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The Soloist

In the August 1998 issue of Inc., Rubin began chronicling her career as a solo act. In this excerpt from her diary, she searches for her own identity and questions how she wants to spend her life.
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From the Journals of Harriet Rubin

On July 31, 1997, Harriet Rubin quit her job as head of Doubleday Publishing Co.'s Currency imprint, which she had created. At age 43, Rubin was one of the most successful business-book editors in the United States, but until then she had always worked for a paycheck. Now she wouldn't. Nor would she start a company. Instead, like more and more onetime managers, she would go solo--would, in her words, "do nothing but the work, the pure core experience, as farmers do when they plant and harvest. I would lead only myself." But lead herself where? The first installment of her journal appeared in Inc.'s August issue. This is the second.


I don't know when i started interpreting uncertainty as opportunity. Or exactly when the glass went from being half empty to half full. But at some point every aspect of the solo life changed for me. "I don't have any clients" became "I'm free to wait for the right oppportunity to come along." I've always pursued deals, chased bets, and exercised my will. Now I'm in pure solo mode: Stand your ground, dare to be an original (which we all are), and let opportunities come to you. What changed my view might have been my dear friend Avram's news that the rise in his PSA might indicate the return of prostate cancer. Something kicked in. Some life force rose up in me, something that said, No no no: You're not going to win, master thief, robber of dreams. You're not going to take your chunk out yet.

The result is that going solo has turned into something bigger and more interesting than a means of making money without an idiot boss second-guessing me. It's become a quest for identity: "Who am I?" Not simply, "What am I doing?" but "How do I want to spend my life?" On the theory that I can't yet know what my business is, I've kept myself from rigid planning. That may sound foolhardy, so let me explain. Marshall McLuhan understood back in 1964 what the key challenge of work would be: "Under electric technology, the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing... All forms of employment become 'paid learning.'... The problem of discovering occupations or employment may prove as difficult as wealth is easy."

The challenge isn't making money, it's discovering what your authentic work is: all bullshit aside, what are you meant to do? The only commitment I make is to paid learning. I am rejecting most opportunities in my area of "intellectual capital": editing, ghostwriting, and manuscript consulting.

I have even avoided calling myself a consultant. Consultants can't offer leaders really good advice, because they aren't peers. When I was a publisher, I was always advising leaders. But I wasn't a consultant dependent on that for my income. Now, as an author and researcher, I hope to attract leaders who are interested in my work--who see me as a peer. Ideally, I want to invent a new kind of role that suits my skills. Otherwise, I'd end up squeezing my skills into an off-the-rack costume. Charles Lindbergh reinvented flying, Maria Callas reinvented opera, Peter Drucker reinvented business. I will create an authentic role for myself. "Keep on writing books," Avram says. "Write for an audience of leaders. Get well known." He's noticed that leaders who have the most stature listen to writers. Consultants, he feels, are not as highly valued. "They are the unhappiest people I know. Sure, they're paid a few thousand dollars a day, but they work so hard to get those jobs that they're miserable. Forget the consulting for now."

Then how do I sell myself? "Nobody's an expert in the Internet, so that's a good field for you. You're an expert in content. Translate that into the new media. Learn by joining a board."

My end-of-year-one goals: 1. Gain legitimacy--join a board. 2. Don't just learn, go further--experiment with your life.

APRIL 4: 'Scarlett, you'll never be poor again.'

The first installment of my Harper book advance arrives! Plus, my agent has presold the rights to the book in Germany and England. It will be months before that money comes in, and taxes must be paid, and the advance is against work still to be done. Nevertheless, I am not "psychologically poor" anymore. It feels like waking up from a fever.

MAY 1: Where's the invisible hand when you need a push?

I decide to let the market tell me what it wants from me, and in a few days I get an invitation to have lunch with Andrew, a successful investment banker. Andrew heard about me from George Stephanopolous, whom I don't know, who heard about me from someone else. Andrew wants to meet me because he thinks I have access to top CEOs. Andrew admires Barry Diller, who gets investors to commit lots of money to his ventures because they think he's a visionary. That's my cue! I tell Andrew that the best way to get access is not to use intermediaries like me but to become a visionary himself.

Andrew, like many baby boomers, has serious money socked away. He's ready to commit to his life's dream or to wave it good-bye. Freud had a phrase for that critical point: the return of the repressed. All those dreams we abandoned in the 1980s when we first put on a suit are coming back with a vengeance. A second puberty is heading our way. For Andrew, the return of the repressed means reclaiming an idealistic social agenda. It means becoming known for ideas, not just for making money.

I'd like to help him. Leaders need to exceed the limits of organizations. They must define themselves not just in terms of business but in terms of social history. That's the only way they can step over the top and into a more exciting game. As a publisher, working with leaders on developing their ideas for books had been my area of mastery. Now I can help leaders build their reputations on a larger stage: the social arena. If Andrew imagined himself as someone worth studying, for his ideas or for some great contribution, then he wouldn't have to envy Diller; he could challenge him.

How I will work with CEOs to do this still remains to be seen. I had better wait for the next cue.

MAY 4: My one-woman show

I'm not just going to learn how leaders step over the top. I'm going to experiment on myself.

I've hired an acting coach, Isabelle, who is training me to stand taller, take up more room. Last session we did the heel-ball-toe walk. You roll your foot, move by standing straight, eyes forward, as if some hand were at the small of your back pushing you. Crowds are parting for me, not "noticing" me so much as getting out of the way of the ninjalike power I'm projecting. The key is to walk tall and focus the eyes on the horizon, imagining the sea beyond the concrete walls of the city. People will feel this sovereignty around you.

Today is lesson two, communication, which I am learning is not really about accuracy. Communication is two-thirds emotion and one-third content. Everything Isabelle is teaching me can be applied to soloing. She suggests that my voice is too high and provokes a feeling of uncertainty, which distances listeners from me. To draw them in, sound should come not from my throat but from deeper in the body.

She says, "Tell me where your tongue is." "Curled at the roof of my mouth," I confess, wondering if this might be deviant. "Most people park their tongue there, but that's bad," she says. "Rest your tongue against your lower teeth. You'll feel calmer; your jaws won't be so tight." I want to reach the point where I can walk into a room the way Isabelle does and not feel as if I'm in a Seinfeld script, with something about to go ludicrously wrong.

MAY 5: Dreaming wide-awake

Today I drew up a list of the people I am most intrigued by and plotted out my "six degrees of separation" from them: Steve Jobs, Rudy Giuliani, Phil Knight, Edgar Bronfman Jr., young George Bush, and Oprah, who I hope will run for president. These people need to rethink their legacy, their place in history, now, while they are at the peak of their powers. It's not just presidents or dictators who need to plan their legacy. It's all of us. To see yourself in history is to see all that one person is capable of doing.

How do I get to these six people? I make lists of people who know people who know people who know them. I will ask, ask, ask for advice on reaching them. Put them all on my mailing list. Tack the list above my desk. I will work at the list sporadically, but I'll keep it there permanently to remind me of the standards I aspire to. Everything I do I will have to feel I can proudly show to these six.

MAY 7: Edgy is good, if you're not prone to falling

"What if something happens to me and I can't work? What do I fall back on?" I ask Avram. "That's what disability insurance is for," he says. Bingo! Because of COBRA, health coverage is automatic when you leave Ma-and-Pa Corporation, but disability insurance you have to rustle up yourself. I check the Web for insurance brokers but decide to find someone I can trust. I call my accountant for a recommendation and soon reach his broker, who asks for my last three years of income-tax returns, my book contract, and notes on other sources of income before coming back with an estimate: Maximum coverage means a policy that would pay me $8,000 per month, starting 45 days after the onset of disability, until death. The premiums, he warns, are enormous. It will cost roughly $9,000 the first year, and it escalates by $1,000 nearly every year after that. I have no idea if this broker's estimate is high, so I must try for a competitive bid. A whole day wasted making these stupid but necessary calls.

MAY 9: Charles Manson is showing up in my daydreams

Two days ago I hadn't thought about disability insurance; now it's all I think about. I decide to get two more bids. But both come back with an even higher premium and more dire warnings: "Buy insurance now while you're still under the Doubleday contract [that's my editing contract; it expires July 31]; otherwise, you may not seem that good a risk." Meaning: an employee is a safer bet than a soloist. As a woman I am already disadvantaged in the eyes of the insurers. Women live longer than men but have more medical complaints.

