As long as there have been jobs, there have been people sitting in pubs complaining about them. The Linux Format team had been meeting in The Salamander in Bath to do just that since long before I joined. It was a safe place that served good ale, and it provided a safe, warm place to moan over a pint. But there’s only so much moaning you can do before you have to quit, which, being men of action, is what we did.
But something carried on. We were all used to making a podcast together, so we continued; or rather, we started a new one, called Linux Lifestyle. Yes, it’s a rubbish name, but the domain was cheap. After one recording, back in the Salamander, we had an epiphany: if we could make a podcast together, we could make a magazine together. Not all ideas from the pub seem so good in the cold light of day, but this one did. Only one thing stood in our way: the lack of money. We needed a plan.
At midday on Monday 11 November 2013, linuxvoice.com went live announcing to the world our intention to create a new magazine using Indiegogo to crowdfund the launch. For us to be successful, we needed to raise at least £90,000 before 23 December. If we didn’t hit that amount, then there’d be no magazine and we’d all have to start looking for new jobs in the new year.
If you’ve picked up Linux Voice in a newsagent, you may not realise that we launched it through crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is a way of raising money for a product or project by getting people who are interested in the project to put money towards it. In return, these funders get ‘perks’ which can be anything from a word of thanks (see our Founders page) to a copy of the product, to anything else. In a sense, this is a bit like pre-selling a product before you produce it, but for legal reasons it’s a bit different because there’s a chance that the product will never get made.
The two most popular websites for crowdfunding are Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) and Indiegogo (www.indiegogo.com). These sites hold thousands of projects looking for supporters. Some, like the Pebble watch, have raised millions of pounds.
This method of raising money has become particularly popular with computer game makers and graphic novel artists who can pitch their ideas directly to their fans rather than having to go through publishers, who in turn have to guess what the audience will and won’t want.
The floodgates open
After what seemed like an eternal wait before we went live, the subscriptions started coming in. One hour after we went live, the total had reached £1,525. Not bad for an hour, but it still barely registered on the progress bar.
There are a lot of ways you can analyse the money coming in. The simplest way is to say that we needed to raise £90,000 in 43 days, therefore we needed to get a little over £2,000 each day. Looking at it this way, we’d almost reached our daily target in just one hour. In fact, if things kept going like that, we’d raise over £1.5M! Of course, that’s an oversimplification. What if we look at it another way? All the Linux Lifestyle podcast listeners would have just received an update in their RSS readers telling them what was going on. Pretty soon, that would get buried under newer items. What if this is now everyone who cares? What if the rest of the world is perfectly happy with the status quo? What if there simply isn’t a demand for a new magazine? What if the rumours are true and the magazine industry really is dead?
For most of the remainder of the campaign, my mental state fluctuated between euphoria and despair as I considered the good and bad possibilities. There was no ‘OK’ outcome, so it was all or nothing. At first though, my goal was much more modest. I simply didn’t want to be humiliated. Failing is one thing, but if we barely raised anything. It would be on the internet for all the world to see. All my friends and family were checking the site. If the progress bar never moved, and stayed firmly in the red, it’d be one very big, very public humiliation.
In truth, I don’t remember much more of that day except bouts of fear and happiness. Looking back, I can see that we sent out press releases and started to get active on social media, but all I member is a quickened pulse and an abject fear of public humiliation. It took quite a lot of alcohol to calm me down enough to sleep that night.
I woke at sunrise the following day. I didn’t even turn the light on, I just reached for my phone and hit refresh (it still had the crowdfunding page loaded from the night before). We’d topped £9,000! 10% of our way there in just one day, and we’d almost hit five figures! Whatever else happened, it wouldn’t be a humiliation.
In hindsight, it probably should have been obvious at this point that everything would work out, but it wasn’t. I still struggled with the constant fear that we’d run out of supporters. It would be another three weeks until this finally abated and I believed it would happen.
A breakdown of our income by country. Thank America! (click for larger)
If you’ve got a project that you want to start, but not the money to start it, crowdfunding can be a great way of getting off the ground. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. Here are our top tips for a successful project:
- Give people a reason to love your product. If you have a product ready to ship, then it’s enough to be a product that people like, but when you’re asking people to take a risk, you need them to love the product.
- Understand who the influential people are in your field and target them. People are far more likely to trust them saying nice things about your product.
- The internet is already starting to tire of crowdfunding, and many social sites are pushing back against it. For example, the Technology subreddit has an outright ban on crowdfunding stories. To get past this fatigue, your product has to be exciting.
- Don’t rely on mainstream media. Maybe you’ll be picked up by newspapers and television, but it’s more likely that you won’t. Have a plan in place to reach your intended audience.
- Leave no stone unturned when it comes to publicity, and don’t stop plugging away at everything.
- Videos are far more convincing than text, even when they say the same thing. It conveys a sense of personality that’s easily lost in the written word.
