The Serial CEO You Want to Become
Partner of BBG Ventures; former CEO of AOL Brand Group, CEO of Gilt Groupe, CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnichannel, President of ABC Entertainment
Key Takeaway: Make sure you’re actually interested in the day-to-day work of a job and not just the idea of a certain industry or profession
Top 5% in the world at: Identifying talent, supporting them as they grow, and hopefully launching them to bigger jobs
Susan Lyne is the CEO you’ve always dreamed of becoming. Her titles includes President of ABC Entertainment (you can thank her for greenlighting Grey’s Anatomy), CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, CEO of Gilt Groupe and CEO of the AOL Brand Group. Now she heads up BBG Ventures (founded from the #BUILTBYGIRLS brand), a venture capital firm that invests in technology startups with at least one female founder. There are countless features on Susan’s career as CEO, but for our purposes, we focus on the first part of her journey. We want to know: what did Susan do in her early career to become such a legend?
Susan got her start in magazines, where besides editing and managing several publications, she also wrote a feature that unsurfaced key evidence in the Patty Hearst kidnapping case. Susan shares the start to her career, from her first job out of college as an Editorial Assistant at City magazine to working as Jane Fonda’s development person to revolutionizing Hollywood with the founding of Premiere Magazine. In the full interview below, she tells us what skills she thinks are most important to develop early on and shares her advice on finding a job that’s the right fit.
Your career will be long. It’s okay to not have it all figured out.
When you’re starting out it feels like you only have a couple of decades to make your mark. But the fact is, you’re going to be working for 40 or 50 years, maybe more. Finding the thing you love at this moment in time is important, but it’s also important to realize that you’ll have multiple chances to remake yourself.
Be the best at what you do.
I look for people who have a passion for what they do, and excel at it as a result. It can be creative skills or analytics, doesn’t matter. Find what you love and don’t stop until you’re the best at it.
Take a step back.
Careers always look more well-thought out in retrospect than in the moment. Every once in a while, take a step back and analyze the career decisions you’ve made. This will help you decide what the next step is.
Find something that excites you.
Let’s be honest, work is hard. The amount of time you’ll be expected to put into your career is significant. Find something that excites you, that makes you want to get up every morning and start working again – this is critical.
Don’t sweat the mistakes.
I spent lots of sleepless nights thinking about a meeting that went badly or a poor decision I’d made, convinced my career was over. In reality, people don’t remember the things that went wrong, they remember your successes. Turn your mistakes into a story and build a narrative for yourself. It will help you change your behavior -- and your unique narrative is what will drive your opportunities over time.
Empowerment is not so much a goal but a reward.
I’ve seen women go from being a tiny minority of the executive workforce to being the most exciting part of the workforce, and I think that’s going to continue. Women are driving a good deal of the conversation now and I think the fact that it’s taking a long time to get a seat at the table has made us more empathetic and smarter about what the world needs.
How she did it
Big Family, “Small” Town
I’m the oldest child and oldest grandchild in a large Irish Catholic family from Boston. I have four brothers and sisters and 17 first cousins. I had a wonderful childhood, with a lot of advantages. But for me, Boston felt like a small town because I knew so many people. I had relatives in so many parts of the city that I always felt like I was being watched or had to live up to certain expectations.
Media & Magazines
I ended up heading west, to Berkeley, because it was 3,000 miles away. And this was pre-phone, so if I wanted to call home I had to go to a pay phone. It was liberating in so many ways because I was able to really define who I wanted to be.
Did you know what you wanted to do for your career?
I was really interested in media and magazines. I was interested in how people came to an understanding of the world around them, how that changed over time and who the influencers were. Before the Internet, magazines were the driver -- that's how you developed your point of view on everything from what was in fashion to who should be president.
I started freelancing when I was in school for two magazines -- Scanlon's and the Berkeley Tribe, which was the underground newspaper there. I was a freelance copy editor and fact checker. Fact-checking was a great job because you got to read work by amazing writers, and then you had to dig in and, in a way, do the same reporting they did by calling the people who were sources and making sure the article was accurate. I got to see how magazines worked and what the culture was like. The day-to-day work t felt really right to me. You might be interested in a certain industry or profession, but I think it’s important to make sure the actual work interests you. Spend time in offices and see whether the pace of work and the way people interact with each other is actually something that’s right for you.