MAY 16: O solo mio

My piano arrived today. Three years ago, after my divorce, I slept on a sofa. Now I have a bed and this Steinway Boston, filling the room with its mad grin, 52 white teeth, open in a big gotcha smile. I put my fingers on the keyboard, not a clue what I'm doing. I am rewarded with this big sound, beautiful, much better than I deserve.

What am I doing with a piano? It feels necessary, as if my basic categories of need and desire are turning inside out. This whole exercise of soloing is a challenge to destroy old limits. I'm not even thinking about the money. Or the fact that I could have hired a part-time secretary for what this baby grand costs. My old fears, in which I saw everything through the veil of a price tag, are disappearing. It's not that I have more money, it's that I have more confidence that I can earn it. Should I learn to sing?

Took another call from an acquaintance asking me for publishing advice, which he expects, as in the old days, to get for free. I'm not eager to trade on old knowledge, but in some cases I can't refuse. How do I ask these people for money? I E-mail my friend Allan Kennedy for advice. His answer: "Be bold and ask for a reasonable fee for your time and advice. I would suggest that something around $500 an hour or $5,000 a day, or more, would be appropriate for someone of your experience. You might want to get your feet wet at a more modest level, but don't even think of going for less than half of these amounts.

"When first asked, you might suggest that the first two hours or so are free, so that you can make an assessment of whether you can help or not. But be clear up front that the clock starts running thereafter. The only fault with this is you will give away a lot of free time and advice--but then, so do most consultants.

"Most consultants would prefer to be on a retainer and are willing to cut their hourly rate to get one. Most, however, find it difficult to get clients to agree. Therefore, you are better off just having a per diem and converting to a retainer only if the relationship continues long enough.

"Don't be shy about all of the above. Be bold. People are used to paying consulting fees and dislike uncertainty more than the fees themselves. Of course, everyone will take something for free if it is offered, but that would be your fault, not theirs."

Yum, I'm feeling rich, even if it's only because Allan has set me a smart fee! I'm going to shut down the computer and head out for sushi!

MAY 29: Romeo, Romeo, is your name domain-able?

What does it say about two people that they are driving between Verona and Milan talking about company names? Are we nuts? Or is the soloing dream so intoxicating that it can bleach out the Italian countryside Avram and I have come here to see? Even though I am not a company, I will be a Web site someday soon! I need a name the way nations need a flag. Color! Rallying point! Cool material! The best names Avram and I come up with on the drive blend the old and new: Amalgamated Thinking. Acme Ideas. Avram suggests Modern Thought. "I've got it: The Electric Company!" "No, I don't like it," Avram says. "Well, so what? I love it." "How about 6Degrees?" Avram says. "You're a modern content provider, an Internet site, and you will connect people with old ideas and classical thinking. You'll bring people to the future by no more than six degrees of separation. A content company is a connectivity company."

Oh yes, I like it. It has a familiar sound and is very positive. When we get to the hotel, I log on for a search. There is already a crowd of Web sites called Six Degrees. "Too much competition. Better find another name," Avram says.

JUNE 1: A name!

The name came to me yesterday: Rubicon. The red river Caesar crossed when he left a smaller life for the biggest challenge of all. The Rubicon is the symbol of a person's commitment to a big idea. Caesar put his identity at risk to create something new. It's the perfect symbol for a soloist who's out to engage people in big new challenges. Crossing a body of water is an ancient heroic act: one is transformed. The crossing changes you.

But what I really love is that the name is a play on Rubin, with the insertion of "Co." I am not a company; I just contain one! I checked the Internet to see if anybody has dibs on the name, because the Web site will be an important marketing tool. Turns out there are sites for Rubicon and Rubico. So the name for my Web site will be TheRubicon.

Now I have to get it registered. And designed. And I have to see how I feel about wearing the name in public. Will it sound good when I say it out loud? I'll test it out on a few friends. When I started Currency, I called Don Burr, founder of People Express, to ask his opinion of the name. He said, "It's good; it's got fur." "Fur?" I asked. "Layers," he said, "depth, many meanings." Ah, June. Good time to try on fur.