Success in crowdfunding comes down to many things. You have to have a product that people love enough to take a chance on. We thought we had this because we’d had so much good feedback working on our previous magazine, and we had some really excellent ways we could make Linux Voice better. However, it doesn’t matter how good the product is if no one hears about it. From day one onwards, we devoted ourselves almost entirely to publicity.
The majority of the publicity came from social media (though we did feature briefly on the Guardian website and The Register). We quickly learned that each of these works in a slightly different way. Hacker News is a brutal, fast-paced all-or-nothing ride. If your article makes it to the front page (as a few of ours did), you get a big hit of visitors, and a lot of comments that need answering very quickly. Keeping on top of a popular comment thread on Hacker News basically requires constantly typing as fast as you can for as long as it stays popular.
Reddit, on the other hand, also commands a big following, but it’s spread over a much longer time (at least it is on /r/linux/). There are also lots of plenty of insightful questions, but they don’t all come at once. Twitter is different because it goes both ways. We could seek out people and people could seek us out. We never found Facebook worked for us at all.
It wasn’t all about new-fangled social media though. Philip Newborough (aka Corenominal), the creator of the CrunchBang distro, put a banner advert on his website supporting us. I regularly searched Google to look for new mentions of Linux Voice and found messages of support on forums across the internet.
As the first week went on the money kept coming in, but we got a bit less every day. From over £9,000 on Monday, it went to £4,436 on Tuesday, £3,775 on Wednesday and £2,959 on Thursday. We expected it to dip as the initial buzz wore off, but it was dropping away fast. If it kept going at this rate, it would die out completely by the middle of week two. On Friday, my mental state continued to oscillate between joy (when I realised that in just four days we’d raised almost a quarter of the total) and despair (when I looked at how much the cashflow was slowing down). By the middle of the day, I was spending more and more time in despair as I furiously hit F5 on the Indiegogo page waiting for the next donor. Each time the gap to the next one got a little longer.
The thing that really hit me was that many contributors were paying, say, £55 for a UK sub rather than £50. Every time it happened it felt as thought the internet was giving us a silent nod of approval; that there were people out there who didn’t just want the commercial exchange of getting a great magazine for a good price, but who wanted us to succeed for some other reason. Every time my phone went off with an email from PayPal telling me that someone had chipped in an extra pound or two, it felt like we were doing the right thing.
The low point came from a necessary evil: PayPal. On 15 December some international money laundering switch triggered at PayPal, which stopped it taking payments, which in turn convinced IndieGogo to shut down the campaign. We were stuck up a creek without a paddle, and even though it only took a couple of hours to fix the problem, the fact that it happened at all was a huge fail; the fact that nobody at PayPal or IndieGogo had got in touch to let us know what was going on, inexcusable.
We have so many milestones left to come. The first time we sponsor a project, the first articles we release as CC-BY-SA, the first time we see someone else building on our work, are all still to come, and it’s going to be fantastic to see how the Linux Voice community grows. I can’t wait.
Then, in the space of a couple of hours, everything changed. First, Tim O’Reilly tweeted “Linux Voice: A new Free Software and Linux magazine that gives profits back to the community. Its @indiegogo campaign http://bit.ly/17XxdUg” to his 1.75 million Twitter followers. Two hours later, Linux Voice ended up on the front page of Slashdot. Suddenly the cash trickle became a cash flood. In the peak hour that evening we raised £1,680 – the best hour to date.
The feeling of sitting at your computer, pressing F5 and watching you get closer and closer to your dream is like flying. You’ve done the enormous amount of hard work to get airborne, then everything just comes together and you cruise. You glide along and the whole world is before you. It feels like anything’s possible. It’s peaceful, yet produces a surge of adrenaline. A giddy, almost child-like excitement takes over and your cheeks ache from grinning so hard. Also like flying, it doesn’t last. We raised £6,399 on Friday, but less than half this on Saturday. What was worse is that we felt we’d exhausted social media and needed another source of potential new subscribers.
Despite being a member of a Linux podcast, I hadn’t realised just how popular they were. Perhaps there’s some form of brotherhood of the microphone that I’m unaware of, but the Linux podcasts supported us with an enthusiasm that no other media had. We made guest appearances and were featured many, including the Ubuntu UK Podcast, Linux Outlaws, The Linux Action Show Unplugged, The Linux Link Tech Show, Hacker Public Radio and TuxJam.
Each time one of these shows aired, we saw a spike in subscriptions on the site. Without the support of these guys, it would have been a lot harder. Not just because they helped get the word out, but because hearing other people within the community get excited about the project was a huge psychological support for me.
Launching a magazine through a crowdfunding campaign must be a little like crowd surfing blindfolded. You stand at the edge of the stage, interpreting the sound of the crowd in one way but not knowing whether enough people are interested, or even listening. It’s not until you throw yourself from the edge that you have some idea. But even then you don’t know how far the crowd can take you, or what the landing will be like.
