By C.J. Sullivan
John J. Kilcullen, a first-generation Irish-American from the Bronx, came up with the idea for the "For Dummies" series of books, which in seven years sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 31 languages. It took one smart Irishman to hatch such a simple, yet ingenious, concept. In November of 1991 "DOS for Dummies" was the first book published in the series.
Kilcullen’s company, IDG Books Worldwide, soon became the leading publisher of computer books. They moved into other subject matter with titles like "Baseball for Dummies" and " Beauty Secrets for Dummies." Kilcullen credits his accomplishments and financial success to his parents, Matt Kilcullen, from Enniscrone, Co. Sligo and his mother, Eileen (nee Scanlon), from Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, who immigrated to New York after World War II and gave all the Kilcullen children good values and a tough-as-leather work ethic.
At the relatively young age of 39, Kilcullen’s a CEO and sitting like a big dog on top of the world. With all his accomplishments he remains humble and in touch with his Irish heritage and his family’s years of struggle in the Bronx. The Kilcullens raised eight children in nine years in a three-bedroom apartment on the Grand Concourse near 198th Street.
In a rapid-fire New York accent, Kilcullen said: " I was born, raised, and educated in the Bronx. The Bronx and Ireland will always hold a special place in my heart. Even though where I live now — San Francisco — is a polar opposite to the Bronx, I still go back home regularly. I support all the schools I went to and I even came back to get married at Saint Philip Neri in 1991.
"What I took from the Bronx and my parents’ experience as Irish immigrants was their tremendous work ethic and focus on values. My father spent 33 years hauling produce in a Grand Union tractor-trailer and never complained. My mother raised eight kids and then years later went back to work as a waitress at the member’s club at the Museum of Modern Art. Just seeing how they endured and how I managed to survive all the challenges growing up in the Bronx made me very strong.
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"My mom stayed in the Bronx till 1990. Three days before Christmas of 1989, she was mugged by a crackhead in our building lobby. She was hit on the head with a lead pipe. My brother and six sisters agreed that we had to get her out of there. My dad had passed away a few years before and the neighborhood became too dangerous. But my mom survived the attack. She was and still is a tough Irishwoman.
"What my parents taught me about the importance of a strong work ethic, friendship, and making it through tough times was invaluable. That is what business, and the world, is all about. You always need to remember your roots. It keeps you humble because once you get success and the financial rewards that come with it, you can’t allow yourself to get arrogant. The key is to stay humble."
Kilcullen’s youth in the Bronx was fairly normal for that time and place. He received a good parochial school education while still running with a slightly wild crowd that searched out Bronx bars that sold $1 pitchers of beer to 16-year-olds with fake college ID cards. He was able to maintain a certain level of ambition and never got sucked into the dangers of the Bronx bar scene.
"I went to college at the Rose Hill campus of Fordham. The neighborhood was getting pretty rough by then. But I never had any trouble because I walked to school and knew the neighborhood very well. My mother always told me that you had to keep your wits about you in our neighborhood. Once or twice I heard about Fordham students who had been mugged, but it was mostly kids who grew up in places like Miami."
Kilcullen graduated with a BA and had hoped to go into TV or radio. The only job offer he received was as a New England sales rep for Prentice Hall, a college textbook publisher. He started with a base salary of $14,000 a year and a company car.
"I swore I was never going to go into sales but that was the only secure job I could find after college," Kilcullen said. "So on July 23, 1981, I packed up what little I had and moved up to Boston."
Kilcullen was born with a bit of the Irish wanderlust and moved around a lot. He worked his way back to Englewood, N.J., and eventually made a move out to Indianapolis.
"I liked Indiana. My brother Matt wound up as an assistant basketball coach for Notre Dame and my sister Julie lived nearby also. I thought Indiana would be a good place for me to get away from the Bronx and stop hanging out at night."
By 1986 Kilcullen had moved back to the Bronx and was a national account manager for mass-market publisher Bantam Books. He’d leave for work most mornings at 6 and take the D train downtown with his mom. She would go to MOMA on 53rd Street in Manhattan and he’s walk across the street to his office at Bantam Books.
In 1987 Kilcullen was having dinner with some colleagues in the publishing world at a Third Avenue restaurant. One of those colleagues told a story about how he heard a customer in a bookstore asking a clerk for an easy-to-read computer book. The man had asked, " Do you have any basic books on DOS? You know, something simple . . . like DOS for dummies."
Kilcullen laughed as he said, "I sat there thinking what an interesting notion that was. I realized that the approach that people like that man in the store really wanted to help them learn about computers was something basic, with a little handholding thrown in. At the time, I was in the habit of writing down random ideas and saving them in a file. I described the guy who wanted a book for ‘dummies,’ and filed the note away. I knew it was a good thought, but in publishing, the sales side was seldom taken seriously when it came to defining the content of a book. Editors would tell me, ‘We’ll handle the publishing, you just handle the selling.’
"But most of my proposals centered on the same theme: the need to develop books specifically for people who were not in touch with the technology they were trying to use."
Kilcullen didn’t sit still. He knew he had a great idea. All he lacked was financial backing, but everywhere he took his idea he was turned down. Cold. But he persisted. Matt and Eileen Kilcullen had raised no fool. In 1989, International Data Group, an information technology publisher, invited him to come out to California and start his own company on their nickel.
"Those were the magic words that got me out to the land of entrepreneurs — Silicon Valley. Within three weeks I was the publisher of the newly formed IDG Books Worldwide, and, frankly, I wondered if these people at IDG knew what they were doing by promoting me to publisher so quickly. I had never published a book in my life."
Failure breeds success
Kilcullen’s first two books were about Nintendo and Sega video games. The books gave basic instructions on how to win and other strategies. IDG Books printed 100,000 copies of each of the books — a huge number for a fledgling publishing company. The books tanked and Kilcullen still has them in his company’s warehouse.
"Now I was desperate," he said. "I was running a company that was losing $1.5 million. It was time to follow my instincts and, so, in November 1991, we printed 7,500 copies of ‘DOS for Dummies’. The book was unconventional, contrarian, and a risky venture. It had a funky yellow cover and it had instant appeal for smart people who were being made to feel like dummies by software companies. The book did great right from the start."
From there Kilcullen’s company mushroomed. "For Dummies" books soon covered subjects such as sex, jazz, cooking, gardening, and sports. Along with success comes imitation and a few years after the publication of "DOS For Dummies," competing computer book publisher Macmillan Publishing started their "Idiots" series.
Kilcullen said the Macmillan series debut just made him more competitive. "You can’t imitate what you don’t understand," he said. "People are always going to knock off great ideas. All the Idiots series did was get our competitive juices flowing, and we never became complacent. Macmillan’s imitation was a symptom of what’s wrong with big business. Large companies tend to imitate instead of invent. I felt good; the best our biggest competitor could do was copy our ideas. I was flattered."
Irish business connections
In addition to his strong family ties to Ireland, Kilcullen has business connections there as well. London-based Transworld Publishing Company distributes IDG Books’ computer, business, and self-help titles throughout Ireland. Kilcullen recently traveled to Ireland to visit bookstores. He will be back in Dublin this month to promote his company’s latest releases. Patrick McGovern, whose grandmother hails from Newport, Co. Mayo, founded IDG, which has annual revenues of $2 billion, in 1964.
Earlier this year, Kilcullen visited Sligo and Mayo and returns to New York frequently. After eight years in California Kilcullen still misses New York and may one day move back.
"I love the weather in California, but I miss the energy of New York, and, of course, all my family and friends," he said. "You know I’m glad this article is running in The Irish Echo. It was my father’s favorite paper."