When I answered my phone that day a detached female voice said, “Mr. Ziff wants to see you . . . come to his apartment at the UN Plaza . . . now.”
It was a meeting I shall never forget. Bill Ziff was not just the owner of Ziff-Davis, one of the most powerful magazine publishing houses in the country, he was the man who had led his company from near bankruptcy to industry leadership after the death of his father forced him to leave his studies at the Sorbonne so he could manage the family publishing enterprise.
My only previous meeting with Bill was a handshake at a company event, so the phone call and meeting request was a bit intimidating. But when I got there, he made it comfortable – sort of: “You have become important to my company, so I need to know more about you. Tell me your story.”
Bill Ziff was no ordinary company owner and manager. He had an innate ability to develop insights into people, and to discern their professional and personal strengths, weaknesses, and needs, a skill that enabled him to position and manage them very effectively.
He was always well-prepared for a conversation, so he knew that I was Director of PC Labs, the product testing unit of PC Magazine that put the magazine way ahead of the competition by giving readers reviews of massive numbers of products. Readers could make informed buying choices based on the consistent testing and evaluations performed by the labs. No other computer magazine’s editorial content came close.
Bill also knew that I had started the labs by creating uniform product testing scripts and review templates, then assembling a crew of tech reviewers into a back hallway where they did the testing and writing while I assembled the data and edited the product reviews. You may imagine all that piqued Bill’s interest in me, and he wanted to assess whether my work at PC Labs was just a flash in the pan or whether I had the skills and insights to make more valuable contributions to his company.
As the conversation moved along, I filled him in on what I had done in the past, where I had done it, and how I had succeeded and failed on a career track that got me to Ziff-Davis. He made it clear that my personal life was just as important to him, so I shared it all, including my sobriety story. He told me that his own experience included helping people at his company and in his family deal with alcoholism. That conversation established a bond of mutual respect between us based on shared experiences and interests.
Our mutual business interest was clear: I could help his business while he helped my career, and that became the foundation of the many different jobs I held during my years at Ziff-Davis. Each job was more senior than the last, and all of them led to the growth of my skills as a technologist, manager, editor, and writer. The result was that I found myself moving ever further into the circle of leadership that drove the company.
Some of the jobs were great fun. For example, when he acquired Computer Shopper, Bill charged me with transforming it from a hobbyist magazine where readers found cheap computer gear, into one used by businesses to make volume buying decisions from the mail order computer vendors that advertised there – all without losing the hobbyist readership.
I assembled and led an editorial team that produced content so successful that the magazine set circulation records despite being the size of a telephone book of the advertising volume the sales team was able to produce. That job was so much fun that I went home most nights wondering why I was getting paid.
Others were just awful. Just after Bill asked me to help the company’s attempt to start an online service in competition with AOL, the Internet came along to render our nascent efforts moot and destroy AOL’s previously successful business as well.
Every assignment, even the awful ones, had something new for me to learn. My time at Ziff-Davis was nothing short of an intensive training program in publishing, with a heavy dose of personal growth thrown in. Every assignment also carried opportunities to try out new ideas and, so long as Bill ran the company, there was little or no risk of punishment for failure because the safety net of his paternalistically managed company was always there.
I think Bill believed that punishing people for failure would set an example that deterred others from taking chances on new ideas that might be successful. My successes at the company were always the result of creative thinking and good teamwork, a style that I continued long after my stay at Ziff-Davis – although I missed Bill’s safety net now and again.
There were many more conversations with Bill during my years at Ziff-Davis. When he retired and sold the company, it changed and not for the better. But I remain eternally grateful for the experience of working for and knowing Bill Ziff. He was one of the smartest people I met in the very intelligent crowd of publishing and technology executives I came to know at that time, and being in Bill’s orbit with access to his insights and intelligence was a privilege for which I am forever grateful.