Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter Houston: What was your career like before you became an independent magazine publisher?
Sophie Cross: I graduated from Newcastle University with a business degree. I always had a fascination with business and wanting to start a little business. I thought that I would walk into a graduate job and didn’t because I was absolutely horrendous at interviews. Nothing’s changed there!
Then I moved home and thought ‘I can be whatever I want to be’ and trained as a personal trainer, with the idea to set up my own little personal training business, but actually I was 22 or 23 and just liked going out too much really. I got bored of handing out towels, which was a lot of what my day was and so I went to HR and asked if they had any business jobs.
I got the job as Marketing Exec at the Hilton Brighton. I worked for hotels and in corporate hospitality and marketing roles for a few years and then decided to take the leap into self-employment to go freelance in marketing. I tried to come up with lots of ideas. I was constantly writing business plans, I still do.
Like a hobby.
Yeah, it’s like a hobby. If you’d actually looked at how many business plans I’ve written or started to write, then you’d probably be in triple figures by now, how many URLs I bought. I was always thinking of little businesses to set up and had a bit of a lightbulb moment when I thought that I could set up a marketing business and that won’t have as many startup costs as setting up a sausage and mash restaurant and I actually know what I’m doing.
I went freelance in 2013. I set up my business called Thoughtfully, worked as a freelance marketer, and then went into copywriting because it turned out that most of what people were asking me to do ended up being copywriting. I really enjoyed it. Compared to marketing, the deliverables are a lot easier to explain to people. You get better briefs and and things like that.
I wasn’t trained as a writer or a copywriter, but it’s actually how I started getting involved in the freelance communities, I think, because I was thinking ‘I’ve ended up being a copywriter, I better find out a bit more about this’. There’s Gareth Hancock, who’s @thatcontentshed on Twitter. He’s a prolific copywriter, and also the nicest, friendliest person ever and started getting me into these copywriting communities, freelance communities.
I was doing it for lastminute.com, and the London Eye and some big brands. I lived in London, went to India for six months to get out of the rat race a little bit, ended up living in Exmouth when we got back from India, intending to be there for three months.Six years later, we decided to move back to London.
So that was last February, and I was raring to go. I was like, I’m going to take the travel and hospitality marketing industry by storm. By March, I’d lost most of my client work and then thought, ‘I’m not really sure what I’m doing with my life’. I really leaned on the freelance communities at this point. I was on social media a lot and Slack groups and things like that.
They were just fantastic people that I met online and decided to set up – I was doing an online course, actually and just thought, ‘maybe I could create an online course, a marketing course and really target it’. I was thinking what markets do I know, either travel and hospitality or freelancers and small businesses.
So I decided to go more down that route, given that, travel and hospitality weren’t spending much money at the time. I just went for it because I felt like there was nothing to lose, really, and that I would be learning something by creating the courses and learning how to use the software I was using. I would be kind of consolidating my thoughts and getting them down.
They were received pretty well and just by creating things and putting yourself out there, you become bigger parts of communities and people, even if they’re not buying the courses, are sharing them or you’ve got things to talk about. Then, off the back of that, I came up with the idea for the magazine.
It’s interesting, the idea that the magazine came out of the community.
Yeah, I felt that it wasn’t intentional, but it was almost textbook actually. Looking back, it seems like of course, you would do it that way, of course, you would already be part of the community that you wanted to serve, because coming up with an idea and then trying to become part of the community doesn’t make as much sense.
Everything starts to click into place, when it’s that way round as well, in terms of being able to come up with ideas,. You know the people that are buying it so much better, you know their behaviour, you know what they want, you know what interests them, you have that direct relationship where you can ask people to be involved, and what they want. I think that’s been great from that perspective, as well.
It’s a classic indie magazine approach. Corporate publishing tends to identify a market and then go in and that’s fine if you’ve got loads of money to throw at something, but if you’re just starting up on your own, you kind of have to start there,
I’m obviously very new to publishing and my experience of it is either as a reader or as someone in-house in a marketing department that’s being sold advertising space to.
I do want to turn everything on its head, so that my intention going forward with advertising, as well is that – my experience, I’m not saying everyone does it like this, is to get those circulation numbers up and to sell advertising based on those circulation numbers, where I would rather sell it based on having a really engaged audience and that everyone pays for the magazine. I believe that that is more appealing for advertisers, than that there’s lots of free copies sitting around in offices and in public spaces.