JUNE 4: Crossing my own Rubicon

Just sent a new letter out to Paula Kelly, my chosen designer. (This would be my second try at getting a logo design.) She's off searching for Italian maps to see how the river was portrayed. I ask her to make sure that the image for my logo has a crisp modern look. We have been arguing over the contract. I want all rights to the logo, and to protect myself from being charged for time that only she can measure: Is time spent thinking included in her fee, for example? From now on I will write the contracts myself when hiring vendors. That way my concerns are protected, not just theirs. Contracts are so one-sided: the contract writer holds all the cards, and the client is the dog on the leash.

It's been a rough morning, waiting to hear from Avram while he took his bone scan to be sure the prostate cancer hasn't spread. I'm exhausted from the worry.

JUNE 11: Danger, territory of the high and mighty

Early breakfast with David, who has also struck out on his own, except with a partner. We agreed that our challenge is in how to "productize" ourselves: Can a person keep her face public without having to get on a plane every week to deliver speech after speech? Products will do that for you, David says. We come up with a solution: each of us will create our own cassette series and sell it at a high price, not as entertainment but as a course in imaginative capital. Great idea. We both feel taller and walk our separate ways into the sunshine. Five yards out I wonder how I'm going to find the time and investment capital to create such a product. I can hear the same downpour strike David. I hate having ideas that are too big for me. Will there ever be a time when there will be the staff and the money to do something big and yet not compromise the freedom of soloing?

JUNE 12: Down with the soloist's flu

There aren't many days when I feel too emotionally sick to work, but this is one. I feel smaller realizing what opportunities are closed to me. "You have a great network," Avram says, "but you don't use it. If you did, opportunities wouldn't seem impossible.

"Look at the places you are speaking. Get a list of speakers in advance. Call up their office and let the assistant know you'll be speaking at the same event and book some of their time.

"I'm not saying, 'Go begging.' If you network right, you don't have to ask for anything. You'll be there when opportunities come up. It's like learning a new language. You have to practice everyday. When you go to dinner and sit next to someone, ask them if they know of any companies looking for women to serve on their boards. If you ask 50 times, you'll learn to ask 100 times. All it takes is for you to get one position and do it well; then you'll be recommended to others."

JUNE 13: Rowdy penthouse views

I've reached the top of the Parker Meridien hotel, and the crowd is the Internet's finest, the glory boys of the new medium. I've come aboard a pirate ship. They mean to wrest control of the media from the Time Warners of the world.

Sat next to Dave Wetherell, the Henry Luce of on-line media. Runs an incubator that has given birth to eight on-line companies, including GeoCities. By the time dessert is delivered, I've gotten up my gumption. I ask if one of his companies is looking for a board member. He says yes and gives me the name of the Password. Just like that! Am I really on my way to a board seat?

JUNE 16: The call

I hear from Margaret Heffernan, CEO of the Password, who wants to have lunch. The Password is a cross between a search engine and a magazine rack for the Web. The company sounded small in scope when Dave described it, but Margaret is no small thinker. She craves radical solutions. She believes the Web can become its own medium, not just another means of content delivery. Maybe this will work for both of us. She promises to think about how we can work together. I will, too. We agree to meet soon.

JUNE 18: Pooped soloist attains Everest!

Dead tired all day. Back from a speech in California. Too many time zones. Too many states of being. Met Margaret at the Gotham Bar and Grill to see if we should strike an agreement for me to serve on the company's board.

Margaret defines my role this way: "CEOs are lonely. They can't tell their people their outrageous ideas for the future without scaring them, without them saying, 'We've just jumped through this hoop, now you're thinking of something else?' I need to bounce ideas off someone smart. I need someone to tell me, candidly, if an idea is good or if it stinks. I need someone who can provide useful contacts if I want to investigate some new approach."

A board seat is a good way for a soloist to make money, especially if you get named to the board of an Internet company. You stand to profit when the company goes public. In the Password's case, no salaries are paid to board members. Margaret is offering me 25,000 shares. What is a share worth now? What could it be worth if the company were sold?

Looks like I've made it. Reach the top and what awaits you? No throne but a board seat!

JUNE 22: 1-800-Help-Me-I'm-Clueless

I call a friend to find out if the offer of 25,000 shares without salary is fair. He says it may be fair, but it's not great. He suggests a list of questions for me to ask Margaret. Among them:

How many shares are outstanding on a fully diluted basis? If there are 250,000 shares, my shares are valuable, but if there are 25 million shares, my shares are worth nothing.

