An Unmade update - preparing for our next leap (and two requests)
We share more data on the ups (and downs) of the first year of the Unmade publishing venture
Welcome to Unmade, kicked off on Tuesday afternoon at an overcast Sisters Beach, Tasmania, and finished off on Wednesday on various delayed Qantas flights during a quick (ha ha) journey to Sydney.
Nearly a month into the new financial year, we’re due (and indeed overdue) an update on how the Unmade experiment is going. This is that.
Just this once, and entirely for reasons of self interest, we’re sharing the update with everyone.
In nine weeks’ time we’ll begin our next phase when we start to offer advertising on Unmade. That means it’s time to hire a head of sales.
The best way of getting the word out on both of those things is right here. I bet you know someone who’d make a great head of sales for us.
But before we get on to that, let’s recap the story so far.
A year ago this week, I left Mumbrella. I’d already been experimenting since August 2020 with the Substack email publishing platform, with a newsletter I called Fifth Day (because we’d moved down to four days a week at the start of the pandemic). That went on ice while I wrote my book Media Unmade, and after leaving Mumbrella, I rebooted the newsletter as Unmade.
That’s what makes the graph of our email database below a two-part story. The first, almost flat, year represents Fifth Day, while the upwards line represents when I started writing new content as Unmade. Our database ticked beyond the 9,000 mark just yesterday.
One of the reasons for doing Unmade was that after years of web-first publishing, I wanted to experiment with a newsletter-first model. I felt this was a point of difference from an already cluttered trade press market, and hopefully played to my strengths, being able to offer more analysis and context as a result of having covered the industry for longer than most.
So the decision to go email-first wasn’t too hard (although I suspect we’ll gradually evolve towards the web as we grow).
I was also fascinated by the paid digital subscription model for specialist titles. Not many people have tried it locally. We’d experimented on the fringes of that with Mumbrella Pro, but I’d been unsuccessful in persuading my former masters to devote marketing resource to it. I don’t mind trying something, failing, and understanding why; I hate it when we execute badly and don’t know whether the issue was strategy or execution.
So last September Unmade launched a paid membership tier.
My impression is that some people and organisations have taken out memberships because they want to support us. They like the idea of having an independent voice in the market able to offer long form analysis. And honestly, that’s not a bad bit of relationship building too. Every time somebody signs up we notice, and it’s human nature to feel warmer about them as a result.
Others signed up as paying members for more tangible reasons. After my former Mumbrella colleague Damian Francis joined in January, we began to offer more paywalled content just for our paying members, including our Tuesdata series. Damian’s in depth Tuesdata analysis of the insurance marketing sector has been shortlisted for the Publish Awards.
We also began to work on other benefits, including our paying members receiving emails from us anything from an hour, to a day, sooner than everyone else. They also get discounts on our future events. Our first was in Sydney; our next one will be in Melbourne.
Pricing for our membership tier was tricky. Lots of people offered us advice. Some tell us that $650 a year was too much, others too little. One person memorably told me: “I’d be embarrassed to waste my boss’s time asking them to sign off something as small as that.”
Anyway, we hit another milestone this week. We moved past $40,000 dollars per year of gross annualised revenue.
As you’ll see, that came from 269 paying subscribers.
The deadline urgency of behavioural economics also plays a part in our pricing strategy. Each of those jumps in paying subscribers you can see on the graph above came when we offered a discount ahead of a deadline.
But at the same time, I reckon it’s bad for Unmade’s brand in the long term to always be discounting. So we’re running them less frequently, and every time the discount is a little smaller than the time before. In the end they may stop altogether.
If my hunch about this business model is correct, the important thing is that if you keep doing what you’re doing, that $40,000 is recurring revenue, and gradually increases in future years.
Still $40,000 is clearly a long way from breakeven.
As I’ve discussed before, I was lucky enough to be accepted as one of (I think) just three Australian journalists to be accepted onto the Substack Pro program, not long after we launched.
Along with first year financial support from Substack (contractually I can’t say how much), that also included further help, including a subscription to Getty Images, plus funding for podcast editing and transcription services.
In exchange, Substack asked us not to take advertising during the first year. That wasn’t a problem. It gave us a time to build the product and find an audience. However, it’s always been part of the plan to eventually take ads - clearly we’re in a market where advertising is not a dirty word. We’re in the fortunate position of being in an industry where organisations want to talk to media agency staff and marketers in particular, and have budgets to do so.
