Mumbrella is nine – We’ve joined the two commas club

In his annual update for readers, founder Tim Burrowes offers an update on Mumbrella’s progress.

So I must admit, I’m finding this one quite hard to write. I’ve deleted the intro and started again several times across the weekend.

And I just can’t get it right.

So I think I’d better just come out and say it: we’ve had a great year.

Ghastly and smug, isn’t it? I won’t blame you if you stop reading right now.

But if you are sticking with it, then allow me to explain my angst.

Those who’ve been following Mumbrella’s journey over the past nine years will be aware that I post an annual update around our December 9 anniversary.

Should you be so inclined, you can see my previous efforts here:

And you’ll be aware that I’ve always tried to be honest about how we’ve fared, including financially. This year, I’ll cover off the business first, before turning to our journalism.

For many years, that meant talking about how we had managed to break even, or made a narrow profit or loss. There is, I must admit, something alluring about being the stoic underdog.

But then about three years ago things began to come together.

Despite the fact that we never made much profit, we’ve always grown our turnover, and number of staff. There are now more than 30 of us, spread over four cities. (Which is less grand than it sounds – those four cities include solo staff who work remotely from Adelaide and Hobart.)

For those who don’t know our history, we started life with me as the first staffer, using a borrowed desk in backpacker newspaper TNT’s offices.

And as you grow, you hit a certain critical mass where you can attract (and afford) better and better people to help you go faster.

And the planets started to align for the business about three years ago.

At that point we still thought of ourselves as a publisher who also ran a few events, rather than the other way round.

The two partners running the business – myself and our CEO Martin Lane – were both journalists by background. (Our third shareholder, former TNT Australia owner Ian Wakeling lives in semi-retired splendour near Byron.)

And being journalists, we were slightly apologetic about making a profit, despite the fact that – I’ve since been amazed to learn – making a profit is what helps you grow.

About three years ago, we got a little bit of outside help. Tony Faure, the man who launched Yahoo in Australia back in the day and was later CEO of ninemsn, began to spend a few hours a week with Martin and I. It became very useful (and challenging) to have somebody who would come in every week and ask us if we’d done what we said we would.

In terms of Mumbrella, by the way, it broadly breaks down – and it took us many years to work this out – that Martin takes responsibility for running the company and I take responsibility for the product.

Martin: Money man

In my case, Tony was the one who helped me focus on the important rather than the urgent and finally get the site redesigned. In Martin’s case, Tony helped us think about budgeting for profit rather than simply hoping not to lose money.

And in the space of a few months, three driven, talented women who would be vital to the company’s growth came on board.

As we began to plot a course that would see us running more than 20 events a year, we realised we’d need to professionalise how to plan and execute them. In March 2015, Nicole McKay came on board as our head of events. She ran her first Mumbrella360 in June 2016. It was named Australia’s best conference at the Australian Event Awards.

Then in August 2015, we persuaded former RBI colleague Victoria Seymour to join us as sales director. We began to not only hit our targets, but smash them.

A few months later, the final missing piece of the jigsaw came together with Danika Porter becoming our first head of marketing. For the most recent Mumbrella360 we sold more than a million dollars worth of tickets for the first time.

So what does that do to a bottom line?

Well, in the 2014 financial year, our turnover had been $3m and we lost $200,000, mainly on our Asia business (more on that later).

In 2015, our turnover rose to $4.4m and we made a profit of $130,000.

By the 2016 financial year, turnover was $5.6m, and profit was $630,000. This allowed us to pay back Ian for loans he’d made to the company to keep us going in the earlier years.

Which brings me to the 2017 financial year, which ended on June 30.

We’ve reported to the taxman an EBITDA profit of $1,049,126 on a turnover of $6.9m.

So we’ve finally joined the two comma club.

Ghastly and smug, isn’t it? (I told you that journalists always feel apologetic about making a profit.)

Luckily, the year we’ve just had was in no way as easy as I’ve made it sound. It was hard.

We very quickly reinvested a chunk of that profit into our Asia operation, launching Mumbrella360 into Singapore in November. Which proved to be one of the toughest things we’ve attempted in a few years.

I wrote about it in our Saturday “Best of the Week” email at the time:

It’s been six-and-a-half years since we launched Mumbrella360 in Sydney, and I must confess I’d forgotten just how hard it was the first time.

This week’s writing soundtrack, by the way, is The Streets – Original Pirate Material. The reason is that I’ve been thinking today about The Streets song When You Wasn’t Famous.

In the song, Streets frontman Mike Skinner reflects on how much harder it was approaching the opposite sex before he had fame. Now it was easy. And his way of finding the fear again was chatting up an even bigger star.

Back in June, as we prepared to run Mumbrella360 in Sydney for a seventh time, I realised an odd thing: I was looking forward to it. No trepidation, no lost sleep over logistics. Simply looking forward to seeing it unfold.

It was easy.

But a good way of finding the fear again is to launch a big event like Mumbrella360 in a new territory.

The old challenges become new again.

Persuading a community that doesn’t know us as well yet to put forward its ideas. Then having to choose from too many great session proposals.

