The Digital Companion

The online journal to Offscreen — for all the things that don’t fit into the magazine. We regularly publish behind-the-scenes posts about the making of an indie magazine. Why not grab the RSS feed and follow along?

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As you may know, I’ve recently opened up our Patron program for the upcoming issue No9. Around half of the slots are gone already, but we still have 13 to go. To sweeten the deal, I’m delighted to say that we’re giving away a couple of great prizes amongst all 25 final patrons.

My friends from Joli Originals have chipped in a set of their beautiful Cable Wraps and our loyal give-away partners from TwelveSouth have provided one of their amazing HoverBars. (Thanks so much guys!)

All patrons (including those who already signed up) will go in the draw to win one of the two prizes. Winners will be picked when I close the patron program or when all 25 slots are gone. Now you have even more of a reason to support Offscreen. Go sign up now!

Hex Pen by Cool Material (via Milk n’ Sugar)

Thanks for your feedback!

Last week I sent out a bunch of emails to people who (according to my database) haven’t bought issue No8. I asked for feedback on their experience with the magazine overall, the content, the production values, and the website itself. Within 48 hours I had more than 120 replies sitting in my inbox.

All of the comments were constructive (YAY!) and most were positive. Some of you voiced some very valid criticism or offered ideas for improvements which I gladly took note of. Some of these points came up more than once, and so I want to answer them here in public.

Why don’t you do XYZ?

I really loved some of the proposed changes. While I will keep these in mind, of course, please remember that Offscreen is still a one-man band. There is just me doing everything. If I had a team of writers or the budget for a travelling photographer, I could do all kinds of amazing stories. The reality is that I already work really long hours to get an issue done within 3-4 months, and within my budget.

I look in envy at some of my magazine-making friends who have several colleagues reinventing their product with every issue. Being a team of one means that all the steps, from content planing to content creation to editing to designing the entire publication, has to happen fairly chronologically allowing only a few weeks for each step in order to get at least three issues out per year.

So yeah, new ideas are always welcome, but their feasibility depends on my production schedule and my budget.

Why don’t your subscription auto-renew?

This is a feature I’ve been wanting myself for a long time. Currently, you can only order three-issue subscriptions that you then have to renew manually. Auto-renewing subscription would almost certainly help sell more copies. The answer why this feature doesn’t exist yet is a bit more complex than you may expect.

When I first set up the Offscreen website, I decided PayPal was the quickest and easiest way to collect money (being based in Australia, there was no such thing as Stripe or Pin at the time). Based on the PayPal API, a developer friend of mine and I created an order management system that powers the back-end of Offscreen and helps me manage all orders and subscriptions. It’s a custom piece of inventory software that runs entirely on PayPal’s Instant Payment Notification (IPN) system.

Unfortunately, PayPal doesn’t allow me to charge people infrequently. You can charge for ongoing subscriptions, yes, but only if they occur on the exact day every week/month/year. Offscreen issues occur infrequently, so I need a system that allows me to press a ‘charge now’ button whenever a new issue is published.

I would have to move away from PayPal (which I’d be very happy to do!) and use a service like Stripe or Pin. However, this means that I will have to almost entirely redesign my order management system. Since I’m not a developer, the programming work will easily run into $5000+, money I don’t really have right now.

There are other issues with switching from PayPal: although most people complain about PayPal, many of us still have ‘free money’ sitting in our accounts and my stats tell me that most people still prefer to use PayPal rather than their credit card. I’m wondering if a switch to credit card only would affect sales. (Anyone got any stats on that?)

One more reason why I haven’t moved on from PayPal: Offscreen charges in US dollars. Since I live in Australia, I will eventually have to convert my income to Australian dollars. PayPal allows me to keep two different currency accounts until the conversion rate is in my favour. If I use other services, incoming payments are converted to my local currency instantly. In early 2013 I would have lost 15-20% on every payment simply due to a very strong Aussie dollar.

It’s almost always just white, successful men? What about diversity?

Believe me, I’m asking myself the same question all the time. I’m well aware that diversity is a huge issue in our industry, I’ve talked about this before. As you may know, I’m not the only one struggling with this problem.

There really is no proper answer that doesn’t sound like a cheap excuse.

I’ve been trying really hard (to the best of my ability, see ‘one-man band’ above) to improve upon this, but the reality is that our industry is dominated by white men. From all the projects/stories I come across or I’m digging up, 90% — it seems — have a white, male (often American) entrepreneur behind it.

