June 2011 Archive

A Sad Day

A few weeks ago someone asked me if I could go back in time and give my 12 year old self advice, what it would be. The only thing I could come up with is: "Stop worrying. It'll all turn out OK."

And I keep thinking how true that actually is. Like most kids, I used to agonize in those (very) awkward years (and later) over whether I'd ever find someone to marry and what on earth I'd do for a living. And somehow, it did all turn out OK. Better than OK.

This is the happiest I've ever been in a full time job, I've been lucky enough to spend two years traveling the world, I've written two books, I'm married to the best person I've ever met, expecting a healthy baby boy in eleven weeks and somehow on a writer's salary we've managed to buy a house in San Francisco. I can't really imagine what more I could want. I even get along great with my in-laws. 

I owe a lot of people for that. My parents, of course. A bunch of teachers. And my awesome husband for marrying me and solving that whole soul mate dilemma.

When it comes to my career-- the unbelievable fact that I get paid to write about some of the most fascinating people in the world-- there are also a lot of people to thank. But chief among them is a man named Barney DuBois. A lot of people have been hugely pivotal during my reporting career, but without Barney it may never have even begun. 

Barney was the founder and publisher of the Memphis Business Journal, but I knew him first as the father of a girl I went to high school with. My senior year I was the editor of the high school paper. I know in retrospect that sounds like I always knew I'd do this, but believe it or not, I had no interest in going into journalism. In fact, it didn't even occur to me. Back then I associated being a journalist with daily newspapers and writing stilted AP style pieces about school board meetings. That didn't sound too enticing. (Probably didn't help that Memphis didn't have the world's greatest daily paper.) 

 At any rate, as editor I inherited a huge deficit. We were still publishing the paper by moving print and it was expensive. We only had enough money to produce six four-page issues for the year. Lame. I decided to get someone in the community to "underwrite" the paper, and picked Barney as my target. He was the only person remotely in the journalism world I knew. 

So I nervously went to his office downtown and pitched him on an offer he couldn't possibly refuse: Help us move our paper over to computers, send your staff to train my team how to use the programs, let us use your scanners, and let us piggyback on your print run. And throw in a redesign. In exchange I offered our paltry budget and a line in the staff box that said we were underwritten by the Memphis Business Journal. He accepted, clearly out of a mix of pity, amusement and obligation since his daughter went to my school. The Business Journal underwrote my highschool paper until they were sold to American City Business Journals years later, totally changing what the students were able to produce. 

Over that summer and my senior year of high school, we put out more papers than the school ever had, with longer page counts, vastly improved photos and graphics and still ended with a surplus. Every month around midnight, I'd finish wrapping up each issue in the school's computer lab. (My family didn't have a computer.) I'd go drop off the floppy disks and the photos at Barney's house. He'd open the door-- sometimes in a bathrobe, usually holding a glass of scotch, still working late on his own paper. And every month he'd say the same thing: "You're going to be a reporter. It's in your blood." 

Every month I told him he was wrong. 

Fast-forward three years and I was taking a semester off college and utterly disillusioned with other careers I thought I'd go into. A summer working for Memphis City Council convinced me politics wasn't for me and an internship at a law firm dissuaded me against law school. My parents were teachers, but I didn't think that was quite for me either. Someone suggested I go into PR. Or pharmaceutical sales. You know, the vague careers for outgoing girls with liberal arts degrees. Yeah….I didn't have to do an internship to know neither of those were for me.

Then I ran into Barney's wife, who edited two of the MBJ's smaller publications. She asked what I was up to, and I asked if I could have an internship. I remembered what he'd said and how much I'd enjoyed editing my paper in highschool. I still didn't think I'd go into journalism, but thought it could look nice on a resume and could be fun. She said sure. And within the summer, I fell in love with the paper the two had created and began an all-consuming life-long career of business reporting. A few years later, the editor of the Business Journal came to my desk and asked me if Memphis had any venture capitalists-- a chance conversation that ended with me moving to Silicon Valley in 1999. You know the rest.

For the Memphis Business community, Barney and his wife Debbie created something that was every bit as powerful as TechCrunch is for the Silicon Valley business community. It dug out fascinating stories of very private business moguls the world might not have ever read about, covered the large public companies based in Memphis better than anyone else, and championed the small business man.

It was the place where I learned the basics of how to report, where I learned never to be intimidated by any CEO, where I learned to camp out in someone's office until they gave me an interview, where I first felt the rush of knowing something that no one else knew and splashing it across the front page.

Playing on the Memphis Business Journal softball team also gave my husband-- who played on an opposing team-- the opportunity to court me. Never mind my boss heckled him for taking too many pitches. It's never embarrassing when you are 22 and your Ed Asner-like boss yells at the guy you like, "SWING AT THE BALL, BOY!" 

Mr. Lacy and I were driving around last Saturday talking about all of this. How weird it was that we'd fallen into such a great life, just by following a chance path that so easily could have not happened at all. Specifically how crazy it was that except for one person telling me I'd definitely be a reporter every month of my senior year of highschool, I might have never have even gone into an industry that has been such a perfect fit for me and consumed most of my waking thoughts since then. Not thirty minutes later we got an email from Memphis with the news that Barney DuBois had died. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. 

I read all the tributes to him in the Memphis area papers about what a great journalist he was, about the paper he created, about the wealth he amassed when he sold the paper and everything he'd been doing in recent years for Memphis businesses. But what was missing in that coverage were tiny stories like mine of people whose lives Barney changed just by intersecting with them for a year or so and giving them a little bit of his time for no ROI-driven reason. 

I'm going back to Memphis in a week. I'm doing a book event organized by the Memphis Leadership Academy that's semi-ridiculous. FedEx CIO Rob Carter-- who really I should be the one interviewing-- is interviewing me about entrepreneurship and the Mayor is introducing the whole thing. It's all a big honor for me, and I'm happy my parents who are celebrating their 50th anniversary that weekend will be there.

But I can't help but think fondly of the last book event I did in Memphis, which was much more casual and low-frills. The one where the Barney introduced me, told embarrassing stories about what a freak I was in highschool and reluctantly took credit for unleashing me on the business world. I'm glad I got the chance to tell him how much he'd changed my life before it was too late. 

 

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Srah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is an award-winning reporter who has covered high-growth entrepreneurship for more than fifteen years. She is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of PandoDaily.com, the site-of-record for the startup ecosystem. She lives in San Francisco.

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