Friday, May 13, 2005

Vanderbilt Student Communications - Thank You to "The Tunnel"

I recently received an alumni newspaper from Vanderbilt Student Communications. What, you may ask, is VSC? This is the non-for-profit holding group for the student newspapers, radio station, television, etc. at Vanderbilt. Pretty boring stuff to most.

I graduated in 1993 after working for the newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, and other publications as a photographer and writer for all four years of college. (Scared my mother to death when I came home telling her I was a photographer for the Hustler). Again, you likely are tempted to add "and didn't date much" to "pretty boring stuff."

We somewhat affectionately referred to ourselves as "tunnel rats" since we never saw the light of day from working in the bottom of Sarratt Student Center. Most other people didn’t refer to us as anything.

My hands stunk almost permanently from film chemicals. Negatives wound in pitch black to an old boom box containing a Yes mixed tape (don’t know where either came from) with the LED's blacked out with tape. Developer (pushing T-Max films way beyond 400), stop bath and then fixer. Then repeat for the prints. Speed was everything - it was a matter of pride who could guess the exposure and then develop, wave by the stop bath and slam into the fixer. Test strips were for pansies. Digital cameras were a myth.

I haven't really touched a camera since.

Then I tried to write a bit. I really stunk at basic reporting but found some satisfaction in opinion and humor writing. Most were tongue-in-cheek adolescent ramblings. But there were a few I remain proud of today - stories brought up in philosophy classes. Stories that emptied the stands of a literary magazine. A few articles that got me threatened and more that got me laughed as a fool - deservedly so.

Today I use bullet point memos, Visio diagram and Blackberry-length emails. This is easily the longest thing I've written in ten years that doesn't involve a budget spreadsheet or SQL to query a database.


I learned to love the elegance of black and white photography. Several will remember a picture I took of the ball popping out of Corey Harris' arms on the LSU goal line - it captures a moment better than any video.

I also saw arguably the best sports in Vanderbilt history from the best seat in the house - on the sidelines.

I learned to love the written word - and respect the power each word can have to hurt and to heal.

I learned how to get people talking and, at the same time, how to begin dealing with my basic introversion.

I discovered a work ethic that I didn't know I had - and that work should have a passion and purpose (because the money stunk).

I learned that despite what professors said, they did give you better grades for well-formatted documents. Thank you PageMaker.

I became enthralled with how technology could actually be used in the real world. Certainly few of my classes prepared me for life outside of the West End corridor.

I learned accounting was hard - and waiting until the last minute was no way to run a business.

I made friends that I still keep in touch with. Not well enough, I might add. But I respect them because we all went through it together and they taught me a lot.

I didn’t do so well in class - my grades were less than spectacular. (I think I once wrote "if you take the square root of my GPA it doesn't change that much”). My parents were none too thrilled.

Also, despite a variety of rumors, nothing ever happened in the darkroom - but not for a lack of trying.


That stupid newspaper taught me about desktop publishing, networking, pre-press, people management and production schedules - things vital to modern marketing success.

I brought in the first film scanners and proper network for file sharing. Remember, this was 1993 - there was only one book on the whole campus library system about the Internet (Zen and the Art of the Internet - Divinity Library in a three ring binder - I know because I checked it out). God only knows how many hours I wasted playing with this stuff.

Why tell this story? In 1995, another Vanderbilt grad and I started a direct mail agency with no money and a computer split on our credit cards. While he sold and wrote copy I started doing the design (badly), networking (better) and database work (pretty good at the time if I may say so myself). It was just two people then and, weirdly, the tunnel knowledge - from tech to working with people to basic accounting - starting showing up as a guide in our business.

Long story short, exactly ten years later we had fourteen million dollars in profitable sales, ninety employees and sold to a large publicly traded database marketing company. We did it by building a team and that was eerily familiar at times to “the tunnel” - especially since our office space stunk. There are certainly better entrepreneurial stories, but I am proud of mine nonetheless.

To make it absolutely clear, without my time in the tunnel, nothing would have ever started.

Too rarely in life, because of this damn work ethic, have I stopped to look around and reflect. Even less frequently do I say "thank you" to people and organizations. Well, without VSC my path in life would be wildly different - just maybe as good but no way as interesting.

So, thank you to all the names I remember but won’t embarrass and also to those I don’t recall. Also, to all of you out there just leaving the tunnel - trust me the hard work will pay off.

Oh, and there is hope. My wife is a beautiful, intelligent sorority girl from Vanderbilt that never understood the pointless inside-joke personals in the back of the Hustler. She married me anyway.

No comments: