Founder and President, Agate Publishing
“I was never motivated by the idea of getting rich, which I think a lot of people who start businesses are motivated by.”
He founded the independent small press, Agate Publishing in 2003, working, at first, out of his basement. Agate now has an office (pictured on the right), employs a staff of 17 and has five unique imprints. More on Agate here.
Why did I want to talk to Doug? Like many people, he had felt unfulfilled in his work. He knew he had skills and interests that were going under-utilized and undeveloped. After a great deal of planning and significant encouragement from his wife, Marla, he would take a financial risk and a “leap of faith” to create an enterprise that would offer him an “optimal set of professional circumstances.”
I was intrigued that he could grant himself permission to “come up with something where I could put all of myself into it and not feel like I was having to split between something that I was doing more for a livelihood and something I was doing more as a passion. Agate is both of those things for me, and probably a lot more.”
This may seem like a “leap of faith” and it was; but, it was also carefully-calculated and long-planned. Today, both he and Agate Publishing are thriving.
We talk in the Agate office during the summer of 2014, and again in the winter of 2015.
I had a conventional career as an editor, and I would write at night and in my free time. Like a lot of people who are involved in creative endeavors on their own time, I was tempted to think of my work life as something that I did just to feed the bulldog. But I became more and more interested in work while I was working. I also began to realize over the years that you can’t take half of your waking life and just write it off as something that you’re doing for the sake of furnishing your livelihood without some significant cost. I didn’t feel like that was something that I could sustain in the long run or would want to sustain in the long run.
It’s interesting to me that you gave yourself permission to do this.
I never really thought about it that way. I really did feel… I felt desperate. I felt like if I can’t get this going, I’m just going to wither here. I’m not going to be happy professionally. To a certain extent it was sheer desperation. I think that I’d been working long enough to know that I had – my shorthand for it is: a “boss problem.” And that it wasn’t them, it was me. I really wanted to have more control over my circumstances, which meant more control over the enterprise to which I was devoting so much of my time and energy.
The two jobs that I had that I liked the best experienced a radical deflation while I was there that involved layoffs and lots of people having to leave. Neither of them exists anymore. But I was learning from these places; I was developing my own ideas about what I thought a good workplace was, and also about what I thought it was going to take to make a successful company.
I first got the idea for starting Agate in the mid-nineties after I was laid off from a small book publishing company where I’d been working for four years. I liked that job, and that’s where I discovered that I really liked book publishing compared to the other kinds of publishing that I’d been involved with before then. That company really hit the wall, and I thought I understood or had begun to understand what it would take to make a company like that successful. I liked the idea of committing myself to trying to make something like that happen.
At the time, though, I’d just started my family. My first child was only about a year old, and I felt like, well, in order to do this, I really need more capital than I had at my own disposal. My wife, Marla, and I had very modest careers. She is a high school teacher and I’m an editor — publishing is well known as a very un-remunerative industry. Marla and I had, I think, a pretty thrifty approach to life. We were good at focused saving.
For instance, after we bought our condo, we started to put aside money so that Marla would be able to stay home for a year after the birth of our first child, then we did the same thing after the birth of our second child. And part of that also meant, in each of those cases, my working away at a job that maybe wasn’t really where my heart’s desire lay at the time, but ensured that I had the benefits and the steady income.
So I was trying to raise money from potential investors, and that effort failed repeatedly over about a seven-year period. This was at the dawn of the Web era, and I was trying to get people interested in what I was doing. I think I had a fundamental misperception of what a lot of startup business investors are looking for, which is the scale of the potential payoff. I created a plan that was focused on what I thought was a very likely achievable result. It just didn’t have, for most of those kinds of investors, the up side that they were looking for.
But it was a great exercise in starting a company. I was able to spend that seven years thinking hard about what it would mean to start and run the company that became Agate, and also to refine what I knew about business because I didn’t have any kind of traditional business education. I was an autodidact.
I ended up starting Agate chiefly with money that I had saved while working at a dot-com education company. It was starting to lay off a lot of its staff in 2001. I realized, since I was about to turn 40, that I probably should start thinking about what potentially could be a longer job search process and start putting aside some money for that.
Starting Agate wasn’t something that I wanted to try to do unless I felt like we were really in a sound place to do it. So I ultimately had put aside all this money for my job search, and then ended up not being laid off by this company. And that’s when things really came together. Marla said, “You know, why don’t you take that to start Agate?” We both were thinking that might be enough to bootstrap it — start the company that I’d been trying to start all these years, and, by that point, had largely given up hope on.
I think for both of us, the idea that what was important was taking a shot. That it would be great if it worked. But I’d gone through so much professional adversity by that point, I was very practically-oriented about it. The idea was that if it didn’t work, a year later I would still be what I was then, which was a 40-something guy looking for a job. We would be out the money, but in some ways the money had just come, anyway. It was like we’d built up this war chest that we ended up not needing.
