Editor’s Letter: What I’ve Learnt in Two Years
So, we’ve officially turned two. I’m listening to Dido, and wondering what I’ve learnt in the last two years of running About Time Magazine. I’ve learnt so much, that sometimes I feel I’ve gone full circle and learnt nothing at all.
Putting pen to paper (proverbially) is a surreal, calming experience – being able to paint the landscape of the last two years into something palatable seems so odd, because the experience has been nothing short of total madness.
We started as a little lifestyle site (with a grand total readership of my mum) and have proudly become one of London’s leading lifestyle magazines – attracting 75,000 beautiful people every month. Essentially, going from a thousand monthly readers, to two and half thousand daily readers in months. And yet, About Time will always be my baby – I find it hard to believe that something I used to do in my jammies, has become a website that has taken us to 25 countries in a year – literally round the world and back, without a moment to breathe.
Sure, there’s been moments of calm (when I’ve forcibly been stripped of all my tech and been given nothing but an adult colouring book to amuse me), but, on the whole, the word that springs to mind is: chaos. Because that’s what digital is – carefully controlled chaos, where we produce stuff for you read, and hope that you like it. Generally speaking, if it involves avocado, you do.
Readership is not something we can force – in digital, you’re not in the driving seat. All we can do is come up with ideas, put words on a page, and pray to God you like it. Careful chaos – it’s my drug of your choice. If you’re thinking of launching your own website, starting a business or, just generally curious for what 2 years of sleep, eat, tweet, repeat, would do a person, then, pray, read on. Here’s a few life lessons I can impart from the last two years, I hope you enjoy:
If you want highs, be willing to take the lows
There have been some exceptional highs in the running of About Time – co-presenting a station on Soho Radio, travelling to paradise in Sardinia, Greece, Alicante, the Maldives, weekends away in Rome, Verona, Sussex, flying Alicia Grimshaw out to interview Gordon Ramsay in Dubai, and seeing my grandmother put away the world’s largest afternoon tea at the Royal Opera House – but these things come at a price.
As my uncle taught me, when you lift your head above the parapet, you have to expect people to throw things. People will always try to take a jab.
We’ve had seriously painful patches; we’ve been sued twice (really not something I was prepared for at the age of 24), had to move offices four times (the first of which at a week’s notice, ouch, but look how pretty the new one is!) and suffered multiple hacking and technical failures. I’ve had events that have sold out, and events that have struggled to get off the ground. Speaking appearances with great applause, and speaking appearances where I was issued a formal complaint letter afterwards. I’ve had weeks that have been so exciting, I’ve barely been able to sleep, and weeks when I was so sure it would all fall in, I’ve tossed and turned all night long. It shames me think that have been times when I’ve truly wanted to turn it all in, and have thought “I need to go get a job now”. But you fight that thought – day in, day out.
As a start-up, cash flow is always going to be a problem, but financial uncertainty is, I have learnt, just something you sign up for when you decide to do your own thing. With that, comes amazing opportunities, experiences and a sense of purpose and direction in chasing a vision, that is better than any drug you could buy.
If you want to run your own business, you accept that you’re choosing a life of highs and lows, rather than a constant sense of routine and the norm, and you get on with it. I guarantee you won’t be watching the clock, but I can’t guarantee you won’t wake up one day and realise that the business is running you – not the other way around.
Size really doesn’t matter
When I first started running About Time, I was really embarrassed by the size of our team. Back then, it was just me and around a 30 freelance writers, and I used to hide behind it all, saying our team was around 30, not wanting to admit I was a one-woman band.
For some reason, the size of your team is often a measure of your success – it’s normally the first thing I’m asked in a meeting (the second being “where are you based” because postcode lottery is also a marker of success).
I’m now actually so proud to say that we’re just a team of two – it makes me happy to think what two people alone can do – you don’t need hundreds of people to make something viable, all you really need is a bit of focus (and a tiny cut-out cookie version of yourself).
If you’re worried about starting something and looking “small”, just remember that some of the most incredible businesses around the world are tiny operations. In fact, small is often better – focused, motivated, quick to work, slick, small teams make things happen faster. I’ve worked with some of the UK’s biggest brands, and you’d be shocked how bad they are at paying and finances, whereas start-ups are easy to work with, slick and organised. Be the small guy.
It’s OK to say no
This may sound odd, but turning down things, I have learnt, is just as important to saying yes. No to alcohol at press events if you don’t feel like it, no to features you don’t think are right for you, no to over-exerting yourself during the week.
In London, we have such a culture of go-go-go, but you have to learn to slow down. I’m thinking specifically of alcohol here – in media, there’s booze at every twist and turn – from press events to dinners and even breakfasts, I can’t get away from the stuff. Saying no to alcohol comes with a specific kind of taboo – people think you’re quietly judging them, it makes them uncomfortable, and you look like you’re no fun. At a 5.2″ lady who’s never managed to tolerate more than two cocktails, I’ve learnt that doing the norm comes with a high price and a hellish hangover. So, instead, say yes – nurse a drink for a few hours or say you’re on antibiotics – that’s my classic. Stick to your guns people, it’s easier that way.
