Suddenly and unexpectedly famous

To succeed as a Big Fish in a Small Pond you need to do to two things. But I didn’t know that when I first became a Big Fish. Rather, I just sort of woke up one day and realized, much to my surprise, that I was a Big Fish in my industry. I’d done those two things (I’ll tell you what they are in a moment), but I hadn’t known to do them and hadn’t realized that I’d done them.

As I’ve mentioned before, my career took off 10 years ago when — on the spur of the moment I started a blog covering B2B media. I was just a guy with some strongly held opinions and an ego sufficiently large enough that I thought folks might be interested in those opinions. I felt passionately about something (that B2B publishing was changing and that this offered tremendous opportunities to journalists.) So I blogged.

A year or so passed, my site attracted some attention, and people posted comments. Things were going along quite well.

Then one day, I attended a media-industry conference here in New York.  It was a conference I’d been to a bunch of times before. I knew a few folks who attended this thing regularly — they were journalists like I am. And I knew the names of the folks who were on the podium — they were the high-level executives and owners of publishing companies for whom we worked.

I was sitting next to a buddy, listening to some old fool on the stage complain about something, when a complete stranger walked over and said “You’re Paul Conley. I love what you’re doing for us!”

Another stranger sitting nearby apparently heard what this first person said and spun around in his chair and said, “You’re Paul Conley? Thanks for writing what you write. You’re famous!”

Both of those strangers — working journalists in B2B media — wanted to thank me for starting a series of fights online about journalism ethics in B2B. There was a lot of pressure coming from the executive suites in those days for journalists to cut ethical corners. That infuriated me. And I said so in posts like this one and this one.

I hadn’t started the blog to start fights. But over time it became clear that fights needed to happen.  So I started fighting.

What was so remarkable about meeting those two strangers wasn’t so much that anyone thought I was famous. This was in 2006. And the Web was already known as the place where everyone was famous to 15 people.

What was remarkable  — what was wonderful and perfect and delightful — was that two people I had never met understood something even my friends and family seemed not to understand: My blog wasn’t  so much about B2B media as it was for the people who worked in it.

The tag line of that blog is “A blog for those who toil in the most specialized, and perhaps the least glamorous, area in the press — trade journalism.”  I had chosen that line carefully. I wanted to write for the journalists, not for the executives. I wanted to create something that was for people, not for companies.

Those two strangers and other folks like them were the reason I had started the blog. And, when it became clear to me that journalism ethics were under siege, those folks were the reason I started fighting with executives and industry “leaders” about ethics.

I wrote for my peers and on behalf of my peers because I felt passionately about the profession in which we worked.  And in doing so, I had somehow begun to win both love and gratitude in return.

I’d found success as a Big Fish in a Small Pond because I’d stumbled on to the two things that you need to do to succeed as a Big Fish in a Small Pond:

  1.  I’d found the right pond. In particular, I found a community I wanted to serve because I was part of the community.
  2. I acted like a Big Fish. In particular, I’d become willing to pick a fight with other Big Fish who threatened the pond.

— by Paul Conley

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