It wasn’t like we wanted to go out and buy a Mercedes or a bigger house or anything like that. I didn’t want or need a lot. Some of that [ethos] evolved, in part, from this idea that I had in the beginning of college about devoting myself to a career in the arts and knowing that that was going to mean a certain lack of financial opportunity, that the work that mattered most to me was not necessarily work that was going to make money. What I was really concerned about was achieving things in terms of cultural values or artistic values instead of financial values. I had internalized a lot of these habits.
I was never motivated by the idea of getting rich, which I think a lot of people who start businesses are motivated by. I was motivated by trying to create a livelihood in the field that I loved, and in circumstances where I could prosper, that I wouldn’t hate, where I could control the environment more – almost like a professional sanctuary where I would just be a happier, more productive person, a person who’d found a better fit for himself, work-wise.
Marla’s role in encouraging me and supporting me in doing this was inestimable. I think she was all too aware of my “boss problems” and the frustrations and disappointments that I’d had professionally. I think she realized that my being able to pursue this was incredibly important to me, and that it would be important for our marriage and our relationship together for me to have that opportunity. And she trusted me.
What was the first indicator that this was going to work?
Our first book that we published was, in baseball terms, a “solid standup double.” (A home run would be To Kill a Mockingbird.)It didn’t have that sort of success, but it enabled the company to really establish itself as a going concern. It was that successful.
Not only was it enough money to keep everything going, but it was also an important validation of the fact that I knew what I was doing. It was not dumb luck. I had published a project that a lot of other publishers had already passed on by a writer who had published with bigger houses but was not in a great place in her career. I think my acumen that this was a writer and a book worth publishing was borne out. I was confident about my judgment about this, but it was great that I could prove that to the rest of the world with that first project.
I tell people all the time that what I really want to do at Agate is, A) to do cool and interesting and worthwhile things, and B), to make more money than we spend. It’s not about growth or profit. It’s like, let’s just stay in the game and keep the doors open, more than anything. I found that, fortunately, doing cool and interesting things often can yield the most opportunity, business-wise.
Our industry’s changing dramatically right now with the advent of digital technology and e-readers and other cultural changes in the ways people approach publishing and media. All of that makes my life extremely exciting and dynamic.
Agate is now essentially a collection of niche imprints. We’re not a fully diversified publishing company, but we have six different lines of business. I find that very enlivening because it allows me to do lots of different kinds of things that are reflective of my abilities and my experience. It’s allowed us to pursue different kinds of opportunities, but at the same time, there’s no question that it’s partly an effort to be less bored. If we just did a few things or one thing, it would run the risk of being too stultifying
These changing times are an exciting challenge for you and Agate?
Yeah. And, more concretely, it represents business opportunities for a smaller company that didn’t exist when there was more monumental hegemony among the big players in our industry, like in the nineties. And now the business model that had allowed those big companies to prosper the way they had is in peril. That creates opportunities for smaller companies. That disruption is a positive for players like Agate that are small and otherwise would have been more shut out from opportunity by the status quo that existed before the change began to happen. And that’s very much the way we’ve tried to approach it.
You’re more agile?
I hope so.
You can take more risks?
I think we can take more risks is a good way to describe it. I hope we’re more agile. Success is inhibiting for big companies. It’s very hard to dismantle a business model that has been so effective for a company for a long time. It’s very hard to see beyond the terms of that model and think, well, what are we going to do if things really start to change here? It’s almost like it blinkers you so that it’s difficult to really go hard after the unpredictable opportunities because you have to keep executing on the things that are making you so successful where you are right now; and that takes up a lot of your energy. You never want to kill the golden goose.
It must be gratifying to sit in this office, today.
I’m immensely gratified by the outcome of everything that’s happened with Agate, and it is not something that I talk about a lot. I grew up with a lot of modesty about these kinds of things. The company has been successful. This is not tech industry success or anything like that. But I feel most fortunate that I was able to create the circumstances that I wanted for my career and my life. I own a home; I’ve raised a family; I have a job that I love that I was able to create and shape out of nothing, and those are the things that matter the most to me.
And now Agate is furnishing a livelihood for 17 other people, which is something else that I’m very gratified by, and I’ve also hired and trained 50 interns over the past 11 years and helped get them started on what I hope are meaningful and rewarding careers. That’s something I’m very interested in and think is very valuable.
What is it you are hoping or trying to teach your children about money?
I hope I’ve provided an example to my children about how you can pursue these kinds of opportunities and find success with them, and I hope I’ve provided an example for them about hard work. When I was working at home, my children had a front row seat as I was starting a company, because I started it in our basement. They got to see what I was doing and how I was doing it. That was an example to them, that yeah, this is something that people can do.