Vinay’s Note: This is a post I wrote while working for WP Curve (now part of Godaddy). I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Nathan Chan, the founder of Foundr Magazine. Nathan started Foundr as a self-funded venture in March 2013 as a digital magazine, while working a full-time job in IT. His initial intention was to operate this as a side project that would cover the operating costs and then replace his income. It took him about a year to get there. Since then, Foundr has grown by leaps and bounds.
During the course of the interview (read part 2 of the interview here) he reveals to us:
- How he built Foundr from scratch
- How he attracts a worldwide audience of over a million people.
- How he snares interviews with hard-to-reach and well-known entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Tony Robbins and others.
- Takes us behind the scenes to look at how Foundr operates.
Why and how did you come up with the idea for Foundr?
I’d always had an interest in marketing and I’m quite passionate about technology, so I always thought that maybe I could fuse marketing and technology together and do online marketing. I went back to uni, so I did my first degree in IT, and then my second degree, I did in marketing. I was doing that while I was working my full-time job and then just after I finished that, I actually couldn’t get a job, so it’s another reason I started Foundr.
When I started Foundr, I had no idea that I wanted to build a big startup or service millions of people. It was just like a side hustle project and yeah, it was a big jump going from IT to online marketing. I think more of the big jump though is not knowing anything about publishing a magazine and producing content. That’s been a very steep and big learning curve.
We worked it out along the way and made it work purely off the fact that I think I have a pretty good eye on what people are interested in. I know what excites me tends to excite other people. From there, I just followed my gut.
Before I started Foundr, I knew that podcasts were hot. I also identified that there wasn’t really a magazine in the space targeting aspiring novice-stage entrepreneurs, early stage startup founders and also targeting young people. All the business publications out there go with the assumption that you’ve already started a business.
I thought that it would be a brilliant idea to launch a digital magazine since I knew that print was, and still is to this day, a dying trade. I also had a lot of questions that I wanted to answer myself as an aspiring entrepreneur. I thought it would just be a ton of fun and a great side hustle project. I was really interested in marketing too and that’s a big passion piece of mine. So, taking all those things into consideration, we launched Foundr.
What were the early days like for Foundr?
The early days were tough for Foundr. We were sued for trademark infringement by a big company in The States. I can’t say who it is, but that was pretty tough times. Our first 4 months when we just started, the magazine was called something else and yeah, we had to rebrand. That’s why the name Foundr has no E. There isn’t actually a magazine out there called Founder magazine with an E, but I just wanted to make sure that no one would ever be able to sue me again, at least for trademark infringement on the name.
We took out the E and made it cool and tech at the same time, but that was a really hard time.
My biggest takeaway from that was just always err on the side of caution. If you think something’s not right, don’t push the boundaries and don’t think to yourself, “It can never happen to me,” because it can and it will. I’m always a little more cautious around things now, especially when it comes to things that have legal implications.
What was your plan for making it different to everything else that was out there?
I had a lot of questions that I wanted answered because I had never started a business before. I know there’s a lot of stuff out there, there’s a lot of noise, so how do you cut through? How do you stand out? How do you get your messaging, your voice, and your content heard, read, consumed, listened to?
I guess all I did, and always still do, was just find out what our audience is struggling with and still to this day, that audience is me but also right now, we speak to our audience flat out and just service them and answer questions that our aspiring startup founders, novice stage startup founders are going through right now. Because I think there’s a lot more of them than there are experienced founders and that’s, I guess, 1 way that we’ve been able to differentiate ourselves and our content.
I have to be honest, when I first started, I didn’t have the answers to a lot of these questions like:
- How are we going to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace to cut through and stand out?
- How are we going to get interviews with all these hard-to-reach people?
- Are we going to create a podcast?
- Are we going to do content marketing and have a blog?
- Are we going to crush it on Instagram and use that as a massive lead generator and social platform for us?
In the beginning, I didn’t know how I was going to differentiate myself. All I knew is I wanted to create a magazine and that podcasts were hot, and there were a lot of questions that I wanted to answer myself. I really just created something to scratch my own itch.
I really had to figure things out over time. Along the way, I fine tuned and refined what’s working and really doubled down on it.
During the course of my journey, I realized that there’s a lot of power in having a magazine. It’s really powerful for building influence. I realized that using the magazine, I could get in touch with people like Richard Branson or Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin or Tony Robbins.
This has allowed us to cut through and now we get interviews with hard-to-reach people that other people can’t get. That allows us to tell interesting stories and show a different side of things that others aren’t telling.
I also worked out that design is really powerful and we play really, really hard on just creating a really cool, funky and fresh design with anything we put out there. This combination makes our content and work unique and different.
When did you know that the Foundr concept was working and you would be able to grow an audience around it?
Eventually, I realized you know when you’re onto something when you just get more and more emails from people telling you how amazing your work is or how much your content or your work has helped that person. I just started hearing from more and more people in our community and that’s when things started to change.
I think once you get sales for your product or your service, it’s like, “Yeah, we’ve got some sales, we’ve got some product, we’re shipping. We’re producing and people want whatever that is.”
I think there’s a good argument to say that if you can sell a product or a service to 1 person or a handful of people, there’s no reason you can’t find tens of thousands or millions more that are exactly like that handful of people.
Did you have a steep learning curve with publishing a digital magazine? How did you get a grip on it?
It was a steep learning curve because you’re trying to work out how to create your own magazine, but at the same time, we’ve got paying customers that are waiting for that magazine the next month. You pretty much have to just get it out and start hustling.
We launched on March 5th, 2013 and I didn’t know much about publishing a magazine. All I knew about a magazine was you had to have a front cover.
It’s really embarrassing, but if you look at the first issue of the magazine, we had a stock image of someone with a Superman kind of look on the front cover. I actually thought that that would be okay at the time. It was super embarrassing as we didn’t even have a real life person.
I had to work out how to create a magazine, how the magazine would look and how we could make it awesome. In other words, I had to work out how to bring everything together, not just from a design standpoint, but from a content editing standpoint and a curation standpoint. On top of that, I also had to be organized enough to ship it every single month.
We are a monthly publication and we haven’t missed a shipping date in the past 2½ years, so we’re up to issue number 34 or something.
When I started, it was just me and Karan, a graphic designer I found on Elance. He’s been a secret weapon of ours since the beginning. He’s based out of India and runs a design agency called MagFirst.
I was doing the editing, proofing and most of the writing. I did have some friends to help with writing some content. I even got my mom to help me with the proofreading.
Nowadays, I hardly even touch the magazine.
How do you decide on and get interviews with hard-to-reach guests? Can you tell us how you got to interview Richard Branson?
To get an interview with Richard Branson, I did a few things. I identified that if you have a magazine, it’s an amazing authority building tool that allows for people to take you seriously.
I think a magazine has much more weight than a podcast or a blog, unless you’ve built up authority and credibility, like Marc Maron who is something of a podcasting legend and interviews people like President Obama.
I didn’t know that when I first started, but I quickly worked it out. I thought if Richard Branson has been on the front cover of every single business magazine in the world, why can’t he be on the front cover of mine. So I focused on, finding out who I need to get in contact with to interview Richard Branson?
A good little trick is to track it back from the publishers because publishers always want more press for their books.
I found the key contact at Random House. From there, I got in touch with the head of PR and I actually called her. I didn’t do it over email. I called her up on the phone and that’s how I got the interview.
I pitched her to do a Skype interview with Richard Branson and she wrote back to me and said, “Send me an email. I promise I’ll get back to you. It might take me a while but I will.”
So I did. She wrote back and said, “He can’t do a Skype interview but we could do an email interview.” I said, “that’s fine.”
We just ran with it. We’ve since used that interview as a massive selling point for the brand.
How did you manage to get past all the gatekeepers and pitch Richard Branson’s press manager?
The head of PR put me onto someone at Virgin. They put me onto another person who pointed me in the direction of the person I needed to speak to.
They have a media person that handles all his media requests. So I got her phone number and I called her up.
