Value Added: Fox Business reporter writes — and lives — his stories
By Thomas Heath,
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.”
— Samuel Smiles (Scottish author, 1812-1904)
Just ask Peter Barnes about failure and success.
The 54-year-old senior Washington correspondent for the Fox Business Network is also a serial entrepreneur who is batting one for three in business start-ups.
One hit. Two whiffs. No home runs.
I caught up with Barnes in several phone conversations between his Fox TV appearances last week, where he was telling viewers how much more they were going to fork over to the feds under the new U.S. tax rates.
Barnes is not just any working journalist. He is a resilient risk-taker, qualities that I envy.
The entrepreneur has actually put his cash, time and reputation into three start-ups. He has written business plans, raised money, met a payroll, paid taxes, hired and fired and — when it didn’t work — figured out the next thing. He can read a balance sheet and knows that “discount rate” is not the price of something at Wal-Mart.
“I really understand how hard it is to be an entrepreneur,” Barnes said. “Every person who is successful and is a gazillionaire, a lot of them have failed.”
Then he sent me the above quote from Samuel Smiles, which hung on the wall of one of his ventures.
Barnes, who lives in Alexandria, knows risk: He raised $300,000 — including the proceeds from the sale of a cherished childhood coin collection — to fund his first start-up.
He knows failure: He took a flier on an online financial news site called JAGfn.com, which fizzled.
He knows success: He and his wife, Cheryl, have written 20 children’s books, which have sold more than 500,000 copies and grossed $4 million in two decades. They also published a New York Times bestseller by a young poet from Upper Marlboro named Mattie Stepanek that grossed another few million dollars.
Barnes, who has an MBA from Wharton, talks openly about his business reversals.
He keeps landing on his feet at media shops such as Fox, CNBC, Hearst and the Wall Street Journal, where he covered some of the biggest names in American media, from Washington Post Co. director Barry Diller to the late William S. Paley, founder of CBS.
He must get his resilience from his family. His father is a former news photographer who worked at several high-profile universities before starting a home-building firm on Nantucket, Mass., which has built nearly 100 dwellings over the years. Barnes’s mother operated a yarn store called the Yarn Barn out of the family living room, then sold real estate on Nantucket with her husband.
“Entrepreneurism is in the genes,” said Barnes, who delivered newspapers, mowed lawns and painted houses while growing up.
Barnes got hooked on writing back in high school, when his mother snuck him into a lecture by the hugely successful novelist James A. Michener at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia.
Barnes covered sports for his high school newspaper and was a stringer for local newspapers. He worked at the Daily Collegian, a student-run newspaper at Penn State, and then got summer internships all through college, culminating at the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal.
After a few years in journalism, he applied to Wharton to round out his business reporting chops.
After receiving his MBA in 1985, the Wall Street Journal offered him a job in New York covering telecommunications, which eventually morphed into media and the television broadcasters: CBS, ABC and NBC. It was, as Barnes put it, “a backstage pass to history.”
“Here I am at 26, and meeting Bill Paley. He sat at a round desk, surrounded by Matisses, Jackson Pollocks, Picassos. There was even a fireplace.”
He headed to Los Angeles, wooed by Diller to work for a start-up news venture. When it closed, Barnes, who by then was married, moved to Roanoke with his new bride to open a couple of Jenny Craig Weight Loss franchises.
“I was 29. I had this itch I wanted to scratch.”
Barnes raised $30,000 from the sale of his coin collection, which he had accumulated during childhood. His wife put up $70,000.
They borrowed another $200,000 from banks and launched with a payroll that reached 20 full- and part-timers.
“It was 1990, and we opened in the middle of a recession. It did not work out,” he said.
Barnes moved to Alexandria, where his wife had grown up. He got a job with CNBC and collected paychecks again.
His next flier came in the dot-com bubble. In 2000, he joined JAGfn.com, a publicly traded business news Web site that had ambitions of becoming a cable network. It raised $12 million, and Barnes and his former mentor, the late TV veteran Jack Reilly, each took a 2.5 percent equity interest in the site.
“I think if we had done it five or six or seven years later, we could have made a go of it,” Barnes said.
The stock went from $6 per share to 6 cents.
After more TV reporting jobs and a gig in nonprofits, the nascent Fox Business Network came calling in 2007. Barnes has been reporting on the economic crisis, the Federal Reserve, unemployment, taxes and other Washington-centric economics ever since.
But he and his wife have also run a successful side business writing children’s books, including “House Mouse, Senate Mouse”; “Woodrow, The White House Mouse”; and “Maestro Mouse.”They got the idea for writing children’s books in 1992 when they overheard a customer at a Nantucket bookstore bemoaning the lack of tomes about the island. By the end of 1993, they had written their first book, “Nat, Nat, the Nantucket Cat,” which sold nearly 1,000 books that Christmas. It eventually sold more than 50,000 copies.
Together, their Mouse books have sold nearly a million copies, including hardcover and paperbacks. They created their own publishing house that allowed them to keep more of the profits from the sale of each book, which meant a 15 percent take instead of only a 5 percent royalty if they had gone through a mainstream publisher. Their niche business didn’t make them millionaires, but it did produce a nice $50,000 average profit a year for more than 20 years.
After losing money starting in the recession of 2009, they closed their company and sold the Mouse rights to Regnery Publishing.
Barnes is proud of his success rate. If he were a baseball player, he would be a star with a .333 batting average. But like any veteran, he swings at fewer pitches.
“My tolerance for risk is still higher than most, but not as high as it used to be,” he said.
For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.