Starting up

Every now and then you get involved in an editorial project that in some way is breaking the mold. That’s the goal of a good startup. For a new venture to succeed (and be interesting to the starting team), it has to do something significantly different from what everyone else is doing.

The risks are, shall we say, exhilarating. My first magazine, Print Project Amerika (with Sam Antupit and David Travis) in 1970, had the premise that young baby-boomer students wouldn’t trust media which wasn’t produced by their peers. We were far ahead of the market and couldn’t sell any ads.

Next, LA, a brilliant weekly tabloid (if crudely art directed by today’s standards), was abandoned by its backer and folded after a six-months run, turning Bill Cardoso, David Strick, Terry McDonell and others into the street the week before Christmas 1972. Outside, an ambitious, culturally clairvoyant startup at Rolling Stone in 1976, ran out of cash and had to be sold in the first year. McDonell’s Smart magazine, 1990, was a wonderful unpredictable literary ride that was a hit with everyone—except for advertisers, and his Esquire Gentleman was a great idea in ’93, but was killed when a new editor came in at the parent magazine.

Web start-ups, if anything, are even scarier. John Doerr and Will Hearst’s @Home Network (a 1995 portal—remember portals?) ran up to a $9 billion evaluation and then fizzled. Ditto Michael Wollf’s YPN, 1996.

Not all startups fail, or we wouldn’t do them. A number that I worked on hit home runs.  Alan Webber’s Fast Company, a quirky answer to the “new economy” question, was launched in 1995, right in time for the web, and it’s still an excellent magazine. Norm Perlstein and Steve Swartz’s Smart Money, a traumatic a startup as any despite (or because of) its big joint venture partners, Hearst and Dow Jones, has found a lasting place for savvy readers who don’t quite trust the financial pros, and they’ve been proven right. And Outside, with its second owner, has flourished for 30 years.

I didn’t work on many startups during the double-zero decade, except for the notable Spanish-language daily, Rumbo, which nuncio se incendió. Maybe the problem with that ill-fated decade was that we did not try hard enough to start new publications.

My memories of earlier startups are vivid, and trigger dozens of anecdotes. There was the time the late, great Bill Cardozo ran into the art department of L.A., yelling, “Stop the Press!” We all looked up and he explained, “I’ve lost the hash pipe.”

There haven’t been any hash pipes around for a while, and no exhilarating startups. Until Nomad Editions.

Nomad is a group of digital weekly publications, started by an old friend, Mark Edmiston, and the first client of Treesaver. With Treesaver, they’re available on any device that has a browser. (And an iPhone app has been submitted to Apple.) So far there are three titles, Real Eats, Wave Lines and Wide Screen—each with original content, focused on a vertical topic, guided by an entrepreneurial editor. Two new titles have been announced and there may be a total of eight by mid-year.

Edmiston, publisher of Newsweek when I was art director there in the mid-80, has started a number of magazines, was on hand for the creation of AOL, and built on his experience to become a successful investment banker in the media sector. This was a good vantage point to watch the changes in the publication business, and he’s drawn some conclusions. While he hasn’t said as much, he clearly thinks the old way of doing magazines won’t work any more. Nomad’s strategy breaks with familiar models both in print and on the web, in a number of ways:

  • Nomad is all digital. There’s no print.
  • The titles are filled with stories—narratives. Rather than the hyperlinked array of short takes, this is stuff you can read.
  • Content is original, not aggregated. There are no distracting, “most read/most e-mailed” lists. Just text and pictures, and soon, video.
  • Picture stories, rather than just portraits and still-life pictures,  are a key part of every issue.
  • Unlike most web sites, the Nomad weeklies are pushed as complete issues every week, , without iterative updates.
  • The main revenue comes from subscriptions, not advertising.
  • Editors are partners. Each gets a significant revenue share.
  • Contributors, writers and photographers alike, are compensated (and incentivized) from subscription revenue—30 percent off the top.
  • Rather than a conventional launch promotion, Nomad is relying on social media, the 21st-century word-of-mouth, to find subscribers.
  • The launch budget of each title is zero-based. Constraints put more pressure on the writers and editors to connect quickly with readers.
  • It’s cross-platform, available on desktop, laptop, tablet and smart phone browsers—as well as hybrid iOS apps (hybrid meaning native apps with browser inserts).
  • New technology is being deployed. Treesaver is getting its debut, aided by a new content management system, Petr Van Blokland’s Xierpa.

The sum total of all this innovation is big risk. The fact is if that the old models are broken, we’re going to have to try to models, and there may not be time to test them all incrementally. A conventional mind might think that there are too many mold-breakers to expect them all to work.

Mark believes that real risk in this business is if you don’t break the mold. The old ways aren’t working any more. To replace the media eco-system, you need a new system.

If Nomad works, the idea is vastly scalable. Rather than one big startup like Murdoch’s Daily, Nomad is a lot of little startups. My hunch that at least some of the Nomad titles will find their audience. And at least some of the strategy will work. Without spending a lot of venture capital, and without the presence of the VCs that always come along with the money, Nomad should be nimble enough to tune the strategy in the coming months.

I’ve never learned so quickly as I do at a startup. (And as I write this I’m surrounded by Nomad editors and staffers, since the launch team is working out of the studio.) The risk gets your attention. A mistake rings home quickly.

And success . . . well, time will tell.