Compound Interest

We first showed our publishing software to Choire of the Awl in March of this year. There was a Twitter Bootstrap form that took a URL, made an Embedly call and then a Readability call, and a button to send a bundle of the day's "articles" to our iPad app as an "issue." We were pretty nervous about this meeting; if Choire didn't like our product for the Awl, then we weren't sure anyone would. Choire was polite, gave us some feedback, and had to run out to another meeting. The next day over email I asked him what he really thought. His response was brief but heartening: "ship it, we're in!" At this point I thought to myself, "We've made it, we got one!"

Since then we've focused on the parts that needed to feel effortless. Improving and reworking the app, getting feedback, and revising designs. I am not sure software ever looks effortless, but all too often developers overlook the fundamental problem to be solved in favor of the latest gewgaws. Our fundamental question remains: Can we help writers get paid while delivering readers an experience they love?

V as in Victor dropped a reader into magazine and asked them to figure it out. Using Starwatch, our analytics system, we were able to see how users responded to what happened next. The results were beyond our expectations — the average person read more than one article in each of the included issues in the app — but not a lot of people were subscribing, even those who returned for multiple readings. As Tim wrote earlier:

What bothers me the most about pretty much every other magazine or reader app on the market is that it dumps content into the app. No matter what you read, you're opening a shell that swaps in new content. I wanted the app to disappear and let the user enjoy the content.

From an individual writer like Bill Vourvoulias to a small (or large) publisher like the Awl, our goal is to come up with the best way to get the best content onto mobile devices. There's not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution, although we've already taken what we've learned and improved the apps we have in the store (updates coming soon!) As NFL fans learned earlier this year while watching replacement refs botch even the seemingly obvious calls on the field, it takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless.

Which brings me to the news of the day, the Daily. I've already fielded a handful of calls about the death of the iPad newspaper. Nieman Journalism Lab rounded up some tweets (including my own) today in their piece Some lessons from the demise of The Daily. Joshua Benton offers a counterpoint to the doom and gloom:

Here's the thing: The Daily had over 100,000 paying subscribers. That ain't nothing! With most subscribers paying $39.99 a year (others paid 99 cents a week), minus Apple's cut, that's around $3 million in annual revenue — and that's before you add in advertising revenue. At various points, it was the highest-grossing app in the App Store in 13 different countries.

Suffice to say that one-size-fits-all doesn't necessarily fit all sizes. That revenue number, supposedly only 10% of the Daily's cost, is multiples higher than what 29th Street Publishing would need to be a sustainable, profitable business. In my opinion successful start-ups start small and grow smartly, and that's the model that we're going to follow. When Natalie and I started on this project last April, we spent time talking about the principle of compound interest. Our goal was to build a business that would support iterative product development. If we started simple and improved our work slowly but surely, we felt we would have a great chance of success. So far, I am happy with our path.

Magazine covers

Photo by Tim Moore