Innovation lessons from an industry pioneer

Last week’s passing of Pat McGovern, founder of tech publisher IDG, feels like the end of an era. Over a span of five decades, McGovern brought a passionate spirit and a culture of innovation to B2B publishing – qualities that too often are absent from today’s B2B media companies.

I met with Pat a few times during my time at IDG from 2004 to 2006, and each interaction left an impression, similar to the times I spent with another tech publishing legend, Bill Ziff, who led IDG rival Ziff-Davis through the mid-1990s. Both were larger-than-life yet surprisingly humble leaders who balanced strong business instincts with a passion for journalism – and the people who produce it.

Here are three lessons B2B media leaders can (and should) take from McGovern’s approach to publishing.

Find & cultivate new markets

Pat McGovern IDGMcGovern was a big thinker who saw great promise in emerging markets for technology news and information, not just in the U.S. but internationally. Just five years after launching Computerworld in the U.S. in 1967, McGovern launched Shukan Computer in Japan, kicking off a long string of global licensing deals and other partnerships that built IDG into a global powerhouse. In 1980, McGovern forged one of the first joint ventures in China by a U.S. business. In 1992, he established IDG Technology Ventures, one of the first venture capital firms in China.

In a 2000 oral history (pdf) for the Computerworld Honors Program, McGovern summarized his philosophy for business success:

The first thing is to find a fertile market, find a need out there that you can fulfill at a cost that is less than perceived value, so you can make a little profit of a positive cash flow and have a healthy business.

McGovern stuck to this approach as IDG continued to expand geographically. Eric Hippeau, the former CEO of Huffington Post who spent 14 years at IDG, recalled McGovern’s support after IDG acquired Hippeau’s publishing startup in Brazil in 1975:

He gave me the resources to turn the company, Computerworld do Brasil, into the dominant computer publisher in Brazil. From that base, we developed similar businesses throughout Latin America. We would not have accomplished this if it wasn’t for Pat’s singular business philosophy of entrusting his business units to be self-sufficient and make the necessary on-the-spot decisions. The fact that I was in my mid-20s did not faze him.

Today, IDG’s global media network includes 460 websites, 200 mobile apps and 180 print titles in 97 countries.

Remove barriers to innovation

As Hippeau noted, McGovern’s “think globally” approach was paired with an equally important principle: “act locally.” These two concepts formed the core of IDG’s decentralized approach to publishing, which kept the corporate staff lean and funneled decision-making down to locally managed business units. In the oral history, McGovern explained how this approach evolved:

I started out like most founding entrepreneurs. You want to make sure that everything is done right and being in control of things. So I would want to approve any major new financial commitment. I would want to meet all the key people being hired by the company. [At one point I realized], “Oh my God, I’m slowing the growth of this company rather than accelerating it.”

The first humbling thought that I had was that there were tens of thousands of very successful businesses that never had any advice, or guidance, or suggestions from me at all. I said, “I really can’t be an essential part of business success. Why am I keeping all these people waiting for a decision?

The real bosses should be in the marketplace. You want to get out of their way and let them do it the way they think is right, let them listen to the marketplace and the customers and let that be the guiding force rather than looking over their shoulder and telling them what your opinion is, because you are not the customer. You need to maximize the amount of time they can spend in touch with the market and minimize the time they have to spend in internal communications.

Time’s Harry McCracken, who spent 16 years at IDG, summarized the philosophy in a tribute post:

Pat … funded other people’s ideas and — assuming that an IDG division’s business plan was met — largely stayed out of the way. IDG publications sprouted all over the world, operating with great independence. Rather than aiming for a cookie-cutter approach, brands such as PC World morphed to fit the cultures of different countries.

Decentralization caused its share of speed bumps along the way, notably the mid-2000s (coinciding with my time there) when the company was slow to react to the publishing industry’s print-to-digital shift. The leadership team eventually figured out that centralizing some online operations would create far more efficiencies – and growth opportunities – than having each publication run its respective web properties independently. With a better structure in place, IDG made up lost ground quickly: its U.S. online revenues surpassed print revenues in 2009 and, last year, accounted for 66% of the company’s $3.6 billion in global revenue.

A “let’s try it” attitude remains one of IDG’s 10 corporate values, which are prominently displayed in the company’s Boston headquarters. Lew McCreary, my former boss at IDG, paid tribute on Facebook to McGovern’s approach to innovation and entrepreneurialism:

He built his company with a clear vision, remained true to it, allowed people to add to it, improvise off it, spread it to new audiences. It was great fun to work for someone who took such pleasure in the many ventures that grew from his big idea.

Invest in people to drive personal and business growth

McGovern encouraged a culture based on hiring smart and talented people and providing the training and support to help them grow professionally, which in turn benefited the business. From his oral history:

You have to find someone who’s passionate and inspired by the opportunity to fulfill that [market] need, someone whose passion and energy and enthusiasm attracts others to join them and they can provide leadership to them.

Then you have to support that person the way you would like to be supported in their position. You want to have trust in them and you want to encourage them. You want to celebrate their successes. You want to give them the resources that they ask for.

We believe in always driving to improve in every fashion and every way, continuously. We always wanted to invest in our team through training and education, so their skills were constantly advancing.

Melissa Riofrio, a senior editor with IDG’s PCWorld, credited McGovern with building a strong culture from “two centers”: technology and people:

He believed that high-quality publications started with hiring and training the best people and keeping them as happy as possible. This was a tall order in the hard-charging, high-pressure world of journalism, but Pat persisted.

A personal touch helped reinforce the culture McGovern cultivated. He frequently sent handwritten “good news” notes to staffers for their accomplishments, and hosted champagne dinners to celebrate employees’ 10-year anniversaries. McGovern’s annual trips to IDG offices to personally hand out year-end bonuses to staff members were legendary in tech publishing circles. Sharon Machlis, Computerworld’s online managing editor, shared the impact of these actions:

I used to joke that he was the only billionaire who actually knew me personally. But it wasn’t a joke — despite leading a global corporation with many thousands of employees, he not only knew my name but what I did. And it was the same for pretty much all of us.

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