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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Laurel Touby

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-19

Laurel Touby gives 240 parties a year in 12 cities across America.

Then there are her parties in Berlin, London, Paris, and Toronto.

"My parties are not about me - they are about my guests," the founder and chief executive officer of said. "I'm there to facilitate their happiness - which means sometimes killing them with kindness."

She has a lot of people to kill with kindness. Last month, in fact, 600,000 unique visitors availed themselves of her Web site; many of them sign up for its various services such as seminars and courses on freelance writing.

All of that translates into one of the few community Web sites that make money. Ms. Touby would not divulge the annual revenues of her privately held company - of which she owns 62% - but she did say this about its size:

"We're on track for our goals, and we'll be over $5 million but under $10 million."

"It's pretty cool to think that so many people are so engaged with," Ms. Touby said. "Think about it - 600,000 people are in our community. It doesn't get much better than that."

Actually, she's erring on the side of caution.

"There are 6 million people in the media and communications overall. These are people who work in the press, radio, television and the Web," Ms. Touby said. "That's our market - and we've hit only 10% so far."

She said that the business is not - "definitely not" - about networking.

"The word 'networking' is verboten around me," Ms. Touby said. "I give parties so that like-minded people can meet one another, exchange views and news, and take things from there."

Well, what's in a word? "Networking" by any other name is still networking.

People crowd Ms. Touby's affairs because they know that they most certainly will encounter other industry professionals with whom they may exchange business cards. What's that if not networking? After all, jobs have been floated at her soirees. Lucrative magazine assignments have materialized. Romances have blossomed.

"We've had five marriages result from the parties, three babies - one out of wedlock - and countless one-night-stands," Ms. Touby said.

Indeed, Ms. Touby started a romance herself at a media industry event. She met a man named Jon Fine, a columnist for Business Week. He proposed to her, and she accepted.

Little wonder that Mr. Fine was impressed. Ms. Touby is in the mold of Gertrude Stein, who famously maintained a literary salon in Paris in the 1920s, and brought along writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

"Well, no one has called me 'Gertrude Stein,' but I don't mind that characterization," Ms. Touby said, with an impish smile.

Gertrude Stein's salon - which was held in her drawing room - was informal. Ms. Touby's events constitute a business.

For example, guests must pay for their own drinks. Ms. Touby presides over the parties in splendid regalia.

"People want a hostess who will care about her guests," she said. "They see us as a really fine community, and they want a particular spirit at the party."

The spirit largely flows from Ms. Touby's entrepreneurial sensibility.

That sensibility was shaped by the towering presence of her grandfather, Harry Touby, who ran a successful commercial construction business in Miami. Touby and his wife, Kathleen, helped Charlene Touby raise Laurel and her younger brother Michael. Their father, Frank Touby, worked as a writer in Toronto.

It was Harry Touby who paid for Laurel Touby's education at Smith College. An economics major, Ms. Touby sold advertisements for the school paper. At one point, she entertained the notion of becoming a poet.

"I always had a strong entrepreneurial drive, but I like to think it was tempered by a poet's spirit," Ms. Touby said.

The fusion of those spirits led her to seek her fortune in the ad industry. She tried to get a job in the Boston area, not far from Smith College, but received no offers.

"So New York became my education," Ms. Touby said.

Education in advertising was offered by Young & Rubicam, where she started in the media planning department. Education about journalism was self acquired.

Ms. Touby wrote for a variety of publications, sometimes receiving leads from Smith alumni. She then joined Working Woman magazine, and later hopped to Business Week and Glamour.

While she was having lunch with a fellow journalist, he floated the idea of hosting parties for people in the press.

"The idea was to get people together so that they could enjoy a casual after-work drink with their peers," Ms. Touby said. "I made sure that the ones who'd show up had a good time. Even though the parties were given at various bars and restaurants, I tried to pretend I was hosting the parties in my own home."

Make that home an antebellum mansion and you have the perfect metaphor for her business. It has many facets to it: parties, the Web site, job advisories, workshops, seminars and courses that are offered online and also on site. Some 20 people work for her on the East Coast, and two on the West Coast.

Although she invested her own capital to set up the business got started almost a decade ago, Ms. Touby subsequently raised $900,000 from investors in two tranches.

"By the time I went to them, the business was already making money," she said. "I told potential investors that, unlike many Web enterprises, this was not smoke and mirrors. This was a real business that made real money."

The money comes from employers who post journalism and communications jobs: more than 1,300 jobs are displayed on the Web site at any given time, and employers pay $229 for a posting that's online for 30 days.

The money also comes from subscribers to the premium content of Ms. Touby said that she has 10,000 subscribers, who pay an annual fee of $49 each. More than 5,000 people participate in some 500 seminars and courses, with fees ranging from $65 to $500. And, of course, the Web site accepts ads.

So popular has Ms. Touby's business become that the 2006 revenues are expected to be 50% above the 2005 figure. She said that profitability is above 25%.

"When I first arrived in New York and threw a party at my house in Queens, not one person showed up," Ms. Touby said. "It's ironic, isn't it, that I now run this company that throws parties."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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