Robin Wolaner is CEO and founder of Tee Bee Dee, an online community for people over 40. She’s had a very successful career in publishing starting with a part-time job at Penthouse magazine and later as founder of Parenting magazine which she sold to Time-Warner.
In this first of a two-part interview Robin discusses how she came up with the idea for Tee Bee Dee, the surprises she’s encountered along the way and her history in publishing.
“ When I turned 50 and I got the AARP envelope - I went ‘Ooh, that’s not me!’.”
Read the full interview:
Avocationist: Robin, tell me what you do now to earn your living.
“That is a funny term, ‘earn a living,’ because I work without pay, but I work full-time for the company that I founded, which is called Tee Bee Dee.”
Robin: That is a funny term, “earn a living,” because I work without pay, but I work full-time for the company that I founded, which is called Tee Bee Dee. It stands for “To Be Determined,” and it is a networking site for people over 40. I founded Tee Bee Dee a couple of years ago when I turned 50 and I got the AARP envelope -- I went “Ooh, that’s not me!” I started talking to my friends, and as a baby boomer, I am fairly used to being at the epicenter of big cultural changes. I am the founder of “Parenting” magazine, and when I had the idea for “Parenting” at age 30, it was because I looked around at my friends that were having babies and realized there was no magazine for us. My “aha” moment with Tee Bee Dee was really, “OK, we are not going to join AARP, but there are a lot of things that you can get as a benefit from being in a group. What are those benefits and how can I as a business person deliver them?”
Avocationist: What were some of the benefits you felt would be met that way?
“There are a lot of benefits to being in a group with other like-minded people at a similar life stage.”
Robin: I think the root of AARP was buying insurance at a good price, and the Internet has changed a lot of things. If you are Internet-savvy, a lot of price comparisons have been made really easily and you can be a really good shopper, so I don’t actually think AARP offers that much to an Internet-savvy person anymore. So I started thinking about all of the things that happen in mid-life, and I thought if you are in a club, you can get help from other members who have been there, done that with whatever life change you are going through. Whether it is dealing with an aging parent or looking at your spouse after your kids are just about to move out of the house and you want to reconnect in your marriage, or if the marriage hasn’t worked, as a lot of baby boom marriages have not, and you find yourself single as I did at 50, there are a lot of benefits to being in a group with other like-minded people at a similar life stage.
Avocationist: What kind of feedback do you get from the members?
“Right away they said, 'We want to meet each other.'”
Robin: We basically regard ourselves as a living, breathing focus group. We launched in September and we have about 40,000 members today and we are growing at about 20 percent month-to-month, so that number changes pretty quickly. We listen to the members all of the time, and what we heard, interestingly enough, was how much they wanted to do networking. When we started this site because we thought it would be more about user-generated content and sharing content on life experiences. Right away they said, “We want to meet each other.” It is not even dating, although that is part of it. It is recharging friendships and it is finding people who have time to pursue an activity you are interested in. It really is about friendships at mid-life.
Avocationist: What is the revenue generation from the site?
“We are spending our time, all dozen of us, on making the site really useful and valuable to our members.”
Robin: We are not even trying to generate revenue yet. That is what is exciting about it. Unless the audience is big enough and engaged enough to really care about what we have here, we don’t have a business. We are spending our time, all dozen of us, on making the site really useful and valuable to our members, and we know that the members become the marketers of the site. If members really love what you are doing, they will bring other people in. So that is what we are learning to do.
Avocationist: What a wonderful opportunity to do that.
“I am really blessed.”
Robin: I am really blessed, and it was much easier raising money to do Tee Bee Dee than 20 years ago when I was raising money to do “Parenting.” The world has changed in terms of both venture capital and having a track record – it’s much easier now.
Avocationist: How did you first get involved in media? And, how did you get to where you are now?
“I took a temporary job in between high school and college working as a typist for “Penthouse” magazine.”
Robin: I took a temporary job in between high school and college working as a typist for “Penthouse” magazine. It was a very fast-growing company. “Penthouse” had just launched in the United States.
Avocationist: Can I ask a question about “Penthouse” magazine?
Robin: Before you ask the question, I will tell you what the question is that you are going to ask me, because every man who has ever interviewed me asks the same question. “Were the letters real?”
Avocationist: That is exactly what I was going to ask you.
“I actually had to type up the letters for my job; as I said, I was a good typist, and I can tell you that we received those letters.”
Robin: That is what they all ask me. I actually had to type up the letters for my job; as I said, I was a good typist, and I can tell you that we received those letters. I cannot tell you whether those people were telling the truth, but we did receive the letters. We never had to invent them because we got so many letters.
Avocationist: Was this in New York or San Francisco?
“I have never been able to write as good a slogan for any of my companies that I cared a lot more about.”
