Monday, October 29, 2007

Springboard Luncheon with Christie Hefner

Did you know that 3 out of 4 companies are started by women, but only 10% of venture capital funding goes to women-owned businesses? That's pretty sad. Here's another one: women own more than 50% of the wealth in the U.S., but only 8% of those funds are allocated to investing in start-up companies. If you're a small business looking for alternative ways to finance your growth, funding from private investors, aka angel investors or venture capitalists, could be an option for you.

Traditionally this segment of the market has been dominated by men, but an organization called Springboard Enterprises is changing that. For eight years this nonprofit, which was founded by Kay Koplovitz, has been helping female entrepreneurs get access to money through the equity markets, while at the same time encouraging women to invest in women-led companies.

I was lucky to have been invited to a recent luncheon sponsored by Springboard, and the key note speaker was Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises (below left), who gave us a fascinating account of how she got started in business. She studied law and journalism in college back in the 60's when it was all about anti-establishment, so the last thing on her mind was going into the corporate world. However, after working as a journalist for some time her dad, Hugh Hefner, urged her to move to Chicago and join his company, where she would start from the ground up. There were a great many high caliber journalists that contributed to Playboy, and the young Ms. Hefner was very much attracted to the intellectual challenges the magazine presented, so she signed on.

A few years later, during the 80's, Playboy went into financial trouble, and after a management shake-up Ms. Hefner, then just 29 years old, suggested she become president and work alongside the CEO, whom she admired greatly. Soon after taking the post, they started dumping losing lines of business and focusing on "managing for cash", keeping track of cash on a weekly basis, as opposed to quarterly as had been done in the past.

Some time later she got a call from Michael Milken, the "junk bond king", who invited her to meet with him in his offices. After asking her a few questions about the magazine, he announced he could raise half a million dollars from her. Ms. Hefner was dubious at first, concerned about taking on a heavy debt load, and not knowing exactly what to do with all that money. Milken's response: "First raise the money, then figure out what to do with it!"

That she did, first of all by seizing an opportunity in cable TV, realizing that channels could become a destination in and of themselves, as opposed to just tuning in to watch a particular show. To this day Playboy TV, which she says is targeted to couples, is in 100 million homes and is their biggest profit center. Ms. Hefner pointed out that magazines need brands and content that live beyond its pages, and they have been one of the few able to successfully take a brand into a whole new medium. Case in point: they have Playboy the magazine and Playboy the channel, unlike Time Magazine and CNN.

In 1992-93 she met Jim Clark, who had created Mosaic, which would later evolve into Netscape. Those were the early days of new media and Ms. Hefner was trying to figure out what the world wide web meant for Playboy, so she asked Jim for help. He suggested she build a site and put Playboy on the web. is now their fastest growing profit center, and where they monetize traffic in a variety of ways: e-commerce, international deals, social networking, etc. The internet, she says, is a transformative technology, and she quoted a few stats: 15% of newlyweds met online, and more text messages are sent and received every day than there are people on the planet.

For the future? She sees a move toward more user-generated content, which is why they've launched PlayboyU, a college-only, no nudity social network.

It was quite insightful to see how Ms. Hefner, by asking experts for help, was able to take her company to places she might not have ever envisioned. That's a big lesson for someone like me, who often thinks I can do everything myself!

That help is what Springboard's founder, Kay Koplovitz (that's me next to her on the right), offers. By putting together a team of investors for female-owned startups, Ms. Koplovitz, along with the company's president Amy Millman, has made many a dream come true for women launching their own businesses. Sounds like a familiar theme - I definitely want to follow in their mogul-ific footsteps!

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