Insight into the Industry
I ultimately got a job as the assistant to the Editor in Chief of City magazine, which had recently been bought by Francis Coppola. It was his attempt to create the West Coast version of New York Magazine, but it was definitely more alternative.
How did you get the job?
The editor-in-chief had previously been the editor of Scanlon’s when I was a freelance fact-checker for them. That's how I got in, at least to see him. Initially, I did some pickup work there, but I was able to convince him to hire me as his EA. Many people don't realize how important it is for the person hiring you to actually like spending time with you. You can have the best resume in the world, but if there's not a chemical connection that says, “I want this person five feet away from me,” then it won’t happen. Emotional Intelligence is a key thing to develop early on. Grades, yes. Test scores, yes. College degree, yes. But making sure that when people meet you, they want you to come back again is key to ultimately getting a job.
How was working at City magazine?
Like a lot of startups, it was understaffed, which meant there was always extra work you could offer to help with. Anytime someone was researching a story, or needed help copy editing I would always offer to stay late or do it over the weekend. And because I was the assistant to the editor, I got to sit in on a lot of meetings and that's where you start to learn how the business really works. I think being an EA to a person whose job you would like to have one day is a great experience because it gives you a much better sense of what that job is, both the good and the bad. There was a lot I was able to pick up just by being in that role, particularly about how editors think about stories and how a story goes from an idea to something that deserves to be published.
West Coast Editor @ New Times
New Evidence in Patty Hearst Case = New Job at New Times
While at City magazine I was also working on a freelance story, an interview with Bill and Emily Harris who were two of the people who kidnapped Patty Hearst. It turned out to be a big story because they gave us a lot of time, and it was the first real breakdown of what happened during the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the 18 months that she was at large after that. And one story that came out of that interview ended up being a fairly critical piece of evidence in the trial itself. So that got me a job as a west coast editor for New Times, the magazine that published the piece.
How long were you at New Times for?
I was the west coast editor for about 18 months. Then I got a call from the editor-in-chief of New Times asking if I would come to New York and be the managing editor. I got off the phone and I thought, “I don't want to move to New York.” But I had dinner that night with a guy who was something of a mentor, and I told him about the call. He said, “You're crazy. You can be managing editor of this magazine. Why would you ever say no?” And I thought, “He's right.” I ended up moving about two weeks later for the job.
Managing Editor @ The Village Voice
Another Opportunity Comes Knocking
Within a year or so, New Times went under. That day I got a call from the newly-appointed editor of The Village Voice, who I'd never met before. He said, “I'm looking for a managing editor and heard that New Times is folding. Would you be willing to come talk to me?”
How did he get your name?
The masthead. That's how we’d often find candidates for a job we were trying to fill, by looking at other mastheads and seeing who had the job there. Then you'd start calling around and asking, “Are they good?”
What was The Village Voice like?
The Village Voice had been independent for nearly 15 years. It was a rowdy, interesting weekly, with a ton of great writers and editors. It covered politics, culture, society, in addition to a ton of reviews on everything from books to classical music to rock and roll.
But six months before they contacted me, the newspaper had been sold to Rupert Murdoch along with New York Magazine. He wanted New York Magazine, and The Voice came with it, but he kind of hated The Voice. The politics were too liberal and he didn't know what to do with it. He hired a new editor, David Schneiderman, who was the person who called me. He was determined to make it a more professional paper.
What skills did you realize you needed to be successful in this role?
I had been the managing editor of New Times, so a lot of the stuff was not new to me. What was new was handling so many writers, who in many cases were decades older than I was, and had very strong opinions about the copy they wrote. They didn't like being edited. And so there was a fair amount of negotiation every week around how much space they were going to get. It was chaotic, but a very interesting atmosphere to work in.
When you got the call to join The Village Voice, did you think about going for other jobs?
I didn’t even think about it. I can't tell you that was the best strategy, but I didn't have role models. There weren't older women I could look to and say, “Hey, what's the right thing for me to do if I want to have a career in magazines?” So I reacted to what was offered to me.