Hiring a sales manager. Then losing a sales manager.

Hiring an event manager but having her flake out days before joining.

Hiring a replacement sales manager. Then having to fire the replacement sales manager.

Asking your existing team, who are already at full capacity, to help pick up the slack.

Watching sponsors come on board. Then worrying about delivering a decent audience for the sponsors.

Pacing around in a back room with 20 minutes until the conference is due to kick off, wondering where the hell everyone is. Then standing in the back of the ballroom 20 (well, 30) minutes later marvelling about where the people pouring into the room just appeared from.

And at 6pm on Thursday that most familiar feeling of all: sheer relief at the end of having watched a small team go beyond what was reasonable to expect, to deliver something to be proud of.

And the piece really doesn’t capture half of just how hard it was, making sure that first Mumbrella360 Asia met our standards. There’ve been too many moments to count over the years where I’ve felt proud of our team, but this was the one that felt like the largest number of different individuals within the company all at different moments made a difference between success and disaster for the event.

For me personally, Mumbrella360 Asia was one of two main focuses over the last 12 months. I made more trips on QF81 to Singapore than I’d wish on an enemy. Indeed, this year I’ve travelled the most I ever have in my life.

And the second focus for me was back at base.

About this time last year, Vivienne Kelly came on board as editor, replacing Alex Hayes, who moved across to launch our Mumbrella Bespoke native content unit. (Alex, incidentally, will be leaving us in the next few days.)

So my other main focus of the year was to help Vivienne – who’d been an editor before, but covering the real estate sector – make a smooth transition into the role.

I had a pretty good idea of what she was facing. Back in the UK I’d gone from being the editor of a magazine called Hospital Doctor to the editor of Media Week. It took me a year before I knew how little I knew. And I initially faced a lot of disdain from rivals in the sector who’d been there longer than me and resented the idea that an outsider might be able to do the job. I’ve observed Viv going through a similar thing.

So having hired for Viv’s editing skills rather than industry knowledge, my job was to help her with the latter.

So I became much more closely involved with our daily news agenda than I have for a number of years.

I joined the newsdesk roster not just for occasional weekend cover, which I’d already been doing, but weekday shifts too.

I’m not going to pretend that part was a hardship.

I still put the word “journalist” on my boarding card when I travel. It’s still how I define myself first of all. (Incidentally, I notice this week that somebody has created a Wikipedia page for Mumbrella. I hate the fact that they describe me as a “former” journalist.)

Indeed, it became something of a transitional year for Mumbrella’s editorial team, with the year also seeing the arrival of Paul Wallbank as news editor and Josie Tutty as opinion & features editor. And as I look into 2018, I’ve never been more excited about how much potential a team has, with both of our reporters Zoe Samios and Abigail Dawson having grown greatly in the last 12 months.

Which isn’t to say that the editorial team has had it easy. Viv may in the coming days share more about her own experiences, but I’ve certainly had glimpses of the institutional attitudes she faces. Just last week I had one CEO complain angrily to me that he’d had to take a call from “a junior journo”, without realising he’d been speaking to the editor. The idea the editor could be a woman did not seem to have computed.

Despite the editorial changes, traffic has been decent.

My Google Analytics tells me that for the second half of the year so far we’re up 10% on page views and 15% on users compared to the year before.

But in the first six months, as the new team bedded down, we were 11% down.

Which leaves us with a fight-to-the-finish race to finish the year up overall. With three weeks to go, we’ve caught up to within 2.6% of last year…

By the way, the big blue spike on the left hand side of the table above was when we broke our most viral story of all time: Jacketgate.

And the orange spikes midway through coincided with our site redesign in 2016, so I do wonder if we had some sort of a glitch with our tagging at the time.

The other habit I’ve returned to this year is long-form writing.

If you haven’t noticed, a few months ago I’ve started to write a “Best of the Week” email which we send out on a Saturday morning. Running from anything between 2,000 and 4,000 words, it began as an experiment and has become an opportunity to explore the key issues of the week in a way that I might not have time to on the day.

It’s been an immensely enjoyable, but time consuming, thing to do. Spending a lot of time on planes and in airport departure lounges helped.

But on other weeks, when time’s got away from me, it’s meant staying up late on a Friday or getting up in the small hours on a Saturday just to get it done. So I’ll need to decide at some point if I can continue to justify the time.

The other aspect of my nine years with Mumbrella is that no two years have followed the same pattern.

As I say, 2017 was all about the two main tasks of Mumbrella360 Singapore and helping Viv get up to speed.

For 2018, I had planned to spend a bit less time in Singapore now Mumbrella360 is launched, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet, so I suspect I have more QF81s awaiting me in the coming months

But next year, Viv won’t need me around as much, so I’ll be pulling back from the newsdesk once more, although I will still do the odd weekend newsdesk duty, with a Friday and Monday bolted on.

And that will free me up to spend more time working with Damian Francis who curates our Australian events, and also taking a look at The Source, which is our subscription product.

But most important, as I say every year, is to say thank you – for reading and supporting us.

Luckily the ending is easier than the intro.


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