Unlike Ben, Mike and Andrew, I had a non-compete clause in the contract I had with our former employer. As I couldn’t be involved in the campaign, I had something of a different experience to the other three. I had assumed that it would leave me with lots of free time for catching up on projects I’d neglected for years. In the end, those weeks of the campaign were probably some of the most unproductive of my life! I couldn’t concentrate on anything, or plan anything, or write anything, or play anything. All I could do was watch the campaign page and bore friends and family with theories on how it might work out. They’d always nod, dutifully. However, I genuinely believed in the idea – a magazine with great content that gives back what it can to the community. Part of the growing distraction over those weeks wasn’t doubt, but excitement at the prospect that Linux Voice might really happen. And it has!
Bridging the gap
In crowdfunding, anything can happen, but we knew that most campaigns had a ‘U’ shaped cash flow graph. That is, they raised quite a bit at the start, and quite a bit at the end, but not that much in the middle. This middle section is known as the slump.
By week three we were well and truly in the slump. Income hovered around £1,500 a day, which was precariously close to the daily average we needed to hit in order to make our target. Of course, the theory said that we’d get a massive increase at the end, but would we really? There was no way of knowing.
Around this time, when I spoke to people, they’d have a pitying expression on their face if the subject of Linux Voice came up, and I could tell that few of my friends and family thought we’d reach the target at this stage (though they only admitted it later). I always put on a brave face and told them of the slump and how every project hit it, and how people held out for when the deadline approached. As the week wore on, I struggled to believe this myself.
On the 1 December, just £649 came in. Was this it, I wondered? Had we finally run out of people interested in a new Linux magazine? For hours I sat pressing F5 and nothing would change. Then maybe a digital subscription, then nothing for hours again. I stopped alternating between hope and despair and stuck almost continuously in despair. This, I became sure, was us running out of supporters.
Crowdfunding, though, is a fickle mistress, and the best piece of advice I could give to aspirant crowd funders is to prepare for the unexpected. Two days after this low point, Liz Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation wrote a blog post supporting the project. This was picked up by Twitter, Hacker News and Reddit, and drove support faster than we’d seen so far, faster than we could have possibly dreamed. It peaked at £4,405 in a single hour (almost triple the previous fastest rate) and at the end of the day, we’d raised another £11,647. This pulled the total to £72,903. We now needed less than £20,000 with 20 days to go.
My girlfriend regularly asked me if I thought we’d make it. That night I replied with an unqualified ‘Yes’ for the first time.
The rest, as they say, is history. Following the endorsement from the guys at Raspberry Pi, the money kept coming in. Not at the same rate, but we made the final £18,000 in six days, and the total kept rising until the campaign ended with £127,603. The fruit of the campaign is now in your hands, and all of us at Linux Voice would like to say a hearty ‘thank you’ to everyone who supported us. Even those of you who waited until the last minute and made us sweat.
Talk about a rollercoaster ride… At the start of the campaign, we thought we might be mad for even trying something like this. What if we only raised £5,000 of our £90,000 target? Will we become the butt of jokes for Linux journalists around the world? Will we all have to start new lives as goat farmers in Tajikistan?
But no, it worked. And it worked spectacularly, because the Linux and Free Software communities really understood what we were doing. We weren’t just making yet another magazine – we wanted to do something different, away from the constraints of big businesses that didn’t understand our audience.
Linux Voice has been a very personal project for me, because it’s exactly the sort of magazine that I’ve always wanted to create. I’ve been reading computer magazines for the last 25 years, from the ZX Spectrum through the Amiga to the PC, and one thing has always struck me about the Linux community: it is incredibly passionate.
Sometimes there are arguments, and sometimes there are fallings-out. But we’re all on the same journey, trying to make computing more open, free, exciting and fun, and a truly great Linux magazine should reflect that. You, the readers will be a key component of Linux Voice – not just consumers. We’re but a tiny acorn right now and we have a lot to do, but thanks to everyone who supported us for making this dream a reality.
Update July 2014: From Crowdfund to Company
The above text comes from issue one of Linux Voice, and was written at the start of February 2014. In following six months, we’ve shifted from a bunch of guys with an idea for a new magazine to a company that puts out a magazine every month. The change has been gradual and we’ve learned a lot about business, tax and legal responsibilities along the way. We’re now a little past halfway through our first year and we have a healthy bank balance and healthy revenues. We have over 3,000 subscribers, we’re on newsstands in many shops around the world, and we’re growing all the time.
The thing that has surprised me most along the way is how straightforward it’s been. It has, of course, been incredibly hard work (long hours and weekends are the norm), but the production side of things hasn’t been that hard. Starting a business is easier now than it’s ever been. Short run manufacturing and printing are getting cheaper, many governments are keen to encourage small businesses and office space can be rented cheaply on a short-term basis. The long hours and lack of security won’t suit everyone, but for us at least, it’s working out well.