Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Sherri: So Laptop Magazine is an older publication. It’s been in circulation for about 20 years, maybe a little bit older. We primarily cover – as the name suggests – laptops, but we also cover tablets, and anything that you can plug into a laptop or tablet.

We’re expanding our coverage, and we’re also thinking about how you work, so another category that I’m excited to jump into sooner rather than later; standing desks, especially for the work at home audience.

Esther: It’s not just laptops then, it’s flexible devices…

Absolutely. Computer speakers, decks, because audio is one of my big passions, gaming headsets, productivity mice, gaming mice, laptop coolers, monitors, anything that you can use with your laptop we’re going to try to cover.

Ah, so do you do gaming devices as well, Xboxes and things like that?

We actually are going to do consoles this year. I am excited about that because gaming is another one of my passions, and readers want to know well, if these two consoles are coming out, they’re going to be somewhat expensive, does it pay to get an Xbox series x? Or Playstation 5? Or should I just go for a moderately priced gaming laptop?

And I suppose they trust you on that decision don’t they, if you’ve got all this other review stuff.

Well, that’s where we thrive. We want to be, at Laptop, we want to be that techie friend next door. So that person that like, basically the way I think of Laptop is that I’m writing for my mother, and I’m writing for my grandmother.

The less tech support that I have to do when I go home, that’s the success bar for me.

That leads me to another question. So Laptop Magazine, it’s one of Future’s tech titles, but it’s got a lot of affiliation with Tom’s Guide online. What’s Tom’s Guide?

Tom’s Guide is our sister site. They are a consumer electronics site, same as we are, but they have a wider berth to cover a whole gamut of tech products. So where we are doing laptops, tablets, those peripherals, they are also doing baby monitors, and routers, and tracking bands. I’ve covered bidets for them!

They have a wider reach of the things that they can cover; smart home, like anything that isn’t a laptop, even though they kind of sort of cover laptops, you should go there, but for laptops, you should come to Laptop.

Have you reviewed bidets for them?!

I have! What I loved about this job, and I still love, is that there’s something new every day. So whereas Laptop has a more narrow focus, Tom’s Guide gives me the opportunity to write about things that I normally wouldn’t be able to write about, but am extremely interested in.

Smart bidets. I’m interested in smart bidets, like I think everyone needs to have one! So I contacted a bidet company, they were excited for it, and our first review went up and I’m going to be writing a second one hopefully this week.

I did not know until today that a smart bidet was a thing…!

Heated seats, adjustable flow and temperature and water pressure…they’re magnificent!

So what does your career journey look like to get you to the point you’re at, you’re Editor in Chief of Laptop Magazine now?

Oh, it was a long and winding road. I actually went to college, Rutgers University, thinking that I was going to be a pre med major. I even have it on my high school ring, like, I thought I was going to be a doctor. And then the math kicked in. It was like, ‘Oh, well, maybe not!’ And I knew when I was younger that it was either going to be science or it was going to be writing.

So I graduated with an English degree social minor, and I started my journalism career actually at a social media company, Community Connect, which back in the day owned BlackPlanet, MiGente and AsianAvenue. And it did a fair amount of entertainment writing, so I started out as an entertainment reporter. I’ve interviewed Diddy and Mary J. Blige, and Floetry, and Beenie Man, and John Legend and all these like big name celebrities talking to them about their music.

But this was also in the.com bubble, so the bubble [hadn’t] burst. Facebook and MySpace started coming on the scene, and in order to catch up to those sites, they decided they didn’t need an editorial team anymore. So they gave us a healthy severance, and I was out of a job for about a month, and then I ended up at FastCompany.com, Inc.com working not as a journalist but as a community moderation manager, because they wanted to make social media networks – go figure!

But I use that position to wiggle my way into writing for them because Fast Company, like their tenets at the time writing about innovation and design and work life balance, and like it really spoke to me and it let me get a taste of what I would be doing in the future. I got to write about supercars and gaming and things of that nature.

But again, layoffs happened. And I went on the freelance route for a while, wrote for BT.com, Popgadget, Blackweb 2.0, where I really cut my teeth on the tech.

Meanwhile in the background, I’ve been applying to Laptop Mag; I’d applied twice and not gotten the call back, but the third time is the charm, and I got the position. I started as a staff writer, I worked my way up to a senior staff writer, to an editor to assistant managing editor, and just recently got named editor in chief of Laptop Mag.

