Part Two of LTW’s weekly Executive Q&A

RALEIGH … Melissa London has put her career as chief spokesperson for Red Hat behind her, joining two former Hatters to form a new media relations firm in Vermont called “Hats Off”. In this, the second of a two-part interview with Cal Chang Yocum, London reflects on how the company changed, why she left and her new venture.

Bob Young has said that Red Hat outgrew him. Did that happen with you as well?

I could never put myself in the same category as Bob Young as far as entrepreneurial spirit. I can see from his perspective how that’s actually true.

I think it’s a lot more complex than that. We were very spoiled when I started. It was 15 people led by Bob Young. I came out with a master’s degree in English, and he pretty much said, “You’re in charge of PR.” And I had no idea what I was doing, but he said, “You’re the expert.” This was the case with all of us young people. Everybody lived up to that challenge, and it was incredibly gratifying. At that time, I’d look at my peers and be so proud to be part of that team. Everyone was working their butts off and innovating and coming up with different ideas. You took the challenge, and if it didn’t quite work out, then you learn for next time. As organizations become larger and more and more public, the stakes are raised. It’s difficult to say that it outgrew me or I outgrew it. I think I just reached a place personally and professionally where I wanted to change my quality of life.

In the past, you’ve described to me the strong passion that Red Hat employees have for the company. What’s the root of that passion?

My gosh, if I knew, I’d bottle it and sell it. It’s amazing. Matthew (Szulik, Red Hat’s chief executive) makes jokes about drinking the Kool-Aid, which always kind of drove me nuts because the connotation of the Kool-Aid is that whole sort of Jim Jones thing. And I’d think, “No, no, that’s not it.” But it is in many respects kind of like a religion. It really has to do with the good-guy-trying-to-succeed thing. You kind of felt like you were on the side of history and the white knight. From a communications perspective, I never felt like I was spinning, I never felt like I had to convey something that I didn’t passionately feel. I think that came through.

That kind of passion can be very exhausting.
Yes (laughing).

Did that have something to do with why you ultimately left?
Yes, definitely. To me Red Hat is like the North Carolina summer all the time. It’s absolutely relentless. I don’t shy away from a challenge, but sometimes you have to step back and ask, “Am I bringing the most that I can to the table?” And when you’re a Type A person, and suddenly you don’t feel like you’re at your peak, it’s good to step away from things.

And you moved to bucolic Vermont, started a communications firm called “Hats Off Communications” with two former Red Hatters, Lisa Sullivan and Stacy Doster. Why the about-face from a growing tech hub to an idyllic state better known for maple syrup and Bob Newhart?

Sometimes you have to just close your eyes and take a leap. I think I had just reached that point. Your mind gets really philosophical and you think, “You don’t grow unless you make a change.” And moving to Vermont is all about changing the comfort zone. If I moved to Durham, I wouldn’t change my life enough. Sometimes I just feel like you have to throw the cards totally up in the air and let them land and try to make sense of that. Lisa, who was employee Number 2 at Red Hat and responsible for the majority of the brand, and her husband had moved to Vermont, and I came up to visit them. I was taking a mini-sabbatical from Red Hat because I was simply burned out. This was last October, and it was the first time I had flown after September 11.

There was something really appealing about being in a rural setting and also in a much smaller town where there was a level of community that I didn’t feel in Chapel Hill. When I started at Red Hat, there was the feeling of community, and I missed that as it grew
because there’s less time and people to develop relationships with because everybody is crazy busy.

Tell me about Hats Off Communications.
We have three really functional experts in marketing: Lisa, who does the branding, marketing plans and all that kind off big picture stuff; I can help with the communications, developing messages and writing press releases; and Stacy, who was events manager at Red Hat, can help do your launch event or build a reception. We’re eager to get out of the tech world, but at the same time, we have a team that would be able to do product or new website launches.

The idea to start the firm came much later, after I moved to Vermont. Lisa and I were talking about doing project-based work, going back to what we really enjoyed about Red Hat in the first place, which was digging in and getting your hands dirty and really effecting a change instead of being involved in this endless level of hierarchy or meetings upon meetings of meetings about meetings. Again, we were spoiled from the early days where we were used to being really aggressive, moving really quickly, having a lot of control and having an interactive relationship with the people we worked with. We wanted that back.

Why did you pick the name Hats Off?
Red Hat is just so much a part of us, who we were, who we are, who forever we will be. I liken it a little bit to keeping your maiden name when you get married, although I didn’t do that. That’s where we cut our teeth. It was who we were, and we’re now taking our red hat off and moving into different paths. But we wanted to make sure people knew we came from that early marketing team and that we had definitely seen a lot and had a ton of experience, although we might be relatively young for the industry.

Did you cash out your Red Hat stock or do you still hold some?
I still hold some.

Have you sold any of it?
I did, enough to pay of my student loans. To me, it was like winning the lottery, and anything was a gift as far as I was concerned. Like I said, I never had expected it, so that in and of itself was a treat. I was able to get my mom and sisters on the friends-and-family plan. My mom was in this small steel town in western Pennsylvania, and to bring her into this really exciting IPO world during the boom just made me feel really proud and excited. She had the time of her life with it, and that makes me really happy.

Since landing in Vermont, have you looked back and wished you were still at Red Hat?

No (laughing). I don’t have to take any time to answer that. I love them dearly, but no.

Growing Up at Red Hat — Hatter’s Spokesperson Remembers Crazy Days:

Bob Young, Saying ‘Red Hat Left Me’, Pulls Off a Real Lulu With Two New Ventures: