Everybody told Lute Harmon it was a bad idea.
After all, he was 32 years old and the father of an infant son when he got the crazy notion to start a magazine. He had a good job making $250 a week as an advertising copywriter for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. And he wanted to trade it in for a magazine? In Cleveland?
"There's nothing to write about in Cleveland," people told him. "You'll run out of ideas in three months."
That was 30 years and more than 360 issues ago. Looking back, Harmon says he now recognizes that he had all the classic characteristics of an entrepreneur: He was lucky, dumb and confident enough to be persistent.
Luck came first, in the form of Oliver Emerson, who had both a printing press and major Cleveland connections. Harmon called Emerson and finagled a lunch appointment to outline his vision. "I think it's a great idea," Emerson said. "Do you have a business plan?"
"Mr. Emerson," Harmon replied, "I have no idea what a business plan is."
After hiring a typist and staying up two nights, Harmon had such a plan in hand. He pitched it at the Union Club to a group Emerson had assembled of some of Cleveland's most powerful men. That meeting ultimately generated $200,000 and another $200,000 when Harmon ran out of funds before the first issue was published.
Harmon's second great strength was his ignorance. Had he known that the plaster ceilings in the fledgling magazine's offices would crumble down on the typewriters, that he and his wife Sue would be hand-delivering subscription gift cards on Christmas Eve and that crippling hard times were ahead in the early '80s, he might have rethought the idea.
But such pitfalls never occurred to him. "All entrepreneurs have an idea," Harmon notes, "and they really believe in that idea." That belief is so strong that it blinds them to all of the reasons why it's better not to take the risk.
In addition to his ignorance, luck and persistence, Harmon also had a wife who was willing to embrace uncertainty and sculpt a family out of scraps of time. Sue remembers her husband coming home at 11 p.m. and waking their 6-month-old baby just so he could spend time with him. She adapted as well. "Since Lute worked such long hours during the week, we never had a family dinner," Sue says. "So we tried to have a family breakfast in the morning, before the kids went to school. We'd always sit down and have breakfast together, as opposed to dinner, which never happened."
Today, those boys are grown, a grandchild has been added to the ranks and Sue, who went back to school to earn her law degree, serves as the magazine's circulation director. The company, now called Great Lakes Publishing, has expanded to include Inside Business, Ohio Magazine, Bride To Be, Ohio Business, LongWeekends and Cleveland Home Décor.
As it turns out, says Harmon, the magazine was a good idea both for him and, he hopes, for his city. "Cleveland Magazine has really become a part of the community," he says. "The joy and the pleasure to me has always been the stories."