Never try to do what I’m doing

hcbeachsmallI’m sure even my hero Hugh Hefner, with his 50,000 unit sale launch issue, occasionally had bad days.

There are times when I feel like I’m trying to do something impossible.

I think the biggest problem is imagining you’re doing everything right. Clearly, when things aren’t going well, you are not doing everything right. I mean, you might be doing the right things for a different project, but for this project, if it’s not working, it’s not right. You might be doing the right things for something more conventional. Maybe this is just a bit too new. Maybe no one knows what the right way to do this is yet.

It is another one of those uncomfortable truths that no one will tell you, and one of the great fundamentals of business. Absolute, through-to-the-bone belief just isn’t enough. Maybe what you believe in isn’t what most people believe in, and you have to distill, distill, distill, until you find one of those most universal appeals.

Today I sent the new issue of Hack Circus to print, which means today is the day an enormous amount of money disappears from my bank account and I transfer some more over from my savings account. My savings account is going to be empty by the end of the year. But I signed up for this possibility when I decided to do this, and what is life for if not for pursuing these absurd possibilities? No, losing massive amounts of money is not my complaint. It’s my choice to live my life at this pitch.

But it’s not MY money that’s the problem, it’s everyone else’s potential money. We’re not talking millions here… my print run is not 50,000. But I can persuade no one to take regular adverts at proper rates, and I have no investors. Every week I have lots of conversations about ‘ideas’, but ideas is one thing I am not short of. What I really need is money.

I have fallen foul to what might be a common problem of our times – the misconception that because it is now easy to find audiences, produce and sell things, it is easier than ever to be successful in business; that we can take our foot off the pedal and simply ‘be creative’. Someone said to me recently, “I wish I was 18 now, look at all the things I could do, all the opportunities this digital world opens up.” But the digital world opens up the same opportunities to everyone – you still aren’t special – and as I keep saying, the easier it is to do something, the better it has to be. It is impossible to stand out.

And I don’t just mean in the sense of quality (I still think I’m doing things that ‘stand out’ in their ideas and the way I curate them) – but to be noticed amid the stream of endless data that scrolls past all our eyes all day now? To be replied to is a distant dream – more distant, I feel, than it used to be. And I’m coming to some unpleasant conclusions about that.

I send dozens of emails every day, pitching stories about Hack Circus to every media outlet I can find, and telling people about the events, the writers, the performers, the new podcast, the magazine, the business, the art, the design, the ideas – dammit – the movement. I’ve posted free magazines to everyone I can afford to (the mags cost me £2 each just to print).

But things are happening agonisingly slowly. My posts to things like Reddit and Hackernews are greeted with stony silence. My Tweets are largely scrolled past. Every time I retweet Hack Circus news from my personal account I get unfollowed by a few people (inspiring me to unfollow everyone who ever mentions their work/creative projects/children.) I spent the whole of last week commissioning, running around recording interviews for, and editing three episodes of a brand new Hack Circus podcast in the hope of getting something on iTunes and drumming up some interest about the next event. I try not to count the hours of work because thinking about it would make me want to stop, but recording and editing the podcast episodes must amount to 20 hours of work (I’m terrible at audio editing) and it still hasn’t appeared on iTunes. Listener numbers for the libsyn rss link that I’ve tweeted are in the single figures.

The tiny percentage of press that have expressed any interest in the project soon stop replying. I have been asked to do one interview about the project since launching last December. One. Apart from a mention in a Huffington Post column, that’s the total press for the whole of the project so far. Two sell out events, three podcast episodes, two issues of the magazine. One interview on a blog. We did get an event press release posted on Boing Boing last week, but not a single soul bought a ticket to the show as a result, and if we don’t sell more tickets for Access All Areas, we may have to cancel the event, wasting air and train fares and hotel costs (all of which I’m covering out of the ticket price/my own pocket), not to mention (more importantly) a lot of work, hope and excitement from everyone involved.

It is hard, on days like today, not to arrive at the conclusion that I have no idea how to do promotion, and that not only is it boring, thankless and repetitive, but it’s also a very poor use of my time and money which would be better spent on the stuff I’m less bad at. Not that this was ever going to be easy.

