Former Print Media Publisher Finds Niche in Integrated Media
"We're having a great time building this thing. Everyday it's something new."
Al Perlman began working in the tech-magazine space in 1975 when print was king. Last year, he re-entered the market with no initial intention of putting out a print publication. Instead, he and his partners in Long Island-based media startup Microcast Communications began with custom events and moved to the Web. But print pioneer Perlman quickly found out that print remains a vital part of the publishing experience.
Finishing up his senior year at Syracuse University, the young Perlman was the only member of his class to land a full-time newspaper job (at the Syracuse Post Standard) before graduating. But after spending seven years (four at college, three at the newspaper) in rural Central New York, Perlman longed to get back to the city;New York City to be specific.
Knowing nothing about computers, Perlman accepted a job at CMP Media's Electronic News. A year later, he pioneered the launch of Computer Systems News and, at 25, found himself in the precarious position of editor-in-chief of the magazine. Perlman spent 15 years at CMP, during which time he not only spearheaded the launch of Computer Systems News, but also that of Network Computing, Computer Reseller News, VARbusiness, Communications Week and Communications Week International. After a long stint at CMP, Perlman spent two years as president of Ziff Davis Business Media, but left in 2001 to take some time off.
The 53-year-old returned to the industry (albeit without the bushy hair and moustache from the eighties) to create Microcast, where he is CEO and co-founder with two partners, Mike Perkowski and Gary A. Bolles. The year-old company started out as a custom events company serving the IT space, where the founders had deep relationships. It has subsequently gone into two markets with print magazines, including the red-hot municipal wireless space and a partnership with an association for a general tech-business title. Perlman says the company is approaching $10 million in revenue. He recently sat down with FOLIO: and talked about the past and present.
FOLIO: What is Microcast?
Perlman: Microcast started because we saw a need for custom events in the IT space.
Vendors weren't satisfied with the big branding campaigns. The whole idea behind Microcast was to build smaller audiences for interaction. We wanted to build a community that would bring both the buying and selling communities together.
FOLIO: Who are your partners? You worked with both at CMP, right?
Perlman: Yes. Mike and Gary. They're great guys. Smart. They both have tremendous character. We're having a great time building this thing. It's challenging. Everyday it's something new.
FOLIO: The three of you started the company together, but you are the CEO, Gary is the president and Mike is the COO, correct?
Perlman: I have the title of CEO, but we run everything by committee. It's very collegial. I handle the financial stuff so I guess it makes sense for me to be CEO.
FOLIO: You've been at this for a year and you've got two publications doing about $2 million in revenue each and a executive roundtable and custom event business bringing in several million. How much did you invest?
Perlman: Not much at all. Let's put it this way, nobody had to take out a second mortgage on their house and there were no investors. It was a lot of sweat equity.
FOLIO: You left CMP and went to Ziff. What did you do between Ziff and Microcast?
Perlman: I left Ziff in October of 2001, a month after 9/11. I took some time off. It was always a dream of mine to just take some time for myself. So I did that for a few years and then I caught the entrepreneurial bug again. I'm a big jazz fan. So I started a jazz newsletter and Web site. And it's a lot of fun. I'm still doing it. I'm selling records and really enjoying it. Then I started doing some consulting and from there I found myself wanting to get back into the action.
FOLIO: So you started Microcast.
Perlman: My strategy was that I didn't want to get into a big company. My partners and I had always worked for big companies. And I wanted to only work with people that I trusted and I liked.
FOLIO: Is it true you didn't want to start another magazine?
Perlman: As we evolved, we realized we wanted to get involved in interactive media and municipal wireless was our first project.
FOLIO: So how did you get involved with that?
Perlman: When we started the company, we didn't seek any publicity. In fact, we were hesitant about me doing this interview. We like to sneak up on people. When we finally did get around to announcing the company, we sent out a press release and only one newspaper picked it up, the San Francisco Examiner. Esme Vos, the woman who created the blog Muniwireless.com, is visiting San Francisco and picks up a copy of the Examiner that someone left at the laundromat. She read about what we were doing and said these guys get it.
FOLIO: What is happening in muni wireless?
Perlman: We target the municipal IT guy. This was the model the community needed. It's a gathering place. Esme created this by doing the blog and we expanded it by doing a newsletter, conferences, roundtables, research, and white papers. It's a place where everyone can come together and talk about what they're doing and what other people are doing. In a year, we've built it into a $2 million business.
FOLIO: When did Muni Wireless come into the picture?
Perlman: It was a natural extension to the Web site. It's quarterly, 10,000 circulation and building. It's not the most integral part of our strategy, but it helps make for a whole integrated, multimedia package.
FOLIO: Your most recent publication is called TechIQ. What's its mission and audience?
Perlman: TechIQ is a quarterly print magazine and Web site for the hi-tech industry in cooperation with the Computer Technology Industry Association, with a particular focus on VARs, systems integrators and other solutions providers. This one we started as a magazine and we're looking at broader possibilities.
FOLIO: How has the technology-media sector changed since 1990?
Perlman: A lot has changed. It was more frothy in 1990. Print was the only vehicle. Everyone wanted to be in the trade papers. People really looked forward to getting the magazines and people really read this stuff. But it's a whole different world.
FOLIO: How does print compete in the new integrated-media world?
Perlman: You have to be a great publication. If you're a great publication, people will read you.
FOLIO: What was it like early in your career to be 25 and editor-in-chief of a magazine?
Perlman: It's funny because I had only been at CMP for a year-and-a-half, but I knew the market better than anybody there. So here I was running this publication at 25-years-old. It was great. It was amazing and it turned out to be a runaway success.
FOLIO: But at some point while at CMP, you left edit to focus on publishing. Why?
Perlman: I was the founding editor, really the editorial director, of four magazines. I felt like I had done everything I could do editorially and I wanted to move over to the business side of publishing. So we debated. Actually they didn't want me to go, but ultimately I prevailed. I wrote the business plan for Network Computing, so it was the next logical step.
FOLIO: Did you find it difficult to go from the editorial side to the business side of publishing?
Perlman: It's not really that different. Some of the skills do translate, like the communication and listening skills. Ultimately, it's about understanding the culture. And I knew it was all about sales. I knew we had to beat the number from the beginning, and we did. We blew out the numbers. By the third year, Network Computing was $15 million in revenue. We grew faster than any publication in the history of CMP at that time.
FOLIO: What's next?
Perlman: We're focused on executive roundtables and custom shows. Basically, tech-industry vendors hire us to put on shows for them. They crave face-to-face events. They give us the content and we put it together in a way that is useful for the attendees. It's custom, because it's focused on the vendors' needs. But the content has to be presented in a relevant and useful way for the attendees or people won't come back. We'd also like to do more events around TechIQ.