Don’t be embarrassed by lifestyle
There have been times that I’ve been slightly embarrassed by working in “lifestyle”. Dinner parties where I’m surrounded by doctors, lawyers, people with proper jobs, and when they find out I basically go out for dinner and take photos of it for a living, it doesn’t seem particularly worthy. I recently met with someone who said it was “great that About Time doesn’t touch on “serious” issues” and I swear to God, it cut me so deep. The phrase stuck with me for weeks, but why? Because lifestyle is indulgent – it’s hedonist, pleasure-seeking, at times gluttonous – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s place. We all need brunch with pals from time to time, or a really good matcha latte – these everyday indulgences are what make us human, what makes us Londoners – the best people in the world.
And, sure, it’s not – we’re not saving lives here, or making a change to the global economy, but I’ve come to accept that. Because, at the end of it all, doesn’t a nice dinner out with a friend infinitely brighten your week? And when you stumble on a great afternoon tea to take your mum, doesn’t it make her happy? The things we find and report on aren’t helping the world, but they might just improve your mood, and that’s enough for me right now.
Don’t chase the numbers
It can be an exhausting game trying to keep your traffic up, and there have been times, I’ll admit, that we’ve wanted to run things just for the sake of clicks. This is a dangerous game – you’d only have to look at Mail Online for that. I’ve learnt that concepts are just that – concepts. Sometimes our readers want to read about concepts (hello, rainbow bagels), but equally, there needs to be depth and information too. I’ve learnt not to chase the easy story, just because. I’ve got Alicia to thank for that – everyone needs a bit of Northern grit to bring you back to reality from time to time.
Don’t take the numbers personally
This is something I’ve always found really hard. On days when our traffic was a little slower, or we had less interaction on Twitter, I would really personally hurt – unsure what to do next. And then the next days, things would be back to normal. It’s like that in digital – up and down, rise and fall, you can’t steer it as much as you’d like, so you have to let things flow. Now I make some porridge and get on with it.
Learn to work offline
People who work in digital, are addicted to digital. We love emails, blogs, Twitter, Instagram – it’s our particular poision. But working in digital means, quite often, things don’t actually work – websites crash (mainly when we write about salt beef, mind), servers break, things mess up, WiFi goes down. It can be incredibly frustrated when you’re addicted to the fast pace of digital, if your tech can’t move as quickly as you can. All I can say to this is that learning to work offline is one of the best things you can do for your state of mind. Get friendly with Microsoft Word again – it will do you a world of good.
Pick up the phone
Oh, the phone. No-one likes the phone anymore, right? We’ve got this habit, these days, of hiding behind our screens, our fingers moving at a million miles an hour. I’ve really found a new love affair with making a phone call the last year – especially when working on features. The main reason for this is, often, things don’t work out – negative restaurant reviews, products we don’t like, experiences that just don’t work out. Our jobs as journalists, is to try things out, and very often, the result is not what the person organising hoped for. The best thing you can do is pick up the phone and be brutally honest – a good bit of feedback is worth so much more in terms of time and money than an email thread that just eventually goes cold can be. Make the call.
Again, it’s become pretty standard to avoid getting face-to-face with anyone. We shy away from meetings without a direct purpose, and try to avoid as much human contact as possible. In 2016, we made it a mission to meet 50 new people every month – in January alone, we met 30 new PR agencies. Sure, it didn’t all have a purpose, but getting personal is always a good idea. You never know where it could lead.
If the situation is making you uncomfortable, get out
This one is for my ladies. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been in situations with men, which I thought have been for “work”, and then it’s quickly transpired it’s something else entirely. If a situation doesn’t feel right, get the fuck out. Srsly. I’ve had far too many afternoons at The Ivy with strange men thinking it was business than I’ve proud of – trust your gut.
Surround yourself with the best kind of people
My friends are the best kind of people. Positive, life affirming, spirited, ambitious – they are truly inspiration. They say you are a product of the five people you spend the most amount of time with – make it count. When you run your own business, you’ll find your friendships will naturally change – some people you will get closer to, and other people you’ll float them. The latter, often, don’t have your best interests at heart and you have to let them go, it’s one of those things. You’ll find people that make you happy, and people that support you, and they will be the best kind of people. To Claude, Gemma, Nat, Bex, Tom and Alicia, you are amazing.
Keep at it
Even when it’s really shitty and hard, just keep at it. You often don’t know the direction you are headed in, so you simply have no choice but to plough on. And then, when you’re done, switch everything off – phones, laptops, iPad, strip it from your life, for a few hours, so that when you start again you feel fresh. You generally have to accept that if you run your own business, you’ve chosen a different kind of life – one where you work doesn’t stop at 5pm, and you’ll always take your problems home, so you have to learn some coping mechanism. For me, that’s chill time with my boyfriend, watching Gogglebox and doing a bit of yoga – I can accept now, after two years, that I’ll never fully stop, but I can slow down.
I just want to say thank you – for reading, for sharing, for caring. People always say to me it must be so fantastic to run a business where you don’t have a physical product – you don’t have to deal with printed pages, or factories, or stockists – with little overheads beyond our tiny office above the books in Camden, but, in fact, I think the opposite. Having a business, for me, relies on having readers – the second that stops, the whole thing stops. So I cannot thank you how terribly grateful I am for reading the site, it’s been the best experience of my life, and, if it all fails in the end, at least I can say I had the best two years of my life. Truly, thank you.