I am a little bit late on my Intrepid Magazine two year review. That was a deliberate choice. At the turn of the new year, when I should have published it, everything was in flux – it didn’t seem like the right time to tell you all about it. Plus in terms of learning about entrepreneurship, you’ll get much more from hearing the whole story: what happened, why and how I’ve tried to fix it.
At the End of 2019
As we were drawing into November 2019, the state of play with the magazine was very much as it had been some 6 months beforehand. We were still putting out very high quality content, in print and digitally, every two months. Every time I saw a finished magazine I got a warm fuzzy feeling about how good it seemed and how far we’d come. I owe much of that to the incredible design skills of Sarah and Cara’s sub editing.
But, we weren’t really growing. Part of that was my inability to spend time on promotion of any sort. I was too busy putting out fires, dealing with contributors, gear testers, PR agencies, brands, subscribers, fulfilment… everyone. Not that that was a problem necessarily. I’d got some processes in place so it was much better than when we started out. But it still ate my time. Again, not growing isn’t necessarily a bad thing either – as long as where you are is a static equilibrium.
After lessons near the magazine’s foundation, I’d promised myself to always keep an eye on the hard numbers. Because not matter what, no matter how brilliant something was, if the numbers didn’t stack up then it was a problem. Ignoring this meant I had spent the first few months of Intrepid essentially selling £10 magazines that cost £16 to make. That is not a way to continue unless you have a large pot of funds you’re happy to give away.
So, I made a spreadsheet. Issue 11 made its way out into the world and I took the week’s pause for air to churn some numbers before Issue 12 started going. There is no magic to the spreadsheet. I simply listed all the outgoings and costs (printing, contributors, fulfilment etc and fixed overheads like hosting) by month and by magazine. There was some rounding and some estimation, but it was essentially what we were spending.
Then I added the money coming in from subscribers and advertising. To be honest, advertising was so infrequent that I ignored it for the state of where we were financially in November 2019. The spreadsheet told me that, as we were, we were just scraping a break even. We were okay.
But, then I started to play with the spreadsheet. I played around with the number of magazine subscribers. I added in what I really wanted to pay contributors and the ladies who had very kindly been volunteering with the magazine, almost since it started. How many magazines to break even on that? My heart sank: thousands. I tried reducing the printing costs, playing around with every number I could. What if I did this? What if we got advertising regularly? What if…?
Killing your Darlings
As a young writer, I remember being given advice about the need to sometimes “kill your darlings”. I can’t remember who said it, but the story behind it really stuck with me. Because it doesn’t matter how beautiful a section of prose is in your novel. It doesn’t matter if you love that section of dialogue where one character quips about this other character who responds in a way only they can. If it doesn’t add anything to the story, it shouldn’t be there. If you want to make your story good, you have to get rid of it.
Now, aside from whether that’s good writing advice or not, the idea stands: sometimes, you are better off removing a thing you like in order to make everything better. Like if you have an addiction to cake and spend all your time trying to find cakes that are better for your health, when really you should probably just stop eating cake. Or alcohol, or whatever.
So there I was, sitting on this spreadsheet and trying everything I could think of to make it into a healthy cake. Slowly, but surely, the horrible realisation crept up on me: perhaps the best solution was to kill my darling. Because you can make a healthy cake. It’s the sort of thing mothers have been doing for years (at least mine has!). You take the recipe, remove half the sugar, swap the flour out for wholemeal… and before you know it it doesn’t taste like a cake any more. It’s lost the thing you loved about it in the first place.
I didn’t want to see that happen to Intrepid Magazine. I loved what we’d created. I loved the in-depth articles, the glossy print cover, the high quality finish, the fact we had barely any adverts, the fact it was almost 100 pages – like getting a small book in the post every other month. Instead of letting the quality, quantity and everything else we stood for slowly spiral into the dustbin, I’d rather stop it on a high and work out what to do next.
That is so much easier said than done, when it’s your business.
I write for catharsis. That’s partly why I started this blog way back in the beginning. It’s like having a long conversation with someone without the panic of having to form a coherent sentence straight out your face, while someone else is looking at you. So one day in November, I sat down and wrote out four pages of thoughts to stop them running about in my head. Some of it went like this:
“I’ve crunched the numbers and as it stands I can’t see a way to continue the magazine as it is, particularly in print. Right now, it’s working. We’ve ironed out most of the systems. It’s not perfect, but we’ve come a hell of a way. But, we are only just breaking even and there are still come big flaws, for example: I only pay contributors £30 each and I have several volunteers giving up their time ceaselessly. I want to be able to pay them, but even selling 1000s of magazines doesn’t put the model in the black.”
“But wait a minute, how come other print magazines exist? You’re right, I could make it work…” I then go on to list every idea I had that could put the model in the black, like advertising etc etc. Then I list all the things that we’ve got going for us right now: assets. What we have left if everything just stopped. This threw up more things in interesting places than I was expecting.
Then I continue, “I think you can tell where this is going. The only future I can see for Intrepid Magazine is to move all our content online. And I know, I know, my head is also screaming to me that it’s a cop out. Because everyone’s pumping stuff out online and we don’t need any more of that. There’s so much more noise and distraction and its just not the same experience as snuggling down with a nice print book. Because, let’s face it, Intrepid Magazine is basically a short book being release every two months.”
“So, I’m not going to say just move print content online. I’m thinking creatively about the idea of libraries and what we can offer there…” and then something interesting happened. Because I’d finally let go of the idea of continuing as we were and accepted that there might be other solutions, I had unleashed my mind to solve the problem creatively. And so the ideas came, in floods. I went from being traumatised at the loss and the mess to feeling positive and excited about a potential way forward. It was going to be a lot of work to untangle where we were so far, but I took a deep breath and got stuck in.
A Way Forwards
Untangling yourself from a business that works (almost) like clockwork can be one of the hardest things. You’re so busy being in it that you can’t see a way to get out. The closest analogy I can think of is trying to read a book while someone is throwing tennis balls at you. Every time you deflect a tennis ball, you lose concentration on what you were reading and have to start the page all over again.
If you’re in this situation, I’d strongly encourage you to give yourself a “holiday”: for 1 week, pretend you are uncontactable on the other side of the planet. You can deal with the emails and the catastrophes when you’re “back”. Then spend that week working out a plan of action for recovery. This is, essentially, what I did. During this time, I wrote out a list of everything I needed to stop or fix to get from A to B (where we were to where we wanted to be). This list was in no particular order. I just got it out. Then when I had the bulk of this list, I could start putting things in order.
The first people I told were the people who cared and had an interest: the team, the subscribers. You don’t have to make a public announcement and, to be honest, it’s probably best to tell those people after you’ve acted. This reminds me strangely of this post. Then I sent an email out to all the subscribers with a survey, giving them three options: cancel and refund, just cancel and keep supporting. I was prepared to lose everyone. We lost about two thirds and, to my surprise and gratitude, about a third said don’t worry about a refund. Then I manually went through and cancelled or refunded people. Again, easy to write in past tense, harder to do in reality.
A New Future
With that new equilibrium in place, we have a chance to turn Intrepid Magazine into something that still reflects its original aims. Being a premium print magazine was wonderful, I am so glad for what we created. But that is only one solution to what still remains a problem in the adventure world. We are certainly not done yet.