When I ask my readers for suggestions, the quality of responses I get is unfortunately not very high. Many of the emails I get are about a startup doing amazing UX work, beautiful designs, or cutting-edge code. That’s all really great to hear, but Offscreen is a magazine about people. I want to feature unique, inspiring human stories behind tech-driven projects — ideally not just happening in the US, but around the world, in less popular places, and then hopefully not initiated by another white guy. As a result I put a lot of contacts/stories that are suggested to me on the back burner.

Issue No8 was a step into the right direction, with small contributions from places like Syria, India, Mexico and Rwanda. The gender ratio is still way out of whack though.

Would you believe me that I contacted six female entrepreneurs for an interview in that issue and got one reply in total from a PR agency asking me to come by their office in SFO to conduct the interview?

I send out a lot of email requests and often follow up on Twitter, but with a team of one and a clear deadline approaching, if all you have is male contributors replying to your questions, what do you do? Should I rather stop making Offscreen than letting one gender dominate? Should we cancel conferences where the gender/diversity balance is insufficient? These are not rhetorical questions, I really wonder how far we should go in order to see the change we want.

I’m writing this knowing that it might stir up a strong debate (again!) because it’s a very difficult issue. I have spoken and will speak to any person who has experience in this area and can provide practical advice to improve this situation.

But a simple complaint about diversity isn’t helping. We all know it’s a sad state of affairs. If you want to contribute constructively to solving the problem, help me find these uniquely inspiring individuals from around the globe that haven’t been interviewed a million times before, speak good enough English and are approachable via email. As I said, I’m after more than just a talented designer or a great coder. There needs to be a great story.

Your stories are often too ‘polished’. It’s all about successful people. I can’t identify with them.

I know what you mean. I agree that our industry (society?) often idolises success too much. For many making a ton of money is the ultimate endgame. I have my own problems with that, too.

Firstly, I think starting with issue No7 I’ve managed to bring more balance into the magazine, profiling people that not necessarily hit the ‘exit headlines’ on TechCrunch, but rather use tech/the web to be creative or work hard towards a goal because they are passionate about a particular idea. I’m also very actively trying to aim for a good mix of more and lesser known faces.

The interviews I do are very long (often 4500 words). If I interview someone just starting out, I doubt it would make for an interesting read. People that have successfully built a company or product over a longer period of time usually have gone through a huge learning period and made a lot of mistakes along the way. That’s the inspiring part that I’m interested in.

I’m not sure how much value you’d get out of a magazine that interviews people with ‘average’ ideas that haven’t really taken off. Note that not the monetary success is important here, but the fact that a unique idea sparked a huge change or demand, because it’s new or different. In our industry that often means that you’re either already making money or have received money from investors. Whether the latter could be considered a success story often remains to be seen. But as with everything else in the magazine, if you know interesting exceptions to the above, please tell me about them!

As said, every typical ‘success story’ usually comes with a lot of failures and challenges along the way. Success is never a straight line. The interviews are about the ups and the downs. After all, it’s a magazine that aims to highlight the potential, the creativity and the passion of people behind technology and the web. While I’m a huge fan of critical thinking and showing both sides of the fence, stories of ambition with a successful end are usually what inspire us most.

Again, any great ideas for stories or contributors are welcome. Remember that I need to be able to reach/contact them somehow — usually via email.

Quick reminder that I’ll be speaking about the making of Offscreen at this year’s Forge Copenhagen on June 20th. There are still tickets left. Come and see me and much more talented folks talk about building things and being creative. Can’t wait!

Cordlupa by Mike Macadaan (via Milk n’ Sugar)

I really like what Steve from Stack had to say about Offscreen in his accompanying Stack letter. I never really looked at Offscreen as a business magazine (neither does he, as he concludes). It’s certainly interesting to see how Steve (and many new readers, I’m sure) are struggling to put Offscreen in an existing category. It means I’m doing something right. :)

Peak MacBook sleeve & stand by Aecraft

If you like discovering new magazines, Stack Magazines is a subscription service that makes locating exciting new publications easier by sending you a random mag every month.

I was so happy when Steve from Stack asked me if Offscreen issue No8 could be his May edition. And so a few weeks ago roughly 2,000 Stack subscribers found the newest Offscreen Magazine in their mailbox.

Steve just published a little video review in which he talks about my editor’s note and my ambitions for the magazine. I’m so glad to hear that my editor’s note was perceived as intended and I didn’t come across as too preachy.

Thanks for having me, Steve! :)

Bookends by Field (made of granite)

Our auction of the sold-out copies of issues No1-3 have raised a total of $311.00. It was just enough to complete the funding for Blessing, plus an additional small direct donation to Watsi. Thanks so much to all bidders, and of course, good luck to Blessing for her upcoming treatment!

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