This is a cross-post from Amelia Greenhall’s blog.
I am very hopeful that other intersectional feminist tech publications – possibly many others – will start in the coming year. This blog post is my way of supporting these nascent publications: an offering of everything I’ve learned about starting and running publishing companies.
After I wrote a blog post (What it was like to co-found Model View Culture with Shanley Kane) that disclosed that my business partner had been emotionally and verbally abusive, a number of people who had written for Model View Culture wrote nuanced, thoughtful pieces about it. (Links at the end.) In particular, Amelia Abreu wrote “Now start yr own band: on relationships, trauma, and tech feminism”. The last sentence of her essay really resonated with me:
“To borrow an old riot grrrl catchphrase, “Now start yr own band”. I neither want nor need to be aligned with a movement that is led unilaterally, and I also have no problem supporting those who need to control their own visions. We have the momentum, so now let’s start a bunch of new conversations and some new venues for them.”
At the moment, I have no interest in (or time for) starting another intersectional feminist tech publication, but I do possess a lot of knowledge about what goes into running one. I have pulled it all together here in hopes that it will help people who are considering starting a new publication. Here’s my (California/USA-flavored) advice on publishing, collaborating, budgeting, business incorporating, working with lawyers, being profitable, and anything else I thought was both important and non-obvious. I also asked Valerie Aurora (co-founder of The Ada Initiative and one of the women I co-founded Double Union with) to contribute to this article, including the sections on incorporation, choosing a founder, choosing a board of directors and advisors, making a budget, and raising money.
May this be of use.
— Amelia Greenhall (@ameliagreenhall), San Francisco, January 2015
Thank you to Amelia Abreu and Marlena Compton for the title of this post. And if you do start seriously thinking about it and want to do a phone call, ask questions or simply say hello, please send me an email: email@example.com).
Let’s talk Google docs
It’s one of those subtle things so I want to talk about it first: plain old Google Docs might be one of the key factors to your new publication’s success. I have been in love with making publications since I could write and draw, and have worked on or started about twenty different ones – newsletters, magazines, many many many ‘zines, student newspapers, yearbooks, the college humor paper, a literary journal. But Google Docs is what really made it click for me: collaborative writing was suddenly possible in real time.
By the time Google took the beta label off of Docs in 2009 I had been heavily using Docs to collaborate on writing and editing essays, short fiction, and stories with friends. There was something new and fresh and easy about being able to drop a link to someone in email and have them edit the document – even in real time at the same time as you. This felt revolutionary and eventually inspired me, my husband, and a writing collaborator of ours to start the Open Review Quarterly in 2010, which we have been publishing a few times a year ever since. Here is the process that we developed, (and that I adapted for Model View Culture and several collaborative zines):
- Make a Google Docs folder for the organization
- Within that, make an “Issues” folder
- Within the “Issues” folder make a folder for each issue, using a naming convention that has numbers in it so they are ordered correctly (for example: “ORQ13_Schemes” for the 13th issue’s folder)
- In the current issue’s folder, create a document for each author who agrees to write for the issue, using a naming convention that makes sense to you (for example: “ORQ13_First_Last”)
- Share that document with the author so that they can edit it and send them a link.
- Have the author drop their first draft in the document
- Collaboratively edit, using the appropriate Gdocs editing mode (under “View” -> “Mode”): “suggested edits” for wording changes, plain old “edit mode” to fix typos, and liberal use of Gdocs’ comments
- Use email to communicate about bigger picture issues
With some people, you will build up enough trust that you can fully co-write with them: directly adding to and rewriting their work, with only occasional use of comments or suggested edits. Leigh Honeywell, with whom I have done a lot of co-writing and editing, left me a comment when she edited this section. It captures what I love about collaborative editing:
“Gdocs are amazing. I get this feeling when a bunch of friendly folks edit one of my docs that’s like getting fussed over at a beauty salon. Care and attention that’s focused on making you look ahhhhmazing. It’s pretty great.”
Pay your authors
Put the biggest part of your budget towards your authors, because they are the most important part of your publication.
When we started MVC, we budgeted to pay at least $100/piece for features. So some initial math might look like: 10 authors/issue * 1 issue/every 3 weeks = 150 pieces/year => $100 * 150 = $15k in author payments minimum. (More on budgeting and raising that money later.) Personally, I think $500 is a good minimum as a reasonable compensation for a writer’s time on an article-length piece, and had hoped to get to that point with MVC, for a total of $500 * 150 = $75k / year in payments.
You can do your own math for how you imagine your publication – maybe you do an issue every two weeks, only have 3 pieces per issue, take some holiday breaks and therefore only publish 20 issues a year. You decide you want to pay authors $200/piece minimum when you’re getting started. Your math is: 20 issues/year * 3 pieces/issue * $200/piece = $12,000 in author payments your first year.
I was sad when authors were surprised/pleased at the $100 rate – several authors said that they had been paid $25-40 for similar work (they name dropped major publications) and that $100 was pretty standard in journalism-land. :( And then there is Bustle, which launched with job posts offering to pay women $100/day to write 4-6 pieces of content! :(( If you’ve ever thought: “Wow, the quality of MVC is so much higher than other sites!” our payment rates are probably one reason why.
I’d encourage you to use a spreadsheet to test out a bunch of different scenarios for payment vs. number of articles. Figure out where you want to be, and what you can swing with your initial budget. Try on different ideas for size until you find a plan that feels possible.
