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The tiny 1960s startup that became a global tech-media empire

IDG brought us PC World, Macworld, and other familiar brands. But first, it produced a newsletter from a house in suburban Boston.

The tiny 1960s startup that became a global tech-media empire
[Photo: Flickr user Jason Scott]

Patrick J. McGovern (1937-2014) spent 50 years spreading information about computers and technology around the globe through publications such as PC World, Macworld, Infoworld, the Dummies books, and the company’s flagship, Computerworld. In 1964, when the company was new, the computer industry was still emerging, and McGovern’s first project was to collect some basic data about it. Glenn Rifkin’s new book, Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire, chronicles McGovern’s decentralized, entrepreneurial, and highly successful approach to business. This excerpt covers the company’s earliest days and first forays into publishing.

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Of all the leadership lessons he took to heart during his long career, Patrick McGovern intuitively grasped one of the most important early in his career. In order to build a successful enterprise, you have to identify a clear mission from the outset and find effective ways to share that mission with your people. Before Google and Facebook turned hiring into a science and carefully screened every new hire, McGovern pulled together an eclectic and enthusiastic group of young employees for his fledgling company in a less analytical but highly effective manner. He shared the goals and strategies, but he imparted the mission—to propagate the benefits, understanding, and acceptance of information technology around the world—through sheer determination and passion for what he was doing.

New employees got swept up by this large man with an outsized dream. For example, when he was 23 years old, Burgess Needle lived in the gray house at 355 Walnut Street in Newtonville, Massachusetts. A student at a junior college across the street, Needle rented an upstairs room from McGovern, who owned the house and had reserved the first floor for his startup, International Data Corporation (IDC). It was 1964, and McGovern was just a few years older than Needle but had the ambition of a seasoned business veteran.

On that first floor, McGovern had created his first industry report, which was essentially a census of all the mainframe computers installed in the United States. With IDC up and running, McGovern accelerated his already ambitious efforts. IDC would become celebrated for its role in counting all the world’s computers, a staple of its practice to this day. But for McGovern, this was just a beginning. He foresaw a burgeoning audience for market share data and forecasts. In order to create a steady revenue stream, he created the Gray Sheet, which found a big audience among computer makers and their corporate customers who were seeking vital information about the nascent technology landscape.

The Gray Sheet was the first publication of what would become a global publishing empire, but its humble beginnings offered a glimpse of McGovern’s tenacity in creating the mission that would drive him for the next 50 years. He wrote the newsletter himself from data gathered by a tiny staff of young part-time stringers, and his new assistant, Susan Sykes (who would soon become his wife), typed up his notes. The youthful staffers were on the phone calling the giant computer vendors and their customers to gather as much information as they could about computer installations.

In the first issue, dated March 23, 1964, McGovern laid out an impressively detailed look at the computer industry landscape, a marketplace dominated by IBM but with an array of hungry and aggressive competitors. “From all indications,” McGovern wrote, “1964 will certainly be a turning point year in the development of the American computer industry.” Indeed, as more and more corporate, government, military, and academic institutions began installing these massive computers, the information technology industry was in the midst of explosive growth. McGovern knew he was tapping into something potent and lucrative—a game-changing shift in both business and society.

The lead story trumpeted a yet-unnamed new IBM computer system, predicted to debut in April. The headline noted that IBM “Expects to Install 5000 of Its New Computer Systems in Next Five Years.” McGovern, who’d been editor of both his high school and college newspapers, boldly predicted sales of more than $3.5 billion for Big Blue over that period, a stunning figure for any manufacturer in those days. The new computer turned out to be the IBM System/360, the first “family” of small to large computers, which would transform the industry.

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That first issue also promised a monthly assessment of sales from all of the computer makers, including major competitors such as Honeywell, Univac, Control Data, Burroughs, and RCA, along with critical analysis of each company’s sales efforts. Given the dearth of such vital information, he found a ready audience more than willing to pay.

By the late 1980s, McGovern’s IDG published an array of technology-related magazines around the world. [Photo: courtesy of IDG]
“What struck me was his work ethic,” Needle, now a Vermont-based poet and librarian, recalled about McGovern. “He would be there day after day, morning till night, 16 to 18 hours, putting together the newsletter. I’d be upstairs, but one time I walked downstairs at 3 in the morning and there was Pat ready to go out for a run. He was wearing a T- shirt, running shorts, and running shoes. He said, ‘I’m too revved up. I have to work this off,’ and he went up to the track at the local high school and ran a few laps to clear his head. He came back, showered, and went right back to work. His energy was unreal.”

