Web Entrepreneur

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights

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Women in Business: Josie Ottman

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Web Entrepreneur

Not everyone who makes it in the IT world needs be a technophile. Take

Josie Ottman, for example. Although she founded her own website

strategy and design firm — the Ridge Group on Prospect Avenue — she

started out in marketing, first at Home Box Office, and later at Dow

Jones.

Technology may be the building block of the new economy, she says, but

information is at the heart of it. "People don’t want to see the

technology, they want the information," says Ottman. "I’m constantly

amazed at how little time business users spend online. Business people

are characterized by the fact they have no time and no patience to go

poking around. I think people just want a good reward to time spent

ratio when they go to a site."

Ottman, who also leads the New Jersey chapter of the Association of

Internet Professionals, founded the Ridge Group in 1997 with three

former colleagues from Thomson Financial Services: Rich LaFauci, Russ

Iuliano, and Dick Carney. "Three Guys and a Girl Consulting — that

was my running joke when we came up with a name," says Ottman. Iuliano

had been an independent consultant, LaFauci an editor at Mainspring

Communication in Boston, and Carney the general manager of Buyside

Magazine, a financial publication, in San Francisco. "We bring

strategic skills, product design skills, and analytical skills all

together, and all of us understand business and financial

information," she says. "Just like in any partnership you learn to

appreciate what each other brings to the table. They have skill sets

and things that I don’t."

From the outset, Ottman and her partners declared a niche for

themselves in the yet-untapped realm of business-to-business online

services. Her clients today include American Banker, a financial

services daily, and Books24X7.com, a subscription-based seller of

technology information. The company outsources many of the programming

aspects and focuses on end-user efficiency. "We interview people and

try to understand their behaviors and design a service around those

behaviors," says Ottman. "We believe usefulness is what differentiates

services."

Although she’s been called an IT person, Ottman downplays her

technical skills and says that she used to be a "classic female math

phobe: Marketing seemed like it was pretty straightforward, but I

avoided anything related to economics, finance and accounting like the

plague."

Working in the IT world is possible, she says, because she knows how

to work with people and considers herself something of an information

specialist — a role she had been practicing since her childhood days.

"My brother and I grew up playing this game watching TV, where you had

to guess what the ad was for before the company name came up," she

says. "I’ve always been a big consumer of information and a part of

understanding information is interacting with people. I’m a social

creature."

Ottman grew up in Greenwich, where her mother was an active community

volunteer and her father commuted to a marketing job at Bristol-Myers

in New York. Ottman majored in American literature at Middlebury

College, Class of 1977, and at graduation, took someone’s advice to

"go to what’s new:" she joined Home Box Office, working as a

secretary, at a time when hardly anybody knew what cable was or would

become. She talked herself into jobs as a copywriter and eventually

into marketing positions.

At the age of 52, Ottman’s father, now deceased, made a radical career

change that made a huge impression on her: he left marketing to become

an institutional investor analyst. "To have someone totally change

their life at 52 shows that we’re our own worst enemy at deciding what

we want to do," she says.

At about the same time, Ottman began to feel she had hit a wall in her

own career at HBO. "I was just finding myself with a budget to

manage," she says, "and I kept looking at these reports and I became

very aware that there was actually a system to business, principles

that I didn’t know much about, and curling up with an economics book

just wasn’t going to happen."

So Ottman decided to apply for an MBA program — and shot high: "I

said if I don’t get into a top school I’m not going and luckily I got

in to Columbia."

After summer jobs on Wall Street in investment banking, she turned to

marketing for financial services at Thomson (then called Business

Research Corporation), where she met her current partners. She moved

to a similar job at Dow Jones, where she was responsible for a

creating a new pricing structure for the Dow Jones News Retrieval

service.

One of the few women in the IT world — and the only woman in her own

business — Ottman acknowledges having bumped up against the glass

ceiling once or twice, but not always not knowing how or why exactly.

"You experience it when you walk into a meeting and you’re the only

woman in the room," she says. "It can just get kind of lonely."

But women and men alike make great compromises to be in this kind of

business, says Ottman, who recently married Elliott Mossman, a

professor of Slavic studies at University of Pennsylvania. "The

successful women whom I’ve worked with have been willing to make

serious compromises — like spending less time with their family —

but very successful men make the same compromise," she says.

Ottman left Dow Jones in 1997 to found the Ridge Group, and that

career move came from a desire to be more effective in her own job.

"It was a great opportunity to be able to do things quickly," she

says. "In the consulting business people don’t hire you until they

really need help, and when you tell them what you think they’re really

paying attention."

Sometimes it’s not always want they want to hear, however, so Ottman

must exercise her diplomacy skills. "CEOs say that implementing change

throughout the organization is one of the toughest things," she says.

"Sometimes there are good reasons to resist change, and in the mix

between the change people — like me — and the status quo people, you

can get a good result. Ideally, if you believe a change needs to

happen, you try to communicate the reasons for it, and usually you can

do that through research, getting the customer speak for you. Then

it’s not what Josie Ottman thinks, it’s what our customers are telling

us."

In many scenarios, companies let the technology overshadow the product

— the information they are trying to convey. "In one client we’re

stripping away Java, and stuff that was considered state of the art,

because it didn’t work," she says.

Just as the Ridge Group helps its clients hone in on its audience and

enhance its effectiveness, running a small consulting firm has enabled

Ottman to say focused in her own career. "There’s something magical

about a small organization — the smaller the organization, the

clearer everyone’s goals are," she says. "There is a wonderful time in

a company when they are struggling and their success is not insured,

because it binds people together."

— Melinda Sherwood

The Ridge Group, 154 Prospect Avenue, Princeton

08540. Josie Ottman, principal. 609-924-8864; fax,

609-924-9636. Home page: http://www.ridgegroup.com.


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