That’s quite a convoluted journey!

It is! If I If you had told me when I was 20 that I would be doing this, I would have laughed. I would have been happy, but I wouldn’t have believed that I would be doing this, and that it took such a roundabout way to get here.

And you were part of Laptop Mag when Future acquired its parent company Purch back in 2018, I think I’ve got this right. But Future itself, they’ve got a number of really well known consumer tech titles, they’ve got things like Tech Radar, PC Gamer… So how do those two divisions – now that the acquisiton has settled – how do those two sit alongside each other, are you quite competitive or collaborative?

We try to do a little bit of both, but more often than not, we are competitors. They are my sister sites, but I am also selfish and I always want all the stuff and all the wins.

So it’s like, we are friendly with each other in the office of course, and like we go out, we sing karaoke, we go have a good time. But when it’s time to work, we are competitors for lack of a better term.

And then affiliate revenue, I can see you’ve got quite a bit on Laptop Mag, how long has that been around as a revenue stream?

It started really heavily with, it started with Purch, because one thing the Purch leadership was good at is creating diverse forms of income. So one of the first things that occurred when Purch actually acquired Laptop Mag from its its parent company Bedford Communications was to shutter the print magazine, which was sad, it was hurtful. We lost some friends and colleagues, but it also freed the remaining crew up to have more time to write, and do the things that make the bread and butter.

So in addition to affiliate ads, we also do licencing, we also do…like there’s there’s a bunch of diverse streams. So where other publishing houses are struggling to try to figure out what happens when the advertisers aren’t there, we’ve never had that problem.

And Future saw that it aligned very well with what they were doing, and it just made sense for them to acquire us.

A lot of the articles you do, because of the nature of what you write about, it seems to be that a lot of people will be searching for maybe a review for something they’ll then come across your site. So do you have like a core audience that will always read what you write, or a lot of them just kind of what I’d call ‘fly bys’?

It’s a mix, like it’s definitely more fly by. You’re right, search is king, and so we’re always keeping our eye on Google Trends and all these other SEO wizardry gadgets to keep us abreast of what readers are searching for, what they need help with.

On Laptop, the focus is helping you make your best purchasing decisions. So if you’re spending $200, $500, $1000, $3,000 on a laptop, that’s money you spent, and you want to make sure that your investment was worth it.

So we want to make sure that a) you’re buying the correct laptop or tablet for your use case, for your budget. And b) once you’ve purchased it, we want to work with you after that to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your device.

So we have a lot of how to’s, we have a lot of FAQs, and things of that nature. We want to be a resource for, worst case scenario, you get the blue screen of death, what to do? Or you have decided to ditch Mac or Windows and go full Chrome OS, what does that look like?

We want to be there through your lifecycle of your products. And if you decide to keep it a little longer, we have things like special features, like Tech Support Showdown to tell you, okay, well, this vendor has the best tech support this year. This is what they’re doing. This is what you can expect, if you call in with a problem.

And do you have anything like newsletters that you send to the people that tend to stick around?

We do. Our social team handles our newsletters. They also handle of course our social media presence, and they’re a crack team of people that, I couldn’t do what they do.

Because of the nature of what you write about, I can imagine you’ve got quite a few core advertisers that are aligned with what you’re doing: you might have laptop advertisers who are looking to reach that audience. If you get the situation where you get like, you get a laptop advertiser that spends a lot with you, but they’ve produced a really bad product, how do you manage that? Because presumably you want to be as honest as you can in the review.

They produced a bad product! Anything that we review, it’s up to the brand, the vendor to make sure that they sent out the best product possible. That can’t happen all the time.

Sometimes you get a clunker and it’s my job to tell people, well hey, I don’t recommend this, because of this, this and this. Like I will point out the bright spots like hey, it’s got a really good display for the price point. But I’m a journalist first, and Future has done a really good job of making sure that the lines between editorial and sales and marketing are ironclad.

So if a review is bad, I mean, that doesn’t have anything to do with…that part has to do with me and the vendor. But whatever the vendor has going on with the sales team or the marketing team, I have no say, that’s on them.

So you’re not going to get the sales team calling you saying, can you just slip an extra star in!

