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Spirited Woman Interviews by Nancy Mills
Nancy Mills : Laurel Touby Interview

Interview with Laurel Touby

By Nancy Mills

You know, sometimes you just go to a party, and things just happen. Bada-bing. Bada-boom. That's how I met Laurel Touby, not really, but sort of. Now to the story.

A dear friend told me about Mediabistro.com, this "really cool site for the media," she said, and that they host great parties for scribes, pr pros, designers, and just about anyone else in the media biz. As fate would have it, (are there any accidents?) they were hosting a party in LA — they host them all over the world — and I attended.

Before I went, I checked out their site again, and found out the owner was a WOMAN (Laurel) who operates her biz from Manhattan. That's when a light bulb went off. I thought wouldn't it be great to interview her for Spirited Woman. So, when I went to the party, I asked her LA exec Erwin (whom I had just met) if I might interview Laurel. One thing led to another and to my surprise and delight, Laurel said yes. Bada-bing. Bada-boom.

Personally, I find Laurel to be amazing. A 1981 graduate of Smith College in economics, she was born in Hawaii, raised in Miami, and "escaped" to New York, where she became a top journalist for such pubs as "Glamour, " and "Business Week." But writing can be a pretty lonely road and in 1993, she and a friend had a brainstorm — why not host a mixer for media people, where we can meet some like-minded friends? Ten people came to the party, a "huge success," she says, "because that was five more people than I knew."

That party was the beginning of Mediabistro and how it evolved is quite a story. Laurel now employs 22 people, her site receives over 5 million hits a month, and her annual revenue is 5 million plus from the 450,000 people who've signed up for the various Mediabistro's services — from job listings, bulletin boards, classes, freelance marketplace and more.

Laurel is a persistent fighter. Married to Jon Fine, she now lives in Brooklyn. A woman who has made her own advantages Laurel's interview is really inspiring.

Q.
When you began Mediabistro what was your goal or perhaps said another way what was your vision for it?

A.
Well, my vision started with a cocktail party, because I really didn't envision having a website or a business at all. I envisioned a party that was fun and engaging, where I could meet like-minded media professionals and we could talk shop. It wasn't even my idea for the party it was actually a colleague's, a freelance writer named Russell Baker. So literally the business started with that first party in 1993, and we had about 10 people and it was a huge success, because that was five more people than I knew. The party evolved into an e-mail newsletter in about '96, and into a website in 1997. But in 1999, I saw that Monster and Hot Jobs were making money off their job listing sites and I thought maybe this is a business. Up until that point it really was just a hobby. But we had the best job listings in media on our site, so I thought, hum, this could be something. I started asking employers posting jobs to the website if they were happy they could send a check for $100 to this PO box. Eight people sent in checks that first month and that is what launched the business.

Q.
What about you and your concept do you think kept Mediabistro growing?

A.
I think the part about me is — I'm like you — I'm very diligent and I'm very attentive to details and I'm extremely persistent. So that is a good combination for being a small business owner because you really have to just persist and persist and get all the details right and keep doing it over and over again. It's interesting because I remember in the beginning it was all about keeping in touch with customers. That meant on the phone, at the parties, over e-mail — but I'll never forget, I kept hammering away at the message and the message was always the same — what can I do for you, how can I help, here's what I'm already doing check it out. I was constantly telling people about the product that wasn't even a product at the time, but I wanted them to use it. So when people would send me a job listing through e-mail, I'd say you can put up the job listing — here go to my website. Check it out. Post your own jobs. Instead of me typing it up for them, I would get them in the habit of using the website. I guess just being persistent in every single interaction with your customer.

Q.
You got to the point where you needed to bring financing into the business — why is creating a business plan so vitally important for any woman in business?

A.
I don't know if you are aware of this but I use to write about business for "Glamour," "Working Woman," and "Business Week," so I knew early on — if I wanted to make this into something, I needed to have capital. I also knew to get capital you needed a business plan. It wasn't a natural thing for me to create. I can honestly tell you that I wouldn't have been able to do it on my own. I needed help not with the writing or the concept but with financial projections and the numbers. So very early on I contacted a lot of people who were experts in their field, and I just asked for help and I said I don't have any money right now, but I'm going to have a business that's going to grow, and I'll give you some stock in the future company if you'll help me right now. I strongly advise writing a business plan because of the discipline it gives you about really thinking through your product and your services and your company. But even better — before you write your business plan talk to your customer and do surveys and focus groups and things like that. They don't have to be expensive, but you need to have a very good handle on what your customer wants, what they're willing to pay, and how you're going to market. I had a lot of customer research from years of doing cocktail parties.

