8 Things I’ve Learned About Running A Publishing Business
In my work as a publishing consultant, I’m often asked how I got started, what I’ve learnt along the way, and what it takes to succeed as a digital publisher.
I’d love to say I did it perfectly every time. I didn’t. But it’s been two decades since I started out and I’m still surprised by how much passion and enthusiasm I have for the publishing business.
So I hope that in sharing my story (the successes as well as the horrors), you can avoid some of the most common pitfalls and feel inspired to create your own publishing story.
Corporate life was a training ground
My first experience of working in B2B publishing was at Reed Business Information in the UK. Prior to that, I’d been a consumer journalist.
Despite being in a large corporate, I was lucky to work with an inspirational and entrepreneurial publisher who encouraged me to try new things.
Together, we launched Travolution, the UK’s first media brand dedicated to the online travel sector. It taught me how to build a multimedia publishing business – Travolution was a magazine, website, newsletter, conference and awards from the outset – and all about building communities.
But corporate life didn’t suit me.
It seemed like competitors were always doing new things quickly. I wanted to be like them.
I’m an entrepreneur at heart
So after a year, I set up my own publishing company with a friend who owned independent travel magazine TNT, and used my knowledge of B2B and consumer publishing to build our first business.
TNT had two key audiences – the travellers who read the publication and the advertisers who wanted to reach them. We saw an opportunity, bought the industry conference and used it as a springboard to create a networking event and the industry’s only consumer-voted awards program.
We had identified a problem – if you’re the owner of a backpacker hostel in WA, how do you persuade an adventure company to drop their passengers at your door? – and a way of meeting that need by introducing them to the decision maker.
Combined with the awards, the events business grew into a significant B2B arm, and helped us sell TNT back to its original UK owners in 2010.
If we’d relied on declining advertising revenue from the print magazine, this sale would never have been possible.
Since then, I’ve devoted a huge part of my career to building, scaling (and eventually selling), Asia-Pacific’s biggest media marketing brand, Mumbrella. Yet I’ve always loved the energy of start-ups, and that’s where I find myself once again as the co-founder of Cannabiz and Publisha.
So what have I learned along the way?
Eight things I’ve learned about running a publishing business:
1. Change is your greatest opportunity
There’s no denying it’s been a tumultuous year for publishing. Yet in all my time as a publisher, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when our industry hasn’t been changing. And in many ways, I credit the speed of change for driving some of my clients’ greatest achievements.
Take Covid-19. An unmitigated disaster for the world, undoubtedly. But it’s also been a disruptor. And where there’s disruption, there’s opportunity.
I’ve seen publishers pivot to virtual events, launch subscription models, and offer clients new ways to reach audiences. This would never have happened if the pandemic hadn’t forced their hands.
And guess what? Their margins have improved along with their revenue line.
Change is always daunting. But if you’re starting out as a publisher or getting serious about scaling, these shifting sands could present some of your biggest opportunities.
It’s actually a really exciting time to be in business. And that’s one of the reasons why I co-founded Publisha – to help publishers navigate and harness the full potential of this rapid industry transformation.
2. You’ll face some big hurdles…
My first day as editor of Travel Weekly was September 10th, 2001 – the day before the Twin Towers attack. I started the week with a 104-page publication and ended it with a 64-pager. I’d never envisaged starting my first editorship arguing with my publisher about why we couldn’t run a 40-page insert entitled ‘New York – the ideal destination for families’. Yes, we lost a lot of advertising revenue, but I’ll always be glad I put ethics first.
3. But the rewards will blow you away
You’ll never forget the moment when it all comes together. For me, that pivotal moment was the first Mumbrella 360 conference – the event that transformed us from a B2B blog into a serious business that we were eventually able to sell. At the time, it was hard to believe that our tiny team of eight people had managed to pull off a three-day event for more than 1,000 delegates.
It’s pretty spectacular to watch your baby grow into something that generates millions of dollars in revenue every year. I can’t say that working to get there will be a stress free experience, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
4. Celebrate those early wins
During those arduous early days as a publisher you rely on external indicators to confirm you’re doing the right thing. Just hearing someone say ‘I loved that article’ can provide enough fuel to get past the exhaustion and self doubt. That’s why it’s so important to keep reflecting on what you’ve achieved at every milestone. Celebrate when you see positive subscriber and revenue numbers, and remind yourself of your purpose every single day.
5. Be powered by passion
The single hardest thing about launching a publishing business is finding a way to fund it. At some point, every emerging publisher wrestles with how they pay their mortgage and put food in the fridge.
So how do you maintain some semblance of a lifestyle while starting your own business?
Walking away from a regular salary is a big call. That’s why so many media brands start at the kitchen table over long evenings and weekends. Publishing is certainly not the easiest way to make a fast buck, so you have to really believe in what you’re doing in order to stick with it. Otherwise, you might as well work for someone else, take the money and run.
In the early days of Mumbrella, we worked really hard and paid ourselves far less than we had been earning in corporate life. Yes, I could have earned a lot more working for someone else, but I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun. Nor would I have had anything to sell at the end of it.
Life’s too short to waste doing things you don’t like, so let energy, passion and purpose drive everything you do.
6. But don’t forget about the profits
When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it’s tempting to focus all your energy on the headline numbers – traffic, revenue, engagement. But beware of finding yourself in a situation where you’re operating for the benefit of others – your audience, your landlord, your staff – and never actually making a profit.
My lightbulb moment at Mumbrella was realising that until we started budgeting for profit, we weren’t actually going to make one.
It sounds ridiculous but it’s very easy to go so hard driving revenue that you forget to consider how much drops to the bottom line. At one point we were doubling our revenue every year, with more readers and more advertisers, but we weren’t making any money. It wasn’t until a consultant pointed out that our budget projected 80% growth and a flatlined profit that I realised our entire strategy was wrong.
To successfully scale your publishing business, some level of commercial acumen is essential. That person might not necessarily be you, but if it’s not, you’ll need to hire someone to look after the numbers.
7. Success is more than shiny new ideas
Don’t distract yourself with gimmicks or obsess over finding the next ‘big idea’. As Square co-founder Jim McKelvey reveals in his HBR article, good entrepreneurs don’t set out to disrupt. I’ve always been very upfront about what I’m doing, and focused on publishing quality rather than destroying my competitors.
One of the biggest factors in Mumbrella’s success was that we were never super secretive about our business model. There aren’t really any new ideas in publishing. What truly sets you apart as a publisher is how you execute your ideas.
8. My biggest lesson: Create. Succeed. Repeat
I learned this lesson far later than I’d have liked, so take heed! The recipe for success in publishing is simple: find what works, then do it again and again. At Mumbrella, we liked launching new products. It got us excited and we were good at it. So we found ourselves in a cycle of launching something, getting it to break even and then launching something else. All good fun but not so profitable.
The major game changer for us was when a consultant stressed the importance of repeatable processes. Based on his advice, we took our existing travel marketing summit model and created replica events for sport, finance, health, retail etc. At one point we had 10 different summits. That decision became the single biggest catalyst for growth – and crucially, it was profitable growth.
So instead of launching things that require new staff, skills or technology, look at what you’re already doing well – and then repeat it.
It’s that simple.
I hope these insights will in some way benefit your own publishing business. Yet I’m also aware that a blog will never replace some good, old-fashioned, face-to-face advice.
That’s one of the reasons Ben and I founded Publisha: to help digital publishers run their own show without the expense of a full-time agency or consulting fees.
Learn more about Publisha and discover how we can support your publishing business from just $199 per month.