“Can you help me start a magazine?”

Many times in the past 22 years I’ve received messages like this one:

“I am currently in the process of exploring an opportunity to publish a magazine and hoped you might be able to provide some insight, advice or guidance in taking such a big step….”

The most recent one came earlier this month from a working mom who was looking for a new direction following her recovery from surgery. She is thinking about starting a magazine. She asked if I could “find some time to either chat by phone, or meet with me (and my friend who may join me in this venture) to answer a few questions.”

Messages like these always make me squirm. I hate to squelch someone else’s enthusiasm or dreams but the truth is that it’s hard for me to recommend magazine publishing as an attractive option. Especially when the person who contacts me is looking at it as an opportunity to “provide a positive balance for my health, my kids and my livelihood.”

The mom who wrote to me sees publishing a magazine as “the possibility of being my own boss and doing something with more flexibility.” That is important to her, she wrote, because she’s a single mom.

I like to be a nice person. I like to be a helpful person. But I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that this woman pursue her plan. Not because I wish I hadn’t done it; but because I know I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had any idea how hard it would be.

Here is what I will tell this woman she should consider before deciding to start her magazine:

• You need to be realistic about the financial model of publishing, especially in this economy and this time in history, when technology keeps changing the game plan. If you don’t have a way to pay for at least a year of operating expenses before you get started, you probably shouldn’t get started.

• You need to thoroughly research the competition and figure out how what you want to do fills a need that’s not already being met. There are obvious competitors (i.e. other magazines targeting your audience) but don’t forget the impact of an increasingly  diverse and stratified range of media delivery systems all vying for pieces of the same pie when it comes to advertising dollars.

• You must have a reliable source of household income. It could be many years before you can put yourself on the payroll regularly. I could never have persevered past tough times if I didn’t know my family’s basic needs were going to be met by my husband’s steady income.

• You must have people on your team who can do the things you can’t do. My background is in journalism. Though I have an MBA in marketing, I have never worked in sales and I don’t have good instincts for it. I would have been lost but for the knowledge, experience and professionalism of my founding and current marketing director, MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb. Then, a year ago, I turned over management of the business to Operations Director Debbie Davis. She has a much better head for business than I do and it has been a relief to know she’s got everything under control while I focus on the part I really love: content development.

• You must involve people who believe in your publication and see their role in its mission as “more than a job.” Never did I appreciate that more than in the last two years, when the heavy impact of the recession meant every person on my staff had to do more for less. Only people who know their work has a higher purpose than making money can put up with that without resentment.

• Forget the fantasy of flexibility. The only flexibility you will have as the owner of a magazine (and, I’m guessing, any business) is when you choose to work. I never missed a performance or game when my sons were growing up. I volunteered in the classroom, chaperoned field trips and served spaghetti and meatballs to the team at noon each Friday when my sons played high school football. But I worked a lot of late nights, rarely took a full weekend off and always had my laptop on vacations (even the rare ones on other continents). When there is too much to do and not enough people to do it, you have to carry the slack. And if you’re someone who truly cares about the quality and the integrity of your business, you are constantly working on ways to improve it.

If she listens to all that and still wants to move forward her plan, then I’m guessing she already has some of the personal qualities it takes to last in this business: resilience, tenacity and sheer stubbornness.

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2 responses to ““Can you help me start a magazine?”

  1. Send this to Huffington Post and NYT. It is VERY valuable information. In fact, you could teach a college, no a graduate level, class in “magazine!”

  2. i agree with mary. very wise words!

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