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Wax On, Wax Off (Or: A Mentoring Moment)

The dynamic is as old as business itself. The young hotshot wants to go all in on the current trend. He’s frustrated that the old hand is skeptical. Then one day reality smacks the kid in the face and he realizes the old hand was right.

It happened to me once. OK, maybe more than once.

It was dot-com bubble 1.0. I was a young CEO, running my first company, eager to conquer the world (or at least some of the World Wide Web). I had just founded worldlyinvestor.com, which became the largest provider of free investing newsletters online. It was a great opportunity to implement my ideas around user-driven segmentation and Transactional Media, and for our company to leverage the emerging world of digital advertising.

And it all happened because of where my parents happened to sit at the French Open.

One year, sitting next to my parents were Robert Ellis and his wife Jane. Robert, a very successful serial entrepreneur and investor, had founded an AOL site called Bonjour Paris for Americans interested in The City of Light. When they moved to Paris, Bob brought Karen Fawcett, a dear friend of Jane’s, onboard the Bonjour Paris team. (Karen went on to buy and run the site from Bob when he returned to the U.S.) Karen’s husband, Victor Kramer, was an expert direct marketer and my future business partner and mentor. Needless to say, Robert, Jane and my parents hit it off, and they later told me all about the Bonjour Paris site.

Fast-forward a bit. I’m working with AOL in Dulles and having lunch with Marta Grutka when a man stops at the table to say hello to her. Like me, he has a site on AOL. I ask what site. He says, “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s a content site for Americans who have an affinity for Paris.”

I said, “Is it Bonjour Paris?”

His eyes widened. “You know it?”

I said, “You had lunch with my parents last year at the French Open.”

And that, basically, is how Bob and I became friends and I ended up starting worldyinvestor.com with Victor Kramer. It’s a great reminder that for all of our reliance on metadata and programmatic, successful businesses are still founded to a large extent on serendipity and personal relationships.

Victor Kramer (pictured below) provided frequent reminders of the importance of staying true to yourself and your roots. Victor had a resume that included work with Fidelity Investments, The Putnam Companies and Lipper Analytical Services. He had advised financial organizations in Spain, France, Portugal, Greece and the Philippines. He was truly a worldly investor.

WAX ON, WAX OFF (OR: A MENTORING MOMENT)

But Victor’s sophistication in financial matters was anchored in bottom-line common sense. That was, no doubt, a function of his years of experience in direct marketing. And when Victor looked at digital, he didn’t like what he saw — even though selling digital ads was our bread and butter. “Online ads really don’t work on a performance/ROI basis,” he’d say.

Victor thought old-fashioned direct mail was a much better option. “It’s not really sexy,” he’d say, “but it actually works.”

At that time, Victor’s attitude was anathema to all the enthusiasm and excitement that was happening in digital. So, as the resident young upstart, I became a little dismissive toward him on that topic.

Then one day we were in a meeting, brainstorming ways to get more site traffic. My dad, who happened to be sitting in, said, “Why don’t you just buy a bunch of online ads?”

I blurted out my answer: “Are you kidding me? They don’t friggin’ work! We’ll go broke if we do that.”

My words were still echoing in my head when I glanced at Victor. To his credit, he didn’t say, “I told you so.” Then again he didn’t have to. His grin said it for him.

Victor has since passed away, but I know that he’s still with me here at PebblePost. I got an unmistakable sign the day our seed round closed and I was opening a bank account. I was at Silicon Valley Bank telling a young woman a little of my history, including my relationship with Robert and Victor. She said, “Well, that’s really weird.”

I asked her what she meant. She pointed at the name of one of PebblePost’s founders: Robert Victor.

Serendipity indeed.

#serendipity  #mentoring  #aol

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About Lewis

Lewis GershCurrent Chief Stamp Licker (a.k.a. CEO) at PebblePost, former VC in adtech, long-time endurance athlete, happy dad to “The Heathens.”

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