Let your authors keep copyright
Mainstream journalism is pretty abusive in many ways besides money, and one way that’s easy to push back through your feminist publication is by letting your authors keep copyright to their work. At MVC we settled on a “You keep copyright and can republish it however you like, we just ask that you don’t publish elsewhere it for 6 weeks to give the publication some exclusive time.” For the print quarterly we felt it was reasonable to extend the “exclusive, please don’t reprint” time longer, to 3-6 months, because the print edition was sold as an exclusive to subscribers. Letting your authors keep copyright lets them republish their work in compilations as well as letting them put it up on their own blog/portfolio as documentation of their work. And they might get to make extra money if they are asked to reprint it down the road!
Get contracts with your authors in writing
Cover, in writing, the things you are mutually agreeing on with an author. Good contracts make good business partners – they are clear and explicit, like boundaries. The contract should include:
- the estimated timeline for first draft due date
- the completion date and when it will go to press
- the payment for the work, the copyright
- how it will be published (online, in print, etc)
- how the company will have rights to publish it again in the future in other forms (you might want to publish a “best of” compilation later)
- if you want rights to use their name and photo on a ‘contributors’ section of the site
- how profits will be dealt with, if another publication wants to pay to reprint the piece
- some sort of statement of your mutual intent to work together in good faith and communicate well
Make this into a one or one-and-a-half page pdf that’s formatted to be nice and readable – you will re-use the main version over and over, and then update the contract to suit special cases. Have your lawyer look over it, because this will be the record of your right to have the content on your site and other media. Don’t let (too much) legalese sneak in the contract – keep in mind this is mostly a working document to come to agreement on the terms and timeline.
You should use software to make it easier to send pdfs to people to sign; I like HelloSign because it is well integrated with google docs and email. Get the contract signed and agreed upon within a few days of the author agreeing to write for your publication.
Spreadsheets for keeping track of contributor status
Spreadsheets are also surprisingly important for collaborative publishing. Making a shared spreadsheet (using Google Sheets, naturally) for each issue is the best way I’ve found to keep track of the status of each author’s piece – mostly, you need to have a column for the author’s name and a column for their status. (Status column might contain things like: asked them to write/they submitted a pitch, confirmed via email, have their contributor’s agreement, have first draft, first draft edits returned to them, second edits returned to them, final copyedits, good to go, published.)
I suggest that you check this spreadsheet at the beginning and end of each work day and make sure you have done all the emailing you need to do to move things forwards. Over time, you’ll figure out what else you want to track in this spreadsheet – I usually keep a column called “piece description” and another called “editor” for the person who’s the main point of contact for the author. Having a shared spreadsheet lets you see at a glance who’s doing what and saves a lot of time communicating between editors (beyond just keeping you on track with doing the right thing at the right time).
Make a budget from the start
Making a budget – even if it turns out to be wildly inaccurate – is an important and encouraging thing to do when you are starting out. If you enjoy creating budgets and making spreadsheets, you can skip to the next paragraph. If you are the kind of person who feels nervous about planning for the future or dealing with money, getting started on the budget might be hard but in the end it makes you feel more secure. Sit down with your co-founder(s) or a trusted friend, get a cup of warm tea and some snacks, and start making stuff up. Google Sheets makes it easy to co-edit a budget together and helps you get over the inertia of a blank page. When you’re done, reward yourselves with a celebration of some sort: a glass of your favorite drink, a dessert, you favorite guilty pleasure TV show.
What to put in a budget? Everything you can think of, plus padding of about 30% for things you didn’t think of. Good things to include are:
- Legal fees
- Office rent & security deposits
- Hosting fees
- Software license fees
- Business registration fees
- Printing costs
- Schwag costs (t-shirt printing, stickers, etc.)
- Your salaries
- Payments to authors
- Bookkeeper & accountant
- Insurance (for events, offices)
- Travel (including conference attendance)
- Business meals
- Event expenses
- Office equipment & supplies (printers, paper, etc.)
- Furniture & art
- Repayment of loans
- Event revenue
- Schwag sales
- Consulting fees
- Speaking fees
- Donations in kind (account for these even though they aren’t cash)
A useful way to structure your budget is to split up the budget by months and record expected income and expenses in each month, then calculate the business’s total cash at the end of the month – this is your cash flow on a monthly basis. Keep updating the budget with your actual revenue and expenses (“actuals”) and you’ll have a good sense of when your bank account will be in crisis.
Find a co-founder
You need a co-founder or two. Co-founders keep you going when you are having doubts, bring skills you may not have, help you develop ideas and work out problems, and emotionally support you. I have many amazing and long-lasting co-founder partnerships and know it can be done right for publishing. Of course, I’d advise you not to do as I did with MVC, and co-found with someone you’ve only known for a few weeks – trust your intuition and don’t override it with the excitement that you’ve found someone who’s willing to co-found with you. Your gut feelings are important, and if there are little red flags getting thrown up, take the time to investigate them. Talk to other people you trust about your potential co-founder before you commit.
