Reflections on 25 Years

I know this is a big deal, and that, to recognize the efforts of so many people – both employees and clients – who helped us achieve our long tenure in business is very important. It has been quite a journey, and it’s hard not to say “What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been”.

But, it’s funny.  It certainly doesn’t feel like we’ve been in business that long.  If anything, our company is even more vibrant and exciting than it was when we first started.  We seem to be reinventing ourselves every day, constantly questioning whether we’re doing the right things, trying to get the most from our dedicated team, celebrating victories, and learning from losses.

When I was asked to write this, my reaction was very mixed. Part of me wants to let this anniversary slip by unnoticed, and part of me knows that can’t happen.  The part of me that wants this to slip by is motivated by a sense that we have not yet accomplished what we set out to do.  To ignore it, though, would be disrespectful to those people who have dedicated most of their business careers to this endeavor.

So, some history:

I started Quality Solutions in the bedroom of my condo in Plainsboro, NJ in August of 1987.  I had been working for a large systems consulting company where involved in several projects developing custom royalty systems for Random House, William Morrow, Prentice Hall, and Addison-Wesley.  During those years, two things happened; I fell in love with the book publishing business, and became appalled that consultants (like my company) were being employed to work on publishing systems without the slightest knowledge of the business.  The mission then, of Quality Solutions, was to offer greater value and a better product than my generic brethren by understanding the needs of this niche market.

The first real client of Quality Solutions was Simon & Schuster in 1988.  And, I am very proud to say that S&S continues to be a client of Firebrand to this day.  However, trying to drum up business in publishing by myself was challenging. So, in 1988, I partnered with a colleague from my old company who was trying to do something similar for the financial services industry in Boston.  The financial services side of our business grew much faster than the publishing side, and in 1990 my family moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

The rapid growth of our business was a very heady time.  By 1993, we already had 45 people working for the company – 35 of whom were based in a swanky office in Woburn, MA, and the remaining 10 based in a satellite office over a restaurant in Long Island, NY.  My partner ran the financial services side which was all in the Boston area, and I ran the publishing side which was all in the Long Island office. But trouble was clearly on the horizon. My partner and I had radically different personalities and styles. And, our company structure and politics reflected those differences.

In 1994, my partner was involved in a scandal and was forced to resign. By the end of the year, we had no financial services customers’ left, and many employees resigned.  The mission of the company became one of survival.

I need to stop here and recognize some key people who are with Firebrand now, and were with me during that very tumultuous period: Susan Burke – the first person I recruited in 1989, is Firebrand’s chief Application Architect.  Her brother, Doug Lessing, joined us almost right out of college and is now the President of Firebrand. Bill Bennett, Alan Katzen, and Jen Lyman all went away, but came back.  And, of course, my wife, Catherine, who was not working for the company then, but she was my rock, and she is now in charge of our Eloquence service.  These folks are the heart of who we are today, and I cannot express my respect and gratitude nearly enough.

Survival was the mission of the company for most of the next 12 years, and that survival would not have been possible without the strong support of some key individuals at our clients. Michael Selleck, Howard Goldstein, Tim McGuire, Mike Shareck, Fritz Foy – all of Simon & Schuster at the time, and with the exception of Michael have all moved on to other ventures in publishing and continued to support us. Anet Sirna-Bruder, then of Book-of-the-Month Club, now at Abrams. Lou Peragallo, then of Addison-Wesley, now at Wiley.

There is no question that without the support of all of the people mentioned above and many who would join the company and client roster during the next 12 years, that Firebrand would have been just another statistic in the world of business.

During those 12 years, we learned to pivot and adapt, and work to understand the needs of publishers.  We learned how to borrow money, protect our cash, and invest in ourselves.  We also added a backbone to the company with the addition of Rob Stevens, Paul Milana, Kate Wiewiora, Barbara Burns, Kusum Basra, Denise Muise, Linda Adler, Steve Quaglia, and Barbara Blanchette – all of whom are still with us.  It was a time of great challenge, but having weathered it, we were very well suited for what was to happen next.

Fast forward to 2008, and we know we’re on the brink of some good things. We started looking at how we branded our products, and eventually re-branded the entire organization. We realized our role in the industry.  We were truly Firebrands, and this was the time to embrace what we were. We held our first community conference in April that year, unveiled our new brand, a new line of products, and a new attitude.

That first community conference was a real watershed moment for us, and we used it very well to propel ourselves to where we are now.  Since 2008, we took over NetGalley, started several new service offerings, grown our company size to about 50 people, and have grown our base of customers by over 100%.  It has been a time of great change for us, but interestingly, much about who we are and how we work has remained constant.

We are a team that always tries to do the right thing for our clients, relies heavily on each other, and tries to never let anyone down.

It’s really nice to be able to say that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

What will be really interesting is the next chapter…  The mission now is to be a force for the betterment of the publishing industry.  Maybe it took 25 years to learn, but life really is all about the journey, and very little about the destination.  I hope you will join us on the path ahead.


About ftoolan
I am the founder and CEO of Firebrand Technologies and the CEO of NetGalley, LLC.

One Response to Reflections on 25 Years

  1. This is quintessential Toolan. Honest, genuine and authentic. Thanks for sharing our story Fran.

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