Bob Guccione, the entrepreneur behind the Penthouse General
Media publishing empire who died
today at age 79, was not an innovator. Most of his moves, from starting
Penthouse in 1965 to his attempts to branch out into other business interests
and other media, were inspired by the recognized pioneer of this particular
media niche, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.
Yet General Media at its early ’80s peak was one of America’s
most successful businesses, worth an estimated $300 million. Guccione was
constantly on the lookout for new opportunities and never lost his appetite for
risk. Though his ideas may not have been as original as Hefner’s, he pursued
them with the same dogged determination and lived the high life with the same
In short, Guccione’s Penthouse was the epitome of the fast follower–the business that may
not be the first to market with a new idea, but which is able to take it and
run. Today the term entrepreneur is used almost interchangeably with innovator,
but the fact is that the fast-follower model can be just as viable and just as
In the end, Guccione died sick and broke, his empire lost as
a result of a changing culture and changing technologies, not to mention the
consequences of his casual approach to paying taxes. Like most entrepreneurs,
he leaves a mixed legacy. But his career as a fast follower demonstrates five
important virtues that today’s entrepreneurs can apply if they have the
business skills to succeed but lack the imagination to be trailblazers:
#2, you can take more risks. From the start, Penthouse was always edgier
than Playboy. While Hefner seemed to crave respectability, Guccione applied
the same basic high standards of craft and production value to material that
pushed the envelope of taste just far enough to entice the Playboy clientele,
without toppling fully over into pure trash. Clearly a lot of media moguls
today stumble when trying to walk that tightrope.
away from controversy. By 1965, it was no big deal to put out a “gentleman’s
magazine” with pictures of naked women. Playboy had already absorbed and exhausted
the general cultural indignation around nudity and obscenity. So to gain
attention, Guccione had to whack the hornet’s nest. He sent his first
solicitations for his magazine to clergymen, school children, pensioners and
government officials, creating a firestorm of controversy. And as we all know,
for a startup, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
experimenting. Guccione was not a classic innovator, but he never stopped
thinking about new directions and new platforms for his brand. In the 70s, he
branched out from porn magazines to other types of magazines and other types of
porn, including his notorious big-budget cinematic orgy, Caligula. He didn’t
win all those bets–in fact, toward the end, he lost most of them–but he
realized that in the end, the only way to outdo Playboy was to outflank them.
quality. On hearing the news of Guccione’s death, a friend of mine who
edits “pornumentaries” for HBO posted a heartfelt note on Facebook saluting him
for “always [making] sure we had the highest quality images. I admired that
commitment and professionalism immensely.” That professionalism was obvious in
Guccione’s other ventures as well. His science fiction magazine Omni was
admired from its first issue to its last.
Just because Guccione wasn’t first, or in many people’s minds, best in his
niche didn’t mean he acted like an also-ran. He was as flamboyant, outspoken
and provocative as any classic ego-driven entrepreneur: an uncompromising
business partner, a fearsome, demanding boss, and a mentor to rising talent
when a protégé met his standards.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. Follow him on Twitter @robsalk.