgotten I had a staff, a business, investors and an investor meeting in a couple of days. The staffers were in various stages of transit as well as in various stages of panic. Calling from her cell phone was Darby, our marketing manager, who had been underground on a darkened subway car for the last hour and a half. Vivette, our collections manager, was in tears and distraught over having seen people falling from one of the buildings as she was making her way down Sixth Avenue. Unflappable Kenny, our events manager, was sitting flummoxed at his desk trying to decide what to do about two cocktail parties scheduled for that very evening, one in downtown Manhattan. They were all looking to me for guidance. Yet, I was numb.

Amazingly, email was working. And, both terse and tentative missives had begun trickling in from worried colleagues and more worried family members. "Are you okay? I'm calling but no one's picking up!!" "The phones don't seem to be working. Please answer this email if you're there." Obviously, we would not be working on September 11th. I told everyone to go home and check in with me the next day. We then wrote the members of our New York community, expressing our sorrow over the day's events and cancelling our downtown party. Our email to San Francisco suggested that guests might want to meet that night anyway, to share each other's company and commiserate. So much for my instincts. Four of the eighty people who had RSVP'd showed up.

The day after September 11th was still far from normal. The physical condition of our work site wasn't at issue. Our offices were on 17th Street and Sixth Avenue, so most of our systems (email, telephone) were functional, if spotty. But none of the staff were feeling very functional at all. No one could concentrate. People had their computers and their radios tuned to news channels. How long would this murky political situation go on, I wondered? Were we in for another, far worse attack? Should we hide out at home until we were sure? Would the same fate befall us as had the workers in Tower 1, those doomed but stoic ones who went back to their offices, heedless of the second airplane barreling their way? All I wanted was reliable information, and there was little to be had. No one knew anything. No one could advise me. They couldn't advise themselves.

Taking Control

My instincts were off about my investors, too. While none of my media friends had known people in the World Trade Center, my investors had colleagues in the tower who perished. I assumed they'd want to cancel our Thursday meeting and, I feared, any further meetings, given the unstable business climate. But when I reached Bill, our lead investor, I had to choke back my tears. The sheer normalcy of that conversation was a tonic to the gloom that was beginning to take hold of me. He was firm and calm, determined to soldier through this. Yes, of course the meeting is on. That bomb scare in our building? It was nothing. We'll be here. Yes, take a cab if the subways aren't working. I was so thankful for this hard-assed and single-minded attitude.

Although we were far from Ground Zero, strong ripples from the event soon threatened to swamp our small enterprise. We were evicted from our office, but couldn't move into new space because the phone lines and DSL service couldn't be installed. Nearly every member of our staff came down with strange illnesses (I contracted shingles) and had to take time off. Our new sponsorship sales person was out for days at a time with an allergic reaction; and when he finally showed up for work, couldn't get any appointments with potential customers. They were slashing their budgets. Attendance at our events was dismal. And by December, our job classifieds had fallen to an all-time low of 80 listings, not enough for us to continue in business at current staffing levels. But nothing was as bad as the constant threat of a plunging morale.

I'd had my share of challenges. In the four years I spent running my company, I had already faced down a lawsuit, hired and fired 10 employees, survived the Internet crash and slugged my way to profitability. I survived these things because I had to and I did it without thinking consciously about being a leader or anything as high-minded as that. After all, those are the kinds of things I had been mentally prepared to deal with. They're pieces of the puzzle that one can identify as having the right color and outline to snap together and produce the whole. It may not be the picture you were hoping to create, but at least there's some logic to it. September 11th was most devastating because of how it didn't fit into any puzzle. We didn't know what to expect next. We weren't prepared. No one could be. We were fighting mostly against the irrational, the emotional -- things that business owners have little experience with or ammunition against.

Becoming a Leader

After September 11th, whenever some new breakdown occurred, some new bout of illness or logistical disaster, I realized for the first time ever that I was and had been making a choice. The choice was to "lead." Every day was a conscious effort to choose not to panic, not to succumb, not to stay at home and cry. I -- like my investors, like Giuliani, like all the others who were in any position to be watched or heard -- was in a unique position of influence. I was leading. We were leading. So, though I was scared and unsure, I told our staff everything would be fine. I forced my people back to work, back to our version of sanity. Yes, it was a lie. But wasn't Giuliani lying and my investor and every other person who stood up before a crowd of people and tried to stanch the flow of fear? What else did we have?

Without that lie, and the combined lies of all of us, all business, all commerce would come to a stop and there would no longer be an economy, order, structure. In the months after September, those are the decisions that saved my small company and, I'm sure, many others. The lies we all told each other and ourselves in order to ward off chaos.

And indeed, something shifted in January. It was almost as if in turning the page of a calendar, Americans seemed to give a collective sigh of relief and business started to pick up. I knew we were through the worst of it when job listings started to come streaming back to our Web site and taxi drivers on the streets of New York turned nasty once more.

Laurel Touby, a journalist for 10 years prior to her entrepreneurial career, founded mediabistro.com in 1994 as a gathering place for professionals in journalism, publishing and other media-related industries in New York City. She currently serves as chief executive officer. As a Web-based business, the company now attracts such professionals from across the country and sponsors parties, panels and seminars in major U.S-based cities and abroad. Monthly traffic to the Web site has soared to more than 2 million page views and 450,000 unique visitors. Touby had started her journalism at Working Woman magazine, moved to Business Week as a staff editor, and in 1993 began writing a column on workplace issues for Glamour. As a freelance journalist, she has covered everything from travel to business to breast cancer for a variety of publications, among them New York, Travel & Leisure, Self, and Working Mother. She is a graduate of Smith College with a degree in economics.

Copyright © 2002 Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 4801 Rockhill Road, Kansas City, MO 64110. All rights reserved.

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Last updated: Sep 8, 2002




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