Mumbrella’s 360 conference kicks off in Sydney today and ahead of the conference Mumbrella editor-in-chief and founder Tim Burrowes reveals how the influential website grew from an afterthought into a business.
Mumbrella now brings in revenue of $1.5 million a year and was named Website of the Year by Publishers Australia Excellence Awards.
How did you get started?
I originally worked as a journalist and, I suspect, unlike many journos now I stumbled into it. I was lucky enough to go into it without a degree or anything like that.
My first paper was actually a local paper in the UK that trained the journos; sent us off with the National Certificate for Training Journalists. I think it's actually very rare for newspapers to pay for you to go off and do that now.
I spent the first seven or eight years of my career as a local journalist, covering court and council, all of those things. Then I gradually worked my way up towards London and crossed over into specialist magazines.
I spent about six-and-a-half years at a place called Hospital Doctor, which is about medical politics and eventually became editor of that. Because of those editing skills, I suddenly found myself going one day from editing Hospital Doctor to Media Week. So one day I'm writing about doctors and the next day I'm writing about media agencies and media owners. That was when I first started writing about the media and marketing industry.
I did Media Week for awhile and went over to the Middle East and launched the Middle Eastern edition of Campaign magazine. I was the launch editor on that, did that for about a year-and-a-half, went back to the UK fully expecting that was it for my ventures, and had a phone call to come to Australia and become editor of B&T magazine.
I suppose by that point I'd begun to understand marketing and business models, just because of what I was writing about, and I'd done a magazine from a launch. So then I started to get a bit confident, like I could launch something for myself.
I guess that is what then gave me the confidence to actually launch my own publication rather than depend on paid employees. Many journalists are quite happy to go for a whole career working for someone, but I thought I could come up with a product that we could actually make commercial.
What was the inspiration behind Mumbrella?
The business model I had in mind is not the business model I have now. It was a terrible idea and fortunately we never launched it.
When I went to B&T, one of the things we did was recreate the daily email newsletter which had been in HTML to PDF, which I thought as a dreadful idea at the time as a journalist. But our publisher was right – it was commercially really successful because there were plenty of advertisers who would buy space. Advertisers would buy a half page or a full page on a PDF who wouldn't buy a button or banner on a website.
Around 2008, it struck me that if there was a gap in the market, it would be for a series of niche PDFs. I thought of a newsletter for public relations, a newsletter for news agencies, a newsletter for journalists, once a week or once a fortnight. That was the plan but then we kind of thought, “Okay, we probably need to create some sort of website”, so that was mostly an afterthought.
It was a real afterthought and we did five minutes of research between using WordPress or Blogger, and we chose WordPress. We threw it up in an afternoon, originally based on a free WordPress template. Mumbrella started as a site to put all this content after it had been in the newsletters. I then thought; well, we might as well start writing on this new site before we launched these newsletters, and it began to get some sort of traction quite quickly.
We started to send this issue once a week by email to my contacts, family and friends, and we linked to some of the stories, saying “this is what we have done”. Gradually people started to subscribe, and we sent it more frequently – twice a week, three times a week and, eventually, daily.