Cover photo

Personal history - a business lesson on community

Always aim to own your community

iPhone focused photography magazine - iPhotographer

I'm making Mondays a time to share some of my historical business lessons. This one is about building a community the old-school way; a community of photographers, artists, and people who enjoy photography and art.

It's a story, not a business framework 😉

In 2012, I moved to San Francisco to start my dream publishing startup - the first interactive magazines on iPad (iOS platform) for different niche audiences. There are many lessons there, but I now stick to community.

TLDR for those who don't want to read the whole story:

  • 1/ community is about people; back then or now

  • 2/ people follow people; if someone well-known joins you, it multiplies. Try to figure it out.

  • 3/ delays with launch are not a problem; if you are building your community along side the rest of the work

  • 4/ start with things that don't scale (it's a truism but true); start with onboarding individuals, not numbers

  • 5/ always aim to own the community, i.e. in a way that you can take it with you; think emails, podcast listeners, onchain wallets, onchain followers as good examples

Back to my 2012 story of building a publishing house for interactive niche digital magazines on iOS;

How I chose the niches:

Relatively simple, I was going through different niche interest forums online. I was looking for communities that were producing a good amount of content but were not represented in any print (yeah - it was still big back then) media. I found many niches, some very obscure. I chose a few where I could be excited to learn more and connect with people there. And because I loved tech and Apple's iPhone and iPad started to gain steam, a magazine focused on iPhone photography and art felt like a perfect start. We called it iPhotographer.

I knew something about publishing. I had a side hustle publishing project for years. But I didn't know any artists or photographers who were the core of the community who published amazing visuals online.

Where to find people

Therefore the first order of business was to find a person who knows other people and, if possible, make him/her part of the team or even put him/her into the editor's chair. I tried to connect with people online, but it was slow, and I bumped into many weirdos. Didn't have that much time.

San Francisco has always been a wonderfully connected city. Meetups, conferences, hackathons, and coworking events on a daily basis. So I went everywhere and told everyone what I was trying to build. Old school face-to-face. I asked everyone if they knew anyone who would fit my targets.

People always knew someone. Of course, it never happened at the event, but we always followed up afterward via emails, FB (ouch, but it was a thing), and LinkedIn. Then, about a month in, I met him. An artist, a writer, and an ex-musician with a very colorful career was kind of entertaining himself, not knowing what to do next. Let's call him Joe. I liked Joe. Joe liked the idea and we both liked to drink. As it happens, musicians know everyone—especially photographers and artists.

Photographers: Photographers love toys. I would never believe how many pros were toying around with iPhone 4s when on shoots, next to their cameras worth thousands of dollars. There were Professional Street photographers, Playboy photographers, landscape photographers, and, of course, every amateur who loved taking pictures.

iPhone Artists: But ok, photographers were easier to understand than early iPhone artists.

These were people who would toy around with the first painting apps on iPhone, and it would take them anywhere between 8 - 24 hours (think a whole weekend) of work to create an unbelievable piece of digital art with just an iPhone and fingers. Crazy!

The big question arose - how to get these people excited to work with the non-existent magazine?

How to find the initial pack

Well, I figured, we need to onboard a few of Joe's high-level connections first. Then, we'll use the power of their credentials to get everyone else excited about getting their work into the world as part of the special magazine with cool names.

My previous sales experience became handy because every salesperson knows that the best way to sell high-profile (understand, important) clients is to meet them and get to know them. This way it is always a win-win scenario. Even if they don't get excited about your thing right away, you get to know a very interesting person and their life story. And if all goes well, you have a lifetime to get them on board later.

We did a tour of about 30-35 people Joe knew and could ping. Some needed time to say yes, but eventually, we did meet most of them - some for lunch, some for coffee or drinks. We did dinners and breakfasts, or park walks. I even did a squash game and a cycling race (luckily an easy one).

About 15 got excited, and that was more than enough to get about 50 additional exceptional creators, including artists and non-pro photographers, on board to provide work for our first issues. We did the same 1-on-1s (no racing was required) with them as well.

We can start working!

By now, you should be wondering where the community part is. That part just happened. Those aprox. 60 people, including Joe and me, had about 100k followers on different networks.

So we prepared content for them to share to spread the word. I did writing, Joe edited, added some visuals, and we passed that on to our "team" for sharing as we worked our asses off on the first three issues. And as we prepared our email collection funnel.

The work moved slowly; we switched platforms three times (another big lesson there), but we kept going and sharing. Some picture here, some video there. Some quotes here and some hackathon stories there. Picture of angry Joe, or picture of frustrated BFG. People loved it. It wasn't algo driven, and it felt natural.

Our end-game

Our end-game was not a social media following but an email list of people who wanted to get announcements about the launch. People who wanted to get the preview issue for free and some discount when we launch. Big f**k up there - because it was not possible for us to give "selected" people a discount on the Apple magazine's app when we launched. Either everyone gets a discount or nobody. I kinda missed that part.

To make the end sweet, we got over 15k people on the list that I kept in Mailchimp with backup in Excel.

When we finally launched with a 3-month delay, it took about 8 weeks to get to 10k paying subscribers for the magazine. It felt like a late but good rocket start. 🔥🚀

The learnings I want you to take away are:

  1. Community is about people; it was true back then and still is true now

  2. People follow people; if someone well-known in the circles joins you, it multiplies

  3. Delays can become leverage not a problem; if you are building your community alongside the other work

  4. Start with things that don't scale (it's a truism but true); start with onboarding individuals, not numbers. As the saying goes, first deals are the slowest to make but the longest to last.

  5. Always aim for the community you can take with you; emails, podcast listeners, onchain wallets, onchain followers would be good examples

I hope you found something interesting in today's post. If you liked it - bring your friends - they may love it as well! If you feel extra generous, you can MINT this writing and own it forever!

Let's connect on socials - find me as BFG (aka BrightFutureGuy)
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