What is the strike price of the options?

Over what period of time do the options vest? If it takes 10 years, this is not an attractive deal for me, because I need cash now, and a long vesting period would prevent me from getting it if the company is sold soon, which it could be.

I also check with a member of the Internet content community, who gives me an unbiased review of the company and its product. He says it's trying to be all things to all people, with lots of bargains but nothing edgy or cool to draw a person in. He confirms my instinct that the product needs celebrities and excitement to stir up interest. The great exchange here will be my insight into content for experience in the on-line world. Sounds like a good trade, as long as I am not disadvantaged in the financial deal.

Interesting how businesses embody our personal contradictions. Margaret is so adventurous, yet her site seems very safe. Wonder why there is that gap between leaders and the companies they create.

JUNE 24: This isn't the way we do things on the Planet Maturia

I learned yesterday that a board member should receive as compensation 1% or half of 1% of the company in stock. From Margaret's reply, I'm receiving a quarter of 1%, which is low. If the company wants me, why make this bottom-of-the-barrel offer? But I'll take it. I'm there to learn, to make a difference to the company, to help the CEO, whom I like and respect. It will be one of the few corporate boards of a media company where the majority of the members are women. Still, the offer rankles me. The big board seats go to people with contacts, not insight. What is insight compared with the ability to pick up the phone and get through?

JULY 7: You sure this is Sun Valley? It feels like the dark side of the moon

Avram and I arrived in Sun Valley, in Idaho, to attend the Herbert Allen media conference. This is our fourth straight year. We feel a little like graduating seniors: all-wise, all-knowing. Had breakfast with the Mondales and Bob Strauss, were introduced to Diane Sawyer, were greeted by George Fisher as if we were old friends. But this year is different from the others.

I sit with my feet up on the sofa in our bungalow; Avram is lying on the window seat. Everyone else is doing deals or enjoying themselves. I'm going to wait out the afternoon rain that looks like snow because of the milkweed blowing off the trees. I'm in a state of pissed-ness. Angry because I still haven't heard about the disability insurance, which makes me fear it won't be approved. Recalling how just a year ago Avram was chasing down deals for the distant future; now he's shadowed by the uncertainty of his health.

Last year the conference theme was globalism. Presenters described with military precision how they were freeing India and China to choose Coke over Pepsi, and Nike over Reebok. This year the mantras are "Internet" and "content." Not one self-respecting entertainment company is talking pipelines and distribution. The networks are even claiming they are makers of content. Being in the content business will transform them into being more imaginative and risky. They will start to think and act like storytellers.

I listen to the talks, but the script running through my head is, Please, God, don't take Avram from me. He is my Virgil, my guide, my teacher, my beloved, source of all highs and lows. The things I've accomplished over the last five years I've done to keep up with him and make him proud. We've never been able to live together, but we have no appetite for breaking apart. And now? When he sleeps, I am so alone. I feel I'm being poured out like the rain into the earth.

Avram's health makes me impatient to live, and business is often an obstacle to life . "I would live my life in nonchalance and insouciance," Ogden Nash once wrote, "if it were not for making a living, which is rather a nousiance." I can think this and in the same moment wonder, How does one get to be Diane Sawyer? By not caring about rejection. By being beautiful and flawless and unbruised by pain. That is what business has always wanted: either a burnt-toast Joan of Arc or a woman no one can touch. All this will change; we are wearing our vulnerabilities in public more and more. And being appreciated for it. A CEO who left his perch, having suffered a nervous breakdown, recently said to me, "I was afraid that when I left my company, no one would call me. Now more people than ever are calling. I'm more human in my vulnerabilities."

JULY 8: *&#@!!

Got the call: Turned down for disability insurance. Why? Because I am a self-employed home-based worker, unattached to any institution. Is everyone who is self-employed in such straits? My broker says he will take my application to Lloyd's of London, the insurer of last resort, the underwriter of Russian cosmonauts and Bruce Springsteen's voice. I should feel special to be in their company. So why am I pissed? Because I don't see why I should be considered a risk just because I am free from any damn company? Does that make me a menace to myself? But even Lloyd's is no done deal. I have to reapply and begin another wait. My Doubleday benefits run out on July 31. What if something bad happens after that and I'm still not covered? The broker says not to worry; he'll have me covered by the 31st.