Things that are commonly good signs in a potential co-founder include:
- Extremely conscientious about small things (that $5 they owe you, giving credit properly, correcting mistakes that are in their favor)
- A strong sense of guilt and desire to not let others down
- Has apologized in public or owned up to their mistakes before
- A track record of collaborating with other people on joint projects
- Reliable – usually they do what they say they will, and if they can’t, they tell you so ASAP
- It’s easy to meet up or talk on the phone – you are a priority for them
- Their first reaction to mistakes is to figure out how to prevent them in the future, rather than assigning blame
- A feeling of ease when you are around them or communicating with them
- If they learn they hurt someone, they immediately validate that person’s feelings and find ways to make it right (whether or not they were in the wrong)
- Similar ideas about what is worth spending money on and what is not
- Similar tolerance for financial risk
- Shared values in many areas
Talent & interest
- Passionate about the subject of your venture for many years
- Good at things you that you are weak in (e.g., finances, coding, people skills)
- Willing to let go of a thing that isn’t working so they can do a new thing that does work
- Able to prioritize your joint venture above things that aren’t as important (e.g., requests for free work from colleagues) but below things that are more important (having a life outside work, spending time with family)
Connected socially (optional if you have these things)
- Introduces you to their friends and colleagues willingly and eagerly
- Often organizes social events (buy tickets to the movie, invite people to dinner, etc.)
- Has a large personal network of people who can help with your company
A lot of the advice in books about romantic relationships will apply to a co-founder relationship. Reading books about making decisions about whether to stay in romantic relationships are especially useful. The following books are very heterocentric and oriented towards middle and upper class white straight women, but can be adapted to co-founder relationships fairly easily: “Why Does He Do That?,” “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay,” and “Is He Mr. Right?” (worst title ever, give it a read anyway).
Incorporation: why and how to do it
You may view becoming a corporation with suspicion or concern. After all, many of the ills of modern life – and in particular, the kinds of oppression a feminist publication would be fighting – are aided and abetted by corporations. However, we live within a system in which individuals have a great disadvantage compared to corporations. Corporations are actually a really neat and clever form of legal organization that protects the individuals forming it, and you should take advantage of their benefits! In particular, corporations give you a layer of protection from liability and debts that you can’t get without incorporation.
What kind of corporation should you become?
The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit? Having recently finished doing the hundreds of hours of work it took us to complete Double Union’s 1023 filing (the epic form that the IRS wants your 501(c)(3) non-profit to fill out to be granted tax-exempt status) I can say with finality: starting for-profits is several orders of magnitudes easier than starting a non-profit. (More on B-corps and similar later.)
Also, if you decide to be a non-profit you’ll run into the problem of having two jobs that Sue Gardner wrote about in “What is really wrong with non profits — and how we can fix it.”
Every nonprofit has two main jobs: you need to do your core work, and you need to make the money to pay for it. In the for-profit sector when you make better products, you make more money — if you make awesome socks, you sell lots of socks. Paying attention to revenue makes sense in part because revenue functions as a signal for the overall effectiveness of the org: if sales drop, that’s a signal your product may be starting to suck, or that something else is wrong.
Nonprofits also prioritize revenue. But for most it doesn’t actually serve as much of an indicator of overall effectiveness. That’s because donors rarely experience the core mission work first-hand — most people who donate to Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, have never lived in a war zone. That means that most, or often all, the actual experiences a donor has with a nonprofit are related to fundraising, which means that over time many nonprofits have learned that the donating process needs –in and of itself– to provide a satisfying experience for the donor. All sorts of energy is therefore dedicated towards making it exactly that: donors get glossy newsletters of thanks, there are gala dinners, they are elaborately consulted on a variety of issues, and so forth.
By contrast, when I buy socks I do not get a gala dinner. In fact it’s the opposite: the more that sockmakers focus relentlessly and obsessively on sock-making awesomeness, the likelier I am to buy their socks in future. This means that inside most of nonprofitland –and unique to nonprofitland– there’s a structural problem of needing to provide positive experiences for donors that is disconnected from the core work of the organization. This has a variety of unintended effects, all of which undermine effectiveness.
Also, beware that women and other people doing diversity work often get advice along the lines of “be a non-profit, you’re doing a cause.” You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist. (I’m sure you weren’t worried but wait until you start talking to well-intentioned people.) Many media companies are for-profit; there is nothing inherently “non-profit-y” about an intersectional feminist one. My biggest worry about a non-profit media company is the problem of controlling what you publish once the subtle pressures of pleasing big donors are rolled into it all. I say “for profit all the way!” But you should do your own research and do what you want to do, and I support you 100% in your decision.
If you’re incorporating as a for-profit, you still have some more choices to make. In most cases, you will want to be a C-corporation. For a publication, this is the most common form of incorporation and the benefits of other forms of incorporation are unlikely to be significant. S-Corporations and LLCs are better suited to consulting or one-person businesses. There are new forms of incorporation that try to walk the line between for-profit and non-profit, such as various forms of benefit corporations now becoming popular in the United States. The main difference between a C-corp and B-corp is that the B-corp’s management has greater freedom to make decisions that further the corporations’ purpose even if it doesn’t maximize the profit for the shareholders. If your company will be owned by feminists anyway, a B-corp will only add complexity and cost for no benefit in many cases.
Find some money
You’re going to need money, if for no other reason than to pay the lawyers to get your incorporation right. Be creative and flexible about how you will fund your business, and recognize that your first plan will probably evolve a great deal. Keep in mind too that many businesses that serve new businesses are very flexible on their payment plans (lawyers in particular). This is a huge topic, so I’ll just touch on the high points.
The big picture on money is: use your money wisely and take it only from people that you are comfortable being accountable to or giving power to.
The best place to get startup money is your and your co-founders’ bank accounts, if that’s possible. Often the first step to starting a business is starting a savings account, long before you know what you will do or who you will do it with. If you and your co-founder(s) are socially connected and have a long track record of being responsible, creative, and talented, you almost certainly have a group of people who would love to help your venture succeed – and benefit from it themselves. If you’re lucky enough to have a good relationship with family members who have savings, you might be surprised how many of them want to get in on the ground floor of your business. You can decide sell these investors (and yourself) equity — there are all sorts of ways to do that – talk to your lawyer. Or you can decide that it is just a small loan that gets paid back first, put $3-10k in your corporate bank account, and then pay yourselves back as soon as you’ve launched and are profitable.
Finding Money II: Thoughts on Crowdfunding
Crowdfunding is a great way both to raise seed money from people who support your mission and to advertise your new venture. Autostraddle’s indiegogo is a great example! However, crowdfunding is easy to do wrong. If there’s one thing you take away from this section, it should be: don’t offer any physical rewards for a gift of less than $50 ($100 or more is even better).
The cost of creating and shipping a physical object is astonishingly high. Even with all the best software and a state-of-the art label printer, you will find yourself fighting with address formatting, software bugs, envelopes with weak glue, a pile of leftover packing materials, running out of stamps, incredibly time-consuming customs forms, automatic data conversion that removes leading zeroes from zip codes, the post office losing an entire bag of mail containing your rewards, delivery drivers who can’t find addresses, backers who moved, people who want you to send them stickers even though they can’t afford to donate, the wrong t-shirt color, the wrong t-shirt sizes, printing errors, vendors who send you the wrong size pendants – the list goes on. And months after you ship the last reward, you still face the worst punishment of all: the enormous ULINE catalog that fills up your entire mailbox and makes the postal worker stop delivering your mail until you go in person to the post office to genuflect and pick up your mail (if they haven’t lost it already). And the catalog can’t be stopped except by calling ULINE on the phone during business hours several times until they really take you off their catalog mailing list.
Other tips for running a good crowdfunding campaign: line up people to blog and campaign for you before the campaign starts, choose the shortest possible duration (30 days at most, 20 days or fewer is good), set your initial goal for about 30% – 60% of what you think you can actually raise, don’t feel guilty about asking people for a higher gift, have stretch goals already defined and ready to go as soon as you hit the current goal, have hilarious and funny prizes for extremely large gifts (like the $50,000 meritocracy rug gift offered for Double Union), have lots of cheery exciting pictures featuring happy people, thank donors with a personal email and ask them why they decided to donate just now, and when donations slow down, spend time brainstorming new people to ask.
One of the hardest things to do as an activist raising money for a social good project is to understand what people are getting out of contributing to your project. Often we think that contributors are going to be watching over our shoulders and measuring our work, or will only contribute if they get something significant and costly in return. What people are really doing when they support your awesome project is getting the good feeling that comes from (1) acting in harmony with their beliefs (reducing cognitive dissonance), (2) knowing they helped make the world a better place. You don’t have to send them a detailed report with bar graphs hockey-sticking upwards or a hand-embroidered tote bag.
And one more thing: crowdfunding works best when you are launching a new venture, or making a big and exciting expansion. It isn’t suitable for long-term funding. If you plan to have a fundraising drive every year, you should be investigating the non-profit model and be aware of the pitfalls of over-focusing on fundraising and donor relationships, as noted in the post of Sue Gardner’s referenced earlier in this article.
When it comes to long-term revenue, be creative! Many of today’s publishing businesses are really a suite of related services and products – everything from books to t-shirts to events to speaking gigs. (Here’s an in-depth post on getting paid to speak from Geek Feminism.) It’s also relatively common for an early-stage startup to be supported by consulting income from one of the co-founders for a period of time (it usually can’t be the long-term plan, though).
Selling subscriptions to some kind of print edition or quarterly up front is one way to get some money in the door to cover your operating expenses and not have to front much money yourself (and for the company to be able pay you back for your “loans” quickly). You can think of subscriptions as an investment you are taking from many people: you owe the buyers books/magazines, which you pay off over time. Since each individual’s amount put in is relatively small ($50-100/year is a typical sales price for a small niche press subscription) the individual buyers don’t end up with undue influence over your business. More on selling and shipping physical objects later.
Ad-based per-pageview revenue?
You’ll have to think carefully about if you want to take on per-pageview ad-based revenue as part of your model. Otherwise you might end up like Bustle! O.o. (My fav quote from an article about their business model: “Another favorite Bustle approach is to take one news peg and publish contradictory opinions on the same event.”) But more seriously, a few downsides of ad-based revenue that I think are relevant to feminist publishing:
- Harder to print long, thoughtful articles because of the timescales involved
- Ad-based revenue seems to lend itself to “spray and pray” and churning out large amounts of smaller content
- Harder to avoid the pressure to use clickbait headlines (Top 10 Ways to… You’ll Never Believe What…) and thus end up w/ clickbait article structures
- You need to split your longer articles up into annoying 300-word chunks and make people click through 2-4 pages (and see more ads!)… but this means (especially on mobile) that people are less likely to actually read the whole article
- Given a limited budget for content, you then can’t pay your authors as much per piece because you need more pieces
This doesn’t mean you can’t have ads, just that you should think carefully about how you price and sell them, and to whom. Again, the big picture on money is that you should think carefully about who you take money from: you should only take money from people you are comfortable being accountable to or giving power to.
Get a Lawyer
A surprising thing I have learned over the past few years: lawyers, accountants and bookkeepers are your friends. You should have one of each to start! You should have them on retainer and pay them to do things for you because they (a) actually know what needs to be done and (b) will actually do these things right. Besides knowing what needs to be done, they battle incredible amounts of bureaucracy for you (much of what needs to be done involves bureaucracy).
