The Odd Couple
You know the plot by heart: big company becomes sluggish and seeks revitalization by buying into an entrepreneur's dream. Both sides profess undying love. Then the big company offers to help the entrepreneur do "a few little things." The entrepreneur soon grows frustrated and leaves. In the final scene, we watch the results of a love gone wrong -- the orphaned acquisition becomes as lackluster as its foster parent.
It might be useful to keep this old chestnut in mind as you hear about Robin Wolaner and Time Inc., who are still very much in love.
The story of their initial meeting is probably apocryphal, but it does set the stage.
When Wolaner, the former publisher of the decidedly anticorporate Mother Jones magazine, arrived from San Francisco at Time Inc.'s posh New York offices in January of last year, Time executives spent a long time staring at her short brown hair. "I am told they wanted to see if I really did have a flower behind one ear and a joint behind the other," says Wolaner, 32, trying to suppress a laugh.
But executives in Time's magazine-development group had more than just cultural reasons to approach Wolaner with suspicion. She wanted $5 million to develop a magazine geared to young parents. Time Inc. -- which publishes People, Sports Illustrated, and a number of other magazines in addition to its flagship newsweekly -- had never before funded an American magazine it hadn't created.
Sure, Wolaner was a pro -- albeit one that buttoned-down Time executives found, well, different. True, she had worked everywhere from Runner's World to Penthouse, but just look at her terms! For that $5 million, Time would own only 49% of Parenting magazine. Wolaner would retain control, and she planned to use it. For example, the magazine would be based in San Francisco, where she lives, not New York.
Wolaner's demands were nonnegotiable, but she didn't expect to leave the meeting with a check. That was OK. Heavily bureaucratic Time was exactly her idea of "who I should not be involved with. I'd never fit in. I am Jewish, a woman, and I didn't go to the right schools." She was in New York only because a venture capitalist she knew had vouched for Donald Spurdle, head of Time's magazine-development group. More important, she hoped that she'd eventually get a chance to present her case to the Larry Bird of the editing business, Time's editor in chief, Henry Anatole Grunwald. So it wouldn't end up being a wasted trip.
But sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. Parenting magazine went on sale January 15. Where did Robin Wolaner get the funding -- $5 million to be exact? Time Inc.
"Robin is absolutely terrific," says Spurdle. "We think the fact that she has a different perspective is complimentary and positive."
That may be. But a little perspective of our own is helpful in understanding why Time may believe that.
Although it is the nation's leading publisher, Time hasn't had a winner since the introduction of People in 1974. Its most visible failure was TV-Cable Week, intended to be the TV Guide for cable subscribers. Not only was Time forced to take a $47 million write-off on the magazine in 1983, but its image was tarnished further by the publication of a book about the debacle. In The Fanciest Dive, former Time Inc. editor Christopher Byron portrays the company's handling of the magazine's launch as inept at best.
There were other failures, too. A financial weekly, designed to challenge Barron's, never saw the light of day. And just three months ago, Time announced it had scrapped the idea of publishing Picture Week, a magazine described by cynics as being aimed at readers who find People too challenging. That decision came after Time spent $15 million in development costs and a year of testing.
Partially as a result of these failures, Time is firmly on the list of potential takeover targets.
Given this history, it isn't surprising the company is looking for help in developing magazines. But even so, backing Wolaner is a bit of a stretch.
Raised in Long Island, N.Y., a short train ride away from the Time building in Rockefeller Center, Wolaner attended Cornell University expecting to go to law school, but a summary job as a secretary at Penthouse convinced her publishing would be more fun. After graduation, she wrote ads for Penthouse and then moved to its sister publication, Viva, as an editor. Next, Wolaner became circulation manager of Runner's World. From there she joined Mother Jones, where she ran the business side of the publication.
But another job change soon followed. Frustrated that she couldn't have a say in editorial matters at Mother Jones, Wolaner quit and started doing direct-mail work for Banana Republic, a clothing company. While still at Mother Jones, she had met Joan Barnes, the founder of Gymboree Corp., which runs gym classes nationwide for the pre-kindergarten set, and everything began to jell. The parents who send their children to Gymboree are a wonderful market. They are young, often have two incomes, and if they'll pay $60 to $70 for a dozen 45-minute sessions for their three-year-olds to bounce on trampolines, imagine what else they would be willing to buy.
Initially, Wolaner, who is married but has no children, planned to create a magazine for Gymboree's customers. But the idea soon evolved into a freestanding publication geared to yuppie parents. "The existing magazines, most notably Parents Magazine, are fine. But they are how-tos geared to women who got married right out of high school," Wolaner explains. "When Parents writes about a problem in child rearing, its solution is to talk to an expert. Parenting, which is designed for a more educated audience, believes that you let the reader pick and choose among the experts." When Wolaner does run service articles, they will be ones like "Perfect Vacation Spots -- with Day Care."
An initial test mailing to 130,000 potential subscribers proved Wolaner was onto something. Nearly 6%, a high success rate in direct mail, said they would be willing to pay $12 a year for the magazine. That was the good news. The bad news was that Wolaner needed $5 million to get underway.
That explains the visit to Time. Her timing was perfect.
Time had been thinking about creating a similar magazine. In fact it already had a name picked out -- Parenting. "But Robin was at least nine months to a year ahead of us in getting underway," says Spurdle. She also worked a lot cheaper. "It would have cost us a multiple of $5 million to do our magazine," says Spurdle, who is unwilling to give an exact figure. Other Time insiders aren't as reluctant. "Time would have spent $5 million on staffing alone," says an observer who projects it would have cost Time at least $25 million to get Parenting underway.
So at first blush, it appears to be a good deal for both sides. Wolaner got her money and still kept control. Time got to market quickly with a magazine it thinks is a winner. And it has structured its investment so that it can buy out Wolaner as early as the summer of 1989 if the magazine is successful, and force her out sooner if it is not.
But the more you think about the arrangement, the more you wonder if Time has sown the seeds of failure. Since Time was already working on the Parenting concept, the most attractive part of the deal from its point of view has to be Wolaner. Yet, the way the deal is structured, she is almost guaranteed to leave. "Both sides expect Time to buy the magazine," Wolaner says. "I have an 18-month management contract after than. I wanted it to be shorter. I just can't see being an employee."
Once Wolaner leaves, what happens to the magazine? Doesn't it become just another Time Inc. start-up? And Time -- as we have seen -- hasn't introduced a winner since People.
There is a potential solution. It runs contrary to the inclinations of big corporations everywhere, but it does hold out hope that the Wolaner-Time arrangement could end differntly from: big company meets entrepreneur, loves entrepreneur, loses entrepreneur.
The solution? Time should keep its hands off Parenting as long as possible.
The longer Parenting runs as an entrepreneurial enterprise, the clearer its identity becomes and the more its staff will establish a way of doing things. The more entrenched those systems are, the harder it will be for Time, or any big company, to impose a bureaucracy that could crush it.
Will it happen? Maybe. With its recent acquisition of a 50% interest in McCall's, Time finally has the major woman's magazine it has always wanted. Since McCall's has a circulation of 5 million, there will be little reason to turn Parenting into something more than it is -- a well-positioned specialty magazine that could have a circulation of 500,000. (Parents, by way of contrast, sells 1.7 million copies a month.)
Time has shown it is very good at running mature magazines like McCall's. It may want to let Parenting mature as long as possible. If not, it risks writing another chapter in that oft-told tale of what happens when an entrepreneur and big company join forces.
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