Patrick J. McGovern: Insights For Dummies

The pioneering publisher saw that corporate computer users were starved for information

In 1953 Patrick J. McGovern read Giant Brains, or Machines That Think, by Edmund C. Berkeley, a computer pioneer. McGovern, just 14 at the time, was consumed by the desire to learn more about the parallels between the brain's inner workings and thinking machines.

It was the book that led to a publishing empire. Now 68, McGovern went from reading about computers to creating the first trade journal for tech types. Computerworld, started in 1967, fast became the industry's bible. And today, McGovern is chairman of Boston-based International Data Group (IDG), a global conglomerate of information technology publications, conferences, and market research. He can also lay claim to creating the first joint venture between a U.S. company and China, the first venture capital fund in China, and the ubiquitous Dummies series of instruction books.

Along the way, he amassed a $2 billion fortune that he is using to bring his life's work full circle. In 2000, McGovern and his wife, Lore Harp, donated $350 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. He plans to donate an additional $600 million to set up similar centers in Asia and Europe.

Giant Brains sparked it all. As an adolescent in Philadelphia, McGovern was so inspired by the book that he took his paper route earnings and headed to a hardware store. "I bought batteries, wires, and things and built a computer that never lost at tic-tac-toe," he says. A few years later that computer won him a scholarship to MIT, where he majored in neurobiology. But McGovern quickly realized that no technology was then powerful enough to properly analyze the brain. He decided instead to learn more about computer technology, and at 19 became an editor of the MIT publication Computers and Automation.

In his new role, McGovern saw that computer makers were desperate for insight into their customers' needs. His response, in 1964, was to write up a market research proposal and to send it to 15 manufacturers. He received $120,000 in orders. That became the seed money for International Data Corp. (IDC), the tech industry's first market research firm.

Computerworld was the obvious next step. Recognizing that users of big corporate computers were starving for a reliable source of industry information, McGovern launched the weekly paper with a $50,000 investment. "Everyone in the publishing industry laughed at us," he says. "But we signed up 80,000 paid subscribers in eight months." Today, privately held IDG, which includes IDC, publishes more than 300 magazines and newspapers in 85 countries, runs 400 Web sites, and operates a $1 billion VC fund. Last year it pulled in $2.68 billion in sales.

IDG's success is predicated in part on McGovern's wanderlust. An inveterate traveler, in 1972 he started the first foreign edition of Computerworld in Japan. But he really broke down barriers when he went after China in 1980. Warned it would take years to win Beijing's trust, McGovern negotiated a joint venture in just a few months.

He continues to search for opportunities in Asia's emerging markets, the focus of IDG's venture capital funds. Retirement, he says, is not an option, and he remains as hands-on as ever. The year McGovern started IDC with 16 staffers, he personally gave out Christmas bonuses to each one. He has done so ever since. Last December that meant going to each of the group's 35 U.S. offices to shake hands with 1,500 employees.

He is just as involved with his Brain Institute. Sitting in the center's new limestone and glass building in Cambridge, Mass., McGovern reflects that "the tools are finally available to understand the brain." He may at last get the answers to the questions raised when he was 14.

By Catherine Arnst in Cambridge

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