Thinking Small: Ben May and Martin Lane talk start-ups and why they launched Publisha
“I’ve always surrounded myself with smart people…and small publishers are some of the smartest people I know”Ben May – Co-Founder, Publisha
You could be forgiven for wondering why two self-made publishing and tech entrepreneurs are venturing back into start-up land. Yet Ben May and Martin Lane are visibly excited about their new role as co-founders of digital media consultancy, Publisha.
As the unofficial ‘go-to’ guys of Australian media, they’ve lent their ear to many a perturbed publisher over the years.
But for those of you less familiar with Martin and Ben, here’s a snapshot of what’s kept them busy for the last two decades.
Publishing and tech entrepreneurs
Martin Lane recently sold Asia-Pacfic’s most successful media and marketing platform, Mumbrella, which he co-founded with Tim Burrowes. After two decades as a media entrepreneur he’s learnt some valuable lessons about running a publishing business. But slowing down clearly isn’t one of them. He’s currently breaking the traditional B2B model with his new venture, Cannabiz.
Similarly, Ben’s technical agency, The Code Company has carved out a comfortable niche as the leading WordPress development agency for digital publishers. His team were responsible for the mammoth, 300,000-asset content migration of youth publication, Pedestrian, Nine’s new company website and a growing streaming of subscription sites launching around the globe.
A passion for publishing
In all honesty, it’s an unlikely duo.
Martin is the classic ‘people-person’. He’s chatty, inspiring and demonstrates admirable tolerance for my endless (and quite possibly, ridiculous questions). His knack for instilling confidence and bringing out the best in others is evident. And true to his journalistic training, he loves telling a good story.
But there’s nothing sentimental about Ben, who openly scoffs when quizzed about his childhood dreams. Ben’s mind works at 1000mph. He’s super smart, incredibly focused and clearly gets a buzz from learning, sharing and solving publishers’ most perplexing problems.
Yet despite their Yin/Yang style, what both Publisha founders share is an obvious passion for helping publishers. They really care – and it shows.
Here’s what they had to say about the opportunities for publishers during our interview:
What challenges are publishers currently facing?
Ben: As a growing publisher, you’re faced with constant decisions. You can Google your questions but you’ll get a hundred different answers. Which one should you trust? People always want to know how to pick the best technology for their digital publishing site. They’ve heard the hype about a particular tool and want to know if it’s worth it and how best to use it. People also need reassurance that they’re not the only ones facing their particular situation. It’s useful to hear how other organisations have navigated similar challenges.
Martin: I’m mostly asked about strategic choices: “Should I hire a salesperson or an editorial person?”, “When is the best time to launch in a new market?”, ‘“Should I launch another title?” Unsurprisingly, we’re also getting lots of Covid-related questions. Publishers want to know how to run events and sales meetings without any face-to-face interaction. It’s such a big challenge. We recently hosted a virtual event to help media operators reinvent themselves after such immense digital acceleration. Over 100 publishers registered for that event and the comments box was bursting with discussion around the best route forward in the post-pandemic world.
What inspired you to launch Publisha?
Martin: Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of money on consultants that flew in, imparted their wisdom and then disappeared. We wanted to support publishers throughout their entire journey. There’s an awful lot of talented people launching publishing sites but not many are profitable. Publisha’s advisory services enable media owners to access specialist publishing advice on a PAYG basis to navigate their inevitable ups and downs. Joining forces with Ben made sense as we had already collaborated on Mumbrella and knew we worked well together. Combining my business expertise with Ben’s technical knowledge means Publisha addresses all of the major challenges currently facing digital publishers.
Ben: Helping publishers certainly isn’t a new idea. It’s what we’ve been doing at The Code Company for the last 10 years. But not every publisher can afford, or even needs a full time technical agency. They just want someone to point them in the right direction and prevent them from making costly mistakes. So an advisory model that empowers people to run their own show seemed to be an obvious solution. Our newsletter product PublishaPress evolved naturally as we met an increasing number of Creators and Substack writers who were frustrated by the limitations and costs of the SaaS platforms. Creators typically want freedom and PublishaPress means they have complete ownership of their tech stack without us taking a cut of their hard earned revenue. And being WordPress-based, it’s as flexible and future-proofed as you can possibilty get.
What are the most common mistakes you can help publishers avoid?
Ben: Over investing in technology and focusing on the wrong things are the mistakes I see most often. One of the greatest benefits of working with Publisha is that suddenly you know where to focus. We can objectively look at your business, refine your priorities and show you what to do right now to get X, Y, Z results down the track.
Martin: I often talk to publishers who are brimming with great ideas but aren’t sure which ones to action. When you’re immersed in your business it’s hard to make dispassionate decisions and be truly strategic. But you can’t afford to get it wrong, so receiving impartial advice from someone who’s previously stood in your shoes can be transformational. At Mumbrella, the ‘helicopter view’ of a consultant prompted us to change our entire business model. And that decision was the catalyst for serious profitable growth.
In your own career, who has taught you the most?
Martin: Simon Fergeson was my publisher at Travel Weekly in the early 2000’s. He’s a fantastically exciting person to work for, always up for doing new things and brilliant at motivating people. Simon had a knack for spotting when his team were feeling tired or doubting themselves. He’d give us a pep talk and refocus our attention on what we’d achieved rather than all the things we were feeling negative about. Every time I speak to Simon I learn something, and I try to bring these lessons into my own career. That’s why we’re so excited that Simon has joined the Publisha panel. If you have a data-related question he’s definitely your man.
Another great teacher is Tony Faure, the former CEO of Yahoo7! and nineMSN and current chairman of oOh! Media. I worked with Tony in my final few years at Mumbrella and learnt so much about how to run a profitable business. Tony’s advice transformed the way we ran Mumbrella and got us to the point where we were able to sell.
Ben: For me, there isn’t one, standout individual, but I’ve always orbited around smart people. I try to find the voices that I respect and follow them. I subscribe to A Media Operator as it curates information that I would never have otherwise found. It’s a huge time saver. That’s one of our aims for our own newsletter, The Publishers’ Playbook. We want to get media operators thinking differently about their business and tech, and leave them with insights that are pragmatic and actionable.
The industry is changing rapidly. What are the biggest opportunities for digital publishers?
Ben: I talk to a lot of up and coming publishers, and most are really smart. They’re already focusing on differentiation, audience development, monetisation etc. This kind of thinking will pose a real threat to established publishers that are still obsessing over vanity metrics like traffic. Having a small, highly-engaged audience is where the future opportunities in publishing lie.
Martin: Publishing has always been about building community. But you’re no longer relying on a letters page to know what people think. You can access immediate insight and powerful digital tools to help you build a thriving community. The last 10 years has seen massive disruption in the publishing world but instead of pulling communities apart it’s actually made it far easier to engage and interact with audiences.
What would you say to a publisher that is just starting out?
Martin: Be very clear about what you want to achieve. Do you want your words of wisdom to spread far and wide? Or is there a small group of people you’re hoping to influence and lobby? This clarity is vital and will inform every decision you make, from tech choices to the talent you hire.
Ben: Instead of setting out to get ranked in the top five websites, focus on sustainability. Vanity won’t make you money. A strong community and a highly engaged audience will.