I hope so.

JULY 9: The way down is the way up

At the management panel today, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin blew the others away. No small act, since his fellow panelists included Andy Grove and Rupert Murdoch. Levin talked about integrity as the consistent element in all his products, from music to magazines. He said they had to appeal to the public, but also to people in the company. "If our people don't love the product, what good is it?" A vast change has transformed Levin since the terrible murder of his son Jonathan, a year ago. I recall another CEO who had lost his son. In his despair he called a friend, a scholar who was an expert on the story of Oedipus, the king who sleeps with his mother and is blinded for this act. This CEO drew a line going upward to show how strong Oedipus was before that tragic act, and then a line going down to show the king in his misery. "No, you've got it all wrong," my friend said to this man. "I'd draw the lines going exactly opposite. As a king, Oedipus did a lot of things he didn't really care about. After the tragic loss of his kingdom, Oedipus finally discovers what is important to him. Blind to the surface of things, he ironically sees in the clearest way, no illusions, no bullshit. Oedipus lived for 30 years in that state of clarity. What a terrific thing." I'm convinced one doesn't have to suffer to see, that questions of legacy can give leaders the depth they need to see without illusion. I feel I'm closing in on making these matters my "practice."

JULY 11: Cool

Put on my Nikes and ran to the Hemingway memorial. It's a black brook, and over it is a plaque with sentimental doggerel about how Hem wanted to be part of the free blue wind. The water flows cold and fast, and I dipped my fingers in it, my own private Nile in Idaho, and then I walked back up to the bungalow, getting spun up in the sky. I stopped and imagined learning how to be good, or better than good. I expect so much of leaders; how can I ask them to attain that height unless I attain it myself? So much of the genius of the country is here in Sun Valley this week, and all these people are doing is making better telephones or winning the war against Pepsi. Is this the last horizon for business? Or can leaders learn to spend their time in ways that justify their lives?

JULY 12: The blonde leading the blonde

The women's panel: a rare sight, beautiful faces staring back from the stage. No one had realized how deprived we'd been, having to stare at Bill Gates's dourness, until we walked in and saw Diane Sawyer in cashmere; Diane Von Furstenberg, her tummy only a puff like a brioche, in one of her classic 20-year-old dresses; Geraldine Laybourne, with her green-trim glasses and honey-blonde hair; and Katharine Graham, 81, looking like Queen Elizabeth I. The eyes feasted.

Sawyer began with a good joke: If a man says something in a forest and his wife isn't there to hear it, is he still wrong? My favorite line belonged to Von Furstenberg. Asked about the future for women, she explained that when times get tough, people will elect a woman. The French have a phrase: "Cherchez la femme." When life gets dark, turn to a woman. Maybe that's why dying men call for their mothers.

But they weren't there to argue the case for women atop organizations. Graham went so far as to say that women should not work and had no place on boards. "Boards don't do much anyway," she said.

This year Herbert Allen gave three slots away to noncompany presentations---on women, race, and management. Someone at the conference said that Allen doesn't want to be remembered as just a deal maker but as a man who quietly made a difference.

JULY 13: Who am I? Where have I been?

Back home. My book of airline receipts is so thick it looks as if there are still tickets left in it. Five cities in 10 days: Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Sun Valley, New York. Gathering ideas, reminding people (including myself) that I may be one lone player but I can still fill a lot of space.

JULY 29: Pressing the button

Had a next-to-last meeting with my designer, Paula Kelly. She has done a great job on my letterhead. Her logo is like a little AT&T globe, but it's my world. The red river, Rubicon, looks fetching on the page, a heart line, a blood line. I'm very happy. Now the last payment needs to be made, the ball-breaking estimates will come in from the printers, and we're off. Getting stationery is like printing one's own money--let me come to believe that, please, dear Soloist God. You who are singular, help all us little singulars believe that a being alone can make the world. Why on earth am I getting so holy?

AUGUST 1: Today I am one

Lunch with Burt, my favorite rabbi. He is going through the same watch-and-wait calendar with his wife as I am with Avram. We meet every three months or so and compare notes, travel, book lists. "Whom do you c




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