In October, Life & Thyme will turn five. Five! What once was a creative outlet for a band of creatives feeling unfilled at their day jobs to a real media company with a thriving community, contributors from around the globe, and profit & loss to worry about.
I mention the last part (P&L) because Life & Thyme is bootstrapped, has taken on zero outside investment, and its primary focus is to be a business. Without it being a business, I would not have had the chance to resign from the previous company I co-founded and L&T wouldn’t be here today. This is not to say that it’s all peaches and cream over here at L&T-land. On the contrary, it’s chaotic, it’s not perfect, and we are constantly scrambling. Think of a bustling restaurant. On the front-end, the drinks are flowing, the people are laughing, and the food is coming out—maybe a little late—but it’s forgivable because it’s delicious. In the kitchen, it’s like a bomb went off: the cooks are sweating, the time is ticking, and it’s a game of catch up but never sacrificing quality.
And I love it.
The stress, the long hours, and the scrappiness of it all. But like I said, we’re not perfect and there isn’t a fancy office with a loaded snack bar and bean bags to lounge on (we primarily work remotely). What we do have is freedom. Freedom to tackle any story we want, freedom to work with anyone we want to work with, and freedom to work how we want to work. This freedom can only function if there are smart decisions being made on the business end, in which they are oftentimes refined through time and experience.
Building a boutique media company from the ground up for the past 4+ years means we now know a thing or two about publishing and its business side. We are learning everyday and the element of survival is there. Like all startups, the odds are heavily against you—you will most likely fail than succeed. And when you’re building a media company, add on the wild west nature of it all and the advertising rat race game. Suffice to say, it’s not pretty and not for the faint of heart.
So when i’m asked for advice from bright-eyed creatives wanting to start a “magazine” about a highly niche lifestyle, my response is usually “are you sure?”. If the answer is still yes, then here are just a few things that worked for us:
Don’t start in print. I can’t stress this enough. There is this romantic notion about starting a high quality print magazine that retails $21 on uncoated paper, beautiful photography, minimal design, and long-form stories about obscure concepts and lifestyles. The honeymoon phase usually lasts for about one issue. And then you realize you have a stockpile of books to sell, magazine distributors are stuck in the stone ages, and a ridiculous amount of upfront cash is needed for print production, fulfillment, distribution, e-commerce, building wholesale accounts (and following up), dealing with customs/international shipping, and legal fees that come with having a physical book out in the world. All that to say, if you’re prepared to walk that path, you better have customers lining up to buy your magazine on day one. Otherwise, every day that passes without sales, you are bleeding money. And this problem can quickly become an exponential problem after each issue because this is a volumes game.
Start online and build an audience. Life & Thyme didn’t start in print; we started with a website and we worked hard to build some sort of audience for two years before we went print.
(We first launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue. We raised a little over $20k. Aside from raising funds to bankroll our first issue, this was a good litmus test on whether or not there was interest in our magazine. Our most loyal followers were the primary backers).
Print isn’t dead, but let’s face it, it won’t make a highly lucrative business. If you haven’t noticed, we stopped producing our print magazine after six issues. Print was never our future but a stepping stone. There is something magical about print and a sense of validation. It is the best way to graduate from a “blog” to a “publication”. Almost like a badge of honor. It’s also a way to test the editorial team’s capabilities when it comes to working under deadlines and scrutinizing copy. That said, indie magazines cannot be sustained with print. If anything, it will drive your publication into the grave without diversification to offset the expense.
Diversify. Just like your retirement plan, diversify your revenue streams. This is where most small publications fail and disappear after a year or two. Yes, we’re a magazine, but the locomotive underneath it is an agency model in which Life & Thyme’s ragtag team is hired by brands for creative services (publishing, photography, and video). Sometimes, both the magazine and the agency side of things converge in the form of sponsorships like our recent series with KitchenAid.
Play nice with brands. Many indie publishers want to stick it to the man so they can be true artists and be proud to be independent. You know, the Brooklyn way! But here’s the thing, there is no pride in going hungry because you refused to parlay with brands wanting to be a part of your ecosystem. We embrace it, as long as our partners align with our ethos and philosophy. There is a difference between selling your soul versus fruitful partnerships that are mutually beneficial to you, the client, and your audience. Finding that right balance, coupled with the right creative, is what makes media’s advertising and sponsorship world so turbulent because it is ever so changing.
You’re a business, first. If you’re more of a writer, photographer, or simply a creative more than you are an entrepreneur, stop what you are doing and find a business partner. This is probably the biggest mistake indie publishers make: they are creative but not business-savvy.
Constantly evolve the creative. There is too much information being thrown at us on a daily basis, so media companies are constantly battling to cut through the noise with interesting content. This is where good creative and presentation plays a critical role. We are constantly pushing our creative boundaries and striving for better storytelling, no matter the medium. From our online stories and photography to our short films and our documentary, The Migrant Kitchen, we remain flexible so we can try new ideas—to diversify. Not only does this keeps your audience interested but it keeps your team interested too.
Plant seeds. Often. My job has become to meet people and to build relationships. This leads to partnerships, opportunities, and traction. Your connections are your currency. Value them, respect them, do favors for them, and maybe one day, you’ll have Netflix or Condé Nast knocking on your door because one chat led to another.
(From experience, I’m not sure if you can do the above without physically being in a major metropolitan city like Los Angeles or New York)
Involve and respect your community. Without our audience and without our amazing contributors, Life & Thyme would be a shell of a publication. We strive to lift up our community by making them a part of our narrative, especially on our Instagram feed, where we cultivate the #lifeandthyme hashtag (with more than 450,000 photos). And when we’re not hiring writers and photographers for our own stories, we are often reaching out to our network of contributors to involve them in some of our client-based projects.
Founder of Life & Thyme