No, we don’t do that. Future has been very, very good with making sure that the lines between edit and sales are like never, never the two shall meet.

I know you talked a little bit about this at the beginning, but if we’re looking 5/10 years into the future, laptops, I don’t even know if laptops will be a thing, we’ll probably just have a screen that we plug all sorts of things into. What are you doing to take Laptop Magazine and prepare it for that future?

Well, we are looking into the cloud, because everyone’s talking about the cloud. I’m not sure that we’re going to be done with laptops in five years, like yes iPad Pro is saying yes, it can replace a laptop, but it costs a lot of money to replace that laptop.

I mean, desktops are still here, right?

Desktops are still here, and everybody’s been calling for them like, oh, they’re gonna die, but like people still want what they want.

And while I appreciate the portability that Apple is trying to provide with the iPad Pro or Microsoft with this Surface 3, and like these “laptop replacements”, they’re not there yet because you’re still spending the same amount of money if not more to get to that place because you still have to buy all the accessories. So in the case of the iPad Pro, the smartfolio with the trackpad and the magic keyboard, that’s about $300/$350 on top of the actual tablet, and we haven’t even thrown in pencil yet!

So I just don’t think that we’re there yet. I think that tablets are a good second option, I think they’re great in a pinch. But I can’t see myself walking around CES, knowing that I need to access my CMS, edit pictures, potentially edit video, and do all of that from a tablet. I’m just not there yet. Maybe I’m old fashioned. I’m always willing to be proven wrong.

And as technology journalists, you’d be at a lot of events like CES and South by Southwest. What are you doing at the moment, because we’re recording this at, pretty much it feels like start at the coronavirus crisis. How are you guys coping without those events as a way to get hold of those devices and as a bit of a focal point?

Well we’re still getting hold of the devices, it’s just now we’re doing something I like to call the FedEx railroad where all the vendors are aware that our offices are currently closed for dealing with combating the coronavirus. And if we need things, we have a system set up in place where it’ll go to our testers, then our photographers, then the reviewers.

I actually have one laptop here that’s a hot little number, the MacBook Air that needs to be reviewed. I have HP’s Spectre x360 in my book bag that also needs some attention, and there’s a couple of Dell laptops on the way, so business hasn’t stopped. The news hasn’t stopped, the product hasn’t stopped.

I’m sad that most of my travel for this year has been postponed or cancelled because I I love E3, and I am especially fond of Computex, so I mourn for both of those shows. But the show does not stop, my writers have plenty to do.

I suppose from the vendor perspective, you guys are more important than ever now, because you’re potentially the only way that they get the word out about some of these things.

I would agree with that. And people no matter what still have to work, like if you’re lucky enough to work from home, you still need to have those creature comforts to turn your house into that mini office that will help you be productive.

So even again, because we are also doing gaming chairs, we’re looking into doing office chairs, like things to make home, like your workplace away from the office, and to make it in a way that you can be comfortable switching between the two.

Were you set up to do working from beforehand or has this been a bit of a transition over the last week or two?

Future has always had a really generous work from home policy. This is the first time we’ve all had to work from home, but most of us are set up to work from home like, I’m lucky enough to rent a duplex in Brooklyn and have a downstairs and have a mini office.

And I’m actually reviewing a Bowflex Max Trainer for Tom’s Guide because again, I have so many interests and it’s just a good time for all these products because you need to be able to stay fit and stay focused during this self quarantining phase.

And are there any bits of tech specifically that you have implemented as a team, are you just emailing or have yoy got Slack or anything like that?

Well, the edit side of Future uses Slack religiously, that is all we work out of. But we are also pretty close outside of the office. So we also have a Discord chat that we do, we just had a happy hour yesterday where we just video chatted each other while we were drinking our respective alcoholic beverages and talking about the day and joking.

And today, I think we’re talking about doing a session of Jackbox, which is a really cool trivia game that you can put like one person will put on their console, everybody else can dial in from their phones. So we’ve been doing pretty well with keeping the boredom at bay.

I can’t imagine you’d be bored at work!

Some people aren’t lucky enough to have a job like mine. I can honestly say that I’m never bored at work.

There’s always something new. There’s always a new problem. There’s always a new product. I work with fantastic people.

I’m basically getting paid to play with toys. I cannot complain too much.