Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Lessons from a digital startup

June 18, 2009: 6:41 PM ET

by Jessica Shambora

Raises may be up in smoke, and those perks we loved too. But talk is cheap--which may be why Time Inc. (TWX), my employer, has started doing in-house training seminars, taught by its own senior execs and veteran editors.

I've been trying out Time Inc. University's "Learn from a Leader" classes. People Managing Editor Larry Hackett has led "The Cover Selection." Vivek Shah, who used to oversee Fortune and now is the digital boss for Time Inc.'s News group, taught "How to Monetize a Website." We've even got Pattie Sellers -- Fortune Editor at Large as well as Postcards' founder and boss -- doing a course on, of all things, powerful women. Go figure!

Company-sponsored classes can be an awful waste of time. But actually, I learned a lot the other day when I went to "The Anatomy  of a Digital Startup," led by Time Inc. SVP Andy Blau. He's the GM of advertising sales and marketing and also president of Life (but today brought news that he returning to the News Business Unit as SVP and Group General Manager).

Remember Life? After briefly reincarnating as a Sunday supplement a few years ago, the once-great magazine is back again --now in digital form as Life.com. Blau and Life managing editor Bill Shapiro partnered with Google (GOOG) to scan millions of photos dating back to the 1850s -- only 3% of which ever appeared in Life magazine -- and struck an ad revenue-sharing deal to pay for that work, which took more than two years. Time Inc. also partnered with Getty Images to collect photos and build the site. It launched on March 31, with 7 million photos, plus 3,000 new photos from Getty added daily.

Most people would have bet against it. But Life sprung back to life. With hardly any promotion, Life.com exceeded one million page views on each of its first two days. On the third day, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, the site featured never before seen photos from the day he was slain; traffic jumped to 10 million page views, from media mentions and lots of buzz. Controversy helps: The first week of June, Life.com logged 46 million page views, thanks in part to color photos of Hitler. Unearthed photos of Marilyn Monroe also drew millions of page views.

"Now the hard work begins," Blau sighs, explaining how the team will use search engine optimization,  partnerships and viral drivers to attract eyeballs to Life.com. One lesson they learned: Keep it simple. Life  is alive again online partly because it's user-friendly. You can easily search for photos by topic, time period, interest or photographer. You can buy framed prints. And soon you'll be to create personal life timelines through photos of news events and pop-culture moments--and publish books and magazines.

I'll try those features as Life.com evolves. Next week I'm heading to "How to Land the Big Interview," taught by Entertainment Weekly managing editor Jess Cagle. Hmm, I wonder if Jess will tell me how to get Angelina to tell her real story to Fortune.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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