RIP Paul Panitz
Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008
I learned last week that my friend Paul Panitz died August 29.
Paul had written earlier this year saying he had esophageal cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good, Paul wrote, and he might not live out the year. Ever wry, Paul added, “Even my German Shepherd got in on the act, with her spine putting pressure on the nerves to her legs. She was operated on at the end of January, and still can go out only on a leash, but it seems she’s making a full recovery.” Paul went on to write that his businesses — copy shops from Budapest through Moscow and out to Shanghai — were doing well. He closed, “Well, those are the “highlights”. I’m quite busy from now through the middle of next week, but after that, I’ll have time to talk.”
I got to know Paul in 1993 while I working as a business journalist in Budapest. Late one evening I was photocopying some documents in a big copy shop near our apartment. Thinking the copy shop might make an interesting story, I asked to meet the owner. Paul turned out to be there. A wiry chain-smoking American about 10 years my senior, Paul had sold his copy business in DC and moved to Eastern Europe to watch the economy be reborn. Here’s the story I wrote about Paul in the International Herald Tribune.
I didn’t know it then, but hearing about Paul’s incredible tribulations, maneuverings, craftsmanship, triumphs, parsimony and occasional losses awoke in me an entrepreneurial urge. What a life, I thought, to dream and scheme and battle to shape something from nothing.
In 1998, when I started to think about creating a business to rent websites to newspapers and magazines, Paul was one of the first people I called to share the idea with. As the idea became a plan, Paul was the first person who committed money to the idea, called Pressflex. Though Paul asked a lot of questions about the concept and market, he didn’t ask about valuation. “Let me know when you do a deal and I’ll be in,” he said. That commitment gave me the courage to round up other investors.
After a burst of initial sales, Pressflex grew very slowly, much more slowly than our funding or plans anticipated. In 2001, with our bank account dwindling towards zero, Paul asked if we were still confident we had a good idea. Yes, we said. Paul offered to loan us money. He asked for no projections, no additional logic… he just asked if we were confident we could repay him. We were confident, knowing that if we had to abandon our dream, we’d pare down the company to a skeleton and get Paul his money from residual revenues from site rentals. So Paul loaned Pressflex $75,000 and we humped along with a core staff on slashed salaries. We signed a few more newspaper clients, then some magazines and pared our burn rate enough to buy us an additional year of life. And it was during that year that we conceived Blogads.com. Today the Pressflex site rental business is solid and Blogads is thriving.
Both for his example and his unwavering support, I owe much to Paul, and I told him that when we last talked.