Every time I pay my lawyers, bookkeepers, and accountants I do a little happy dance of gratitude. It’s great to get to work with professional people who are competent at what they do. I like seeing how they save me from headaches down the road by doing things like setting the accounting categories up to be prepared for required state forms that need to be filled out in year 2. (I had no idea such forms existed until year 2, when suddenly that random-seeming accounting category made sense!) Professionals will know about the things you would never even imagine exist, and then your company will be ready for them.
When you decide to engage a lawyer to work for your company, you will sign something called an “engagement agreement”. This is a document that lays out the terms of your relationship, and will cover the scope of what they are representing you for, their obligations to you, confidentiality, how the agreement may be ended, and how you pay them. Generally, when you start working with a lawyer you will write them a check for what’s called an “initial retainer” which is money you give them in advance (perhaps on the order of a few thousand dollars for incorporation work). This money goes into an attorney/client trust account and the attorney bills your fees against the retainer as they do work for you. If you leave before the retainer money is used up, they are required to return the unspent part to you. As you keep working together on future projects you will figure out if/how to continue to top off the retainer account with fresh money.
I have a lawyer recommendations if you need one in SF – feel free to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’re looking for an intro.
What to expect when you are incorporating
You are starting a publication, and will need a lawyer to do boring yet incredibly important things for you – to start, you need to incorporate a company. Many companies incorporate in Delaware because the requirements for registering in that state are very low, and then register to do business with the city and state they’re actually in. (This is somewhat confusingly called “registering as a foreign business entity.” In this case, “foreign” = “out of state.”) Your lawyer will help make sure that the many things that need to be done get done, and in the right order, which is no easy task. Things that your lawyer will do for you when you are forming your entity might include:
- Preparing the formation documents
- Incorporating in Delaware, if you go with that
- Drafting your bylaws
- Drafting first meeting minutes (where you elect the board and give yourself permission to do all the things you’re doing, such as getting a bank and giving the CEO the power to make binding decisions for the company)
- Registering the business with your state, the secretary of state, and the city
- Preparing the fictitious business name statement and coordinating publishing it (often as a classified in the local newspaper)
- Filing notice with your state’s department of corporations
- Preparing indemnification agreements
They might also help you with getting a bank account set up or introduce you to other professionals like realtors, accountants, and bookkeepers.
Two bits of advice on choosing lawyers
- Do not do as we did for MVC and go with a $900/hr fancy startup lawyer, which was not worth it considering our needs at the time. From my more in depth research since then, $300-450/hr is the max you should pay for the work of incorporating a company. Several law firms that specialize in starting companies offer it as a package, for rates along the lines of $2-3k total. If you end up growing so much that your company needs a big, fancy law firm your lawyer will be able to help you with the transition.
- Do not try to save money by doing your own incorporation paperwork, as we did for Double Union. GET A LAWYER. Incorporating is tricky business requiring a lot of legalese comprehension and checking boxes. We found out that hard way that even if you think you understand and check the box that describes your company, you may actually be better off checking the box that does not seem to describe what you want, for some reason that lawyers know from experience but that you do not. (We later worked with a great non-profit law firm for the Double Union 1023 form and they fixed many small errors that we had made upon self-incorporation. Thankfully, all was well but it still cost us the lawyer time in the end.)
Get an accountant and a bookkeeper
Often your accountant and bookkeeper are separate businesses who work together remotely, though sometimes you get lucky and find a CPA firm that has bookkeeping capabilities. Ask your lawyer to send emails introducing you to a few that they recommend. Set up initial calls with the people who sound interesting: talk to them and ask questions about how they work, their fee structure, and anything else you want to know. You will be able to get a good sense from a phone call if you will enjoy working with this person – if you don’t get that sense, keep talking to other people. (If you do decide during the initial call that you want to engage this person, sleep on it and call them the next day to confirm.)
Here are questions to keep in mind when interviewing bookkeepers and accountants:
- Do they use the accounting software you want to use (in my case, Xero not Quickbooks)?
- Are they easy to talk to, and is there a feeling of mutual respect?
- Do they seem to take pride and delight in doing their job well?
- Are they good at (and patient with) explaining things until you have all your questions answered?
Also, for reference, my sense of rates in early 2015 San Francisco is: $50-75/hr range for bookkeepers, $250-350/hr range for accountants.
Get a registered agent
Registered agents accept legal documents and process of service (if you get sued) on your behalf and then forward them to you or deal with them. Other benefits of having a registered agent:
- They keep track of all the things you are supposed to file with various governmental agencies.
- Your agent’s address goes on all the government forms and thus in the online corporation search (eg, like this one for Delaware or this one for California). So if you don’t have an office yet, you can keep your home address from being easily searched.
- Each time you move offices or change secretaries, you do not have to update your address with numerous governmental agencies and forms.
Recommended: BizFilings or Vcorp Services. Registered agents cost $100-$150/year. Do not go with a “cheap” one – those are scammy and also lock you into a long contract where the next year’s fee is a lot higher.
Get a bank
You will need one – look for somewhere with low fees for the things you will do often, and a convenient location to you. Also, does their website/app look usable? Do they offer an online bank feed that is compatible with your bookkeeping software? If you can find somewhere you’ll have a personal relationship with your banker, even better. Credit unions also offer business accounts! You will need to have bylaws, an EIN, and a few other formation things done before you can open an account. If you get confused by the list of requirements to open an account that you see listed on the bank’s website, visit the bank in person or call a banker to start the conversation. Don’t be disappointed if it takes a few tries to get all the documentation in order. And double-check that they spelled your business name right!
