Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly

Wired, the Lucky Early Years

Wired is celebrating its 15th birthday. The current staff posted a few old photographs taken by Louis Rossetto from the first days of Wired, including this one of our pre-launch offices on Second and South Park, south of market in San Francisco. 

Ff Rossetto Wiredoffice

I’m guessing this scene is about November 1992, a few months before publication of issue #1. That’ s me silhouetted against the window. First thing I notice is my little Mac. For those who have never seen one, imagine working on a screen about twice the size of an iPhone. In black and white. With no built in storage. And yes, it as MY Mac. In those initial pre-financed days, it was BYOC (bring your own computer).

Second thing I notice is John Battelle, head down, crunching on copy for the first issue. John Battelle was the young lion who wrestled the text of Wired onto the page. He ensured the magazine was done on deadline, every issue. He came in early, stayed late, and by his immense energy summoned the magazine into existence. He was by far the most professional journalist on staff. The rest of us were journalist wannabes. Without John Battelle, Wired would have never launched when and as it did. John later went on to found the Internet Standard, which shortly before its demise during the dot com boom was the fattest weekly magazine in the US — that is fat with ads (= money). He later started Federated Media, which is the company distributing ads on this blog.

In the left corner of the photo John Plunkett is busy designing Wired. He and his wife Barbara Kuhr devised the now-classic Wired logo, and instantly recognizable magazine spine (all those dot-dash pixels you see on bookshelves). John and Barbara had never designed a magazine before, and in fact, were not that internet savvy. That meant they had little allegiance to how a magazine should look, could view this world as outsiders, and were able to embrace the assignment to design a magazine from the future. They were closer to interface designers, doing museum exhibits before, which also came in handy when we started HotWired, one of the very first commercial websites.  Clearly the startling design of Wired was a key part of its success, and I find it hard to image Wired without the design of Plunkett+Kuhr.

Co-founder Louis Rossetto, who took this picture, was the public personage for Wired. He was the maniac who believed the world needed another magazine when everyone told him that was a stupid idea. He was the guy who asked for investment and was told no. He was the “unreasonable man” required in new things who was constantly pushing, relentlessly demanding things be redone, a force of nature bending people’s will in order to align them to his singular vision of a lifestyle magazine about the culture of technology.  Without Louis there would have been no Wired.

And then there was Jane. Jane Metcalfe was the other co-founder who often does not get the recognition she deservers. Jane was the reasonable person who kept things moving forward, instead of getting bogged down in unwinable battles. She was the good cop to Louis’ bad cop. Smart and as sharp as a tack, Jane was also unnervingly persuasive. She steered while Louis  raced 600 miles per hour. Without Jane, Wired would have rocketed into the ground. It was Jane who made the most important contribution to the success of Wired: she came up with the absolutely right name, Wired. Before that is was going to be called…. um, well, MilleniuM, or maybe even Digit. There is not a doubt in my mind that without Jane there would have been no Wired.

Beside the fact that we — and I mean here the whole crew of a dozen early employees — were all indispensable (and all above average!), Louis, Jane, John, Barbara and I were all unemployable by any real magazine. We had frittered our youth away living abroad, doing interesting things, doing anything in fact but holding down a real career. And now we were no longer young. Wired was the only place that would hire us, so we hired ourselves. Another commonality was the curious fact that the first 5 editors at Wired had all started their own magazine before (Mark had started Boing Boing, a paper magazine). We all had a firm grasp of the immense will, confidence, perseverance, and luck it took to begin something versus maintain an ongoing enterprise.

I should say something about luck. I was not interested in working for Wired when I first heard of the idea. Magazines are like restaurants; 99% of them fail to make it beyond year 2. I changed my mind when I saw the prototype. It had the exactly right combination of technology and people, produced by driven maniacs and quirky misfits with shrewd business sense, and it was coming out at exactly the right time. But I was a realist. I expected Wired to survive, but not to be wildly successful as a business. I even made a bet to that effect with the CFO. I bet him a meal in Barcelona, I’d never see any real money from the magazine. I am happy to say I lost that bet.

Other magazines aimed for the same sweet spot as Wired but none got the mix right. In fact I had been editing similar stuff to Wired in a different magazine (Whole Earth) with a very small audience. All of a sudden with Wired I am interviewing the same people, presenting the same ideas and issues, but now I’m doing it at the center of attention. I wasn’t doing anything different. While there was gobs of hard work, and a touch of genius here and there, the simple fact is that Wired was lucky. If Wired had not arrived when it did, another group of unlikely folks would have eventually created something similar. The world needed Wired, and we were lucky enough to provide it with an unexpected version with the right mix, at the right time, in the right package.

This luck has colored my view about other mega success stories. I have met the creators of many  high-profile companies founded in the last 20 years. They are smart, sometimes brilliant, always hard working, but they do not differ substantially from the other hard-working brilliant people who work for them or companies that are not mega-successful.  In short, they were lucky.

No matter what people say about the origins of their success, unless they admit to a large element of luck, I think they are not being honest. But since you can’t produce luck on demand — by definition it comes randomly — you can only dedicate your life to being smart, helpful to others and working hard. You need to be all those plus lucky.

I was lucky to be onboard when Wired lucked out.


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