The free spirit that was always lurking within Bill Thompson, 47, of Marietta, Ohio has finally won out. That's why he has chucked the conventional life—as an executive at Marietta College—and its regular paychecks, and embarked on a wildly speculative venture that may kill him financially. "If so," he says, "I'll die with a smile on my face."
Last year Thompson borrowed $25,000 and launched a new magazine called Bird Watcher's Digest. He knows next to nothing about birds. But "I can now tell a turkey from a parakeet," he says. "The former is usually in a freezer and the latter in a cage." In fact, he has been scared stiff of birds ever since, as a six-year-old, he was sent to collect eggs laid by the family's hens and a mean rooster repeatedly chased him out of the coop.
For a long time Thompson and his wife, Elsa—she is a birder—had wanted to find a line of work that they and their three children could do together. Thompson first thought of opening a bar, where he could play the piano and Elsa could cook, but gave up the idea because the children were too young to work there. Next he decided to raise sheep in Utah, but abandoned that plan when "I found out it took two sheep, and we could only afford one." The bird magazine was suggested by a birding friend who had lost money publishing Pro Football Digest.
The bimonthly Bird Watcher's Digest, a sort of feathered Reader's Digest that took off last fall, can survive only if it attracts 16,000 to 20,000 readers. So far it has a circulation of only 5,600. "I can't say we're flying yet," says Thompson, "but we're sure flapping our wings." A total of 90 articles appeared in the first three issues—after Thompson had culled them from among more than 10,000. He seeks out stories on all aspects of bird watching from newspapers, wire services, magazines—recent issues of BWD ran digests of articles from The New Yorker and Natural History—anywhere. Thompson does minor editing and some condensing, pays authors as little as $25 for reprint rights and sees his fledgling publication as a compendium of "popular birding literature." BWD (Box 110, Marietta, OH. 45750) costs $7.50 for six issues. With an estimated 40 million bird watchers in this country spending $500 million annually on their hobby, Thompson thinks BWD can make it. That would be proof anew that success doesn't always depend on who you know, or even what you know—but only on how nervy you are.