How do you pick people to work with? Since you work with a remote team what tools do you use to keep content production and your team on track?
Foundr uses a hybrid virtual team. The team consists of 2 people in Melbourne on the ground plus myself. 2 VAs in the Philippines, an editor in the States, an audio/video guy in Hungary, graphic designers in India and our web design guy in Brisbane.
We use Trello a lot for our content schedule, which works really well. We use Slack for communications. We use SweetProcess to document our SOPs which is a brilliant way to create standard operating procedures in the business which allows us to scale.
In terms of finding talent, I’ve got a few different ways. You can use Elance or Upwork, but I’ve found a really good way to find writers now is with the Problogger job board. We’re actually advertising for a job on there right now for an editorial/publishing assistant that’s going to help bring the magazine together more than our editor, our writers, and our VAs.
Another thing I’m doing right now is getting people to submit a YouTube video instead of sending me their resume.
I got that idea from Vishen Lakhiani. That’s something that they do at MindValley. They only accept people that do YouTube videos. So far, it looks to be a pretty amazing process. I don’t usually do this, but it’s something that I’m testing. It seems that we are attracting some really good talent right now.
You mentioned you use Trello to keep the internal team organized but for those who are not familiar with how a digital magazine gets put together, could you run us through the process?
In SweetProcess, we have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). It’s an in depth standard operating procedure that breaks down how to create a magazine from scratch. There’s actually 21 tasks under how to create a magazine from scratch.
Each of those tasks has its own little SOP. I identify who we want to feature and conduct the interviews. Then someone in our team will get the images and help schedule those interviews.
Once each interview is done, they get assigned to feature writers. We also have other writers that write content for us. We have a list of potential top pieces we can put in future issues and we just piece them all together and match them up to make it theme nicely.
We also collate the writer’s bio and their images. Then we have to put all that content into a Word document, ready for our editor to copy edit.
Our editor will copy edit that Word document and we’ll go back and forth on changes. We get a few more eyeballs to have a look at it and make more changes.
Once that’s ready, we send it to our designer along with all the images that are needed. We place all of the material in a folder in Google Drive.
Our designer designs the issue with InDesign CS6. It then gets proofed and we go back and forth on drafts. We get a final set of eyeballs to proof it, then we put it into a software that’s called MagCast.
To publish a digital magazine on the App Store or Google Play for mobile and tablet devices, you need to use off-the-shelf publishing software. The software we use is called MagCast. The magazine is essentially a PDF that we put through the MagCast system. It goes from staging to live, then gets published out to the world.
How far ahead do you plan out your content?
We have content calendars on Trello for the magazine and another for the blog and podcast. We have identified that some people like to listen to our podcasts while others prefer to read, so we offer both mediums. So the podcast schedule is linked to that of the magazine. The podcast episode won’t go live until the magazine goes live first.
With the magazine, I’m pitching it at least 6 to 12 months in advance. Right now, we’re working on the Guy Kawasaki issue which will go live the middle of this month. He’ll be on the front cover and we’ve got all the way up to July’s front cover booked.
We’ve got the cofounder of Y Combinator, Jessica Livingston. We’ve got the cofounder of Twitch TV, Justin Kan. We’ve got the cofounder of The Next Web. We’ve just got all these front covers with these amazing guests lined up.
We work backwards, but we’re always pitching ahead of time for the front covers because we want really high quality guests. I’ve found that what works well is if I get really successful entrepreneurs, proven entrepreneurs that are amazingly successful, that are hard to reach, or they don’t really like to do interviews, or they don’t do that many because they’re so busy hustling on their business or their startup.
When we get them on, I don’t even have to do much work because the interview is just so insightful and high quality. This works from an authority building standpoint but also from a content standpoint because these people are so good at what they do.
When it comes to the blog content, we collect a ton of ideas which we then approve to be actioned or not.
At the moment, our weekly content publishing schedule consists of:
- 1 podcast episode
- 1 blog post
- 1 guest post on somebody else’s site.
That’s what we’re working with and as time goes on, we’ll ramp it up even more.