Development @ Jane Fonda
After The Village Voice, I segued into the movie industry. I was hired as Jane Fonda's development person. One of my former Berkeley classmates had partnered with her on IPC films.
They were doing really interesting movies based on what was happening in the world at that moment. For example, they did a movie called Coming Home, about returning vets, and a movie called China Syndrome about the dangers of nuclear power. But they weren’t documentaries. They would develop scripts based on real incidents as inspiration, but then create fictional stories and turn them into movies. A couple of the stories we had done for The Village Voice had been turned into movies. At the time, it felt like an easy and cool thing to do. And the salary was about three times what I was making at The Voice.
Were you overwhelmed about not knowing how to produce?
I was once I got there. I didn’t think about it when I took the job but it quickly became clear that building a movie story is very different than building a magazine story. The structure is surprisingly different, and I don't think I was great at it to be perfectly honest. We got a lot of things into development, but we never got something made. The last project I worked on, we were in pre-production, about to shoot, and the financing got taken away. That was sort of the final straw for me. I realized I don't like this business. I don't like the pace of it. This goes back to what I was saying earlier, that you have to love the work itself. And you have to understand what's going to make you happy. And this just didn't make me happy -- but what it did was to give me a lot of knowledge about the movie industry, which allowed me to then pitch a magazine idea, Premiere, to Murdoch magazines.
Editor in Chief and Publication Director @ Premiere Magazine
A Magazine for the New Movie Era
How did you come up with the idea for Premiere?
It came out of a lunch I had with a man named John Evans, who had been the publisher of The Village Voice and had become the head of Murdoch Magazines. We were talking about how the invention of VCRs was creating a new audience for movies. Before VCRs, if you wanted to see a movie you had to go to a movie theater or you had to watch whatever the movie of the week was on ABC, CBS or NBC. As a result, people knew movie stars, but they didn't really understand anything about how movies got made. They didn't care about directors. The VCR changed all that because there was now a way for you to binge on all of Martin Scorsese's movies if you liked Raging Bull. It created a different kind of interest in the whole movie making process.
And it was a moment too when CEOs and business people were starting to become stars, so I thought that the business of movies could potentially be really interesting to people. John said, “Go home, think about it, and come back and pitch me if you really believe there's a magazine here.” I created two tables of content for this imaginary magazine and then we pitched it to Rupert. He agreed to give me two test issues to see if people would buy it. We put out the first issue and it sold out in a couple of weeks. We never did the second test issue — we went straight to monthly publication.
What was it like to start something from scratch?
It was great, particularly because putting together my own team was amazing. We had really great writers, editors, and a fantastic art director. For the test issue, it was five full-time people and a ton of freelancers. And for the magazine itself, we had about 25 people and it grew to about double that.
I did that for about eight or nine years. Rupert sold the magazine group in 1990 to KKR. And five years later we were sold again to Hachette. After Hachette bought it I left because I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for that company, and particularly that CEO.
EVP Development & New Business → EVP ABC Entertainment → President ABC Entertainment
Back to the Movie Business
A couple of people in the movie industry had reached out to me about coming to work for their companies. Joe Roth at Disney was particularly persistent. I joined the company in sort of an odd role that was a combination of development and Biz Dev. It was a New York-based job, at a time when most of the company was in California.
Within about 18 months, I moved over to the ABC side of the business to run the movies and miniseries division. And again, what I didn't know about television, movies, and miniseries could fill this entire office. But I had a good team and the fact that I didn't know what had worked in the past was probably to my advantage because we did things that were unexpected, which led to both popular and artistic successes.
Were you worried about going back into the movie business after not liking your previous job in the industry?I was a little bit. But I wasn’t going in as the development person for a single producer, where you are a seller. I was making decisions about what we would develop, and ultimately what we’d make, which was much more interesting and more fun. Instead of pitching your ideas, you’re listening to pitches and you get to decide if it’s a good idea or not. It was not unlike being an editor, except that these were movie pitches instead of story pitches.
Where is Susan now?
Investing in Women
Susan is partner at BBG Ventures, an early stage Venture Capital fund focused on consumer internet and mobile startups with at least one female founder. To read more about her later career, check out the following interviews: Fortune, Fast Company, Washington Post, iHeart (to name a few).