Tell me about the magazine a little bit. What’s it about? What’s in it? How did you produce it?
It was always going to be print first, there is a digital version. It’s called Freelancer Magazine, it’s a square, about 100-page, glossy, business mag. There’s lifestyle stuff in there as well. We’re sharing stories from other freelancers. Mainly the content is interviews from other freelancers, and how they run their businesses and business advice, marketing advice, but there’s also lifestyle pages, as well.
The idea was that it would be inspirational without being overly aspirational. We’re not trying to go down this digital nomad, working from a coworking space in Bali. While we do have an international audience, we’re fundamentally UK-based. That’s something that I think a lot about is representation in all different ways and trying to represent who your audience is, but also pushing those boundaries a little bit further. Just really trying to connect freelancers, and that’s something that I’m really, really trying to do now.
Issue 2 is community anyway, but what I’m really realising the importance of in that the magazine was born out of a community. But for me, realising that it’s about connecting the people in the community, not me having a connection with those people, which is also lovely, obviously. That power of community comes from that and that they can support each other and grow each other’s knowledge and be inspirational for each other. I got a reputation for being quite positive.
Not a bad reputation to have.
No, I always think ‘oh, God, I hope people don’t think I’m going around with jazz hands and stuff’, which isn’t the case at all. But I really do believe in moving forward, putting positive ideas across, and sharing stories. Not to say that there aren’t difficulties, I’m not trying to put a positive spin on everything. We’re sharing knowledge and supporting and being positive. That’s the angle we’re coming from.
I think one of the things I got from the first issue was that idea that there are thousands of people working in a similar way that you’re working, but you go ‘oh yeah, I get that there are other people doing this, it’s not just me’.
We do, a lot of the time, think that about everything. If you’re struggling to price something, or that you’re feeling like a bit nervous about turning up to a webinar or a networking event or something, you forget that everyone else feels like that and there is power from just reminding yourself that or being reminded of that.
It’s totally about sharing people’s stories and making people feel like that, but also sharing stories from people who are really like you. They’re not necessarily people at the top of their game. I mean, some of these people are but it’s also how you define being at the top of your game.
That doesn’t always necessarily mean working for the best clients or being famous or things like that. It’s also people at the top of the game because they’ve got an amazing work-life balance, or because they’re doing something a bit differently.
I’d imagine your work-life balance went right out the window when you put your first issue out. How was that process?
Yeah, it did. Also because we decided to move house and fully renovate the flat we were moving into at the same time as launching the Kickstarter. For some reason, I created, maybe not work-life balance, but I was being forced to paint in the evenings and weekends, which actually, I started to see, as I was putting podcasts on, I was putting music on, and I was thinking this is my time away from the screen.
But yeah, I was absolutely knackered after it. I suppose there’s so much adrenaline going around the Kickstarter and around Issue One. It’s something that I think a lot about. I’m quite bad at routines and habits, I’m really bad at it. I try and put things in place the whole time, but I’m sort of all over the place. I think, ‘I’m gonna start swimming’. Then, I’ll go swimming one week, and then next week, I’ll do something different.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing as long as you are resting and you are getting away from the screen and things like that. I’m trying to put as much in place as possible to do that. I really believe that that is good for your creativity, it’s good for your productivity, and that people feel it right. They feel the energy.
If you’re creating something and printing a magazine, and especially with the Kickstarter too, people can really feel if you’re enjoying it or not. I think it’s really important to keep enjoying it.
How was the Kickstarter? It’s one of those things that always looks easy when it works.
Yeah, it was just 100 miles an hour. People were like, ‘it’s gonna be crazy’. I wasn’t pulling all nighters or anything like that. I wasn’t working that hard, I was sleeping. To be honest, I didn’t think we weren’t going to make it, I didn’t think we weren’t going to make the target. I suppose from the first day, we launched it with a party. So it really went off with a bang.
The party was livestreamed on Twitch. We had a Zoom, like a VIP Zoom Room. People were obviously talking about on Twitter, and I remember just being in shock. People were saying, ‘oh, my God, look at where it’s at already, this is incredible’. I suppose there was a little bit after that first day or night thinking, ‘maybe everyone that’s going to buy it now has bought it’.
But it just kept going until we reached our target, and then it plateaued a bit. It was just intense in the best way. I remember hitting 10k and being like, ‘oh my god, we’ve just hit 10k, like I should have had a plan for this’, and then just being like, ‘okay, I’m just going to give away 10 mugs’. I suppose the wonderful thing is, when it is just you, you can just be so fast.