Get accounting software
This is how your business keeps track of all the things the IRS requires you to keep track of (in addition to being necessary for budgeting). You’ll probably work with your bookkeeper once a month to reconcile the books and with your accountant quarterly to prepare your quarterly tax filing.
Recommended: Xero (orders of magnitude better user experience than Quickbooks)
Get expense reporting & automatic reimbursement set up
An expense reporting app/service is worth paying for, because it will save you a TON of time and frustration with complying with IRS rules which are super complicated. Besides helping keep track of what everyone in your company is spending money on (and how much you are spending against your budgets), you need documentation of all your work expenses you buy with your personal funds in order for them to be reimbursed. We were researching what to use for Double Union and realized that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is an investor in Expensify, so we kept looking and found Abacus. Abacus is out of YCombinator, which has its own set of problems, but it seems easier to use and slightly more modern. Abacus lets you email or directly upload receipts or PDFs, and also has an app where you can take pictures of receipts. Then when another team member approves your request, money transfers into your bank account automatically via ACH.
Get payroll set up
Hopefully you can pay yourselves – even if it is just covering your living expenses – from the time you start making revenue, or begin doing so as soon as you can. Xero does payroll in California and a handful of other states as well. If you end up getting significant investment from others right away, you should definitely be able to pay yourselves something. Payroll is another thing that requires a lot of IRS forms and also registering with the state type things (your lawyer or accountant can help you with this). You can’t just write yourself a check for your salary, it needs to go through a payroll system, like IntuitPayroll, ZenPayroll, or Xero’s payroll so that you pay all the required payroll taxes, social security, unemployment insurance, and all the rest. You can fix up a lot of mistakes you make early on in your business, but you don’t want to screw up your taxes, ever!
You’ll probably want to get an umbrella insurance policy for your company, and definitely worker’s compensation insurance. If you rent an office or physical space yourself (i.e, are not renting desks at a coworking space) you’ll probably need to insure that too, as a term of your lease. If you run events, you should be sure that either the venue’s insurance covers your event, or you should purchase separate general liability insurance for your event (often around $200 per event, or around $1000/year in combination with your office’s policy). You might also consider getting Directors & Officers’ (D&O) insurance to protect your board of directors from liability for actions taken in good faith.
Have a board besides just the co-founders, and a group of advisors
One of the biggest mistakes that I made with MVC was not insisting on having a board of directors and an advisory board right away. If you are two co-founders, you need a group of people to go to when you have major disagreements about the direction of the company or its structure. (You still want this even if you have an odd number of co-founders.) A board has legal responsibilities to act in the best interest of the company and can provide guidance and a more objective perspective when things get too personal for the founders.
Picking the right board members is very important. They are easier to find than a good co-founder because it takes less time to be on a board (you should be aiming for less than 2 hours a week per person, usually much less), but you still want a lot of the same qualities in a board member as in a co-founder. Shared high-level values and philosophies are extremely important because you don’t want to be arguing over the basics of, e.g., whether employees should regularly take vacation or if you should take tons of investment early in the company’s life cycle.
Ideally, you should work with a board member in a lower-stakes relationship for several months before inviting them to your board. Pick people who have experience and skills you don’t have: perhaps an area of law, managing a large organization, or a particular technology. You should also look for people who have a large personal network and are willing to use it appropriately on your behalf. If a board member won’t support your work by spending their personal capital (social or monetary), you should ask them to leave, politely. Also, you should raise your eyebrows if your board members want to be paid.
Advisors don’t have a legal responsibility to the corporation, so your relationship (and match in values) can be a little looser. You still want to be picky, but you can have a lot more variety in philosophy and approach with your advisors.
Get an administrative assistant
Get your publication an administrative assistant from the get go. (This was something I wish we’d done for MVC and I will do for all my future companies.) You can find someone for $20-30/hr and hire them for 5 hours a week. Are you going to sell things and charge sales tax? Then you will have to file with the Board of Equalization. Going to run payroll? Then you’ll need to register with the state. Going to have a DBA (doing business as) name or names? More forms. Governmental agencies have absolutely no incentive to make anything easy for you, thus these are things that will always be tedious and painful. It worth paying someone else to do them, so you can focus your extremely limited time and energy on the core of your business.
Learn email management skills
Your work and personal emails should be separate. Use Google Apps to get email for your publication’s domain (eg: email@example.com). You should spend time learning bigtime email management skills – read up on things like Inbox Zero, Getting Things Done (I recommend another book in that series, “Making it all work,” as well) and how to focus on what’s important and not urgent. And read enough blog posts or get a tutorial from a friend who is a Gmail power user so that you know how to do things like:
- Use canned responses
- Learn keyboard shortcuts (turn them on in Settings > Labs)
- Filter filter filter all your mail so newsletters and updates from apps don’t make it into your main inbox, and instead go into folders that you can look at when you care to
- Turn on “Undo Send” and “Send and Archive button” in Settings > Labs
- Use stars or flags instead of re-marking things as unread
- Set up 2-factor authentication via SMS or the Google Authenticator app
Get a shared password manager like LastPass
Get a password manager like LastPass Enterprise (or OnePassword or other competitors). Create a shared folder where you and your co-founder(s) can store and share all the passwords to group infrastructure things like DNS hosting, your Google Apps admin account, domain management website, and other online services. Every password should be shared with at least two people, and no one should be using a personal account for the business’s use. Use a long (30+ character) memorized passphrase for your password manager’s login and your Google Apps email account login. For the rest, use your password manager to generate long random passwords that are different for each site. Get the password manager’s app for your phone, too.
