Our Founders’ Story

The first office of the Washington Speakers Bureau was, quite literally, a closet. It held the office supplies for Chuck Hagel – who would become U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The three founders, Paula and Bernie Swain and Harry Rhoads, shared two small desks and two telephones. When Chuck and his staff needed stationery supplies, they walked into their closet/office. When the founders needed to leave their office, they often had to wait until one of Chuck’s meetings was over.

For months, they sat in our closet hoping that someone would call them. But no one ever did. It was months before they discovered the competition of dozens of lecture agencies up and down the East Coast representing all kinds of famous people. There was, after all, no Internet in 1980 to save them from our decisions.

Sitting in their closet late at night, the founders would often say to themselves, “What have we done?” A year later, little had changed. The dozens of established agencies still controlled the industry. Most of the famous speakers remained under written contracts with those agencies. The office was still a closet, and WSB didn’t represent anyone.

But one thing had certainly changed. The founders had spent all of their savings on supplies, rent, mailing lists, brochures, and direct mailings that had little or no effect. They were nearly out of money.

Then, just as they were about to close their closet door, WSB got its first exclusive speaker – Steve Bell, anchorman for ABC’s Good Morning America.

Bernie had helped Steve get access to the GWU swimming pool for a news story years before, and he had just left his old agency. When he called them, they were so excited and anxious that they simply sealed the deal with a quick handshake and no paperwork. “If someone is unhappy with us,” they justified after the handshake, “what good will it be holding him to a signed piece of paper?”

This questionable decision turned out to be a “defining moment” strategy for their new little company.

Word spread in the small, news-driven town of Washington, D.C. Knowing they could walk out on WSB at any time, a surprising number of speakers, mostly Washington journalists – including Hugh Sidey, Carl Rowan, Robert Novak, and Mark Shields – gave them a chance. Knowing WSB could lose them at any time, they worked hard to keep their speakers happy.

For the next seven years, they did what many start-ups must do to succeed. They arrived to work every day at dawn, didn’t leave the office until late at night, obsessed about every small detail, and learned from their mistakes. There were no vacations. And they often worked seven days a week.

The founders were driven, always thinking, planning, and rethinking. But, most importantly, they were networking intensely and building relationships.

- Paula and Bernie Swain and Harry Rhoads