How O’Reilly Media Learned To Reinvent Its Business Model And Built A New Future

Greg Satell
5 min readApr 7, 2019
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Laura Baldwin arrived at O’Reilly Media in 2001 as Chief Financial Officer, she was well equipped for the job. She had previously held the same position at Chronicle books and then spent a few years as a consultant for BMR & Associates, a firm that specializes in helping media companies.

The challenges at O’Reilly, however, were somewhat unique. Over the years the company had become something akin to the official publisher of Silicon Valley and had ridden the dotcom boom to prominence. Now that the boom had turned to bust, O’Reilly was in dire straits and banks were calling in loans.

So Baldwin did what a good CFO does, she instilled better financial management and within a few years the company had returned to profitability. Yet she and the firm’s founder, Tim O’Reilly, began to see an opportunity to truly transform the business. Today, as President, she focuses not just on publishing books, but on everything that comes after.

Humble Beginnings

Tim O’Reilly is an unusual tech icon. Soft spoken and understated, he’s about as far from Steve Jobs or Elon Musk as you can imagine. In college he didn’t major in engineering or physics, but classics. Nevertheless, he began working as a technical writer in the late 70s and within a few years started his business publishing manuals in a converted barn outside of Boston.

As the center of gravity in the technology industry shifted from Boston’s Route 128 to the San Francisco Bay area in the late 80s, O’Reilly moved with it. The company soon became known for having a knack for identifying important technologies that were emerging and getting out reliable guides before anybody else.

So when the dotcom era began, O’Reilly and his company were at the center of it. Its products practically leapt off the shelves as eager entrepreneurs raced to keep up with the latest technologies and bring their products to market. Tim O’Reilly himself became something of a Silicon Valley oracle, with an almost uncanny ability to sense and articulate emerging trends.

That’s what all came crashing down in 2000. With once high-flying startups dropping back down to earth, demand for O’Reilly books plummeted…

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Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com