So come October 1 when the Substack deal expires, that will mean a new revenue stream. We’ll be knocking on the doors to trade marketers in the coming weeks.
Damo and I are currently finalising our media kit and rate card. We reckon we’ll be able to offer an engaged audience more senior than most, along with the freshest database in the industry. Our Publish Awards shortlistings (along with Damian’s article, we were also shortlisted for launch of the year, and I got a nod for columnist of the year) couldn’t have come at a better time.
Initially, we’ll keep it simple - a couple of ad slots (not unlike those ones you see at the top and bottom of today’s email), and the right partner for our podcast content. For the first few months, scarcity and exclusivity will be the name of the game.
And if that revenue stream goes as we hope, we’ll be able to gradually make additional journalist hires, and build out our content further.
But that makes things sound like an unbroken upwards trajectory. Like any apparently soaring startup, nothing could be further from the truth. Lots of things have been hard, only some of which I can talk about at this stage.
Parts of the plan have changed. Initially I was planning on splitting my time between Australia and the UK. The body clock-shredding realities of working in another time zone; the additional hassle of international travel at the moment; and changes in my personal situation changed that plan and brought me back to Australia.
Now the challenge is of balancing the Tasmanian lifestyle I love, with being in Sydney and the other major cities often enough to be on the pulse. Today, I’m in town for Southern Cross Austereo’s Listnr event. Next week I’ll be back again for Advertising Week.
Even domestically, that involves a lot of time lost to flight cancellations and delays. Yesterday, for instance, I had to shift flights twice because of a delayed first leg.
The bureaucracies of setting up a business are also more distracting (and for me easier to get wrong) than you’d think, and Damian’s been carrying a heavier burden than me in that respect.
Staying motivated and maintaining output is a challenge too. At present, there’s no immediate punishment for publishing less, or reward for publishing more. The launch of our advertising offering will be good discipline. Once you’ve got bookings, you’re committed to delivering every time.
And that of course relies on hiring the right sales person. It was the thing that took us longest to get right in Mumbrella’s first decade. From the man who informed us in his job interview that he was psychic, and a big believer in a high base and low commission structure, to the person who used to start calls with the apologetic words “I’m afraid it’s a call from one of those evil sales people…”, to the person who was so keen to write revenue that it sometimes cost more to deliver than it brought in.
But when you get the right sales person, oh boy. It changes everything. Taking into account commission for hitting targets, I’ll be cheerful if the person we hire earns more than Damo and I. Good sales people build businesses.
So we’re at a crucial moment.
Maybe you can help us find that person. Maybe you are that person.
The ad’s up on LinkedIn, and Damian - firstname.lastname@example.org - is leading the recruitment process.
And although we’re a few days away from setting out our stall with the media kit, we’d love it if our first conversations with trade marketers are those who already read Unmade. If we’re going to sell out our initial limited inventory, then it would be nice to be with supporters. Again, Damo is the person to contact.
I make it sound so easy. In truth, I suspect this transition to the next part of the business model will be hard, even if we think we’ve got a good product. It’s a crowded, established market, and our fly wheel is only just beginning to turn. Hiring the right sales person will be so crucial. And if they succeed in such a visible shop window, it will put them on the map.
Over the last couple of years I’ve started making small, early stage investments in startups. Somebody from that world told me this week that one of the things some founders are bad at is “asks” of their supporters.
So I’ll try to learn from that. Here are my two asks. If you know somebody who’s on the way up in sales, please tell them about this job. And if you work with a trade press marketer who should be using us to put your brand in front of the industry, tell them about us. Thank you.
Unmade Index - another day in the red
Yesterday’s slight fall in the Unmade Index of ASX-listed media and marketing stocks comes as individual company prices have bounced around.
Yesterday, outdoor firm Ooh Media was the biggest faller, down 4.44%. HT&E’s price has been seesawing more than most - up 9.9% last Friday, and back down 9.9% on Tuesday.
Overall, the index is still down by about a third on the start of the year.
Time to let you go about your Thursday. I’ll be back with Best of the Week on Saturday, and Damo and I will be podcasting again with Start the Week on Monday.
Have a great day.