Needle, a liberal arts major and budding writer, had worked at a local deli, but one day the deli burned down, and he was out of a job. McGovern said, “Come work for me.” Needle responded, “I don’t know what I can do for you.” Computers and math were anathema to him. But McGovern suggested he take a generic aptitude test to see if he was qualified. Reluctantly, Needle agreed. The test got progressively more difficult as it went along, treading into logic, semantics, and other esoteric fields.

“There were 33 questions,” Needle said. “By the time I reached 28, I just stopped and said, ‘This is as far as I can go.’ Pat glanced at it and said, ‘You’re hired.'” McGovern explained that anyone who scored over 27 would be bored out of their mind by the work. Under 17 and they wouldn’t be up for it. “You had 23 correct,” he said to Needle, “so you are perfect.”

Needle joined the young company as a part-time employee. He cold-called companies up and down the Eastern Seaboard and, using a questionnaire McGovern had written, asked the data processing managers what kind of equipment they had, what they were doing with the equipment, and what their needs were. Needle wondered why these giant computer vendors would buy data from this tiny unknown startup operating in a tranquil Boston suburb. Didn’t they have their own resources to get the information? And why would data processing executives talk to him about proprietary corporate information such as their inventory of computer equipment? McGovern told him, “They’ll talk because they are proud. They’ll be delighted to share this information. These are people who don’t have the opportunity to share with anybody. You’ll have to shut them up.” And he was correct.

McGovern, reacting to his recent conversation with the CEO of Univac, only saw opportunity. “We need this information,” the Univac chief had told him, and McGovern saw quickly that he was right. His research might seem like small change to these giants, but it could spawn bountiful leads for their sales forces. It was audacious, and it worked.

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His readers, who were eventually willing to pay upward of $500 a year for a subscription, were on board because the information was scarce, timely, and valuable. “I would see him on the phone with people trying to track down a rumor about a new high-speed printer or some other computer peripheral, and you could tell the person was not very forthcoming,” Needle said. “Pat would talk, tell a joke, circle back, and finally he’d smile, tap the desk, and I would think, ‘Got it.'”

A potent opportunity

At age 27, McGovern displayed the kind of doggedness and risk-taking spirit that would characterize a later generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. From the first days, he understood his mission, and the company coalesced around that mission. Burgess Needle stayed with the startup for less than a year, choosing instead to pursue a literary career. But tens of thousands of others, from California to Beijing, would eventually join IDG and embrace McGovern’s mission. The people he hired learned fast, bought in, and became expert in their various industry niches. He had an almost mythical persona that attracted these young, talented writers, editors, artists, and salespeople who propelled the company to the top of the flourishing information technology media industry.

Just three years after he founded the company, in June 1967, McGovern published the first issue of Computerworld, a weekly newspaper that chronicled the news and events shaping the now mushrooming computer industry. In so doing, he took IDC into the emerging technology publishing arena, established a brand that would quickly become a dominant force in the industry, and began a period of sustained and phenomenal growth.

A scientist by nature, McGovern believed in the data. He was among the first in the computer industry to understand the value of surveying professionals in the information technology field. Computerworld emerged, not on a whim, but from listening to these early computer users voice their concerns. McGovern recalled an early research project IDC was conducting for a client to identify the sources of information for people who bought computer systems.

“We went down and interviewed about 40 people who were data center heads or computer center heads,” he said. “They were all telling us the same story. They said, ‘I get a tremendous amount of literature from the manufacturers.'” These computer makers and their marketing and advertising campaigns, replete with the biases of companies pushing their own products and agendas, seemed to be the sole source of information for prospective buyers.

“What I don’t get,'” said one data processing manager, “is visibility as to what my colleagues are doing. Because I know that they’re having the same concerns about acquiring and using this equipment effectively and well, and problems with some of the reliability of the equipment, and how to train their people. It is a shared challenge for us.”

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In 1980, well before Western tech companies saw China as a big business opportunity, McGovern inked a deal with the country’s minister of the computer and electronics industry for a local version of Computerworld. [Photo: courtesy of IDG]
The trigger for McGovern came next. “There isn’t anyone who keeps us connected as a community, who keeps us up to date and aware,” the manager added. “There are so many things happening, we’d really like to get high frequency information.” Hearing that, McGovern saw through the frustration and angst to a potent opportunity. A weekly newspaper, staffed with talented journalists and editors, could find a ready audience, an audience willing to pay a subscription fee to get the timely and discerning information they needed. In creating Computerworld, McGovern set a new template for his mission.

He changed the company’s name to International Data Group, split IDC into a separate research arm, and soon after, decided to legitimize the “International” in the company name by taking his vision overseas. The mission crystallized. IDG would provide information services about information technology, and though the elasticity of the objective allowed for occasional twists and turns, the ultimate success was built upon a steadfast devotion, over the next half-century, to the core mission. It was a lesson from which McGovern would rarely deviate.

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