Hall of Fame Portrait: Nelson B. Heller, Ph.D., Part 2

On December 3, 2009, AEP will induct Nelson B. Heller, Ph.D, MDR; Michael Ross, Encyclopaedia Britannica; and Pleasant Rowland, Rowland Reading Foundation and American Girl into the Educational Publishing Hall of Fame. Here in his second installment, Nelson B. Heller, Ph.D., President, EdNET at MDR, discusses the greatest challenge he faced during his career and his proudest accomplishment.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career, and how did you handle it?

I suppose my greatest challenge was when, in late 1987, I lost my job at SFN and Scott, Foresman due to liquidation of our publicly traded parent company and the sale of its component companies to a host of information and publishing organizations. At 47 I found it impossible to match that job or salary in another publishing firm and reluctantly tried my hand at consulting.

My first client was Pat Donoghy, then president of Simon and Schuster’s Silver Burdett unit and later of Simon and Schuster K-12 publishing, whom I knew from Silver Burdett’s days as an SFN company. (Pat was the same guy who’d good-naturedly roasted me at one of SFN management dinners by presenting me with a copy of the book “Dare to be Dull,” referring in jest to my corporate memos.) I didn’t want a consulting job, I told him. I wanted a “real” job, but he persuaded me to give his project a try.

I knew that project would end in a few months, and without more clients I’d be dead in the water. So, I started writing letters to the heads of business groups that might be thinking about getting into the fledgling K-12 technology and telecom products market. My letters said I was impressed about what I knew about their organizations–actually very little–and thought they might be interested in some help. Remarkably, a lead from a business magazine article put me on to BellSouth and my letter eventually reached the head of its new K-12 entrepreneuring unit. Working on that second project I realized that if I didn’t have a more permanent marketing engine and, hopefully, some non-consulting income, I’d always be chasing the next consulting gig and be a step away from zero cash flow.

That led me to the idea of starting a newsletter to get more visibility for my work. How that eventually resulted in my starting The Heller Reports newsletters and EdNET conference is another story for another time, except Id like to acknowledge here advice and encouragement from Kathy Hurley, then marketing vp for educational software publisher Mindscape, and Elliott Minsker, president of newsletter, conference and trade show firm Knowledge Industry Publications. It was one of the scariest times of my career but eventually yielded a world of personal growth and satisfaction.

What accomplishment, related to either your career or other work in the educational arena, are you most proud of and why?

I’d like to mention two of many situations that made me especially proud of The Heller Reports. In 1998, after having run ten EdNETconferences and grown the event to where it had attracted some international participation, we took a fling at our first international conference. The “EdNET Global Forum” was staged in London in January of that year, in conjunction with BETT, the UK’s largest educational technology trade show and conference. Our venue was a hotel near the Olympia Exhibition Centre which hosted BETT, but our opening reception was at London’s US Embassy’s ballroom. I had stumbled on the availability of the embassy facility for commercial events and snapped up the opportunity to add legitimacy to our infant venture. The setting was stunning with portraits of presidents going back to George Washington adorning the walls and stately chandeliers. Anyone who’s been to an EdNET knows of our tradition of giving attendees 30 seconds to do a self-introduction. My British advisers and Heller Reports staff strongly advised me against trying to introduce this to the staid British and US government milieu, particularly during our busy reception. Throwing caution to the wind, I took the podium and offered the attendees the chance to shout out their name, title, organization and country as we moved around the room. The response was electric–first dead silence, then one after the other, with escalating enthusiasm and, often, humor, our guests jumped at the chance. Listening to that progression and, later, congratulations from my doubters, gave me a thrill I won’t ever forget. Networking is networking anywhere.

Another accomplishment of which I am very proud was starting theEdNET Virtual Roundtables series of teleconference events right after 9/11. We had been running EdNET in Washington  DC on 9/11, less than 10 miles from the Pentagon where one of the tragically hijacked planes crashed. When we finally made it back to Chicago, about a week later, I knew no one in our industry was going to be traveling any time soon and that everyone would be starving for insight about how schools would respond. Drawing on the idea of a telephone seminar, which I’d heard about at a newsletter publishers association conference some years earlier, in about three weeks time we organized and staged “Grappling With Post-9/11 Education Markets.”  The 90-minute forum with five expert panelists drew some 63 firms and thus was born a new and enduring product line that helped extend our brand and, happily, build revenue.


Nelson Heller is president of EdNET at MDR, a D&B company. EdNET publishes a weekly e-mailed industry news service, sponsors the annual EdNET: Educational Networking Conference, and offers periodicEdNET Virtual Roundtables with panels of experts regarding key issues impacting educational sales and marketing. He previously served as research vice president for the SFN group of companies including Scott Foresman, Silver Burdett and Southwestern and, before that, was president of Educational Programming Systems and the Technology Assisted Learning Market Information Service (TALMIS). Dr. Heller is recipient of the “Making It Happen” education industry award. He holds a BEE from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and graduate degrees from MIT and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Read more about Nelson Heller and the Hall of Fame.

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