So what was your original target?
The original target was 12,750. Not sure why. And we hit 18k with a few offline backers.
So now you’re onto Issue Two. That’s the beauty and the cost of magazine publishing is that you’re never actually finished.
And you’ve really gone with that community issue, with the photo montage of readers and backers, which looks great.
Yeah, we’ve done a sneak preview of the cover.
Is it hard to really draw together that community? Because your first issue had a DJ on the cover; I don’t think of DJs being freelance, but of course they are. So is it difficult to bring together that community?
No, I’m really happy that it ended up that community was our second theme. I set out four themes for the first four issues. We sold the first four issues via the Kickstarter so we were committed to the first four issues. I just thought that these are going to be the first four themes.
Creativity was a great one to start with because you can go anywhere with it, get lots of really interesting people. Then it came around to community and I’m thinking this is brilliant, because it’s the difficult second album. You think ‘oh have I run out of ideas?’
I also am conscious about – I was part already of lots of freelance communities, certainly on Twitter, on LinkedIn, online, on Slack, and I suppose, of course, you’ve got to start with those people. But I realised that we’re in a bit of an echo chamber of our own freelance communities. Of course, you’ve got to start with them, and they will have connections outside, but it would be great to reach people beyond that.
The whole reason that we are print is because it connects people even if you don’t want to be online, if you don’t want to be on social media, if that’s not your thing, you can read people’s stories, and you can feel connected with people, but then it’s also not as easy to reach those people in the first place.
That will come and, as we have marketing budgets and things like that, we’ll think of ways, but at the moment, it’s really about that organic growth and growing those communities from where we’re starting from. There’s also a balance between talking to and about the freelancers that have the most common roles, like web designers, web developers, journalists, copywriters, graphic designers, marketers, and having that balance of representing other people and bringing them in.
I think, even when we’re talking to a photographer, for instance, I’m thinking this article is going to be more interesting to non-photographers, probably, finding out how a freelance photographer might work and how they would get new clients or maybe they work for an agent. It might be things that you haven’t thought of, but actually might work for you, outside your own industry.
So if I asked you for advice for anyone who’s thinking of launching a magazine, what would your advice be?
I think it would be to be part of the community that you want to serve before you launch really. We’ve spoken about that a bit. I am a huge advocate for Kickstarter, or for crowdfunding, and having never have run a Kickstarter before, I was just learning as I went, and I was really impressed with the functionality of Kickstarter. Also how it worked to bring the community in, but I think even with the funding that we got, even with people buying the magazine up front, I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to not have that money in the bank.
Obviously, lots of people who start a magazine don’t. Even still, because of the way you can’t just print the amount of copies that people have bought, right, you have to over-print, and you have to make these guesses. There’s more startup costs associated with starting a business than just print and design and all of these things. It’s still financially stressful. I just think, if you haven’t validated that product market fit first, do it first before you start making it. That would be my advice.
I’ve got to ask you about getting people up at sunrise. Tell me about that.
I think it started in October, which was a good month to start because sunrise isn’t that early. What we’re realising now is that getting up at seven is a lot easier than getting up at four, which probably sounds a bit obvious.
So what’s it called?
It’s called Sunrise Club. Everyone that was doing it was on Twitter, so the hashtag is #SunriseClubWRT, which is ‘we rise together’. You can check out that hashtag and see people’s pics from from the last ones. I have the idea that it might be cool to get up at sunrise once a month, and that maybe it would be cool if other people and people around the world were doing it too.
There was that feeling of rising together and, certainly at the time, everyone was isolated and feeling a bit down. The weird thing for me was that I was like, ‘yes, and I’m going to get up and I’m going to run to the top of the hill and I’m going to see sunrise’ and actually everyone else chilled me out a little bit. Getting up at sunrise and reading a book or having a cup of tea and I was like, ‘oh, maybe you don’t have to run to the top of the hill every time’. It’s really relaxed.
You don’t have to do it every month. I send an email out on the Sunday before just to remind people that it’s that Monday. So the next one will be in August.
That’s the first Monday of every month, is that right?
Yeah, the first Monday of every month. It’s brutal to start now.
I might wait until October.
No, no, you should. My next one is my birthday, so that’s cool because I’m going to be in Brighton as well, which would be nice. I’ll make the most of my birthday, won’t I, I’ll probably be in bed at like 7.30.