Q.
You refer to yourself as the founder, CEO, and cyberhostess of Mediabistro. Explain your role as a cyberhostess?

A.
It's making people welcome. Making people feel that they belong there at the party because they've been invited — everyone is an invited guest. It's also helping them meet each other — not letting them sit by themselves at the party or feel disconnected or alienated, because so many parties I've been too I've felt all those things. I'm trying to be the anti-alienation hostess. In terms of being a cyberhostess for the site, I'm kind of the person who makes people who come to the site feel welcome and feel connected to one another. A lot of people write to me and they don't believe that I exist. They just think I am kind of an avatar — they think I'm the site avatar. I guess as cyberhostess I serve as the figurehead of this connected website.

Q.
I know you are known for wearing colorful feather boas — why do you wear them and what do they symbolize for you?

A.
I wear the boas as a way for people to find me in a room — so they are very practical, but they symbolize freedom because honestly I used to go to other people's cocktail parties and I was too afraid to approach anybody. And the boa allows me to become the hostess and to approach total strangers and not be shy. Because fundamentally, I'm shy.

Q.
Do you think it helps being somewhat of a personality in business?

A.
I think it helps and it hurts. It's certainly gets me a lot of attention on Gawker.com, which is this website that loves to make fun of me, so that is where it doesn't help, because it makes you into a target. I don't have a thick skin, I am extremely thin skinned, and it really bugs me every time someone writes something mean about me. It helps to have a personality because people will want to work with you, people enjoy the sense of fun I bring to the party, and they love the spirit that I bring to every interaction whether business or personal. I like to say I combine the personal with the professional at Mediabistro. I really believe business can be a personal thing it doesn't have to be so professional.

Q.
What do you do to keep yourself balanced?

A.
I have to exercise an hour a day — I know that's not much for you California women, but in New York — people look at you funny when you say you're not going out to lunch, you're going to the gym instead. Eating well, going to movies, things like that. Sometimes I have to avoid media though, because media is a reminder of my business, and if I'm really upset reading an article by a journalist whose name I know, it might upset me even more. It's hard to un-plug from the media — it's on TV, it's online — movies are probably my only safe venue because they are a total escape and I'm not in the movie business — yet. Twice a week I run with a coach. It's really hard — I can't think of anything else right at that moment.

Q.
Spirited Woman is a growing on-line and off-line community and Mediabistro is a HUGE on-line and off-line community — why do you feel a sense of community is so vitally important today?

A.
I think it has become more and more important. People don't really have the type of communities that they used to. If you go back over history community was where you lived. Right? Your neighborhood, your little block. There are more and more barriers to that kind of community. People don't say hello to each other even in the same building. Religion isn't bringing people together in the same ways. Working for companies no longer provides you with a strong community because you are so disposable. So I think as the individual finds fewer and fewer outlets for community, places like Spirited Woman and Mediabistro become more important in their lives. The traditional means for creating community are no longer as strong and that's why these organic communities based on enthusiasm or a hobby or an occupation resonate with people. I think this is the future of community — organic little creatures like ours.

Q.
Laurel, why do you feel that you are a Spirited Woman?

A.
Because I really didn't start with all the advantages. Yes, I had a really great education, I went to Smith College, but honestly, that only gets you so far. I did not have a lot of advantages growing up before college in my hometown of Miami. I came to a big giant city and made my own advantages and that is really hard to do and not a lot of people survive here, much less succeed on the level that I've succeeded on. I'm really proud to say I'm a Spirited Woman for those reasons.

Laurel Touby welcomes hearing from you. She invites you to visit her website at: www.mediabistro.com.

© 2006 Nancy Mills

Nancy MillsNancy Mills is the Creator of the Spirited Woman Approach to Life, a self-inspirational writer for women, and the publisher of the highly successful Spirited Woman Blogger Team. More »

10/21/06