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NJ Tech Meetup & NVP Host Dinner and Fireside Chat with Don Katz: In Review

Key Takeaways:
  • Survival means making “a few more good decisions than stupid ones.”
  • Make your product or service easy enough to become a habit.
  • A career as a freelance writer prepared Don Katz for a second career as an entrepreneur.

Contributed by Ilise Benun.  Ilise is the founder of Marketing-Mentor.com, the go-to online resource for creative professionals who want better projects with bigger budgets. She is a national speaker, the author of 7 business books, a business coach and the Program Partner for HOW Design Live's Creative Entrepreneur program. Follow her @MMToolbox and sign up for her Quick Tips here: www.marketing-mentortips.com

How did Don Katz go from a freelance writer to founder of Audible.com? He already had a successful 20-year career as a freelance journalist for Rolling Stone, Esquire and Sports Illustrated and had authored 3 books.

But in 1994, when he started doing research on digital technology for his 4th book (based on someone else’s idea – big mistake!), he learned enough about analog to digital signal processing to realize that the world needed to liberate clunky audiobooks from his bellypack. Now, 20 years later, people listen to Audible an average of 2 hours/day. That’s the average!

How did he go from freelance writer to angel investor and Founder/CEO of the largest free-standing subsidiary of Amazon.com in 20 short years?

Here are a few takeaways and memorable quotations from the “fireside chat” between Katz and NJ Tech Meetup founder, Aaron Price, held at Audible.com headquarters in Newark, NJ (a growing business hub minutes from NYC with amazing bandwidth and a new VC fund and accelerator, Newark Venture Partners).

The idea Katz had for Audible was a good one and the 120-page business plan he wrote essentially played out as he planned it, except that it took longer. Audible was 7 years too early for the market – and he attributed their survival to making “a few more good decisions than stupid ones.”

To make it, you have to have a “weird relentlessness” and the “irrational exuberance” of a missionary – someone on a mission. (Missionaries and mercenaries are 2 categories of entrepreneur that Jeff Bezos talks about.)

He credits much of his success to his training and experience as a journalist. Journalists need to know what they know and what they don’t know – where the weaknesses are. Armed with that knowledge, he surrounded himself with the right people to balance his weaknesses. Many entrepreneurs, who are often more missionary than mercenary don’t seem to have that awareness.

There's nothing more entrepreneurial than being a freelance writer,” he explained. “Starting a company is like getting an advance to write a book. You have to have an idea that no one else has ever had and you have to persuasively argue its merits,” which is essentially the job description of a journalist. The difference is when you start managing a whole lot of people. Nothing can prepare you for that.

When he went to raise money in the late 90's, he decided not to refer to the legacy audiobook business as one he was proposing to fix. Instead, he positioned his business this way: Every day 93 million people drive to work alone and spend 600 million hours in traffic. Their options don't include much more than terrestrial radio. If we only penetrate X percentage at X dollar cost, this is how big the business will be.

"I got a lot of money," said Katz.

The key seems to be something Audible has accomplished: to figure out how to apply technology to make your product or service easy enough to become a habit.

A few more takeaways:
  • One current challenge he expressed: How to keep the entrepreneurial fire at this scale?
  • His favorite books: The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner and The Invisible Man by his mentor, Ralph Ellison.
  • He highly recommends ice hockey to clear your mind because if your mind is on your problems, you’ll be killed.

(Full disclosure: I am a huge Audible fan and subscriber -- I do almost all of my reading through my ears lately.)

Thank you to our amazing help with the event:
October's NJ Tech Meetup is Tuesday, October 20th at Stevens in Hoboken. C'mon on down.  
We're also hosting a very cool event, our first hackathon with Viacom on 10/24 and 10/25.  Join us.
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