Robin: It was in New York; I am from New York and I essentially worked my way through college as a secretary at “Penthouse.” The company grew from about 20 people when I started there, to a couple of hundred people when I got out of college. Then I decided to take a year off before going on to law school. So I got a job as a promotion copywriter at “Penthouse.” I wrote a terrific slogan for them that they used for many years: “More than just a pretty face.” I have never been able to write as good a slogan for any of my companies that I cared a lot more about.
Avocationist: Yes, it’s almost sweet sounding.
“I had a variety of jobs in publishing and in 1985 I had my “Aha” moment of realizing there was no magazine for my generation of parents.”
Robin: I never actually did go to law school. I went from one magazine job to another and in 1977 I was hired to do the national launch of “Runner’s World” magazine. “Runner’s World” was in California, so I moved out here and I have been here ever since. I had a variety of jobs in publishing and in 1985 I had my “Aha” moment of realizing there was no magazine for my generation of parents. There was a “Parents” magazine, but it was very traditional, so I founded “Parenting” magazine and today it is the subject of a Harvard case study; my partnership with Time, Inc., to whom I sold the magazine, and “Parenting” was just an incredible success. I think it is not doing very well today because of the Internet, but I founded it in 1987 and I sold my interest to Time, Inc. in 1990 and I ran magazine development for them. I then oversaw the launch of “Vibe” magazine. In that job I became the CEO of “Sunset.” I gave up the responsibility for “Parenting” in the early ‘90s and left Time Warner in 1996 because I wanted to work on the Internet. “Sunset” was maybe the worst job of my life, so it doesn’t interest me very much.
Avocationist: What did you learn from that experience?
“I am really not a turnaround person; I am a start-up person.”
Robin: I am really not a turnaround person; I am a start-up person. So I left in 1996 and I had a young baby at the time and wasn’t really looking to work again, but met the founder of CNET and went into do a six-month half-time stint to help them get CNET to profitability. CNET was one of the earliest Internet media companies, so it felt like a start-up, even though we had 600 employees at the time. I ended up staying for five years and brought them to profitability twice.
Avocationist: That was very early to be involved with the Internet.
“When I had this idea, I was like, “OK, let’s see if I can practice what I preach.””
Robin: Actually I left Time Warner in 1996 and I started at CNET in1997, so I had a year where I was just an investor in Internet companies, not an employee. In 1997 I became EVP of CNET and did that for five years. Then I left in 2002 to work on my book. I wrote my book in 2003 and 2004 and it came out in the beginning of 2005 through Simon and Schuster and it caused me to look back on my career a lot. I am not a reflective person, but writing the book made me really think about what I would do differently if I was doing it over again. When I had this idea, I was like, “OK, let’s see if I can practice what I preach.”
Avocationist: And that was the beginning of Tee Bee Dee?
“As the book was coming out and I was researching whether I wanted to do anything with this idea, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Robin: I didn’t have a name yet, but yes. As the book was coming out and I was researching whether I wanted to do anything with this idea, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was really the impetus for this company, because I had just reconnected with David Markus, who had been editor in chief of “Parenting,” so I had known him for 20 years. He had left the same time I did in the mid-‘90s to work online, and at the time we reconnected, he was running Yahoo Health. When he heard my idea, he said, “We can do this, Robin. Let’s start this company.” I said, “Well, I have this lump, and if it is cancer, I can’t do a company.” It was cancer. It was my second phone call. First I called my boyfriend, and then I called David and said, “Forget it. I am not starting it up. I have cancer. Woe is me.” David knew enough about health and he e-mailed me a few days later and said, “I think you caught this really early. I think you are going to be fine. I am going to wait.”
“Then, “Oops, I do get to do them because I am not going to die.””
Sure enough, a month later after surgery and all of my tests, it was not a life-threatening thing, but I had this really bad month where I felt sorry for myself and I was weeping and thinking about all of the things I wanted to do in life that I wasn’t going to get to do. Then, “Oops, I do get to do them because I am not going to die.” I thought about what I really wanted to do and what I really wanted to do is to start this company. Other people have hobbies and other people want to travel to foreign places; I like starting companies.
Avocationist: That is the kind of test everybody asks you to do is that, on your deathbed, what do you wish you would have done, and you sort of got that experience.
“It was sort of like, “Life is not unlimited and you have to make the most of what you have left.” That is really why I did it.”
Robin: I have the ability to do something I love and a lot of people that wanted to be involved, and it really made sense. The Tee Bee Dee experience became really vivid to me when I was at a meeting for an organization that I was a member of called World President’s Organization for people over 50 who have been CEOs and presidents. The speaker held up a measuring tape and said, “If every inch on this tape represents a year, what do you think your life expectancy is?” We sort of settled on 85. That seemed like a good average. He said, “Look at where you are on this measuring tape.” Everybody was over midway, and that is both an inspiring and anxiety-provoking image. So to me, that was the essence of Tee Bee Dee. It was sort of like, “Life is not unlimited and you have to make the most of what you have left.” That is really why I did it.