How to launch an online magazine – and why you should do it

The following is a speech I gave to students at City University’s MA Journalism course based around the launch of Umbrella.

What is it?
– Umbrella started with a question: “if I told you there was an abandoned Tube station on your road, would you be interested?” And every bloke – and indeed, most of the women – we asked said yes.

– So, Umbrella is an online men’s magazine dedicated to the pleasures of the everyday – AKA geeky things for cool blokes. It’s a mix of style, fashion, travel, photography, current affairs – and loads of really boring things most of us are too ashamed to admit we like.

– Firstly, I’d worked on various titles from ICE, a lads’ mag that I edited, to Arena, the original men’s style mag, which became so stylish it was of interest only to 13 wankers in Shoreditch.

Umbrella is my ideal men’s magazine – with all the inconsistencies/contradictions that entails. I like £500 jackets from Stone Island – I also like maps of underground railways.  

Most of the men’s magazines I read were the same old diet of celebrities/half-arsed “humour” pieces and features like “The Ten best Gangster Movies of All Time” or “Why – insert name of film/gadget/brand of socks – is going to change your life – for ever

– Secondly, it was about improving my – and this is obviously a despicable description – “brand”. I knew that Umbrella wouldn’t be able to pay me at first, so publishing it made me look more employable for a regular salaried job.

One thing you’ll find in this career is that the best people are often not in the best jobs – yet they have something that makes publishers want to pay them wads of cash. Umbrella is the best CV I could have, it proves I can publish, edit and sub-edit a magazine from scratch – which to possible employers means I can make them money or at least make them look good in the eyes of their boss.

How did it start?
– I put together a moodboard about two years ago, which is a scrapbook of things I liked from various mags and papers. Doing this is really useful because it gives you a visual idea of how a publication is going to flow.

– I took it to two publishers, IPC and Bauer Media. What with they current climate – and them having absolutely no imagination – they both expressed interest, but did nothing about it. So I took it to a mate of mine, Matt, who’s a designer – and is even more boring than me – and talked about doing it with him.

– We couldn’t afford to print it, but with a page-turning program called Issuu we were able to put the magazine online for zero cost. The first issue came out in Spring 2010. The print version/apps etc would come later, the most important thing was getting it out there.

How do we put it together for virtually no money?
Ideas cost nothing. Then you use every method you can to get people to write for you, including bribery, extortion and the worst sort of sexual favours.

My day job, which I got partly because of Umbrella, is on a Mazda customer mag, so I give Umbrella contributors paid work on that. But you can do other things – giving young writers and illustrators exposure and putting them on the contributors’ page is really good – or alternatively just buy them crisps. All journos love crisps.

– Other techniques include approaching authors at the big publishing houses. Books come out all the time and people like Penguin and Random House really want publicity for them. You can run excerpts or even attempt to get the author to write something for you, giving you brilliant writing at zero cost.

– But the most important factor in keeping our costs down are the skills me and Matt, the Art Director have. I’ve worked for years as an Editor, Sub-Editor, Features Editor, Web Editor, photographer… you name it, I’ve done it.

And it’s by having these skills that we can put Umbrella out for virtually nothing. Learn everything you can. There are thousands of wannabee journalists out there – the more skills you have the more you stand out.

– In terms of increasing readers, we use Twitter a lot, regularly update the blog and get people to subscribe to a newsletter, the Brolly Brief, which we send out once a week. That means we can inform people who really are interested in what we’re doing when something comes along they might like.

Making money
– Stage one of Umbrella was just about getting it out there. Stage two is about establishing ourselves and starting to bring money in.

– The first way of doing that it through advertising. A mate of mine used to sell ads at Arena, so we approached him and asked him if he wanted to come on board – for a share of the company.

So if you know a loudmouth bullshitting cockney – he can be your ad executive if you decide to do your own thing.

We provide a service for brands that don’t get in the likes of Esquire/GQ, because we understand what they’re trying to do. So, as our readership increases we’re getting people to stump up for advertising space.

– Secondly, you can now buy the mag in paper from a website called Magcloud – so we make about a quid on every one sold. Our readers go to the Magcloud site and order it from there, meaning we don’t have to stump up for five grand to get a load printed.

– We’re also setting up affiliate deals with shops who sell the sort of things we feature in Umbrella. That way we get a percentage when something we’ve put on the mag is sold.

We’re not making lots of cash yet, but we are showing big publishing houses how to come out with a publication from scratch on a tiny budget. The execs at these companies think nothing of throwing several million at a website that no one will ever be interested in, so show them you can make their company money and you could be quids in.

Obviously, they’ll try and screw you and claim every good idea as their own, but if you’ve just sold Student for several million, the acquisition of the Hampstead penthouse may soften the blow.

What now?
– We’re building readership and ad revenue so we’re in the position to go to investors with a finished product, and get them to help us make the magazine a profitable going concern.

Personally, I’m also on the lookout for jobs in editorial development – ie launching new mags/websites – using the skills I’ve garnered putting out Umbrella to use at a large publishing company – as well as carrying on doing Umbrella. There is no job for life in this industry, so juggling two or three occupations is the way it’s going to be for many of you.

– With Umbrella we believed there was an audience for what we were trying to do. We were also hugely passionate about it – you can’t start a magazine or website unless you’re absolutely dedicated to it.

There’s lots of work for little reward, but if you get lucky and the right people see what you’re doing then you could end up getting paid for what you love – and that’s something we all want.


  1. Thank You

    Your blog is very informative

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  2. Anonymous10:11 pm

    Wow! Very nice, am starting up mine.I thought you have to make a ceremony when launching it.


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