SIPA Member Profile: Coburn Stays Cool and Connected

Ed Coburn, Publishing Director, Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School

SIPA: What was your first job out of college and how did you get into this business?
COBURN: I got into this business in college. For several summers, I worked for a landscaper as a kid. One summer I decided I had had enough of hard labor in searing heat and was going to look for a job in air conditioning. I looked around to see how I might arrange that and thought of my then sister-in-law Karen Coburn—a past president of SIPA who was the director of the newsletter center at Cahners Publishing Company, part of Reed-Elsevier—and she gave me a job. And, I’ve been working in air conditioning ever since.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.
I actually knew I was on the right road from the start, even at age 20. I loved the challenge of working in dynamic markets, with dynamic technology and a wide range of business models. It was great. And, my introduction to the engaging and valuable professional network that SIPA provided sealed the deal for me.

In brief, describe your business/company?
We draw upon the world’s largest medical faculty and pool of clinical and basic-science research to create health content to help people improve their health and quality of life. We do this in a wide range of print and digital media and on a wide range of topics.

What are two or three important concepts or rules that have helped you to succeed in business?
A) Assume the best of people and help them to achieve, and,
B) You don’t have to know all the answers but knowing what questions to ask is important—and don’t stop asking questions.

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing right now?
Our efforts in social media are remarkably successful. We’ve been Tweeting for about a year and have more than 75,000 followers, and it is a major source of high-quality, Website traffic. Facebook and YouTube are also parts of the strategy, and our blogging efforts, which are more recent, seem to be getting off to a good start as a means to engage both existing and prospective customers.

Do you see a trend or path in the latter part of 2010 that you’d like to lock onto?
As I mentioned in my President’s address in June, I believe the iPad ushers in a new era in publishing on a scale that is comparable to the Gutenberg press 400 years ago. Developing mobile publishing strategies that make effective use of the technologies AND meets the evolving information consumption preferences of our customers is a critical step to future success.

What are the key benefits of SIPA membership for you and your team?
SIPA provides me with an opportunity to hear great ideas and insights from people inside and outside of our industry. It gives me a chance to network with my fellow members in exchanging ideas, lists, marketing and other business opportunities, deals, etc. Plus, I’ve made some great friendships with smart and engaging people.

Where did you grow up?
I live in my hometown just outside of Boston, where my family has lived since 1784.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
I went to Cornell University for my undergraduate degree and Babson College School of Management for my MBA. In business school, the two things that stand out for me were the courses on entrepreneurship and the courses on organizational behavior. Those have been tremendously important to me in my life. At Cornell, I took a wine tasting class in the hotel school that has also been important in my life.

Are you married? Do you have children?
I’ve been married to Sandy for 23 years and have 3 kids—2 in college and 1 in high school. Sandy used to work in publishing and was a SIPA member. (By the way, many other members of my family have been SIPA members, including my father, two of my brothers, and three sisters-in-law. One year there were 5 family members, all from different companies, at the June Conference.)

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?
My biggest and favorite hobby for the past 20 years has been raising my children and all that it entails—coaching their teams, board of their preschool, etc. That’s starting to change now that they’re moving off to college so I’m looking around for what’s next.

Is there a book you’ve recently read or a movie you’ve seen that you’d like to recommend?
I loved seeing Avatar in 3D at an Imax theater. WOW!

Additional comments?
Our industry has been undergoing a steady and accelerating evolution over the past 25 years. We have now entered a period of revolution, where almost everything is up for grabs. This is a time of great opportunity for those who are either bold enough or lucky enough to act and a time of slow death for those who don’t. I would prefer to be in the first group but I’d be happy being in the second group, and I’m doing everything I can not to be in the third group.


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