Do not work out of your home
It’s okay to work from home or coffee shops for a while, but the longer you’re in business the more important it is to have an actual office space where you can take phone calls and work side-by-side with collaborators. Give yourself boundaries between home and work, and a commute between to get in the right mindset. Perhaps renting desks at a local co-working space is the answer. Maybe you know someone who has a company that has a little spare space, and you can pay them a bit to have a table in the corner. If you have the funding, rent yourself a tiny office. (According to a number of people I’ve talked to with experience, commercial leases are always 2+ years but — especially in San Francisco — they are easy enough to sub-let or otherwise get out of with a few months notice and willingness to eat the deposit. So don’t a long lease scare you away if you find a great deal on a place you love.)
Consider doing some sort of print editions
There is a lot of interest in print publications right now. Would one make financial sense for your business? That’s a matter of how many you think you could sell vs. the cost to print. I love 3191milesapart.com and their print edition was part of what inspired me to start MVC with a business model that included a print quarterly. I saw that their quarterly said “edition of 1,000” in it. Hmm, a niche publication might have as many readers as them, I thought. So start by thinking about how many people you and your co-founder know that are interested in your publication. You can talk to other people who publish print works, if you know any. Say you come up with 400. Then there are people you don’t know, and you’ll want to have ones to give away. Could you double it and make your first print run 800? Well, looking at most print brochures, it’s more round numbers, so you could maybe print 1,000? Or bump down to 750 and create a “sold out” demand – you can always reprint if you are more popular than you need. In any case, pick a few numbers that you think you might aim for printing and of those, how many you think you can sell.
Now do the math – you are figuring out if print might be a good idea. Use a spreadsheet and run some numbers – for each print run (eg 750, 1000, 2000, 3000) what is the cost to print. Then, at various prices, what is the # of copies you’d need to sell to break even and make your print costs back. Use that to think through the trade-offs, and pick your price and initial print run.
Recommended: I really like working with Amy of 1984 Printing
Tips on managing the shipping extravaganza, if you sell physical things
Physical things are awesome: people love them and are willing to pay for them. When the first MVC quarterlies came out, there was a twitter meme of people posing their pets pretending to read or hold the books. And anyone who’s made ‘zines knows the power of having something you can hold in your hand, leave on a table, or pass on to someone when you’re done reading.
Physical things are good for publications because you can make an actual exchange of value with your readers that somehow feels ‘right’ all round. There’s a ton to know about shipping and I do not know most of it, but here are some of the things I’ve figured out from doing bulk-mailing of various products over the years. (I also recommend the giant guide to estimating shipping on Nick D’s blog.)
Book mailers, self seal envelopes, tyvek. It’s a pretty astounding catalogue of everything you might need – just looking at it gives me the thrills. So much you could make and ship to people! Be sure to use the search box and poke around to figure out what’s there before you need it. Upon ordering, you will start getting their catalogues too, which is a mailbox filling hazard of the job… keep one and then unsubscribe. Also, when you are choosing book mailers and envelopes, and are faced with the choice to pay extra for the self sealing sticky kind… remember that they are probably worth it due to the time they save you.
People love inked stamps. Stamps are fun to stamp. Get pre-inked ones. You can get them many places – Vistaprint, RubberStamps.net, etc. Almost every stamp-ordering experience is harrowing and sketchy but thankfully you don’t have to order them often.
Professional label printer
I recommend the Brother QL-700 series, which will save you tons of time, though the dated software that is literally named “P-Touch” takes a bit of time to learn up front. Export a CSV of your sales into Google Sheets, use formulas to combine fields to create something that’s cleaned up and ready to go into the printer’s CSV “database” and push print. It will print out hundreds of labels in a very short time in a durable, rain-proof way. It also cut the labels to size for you. Give yourself plenty of time to fight with formatting the addresses and keep a PDF copy of every set of labels you print so you can debug problems when people tell you their thing never arrived.
Recommendation: Brother QL-700
Recommendation: Get the paper for the brother printer from Office Smart Labels and an inner reusable cartridge
Choose a way to unify your site’s images
For MVC the emphasis was on using personal image, often from the authors, where possible. I chose a “golden ratio” landscape crop and decided to do color-processing using photoshop actions to give an overarching unity to the images on the site. You can buy actions on sites like The Color Shop (my favorite) or search for “Actions” on sites like CreativeMarket. For Open Review Quarterly and most zines we have artists create work for the theme, or inspired by a particular piece. Some authors make illustrations for their own piece, telling the story visually as well. Creating a standard size and processing lets you have a variety of content with a unified feeling across your whole publication.
Recommendation: Photoshop is $20/mo if you subscribe through Creative Cloud
Having your writing look good on mobile is the biggest thing to think about; then worry about page load speed. I tend to lean towards writing code to do exactly what I want, but if you don’t know how to code or don’t have a specific artistic vision, look at themes until you find one you like, purchase the theme, and then adapt it to fit your needs. For example, CreativeMarket is a site that has a lot of themes. (There are many other similar sites out there – look around!) If you end up wanting to use WordPress, for example, you can find themes for it. Just poking around there, I like this one and this one a lot. Imagine how beautiful your publication will be!
Pick some useful metrics and add tracking codes to your website
You’ll probably want to add a lot of analytics, so you can see how your publication is doing and what’s working by tracking things like number of visitors, time on the site, how many other articles a visitor reads after the first one, and so on. There are a lot of blog posts discussing blog metrics with varying degrees of helpfulness, like this, this, and this. So start by doing some research to see what metrics and products are relevant today, and from there figure out which ones are relevant to your company and values. Minimally, you’ll want Google Analytics and maybe CrazyEgg as a start.
Create a list of topics and article ideas
In your dream publication, what are you covering? Have a few hour+ long sessions of brainstorming with a notebook and your co-founder(s). What are the ideas, themes, topics that are interesting but not covered well? What do you want to see in the world? Write down article titles, issue themes, and other things that interest you. Aim to end up with several hundred one-line ideas written down.
Create a “Potential Authors” spreadsheet
Make a “Potential Authors” spreadsheet with the header columns that are something like: Name, What do they write about, Twitter handle (if they have one), link to blog or writing, How do you know them (or can you get an intro), what would you love to have them write about for you, status on reaching out to them. Include authors you don’t know yet but would aspirationally like to write for you. Search for articles related to things on your list of topics and article ideas to find people who research or have written about similar things. Continue adding people to this spreadsheet all the time!
Do active outreach for authors
Once you have your potential authors spreadsheet, get in touch with some of them with a concrete proposal – make your email something that can be replied to with a “yes” or “no”. (If it’s not clear enough to have a yes or no response, keep rewriting before you send.) If you can get an intro over email from someone you know, that’s awesome. But DM-ing them to get their email address, or a respectful cold email to a publicly posted address often works. Your “pitch” email should describe what your publication is like and your goals, how much you can pay for a piece, what you like about their current work or have seen of it, and what topics you’d be interested in seeing them write about.
Email your authors early and often!
You are going to be emailing your authors a lot. (That’s ok, you get to get to know lots of awesome people that way!) Email your authors a day before the first draft deadline. Email them the day of in the morning, reminding them that today’s the day. Email them the evening of if they haven’t turned it in. (If they did turn it in, you’ll have already emailed them saying thanks!).
As the “final” deadline nears, use emails to provide feedback on what’s working in the piece in way that is higher level than all the individual edits/comments/suggestions in the google doc. Don’t forget that your authors need you to provide positive ways to bring the piece to its best and lots of encouragement.
Also, depending on the author, they might want to do a video call, phone call, or sms chat to discuss their piece or their idea.
Fake deadlines (ok, really long timelines) for feature length pieces
Especially if you are going to be working with long pieces that go in themed issues, have “fake” deadlines for the first draft. Don’t expect all authors to get their piece in by the first draft deadline. If you do, you will be disappointed every deadline day. If you reach your first deadline and 70% of the authors have sent you something, that is a major success! Get started editing the ones that come in and continue emailing the authors that still owe you drafts.
Themed issues are a good way to get authors to finish writing
“Can’t it go in the next issue?” “No, the next issue is on X and your piece is on Y and is so perfect for the Y issue. Let’s work together to make it happen for Y issue like we planned. The world needs to hear what you’ve got to say! [Insert sentences figuring out what to do together to make it work – a slight extension on the deadline, shortening the scope of the piece, a hearty round of edits and comments on an “unfinished, pre-first-draft-draft”…]”
Thoughts on bringing new writing into the world
Your publication has the opportunity to bring new writing into the world – writing that wouldn’t exist otherwise. You will be able to publish stories from people who don’t normally write for publications, and from people who publish more widely, but wouldn’t have felt safe or able to write this to be published elsewhere. You will publish writing from people who are now able to spend the time writing, since you are paying them. The writer-editor relationship a really special connection to be part of, and editing with care, appreciation, and thankfulness will go a long way towards bringing a piece to its best. You’ll improve at editing over time, but here are some brief thoughts on order of operations:
- Go through once without marking anything (just correct typos like spelling or minor grammar as you go).
- Think about the overall structure of the piece. Some drafts come in nearly good-to-go, but others might benefit from a little re-ordering, such as pulling out an interesting anecdote from the middle and placing it as the intro.
- Leave comments on individual words or sentences (highlight and command-option-M). Note what parts really spoke to you. Ask questions about things that you want to know more about. Suggest parts to cut out for clarity or brevity. Ask for assertions to be expanded on, anecdotes to be added.
- Approach editing with curiosity, love, and a belief in the author’s innate abilities.
Good luck! And if you start thinking of starting a feminist publication (or feminist startup in general) and want to chat, feel free to send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to Alicia Liu for inviting Ameila to give a talk about collaborative publishing at Digital Humanities in July 2014. The notes and slides for that talk formed the base of this post. Also thank you to all of Amelia’s publishing partners, past and present, especially Adam Greenhall and Michael Ahillen, and Valerie’s co-founder, Mary Gardiner. Thank you to Leigh Honeywell and Kate Losse for reading and editing this draft.
Responses to What it was like to co-found Model View Culture with Shanley Kane: Betsy Haibel wrote “An Apology, and Eight other Things”. Annalee Flower Horne wrote “The Trouble with Heroes”. Tim Chevalier wrote “Holding our Heroes Accountable”. Amelia Abreu wrote “Now start yr own band: on relationships, trauma, and tech feminism”.