Note to Flipside, 9/15/23

Every week I write a Friday note to Flipside, and I think about John Butman.

Dave Balter
3 min readOct 22, 2023

Apparently, John Butman passed away suddenly at home of natural causes in March of 2020.

This I didn’t learn about until nearly 6 months later. Which is a shame, because one must have mentors, and Butman was, indeed, one of mine.

If you like your clock rewound, you’ll remember March 2020 as a time when the world went bonkers. Covid was real. And terrifying. We didn’t understand what we were dealing with. We had begun — in futility, mind you — washing our groceries before they entered the house, and we all know how devastating that Summer was. Butman passed in March; there was no funeral, no service. The pandemic overshadowed it all.

When I caught her by phone, John’s wife Nancy explained that John, at the young age of 70, died probably from a heart attack complicated by asthma, which he had recently been diagnosed with and was just figuring out how to manage.

He apparently climbed the stairs to his 3rd floor study, to the loft where he did his writing, fell asleep on a couch in the library, and never woke up. Covid, March 2020. A time without diagnoses and certainly without vaccines; a time where the media offered that hearts did funny things — and I’m left to wonder if Butman maybe had succumbed to a virus we didn’t yet understand.

John taught me to write.

Not to publish words, like I did via half-baked jokes in Mike & Dave’s Room in the Skidmore News in the early 1990s, but to develop narrative, to consider the reader, to edit, to breathe life into words. John was initially hired by Penguin Putnam to ‘ghost write’ a book on Word of Mouth with me in 2005. We quickly found a rhythm: I would write 5–10 pages at a time, and John would construct this into something more like a book. We parried on certain words; we thrashed through creative structures; we laughed at hidden messages and double entendres. John didn’t try to change my writing style, he helped me focus on my strengths and shaved down the ineffective sharp edges.

Turns out the lucrative major book deal reflected the most immaterial part of our relationship, as we went on to co-exist across numerous artistic endeavors — always with the craft of writing at the center. He sat in our offices at BzzAgent for 90 days, reporting on the mayhem that is a venture backed startup. We traveled to Turkey and Poland together to explore Word of Mouth across the globe. And with painter Seth B. Minkin in tow, we profusely obliterated the boundaries of art and startup life.

In 2008, when it came time for another book, John didn’t blink an eye when I said I wanted to self-publish something that would likely never sell a single copy. Yes, you could buy the book in print, but the idea was to give the whole thing away for free in PDF form.

Publishers would never agree to such mayhem, but Butman was the consummate comedy improv ‘yes, and…’ man. When I told him I wanted to call it the Word of Mouth Manual Volume II, he asked where Volume I was. I offered that making someone ask the question was the most word of mouth thing ever. He smirked, raised an eyebrow and offered as he always did, “very funny, Balter, very funny.”

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. My first mentors were of the financial sort — John LaPann and Guli Arshad — and over the last 20+ years, I’ve often considered myself beyond fortunate that Shikhar Ghosh has provided me countless hours of his friendship and strategic insights. Mentors are a critical part of any entrepreneur’s foundation, and maybe most important is the part where you thank them for the mentorship they bestow on you.

John Butman, in his library in the stars, via MidJourney, October 2023

Every week I write a Friday note to Flipside, and I think about John Butman.

I think about what he would do with the words; how he’d color in the lines, whether they needed crayon or pencil or the sharp tip of a reservoir dip pen. I sometimes write for his benefit solely. And I hope that somewhere, in some other ethereal dimension, his spirit knows that to be the case.

Thank you, John. I miss you dearly.