Coining a term intended to define anything truly new is no small task, even for the most skilled of wordsmiths. But that is exactly what Jim McCloskey did 23 years ago, when he came up with a way to describe an emerging industry – an epiphany that, by the way, materialized during a nice, long soak.
By Jim McCloskey
I invented the word “watershape” while sitting in my backyard spa, a pitcher of margaritas within easy reach. It was March 1998, and I had taken to a relaxing spot to think about the future and where I wanted my young publishing company to go.
We had a nice magazine for professional furniture refinishers and restorers at the time — pretty cool stuff, but it was a tougher and tougher business to manage because of air-quality regulations that were changing the formulations and capabilities of a whole run of products, from paint stripper to lacquer. I saw a need to expand right away and had taken to my spa that day thinking of a range of ideas I’d jotted down on the sheet of paper every ambitious publisher keeps in his wallet.
Given the immediacy of the perceived need, I started thinking about the pool industry, which I had been happy to leave behind when I left Pool & Spa News in 1995 but where I still had connections that promised to make a startup more workable. Along those lines, my first thought was for a magazine called C-53, which was obviously too narrow with its reference to a California contractor designation. But it nonetheless started me thinking about how the pool-building business could be improved with large doses of good, focused information.
Trouble was, the potential population of advertisers for a pool-construction-only magazine wasn’t big enough in those days, so I set the idea aside mid-soak and wandered off in other directions. But it nagged at me, and I came back to it after speculating about another subject area that involved taking a horizontal view of its marketplace rather than the usual vertical slices covered by most trade publications.
It was this line of thought that pulled me back to pool construction. What if, I thought, the magazine might include ponds, fountains and other sorts of waterfeatures, pools included? And what if it was about more than just how to build them? I had studied art and architectural history at UCLA and always had an affinity for fountains, so gravitating toward design was an easy leap. And that’s where it all started snowballing, still with a working title of C-53 but now including design, engineering and construction across a bucketload of separate, water-related industries.
In my career, I’ve named about a dozen magazines and books, but this one was a real challenge because the title would have to be vague but all-encompassing at the same time. Water was the common denominator, so I recall considering, however fleetingly, things like Practical Water, Applied Water, Water Work and more, but they were all too limited and limiting. Waterscapes crossed my mind, but it carried too much baggage as a term and was generally applied only to natural systems to boot.
This new publication was to be about shaping artificial water systems of every variety. Eric Herman, who was to serve as the magazine’s founding editor, suggested Hydro Forms early on, but withdrew it immediately because it wasn’t just right. Nonetheless, his idea eventually nudged me toward WaterShapes – and the rest is history.
One more thing: It was my earnest desire to see watershape become as generic a term as Kleenex, so I never copyrighted it or defended it even when businesses using the term weren’t as dignified as I might have liked. Indeed, the calls I received actually asking permission to use the word as part of a business name were rare – I was delighted, for example, when Dave Peterson contacted us early in the magazine’s history to ask if he might name his company Watershape Consulting – but mostly people just glommed onto the word without saying anything to us at all.
I was quite pleased when the Society of Watershape Designers came along: I figured it gave watershape a shot at a legacy and a future it might not have had with me advancing the term alone. And just imagine my joy when Watershape University come along and promised not only to extend and sharpen that legacy – but also expressed interest in acquiring WaterShapes.com from me: It’s given me the conviction that my word watershape is here to stay.
Now, as I step back from a project that has consumed me for more than 20 years and dedicate my energies to playing with my grandchildren, I often think about the wandering thoughts I had during that fateful soak: It was an hour in a hot tub that changed an industry forever — and for good, I’d say.