People will tweet. People will dither and then come along to things at the last minute, sometimes, if they feel like. But the only way people will *sit up and listen right now* is if you offer them something they find uniquely exciting (a high quality show featuring no famous people is no longer enough) – or if you come endorsed by a respected figure. I can’t and won’t offer celebrities as bait, I’m beyond tired of giving out free PR to organisations who aren’t directly involved in my projects, and most of the people who endorse things by women most effectively are, I can’t help noticing, men. This is not, of course, the case for all women who do well. But I keep coming across them, like it’s Victorian times – women with a media profile, women who people are suddenly listening to, women with success in the creative arts or technology or the media or even just success on Twitter – and just behind them there is this relentless promoter, a respected male benefactor.

Naturally, I feel very weird about the situation. Men in our society have more power and agency, not sure anyone could argue with that. The well-intentioned hashtag #tookachanceonme started by women, and intended as a tribute to our most generous mentors, was dominated by references to men. If you want to do well or find recognition for your talents, find a more successful person who believes in you. And most successful and powerful people, by the standards recognised by the media, tend to be men.

The ability to take a chance on people in a way that makes a difference to their lives is an indicator of power. And to be recognised as helpful and influential is to be acknowledged in your power. Power is conciliatory; it is the only thing that has the freedom to be.

I am not going to ask a society I largely object to, to give me money on its own terms. I cannot and will not beg for people to take a chance on Hack Circus beyond the usual convention of press requests. But here’s the thing: believing in people, giving them a shot – it happens in  a chain. People believe in you -> you believe in someone else -> they believe in someone else.

The unusual thing about Hack Circus is: I am believing in people without the parent category. I have Lighthouse, of course, at the moment, which I appreciate. But a wonderful thing though an arts organisation is, in itself it doesn’t have the enormous wealth of a benefactor, or the passionately loyal audience of a celebrated human being who people feel inspired to emulate.

Because people need someone to be like, something that conforms to their ingrained ideals of a Good Life and the trouble is, I’m offering something a little different. I’m offering something unsettling, hard to categorise, on the edge or at the beginning of something – not nostalgic or familiar. Hack Circus is not a comfortable brand. It is not offering a promise of a settled inner life – it’s challenging people to make more, be cleverer, be cheekier and question everything. It’s a push and you have to be in the right mood for it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be commercial, or mainstream.

I am hugely invested, financially and emotionally, in the idea and the people who put so much work into Hack Circus – wonderfully creative and open-minded people who come to the events, buy the magazine, speak and perform and create unique experiences at the shows. The shows are amazing. The buzz is fantastic. The designers, who work for free, do such a brilliant job each issue that I recommend them so hard I regularly lose them to paid work. And even with everything hanging off a thread of a shoe string, with no projection or plan beyond the end of the current issue, I still can’t believe how lucky I am. Some speakers talk about flying in from around the UK just to attend the next event. Others have tried to pay me to come to these things, and they’re bloody speaking at them.

I mean, this is what’s special about what I’m doing, this is what’s special about the people who speak and perform, and this is why it frustrates me so much that people can’t see what I can see. All I want is for these people to get credit, ultimately to get paid. I don’t even care if I burn through my own savings – I’ve committed to my own dream, I’ve signed up for the risk. But I do care if I can’t legitimise these people. Because, well, what legitimises my personal investment? What legitimises me? How can I complete the chain that will get these people the exposure and reward they deserve?

Life is not fair. Passion is not measured in money. Hef’s passion was not the reason people bought Playboy. But I’m locked into this for three years and I took this scale of commitment on for good reasons. Until I literally have to put my house on the market for this, I will not give up.

Update: the podcast is now on iTunes

3 thoughts on “Never try to do what I’m doing

  1. Pingback: Leila Johnston: ‘Digital culture has created a new outsider’ | Soviders Tech

  2. Jon

    Hello,

    I just subscribed to Hack Circus. This is because I read about it in the Guardian, because you got Cory Doctrow to post about it, so you’re doing something right.

    In addition to the link on the Guardian, the other thing you did was have good photography. This is key because consumer marketing is like dating. No-one wants to read about how great and intelligent the product is and how it’s going to improve our lives and be much better than the last product, we just want a picture of it looking cool.

  3. Pingback: Leila Johnston: ‘Digital culture has created a new outsider’ | HidalGeek

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