02/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
IN 1983, JOHN KILCULLEN MADE A shrewd career move. Or so he thought. But after accepting a big job at a computer-software publisher—a position for which the former traveling textbook salesman soon realized he was spectacularly under-qualified—he proceeded to help lose millions of his employer's dollars on an ill-fated product launch. But not before learning something instructive. "The lesson there was, failure precedes success," jokes Kilcullen, who resigned soon after the blunder. "It was a complete and utter disaster."
The real lesson for Kilcullen, 38, was that there was a lot he didn't know—which, he suspected, made him just like everyone else. A few years later, recovered from his mishap and cannily aware of the commercial possibilities created by ignorance, he came up with the idea for an irreverent, jargon-free computer guide, DOS for Dummies (written by Dan Gookin and published in 1991), which went on to sell 2½ million copies. "People were fed up that all these geeks and programmers and propeller-heads were running an industry," says the Bronx, N.Y., native. "The book reflected the lifestyle of people on the go—people who are smart that are made to feel dumb."
Since then, Kilcullen, now CEO of IDG Books Worldwide in Foster City, Calif., has published a whole shelf-full of best-selling...for Dummies titles on everything from wine and gourmet cooking to sex, personal finance and opera. The books are such a hit—45 million copies in print, in 37 languages, always with a bright yellow cover—that some celebrities have stepped proudly forward to proclaim their own dummyhood. Kevin Costner wrote the foreword to Golf for Dummies, and a quote from Jimmy Carter praising Bird Watching for Dummies graces that volume's front cover. Dr. Ruth Westheimer agreed to write Sex for Dummies in 1994 because, she says, she admired "the way the books give correct information in short paragraphs. I thought, 'This guy is exactly what I stand for.' "
Kilcullen first cooked up the Dummies concept in 1987 over dinner in New York City with a publishing colleague who had overheard a customer asking a software-store clerk for a book on DOS (the famously confusing but now arcane computer operating system)—"something really low-level, for me—DOS for dummies." But it wasn't until 1990, when he was hired by publishing giant IDG to cofound its book division, that he got to bet his career on it. "I thought it was illustrative, funky, unconventional," says Kilcullen. "And it really reflected the risk I wanted to take."
As well as his sense of humor. The third of eight children born to Irish immigrants Matt Kilcullen, a truck driver, and his homemaker wife, Eileen, Kilcullen often needed a laugh growing up in their cramped, three-bedroom apartment. He remembers his mother putting cardboard inserts into the kids' shoes because the family couldn't afford new ones. "The only time anyone would know you had cardboard was when you kneeled down at the altar in church," Kilcullen recalls. "I was always self-conscious that the people behind me could see the holes in the soles."
That "Darwinian notion of survival," he says, motivated him to put himself through Fordham University in The Bronx by working the graveyard shift as a security guard. Kilcullen later applied that same determination to his career. "There was always something about Johnny that was very driven," says his older sister Eileen Stedman, 43, a pediatric nurse. "He was definitely out to prove."
Kilcullen, divorced two years ago, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco's posh Russian Hill district and takes just enough time off from work to watch his 5-year-old son Sean play soccer on Saturdays. "I want it to be known that I'm a great parent," Kilcullen explains.
He also freely admits he still has a lot to learn—about everything—and supposes that the rest of the world does too. So Kilcullen has just expanded the franchise by launching a series of enhanced music CDs for home computers, including Classical Music for Dummies, which pairs interactive music appreciation with pieces by such renowned composers as Mozart. He is also currently in talks about a Dummies TV show and schools for Dummies (though no details have been settled upon). Perhaps next should be CEOing for Dummies. "I'm still trying to figure out," says Kilcullen, "how to manage this $150 million company."
GABRIELLE SAVERI in Foster City