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Mark's Favorite Walt Mossberg Story

With all the genuine and heartfelt fanfare around Walt Mossberg’s retirement that has been appearing over the past few weeks, I feel compelled to share a story about Walt that had a big impact on me. It happened years ago during the early part of my career at Compaq and I’m not even confident that Walt even remember the details. But it deserves retelling and it crafted my approach in how I’ve since interacted with journalists.

I met Walt at the beginning of my product marketing career around 1991 when I worked for Epson as a product manager for their PC line (yes, Epson was in the PC business back then if you can believe it). I had established a good relationship with Walt and I always found him to ask reasonable, probing and refreshingly insightful questions, and most importantly, I liked that he wasn’t obsessed with “feeds and speeds” the way many other journalists of the day seemed to focus on. And while he was always interested in seeing new and innovation technology products, he was absorbed with a product’s true “usefulness” in the life of a consumer (not simply a product looking for a problem to solve), as well as the product’s ease of use.

Flash forward to 1993 when I was recruited by Compaq --- it was a thrilling time to be at Compaq as the company understood the “consumerization” of PC technology that was taking place in the mid-1990s. I was fortunate enough to be play a leadership role in the development of the Presario brand and product line at Compaq --- a PC brand targeted directly at consumers and designed to “change the life” (our tagline at the time) of the average consumer. This was unheard of as the major PC players at the time manufactured computers in dull grey and rectangular form factors suited for corporations and offices. This all changed when Compaq announced the Presario brand in 1993 and you can draw a straight line to today’s PC, laptops and other mobile devices that today dominate the market.

Back to my Walt story: for those of you who are not in the technology space, it is routine to meet with journalists (under a confidentiality agreement known as a NDA) to preview new products so that they can write about it when the products are formally announced to the public. The Internet has changed this routine a bit over the past 25 years, but not significantly --- and these meetings still afford product marketing professionals with a fantastic opportunity to get early feedback from journalists in a confidential setting.

In 1995, Compaq made its largest Presario product announcements at the time with a wide assortment of consumer-focused minitowers, all-in-one PCs and monitors which included integrated multimedia speakers. The announcement was so important to Compaq that it was staged at a Broadway theater in Times Square so that we could showcase its cool multimedia features. Compaq’s terrific public relations group came up with the idea with having Ross Cooley, one of the best general managers that I’ve ever worked with, dress in a tux and “conduct” 25 Presario monitors on stage as a virtual orchestra on stage playing classical music to demonstrate the rich audio fidelity of the integrated speakers, after which I demonstrated the new product lineup on stage. It was a big hit with the press and Compaq shipped a record number of consumer PCs that year.

But 3 or 4 weeks before, we met with Walt to give him an early peek at the new Compaq Presario models. As Compaq would spare no expense with NDA press meetings like this, meetings were set up in a small banquet room at The Plaza Hotel near Central Park in New York. We were excited to meet with Walt and other journalists as we were truly convinced that this new PC lineup would take the market by storm. By that time, I had already known Walt for several years and had met with him many times on new products. I had a sense of the questions I knew he would ask and I felt confident that he would be jazzed about what he was about to see.

In the room with me was another product manager (who will remain nameless) and Brian Temple, one of Compaq’s best public relations managers. We had split up the demo with me doing a quick overview of the new product announcements and the other product manager doing a bit of a deep dive on some of the relevant new features. The other product manager had never met with Walt before and asked me for some advice on how to interact with him and I simply replied, “Be as candid as you can with him and answer his questions directly.”

Walt arrived on time and the meeting started without a hitch. I could tell Walt was excited about what he was seeing and he liked the multimedia capabilities of the new products. The meeting was going as planned and I thought we were home free. The other product manager starting walking Walt through some of the technical features in the new Presario models and casually mentioned that some lower priced models included 28.8K modems, and the higher end Presario models would include 56.6K models. That’s when the storm clouds began to gather.

Quite logically, Walt asked the other product manager, “Why are you guys not putting in 56.6K models in every model? Why penalize customers who can’t afford a more expensive model?”

Before I proceed, I need to digress: even today, I’m not sure most people outside the technology space understand the literally hundreds of feature and cost trade-off debates that occur during the development of EVERY product that comes to market. The outcomes of these internal “behind the scenes” debates (and they often get emotional) dictate the final product definition. Very few companies (Apple being the poster child) have the high-end brand persona which allows a richer, more fully featured product to come to market. In the case of modem speed issue, modems were getting much more affordable with software-based implementations. In 1995, the Internet was still very much new to most non-techy consumers, and there was a vigorous internal debate within the Presario product teams whether the average consumer would appreciate the difference in speed between a 14.4K and 28.8K. We had done some focus group research (which Compaq was fond of) that seemed to confirm this, but while I felt that this was probably a short-sighted view given how quickly online usage was accelerating. What broke the camel’s back was the Compaq finance team showing that the profitability of the business would improve several millions of dollars if we could derive a $50 MSRP premium for the higher-end Presario models that included the 56.6K modem.

Back to my Walt story --- the other product manager replied to Walt, “Well, we’ve done some extensive market research and we don’t believe customers buying at the entry and mid-tier price points need that type of modem speed as they just surf the Web and send emails.” Even I cringed at that explanation as it sounded like a rationalization and I could see Walt’s body language change. Walt immediately turned his attention to away from the product manager and to me: “Mark, give me a break with that answer. I bet the real reason is that the cost difference between both modems is $5 and you want to make more money on the higher-end models. What’s the cost delta between both modems?”

In a split second, I felt an enormous spotlight being focused on me as my personal credibility with Walt was now on the line. Our public relations manager, Brian Temple, shot a terrifying laser-like glance at me as if Walt was asking me for the military’s nuclear launch codes. After all, costs for EVERY item in the Bill of Materials (BOM) were very closely held and those figures were simply not disclosed to someone in the press, even Walt Mossberg. I know Brian was thinking, “Mark, for God’s sake, don’t tell him.”

But in that split-second, I came to the conclusion that not simply being transparent with Walt would be far worse than giving him a candid answer. I bet on credibility versus spinning an answer that I know he’d be highly skeptical of and, most importantly, I didn’t want to damage my reputation with him for future engagements.

So I replied to Walt in a dead-pan fashion that the late Walter Matthau would have been proud of: “Walt, actually, the cost delta is less than $2 and yes, we want to make more money on the higher-end models. Compaq is in the business to make money. You can’t blame us for that, right?” And Walt said, “Mark, that’s fine. Thanks for being straight with me…that’s all I was looking for.” The rest of the meeting proceeded and concluded without further incident.

While not as interesting as other Walt stories like his humorous “Taco Bell” episode with Bill Gates, the reason why I’m recounting this small story is it showcased the one thing about Walt that I’ve always respected about him: he could ask tough questions in respectful manner that were always reasonable and pity the person who ran afoul with less than candid answers. It would be like throwing a slow curve to David Ortiz and not expecting the ball to show up on Lansdowne Street.

Walt, good luck in your retirement. You will be missed.

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