Name: Julie Wilson
City: Lexington, KY
Occupation: Publisher/editor/business owner by default
Julie Wilson is publisher of Kentucky-based magazine Story and a gutsy broad I am thrilled to have met recently. Julie graciously took time out of her day to tell us a little about life as an entrepreneur in the publishing industry.
Samantha Shaddock: So, what prompted you to launch Story?
Julie Wilson: Let’s go back four years ago, when the idea of starting my own magazine – after years of serving as captain of other people’s publications – pretty much smacked me in the face in order to take notice. In all honesty, I do not have an entrepreneur’s spirit; it’s not that I mind the work, it’s just that I never saw myself at a podium speaking to women’s business groups or learning QuickBooks at 44 years old. But I do live by a radical “truth begets all” mantra, and the best way to do this is to be your own boss. If I want to write about rape culture on college campuses, I don’t have to “sell” the idea to anyone. Fuck everybody, I’m doing it.
SS: How did you prepare for this? What steps did you take to start your own company?
JW: OK, if I’m going to lay it ALL out there, I must share that starting this magazine came to me in a dream. In my dream, it was late at night, and I was driving in a heavily wooded area with a faceless photographer in the passenger’s seat. All I could see was his camera bag. Three months later, and I’m shooting on a mountain top in Eastern Kentucky with a photographer I had just met a month before. We spent a total of 22 hours, round trip, on this shoot, which meant we were leaving late in the evening. And in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, evening is as black as the coal found in its seams. At 1 a.m., I look over and the exact image from my dream has made it to reality. I don’t believe in superstitions, talismans, wishing on stars or any of that bullshit. But I believe my own mind, so I had to take this as a sign that I was traveling the right road.
Despite having been a journalist for more than 20 years, I felt somewhat debilitated preparing for the business side: legally establishing the company as an LLC, getting a tax ID number, all that technical stuff. But once you set some time aside and walk through the steps, it’s really not as overwhelming as you think.
SS: How did your family and friends react when you announced you were striking out on your own?
JW: It’s no secret among my family and friends that I’m a real go-getter. As a journalist, it’s been my job to ask questions, even the tough ones, so they knew I had no hang-ups about doing what needs to be done. And every step of my career path led to the door of starting my own magazine. But the reality of actually saying, “Ok, I am no longer going to work for someone else and invest all of my time in bringing my dream to light” is scary. My husband has been very supportive throughout the whole process, but he’ll be the first to admit that it’s a risk. I understood that, too.
SS: How is life different for you now that you’re not working for someone else’s publication? Is it harder in some ways? Easier or better in others?
JW: You think that being your own boss is the Holy Grail of gigs. And in some ways it is – I don’t have to ask permission from anyone to run a certain article. I can spend a bit more than usual to pay for a really good photographer without groveling. I can even wear my beloved Beastie Boys t-shirt to the office if I want. All of these were real occurrences, and it was great to be able to hit the proverbial “Go” button without asking anyone else.
But with great power comes great responsibility! (smh.) You can have all the control you want, but if you wield it without any forethought, you’re screwed. I mean, in reality, your readers are the boss. If they don’t want to read an article about hog farming, then they’ll tell you by not purchasing the magazine. And this indirect feedback is tough, so we are active on social media so we can hear directly from our supporters. You have to know what’s working and what isn’t if you want to succeed.
Then, at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. You can get all the input you can and still botch something, then it’s only you who faces the music.
SS: What do you love about your job?
JW: Ironically, it’s the same things I loved when I first started as a journalist. The field work. I love talking with people, encouraging them to open up and share their stories. Getting people to realize that they have something to contribute to this world just gets my juices flowing. I love hearing back from people after having written an article about them; they always react as if I had written something amazing but it’s still hard for them to believe that it’s their story they’re reading.
And I love finding those hidden gems within these stories. The stuff that people share during an interview that they didn’t realize was so important to them; nothing gossipy, mind you, but real passion, real feelings that rise up while talking.
SS: What’s the hardest part about being an entrepreneur?
JW: The fact that people think I’m an entrepreneur. Yes, in all ways legal and technical, I own my own business. But what I really know is publishing, and the rest of the business model was (and in some ways still is) foreign to me. P&L statements, AR reports –the fact that I know what these acronyms stand for makes me a little nauseous.
SS: How did it feel when you saw the first printed issue of Story?
JW: I am an anxious person by nature. As I’m writing this, my legs are bopping up and down underneath my desk, trying to release all my pent-up energy. So when the first issue rolled off the press, you can imagine what I looked like then because every dime it took to get that first issue to the public came out of my own pocket. And every idea inside its pages was mine, so I had only me to blame.
But it was quite a euphoric moment. These days, so much of publishing is done online, so holding a real-live paper copy of Story in my hand was like holding a newborn baby. You don’t get to actually feel it until it’s delivered.
SS: What advice would you give other women who want to start their own company?
JW: Wow, that is loaded question. The first thing is to look at yourself in the mirror and honestly answer that you are ready to give whatever it takes. And I mean whatever. Going on long road trips and eating beef jerky for lunch. Doing more speaking gigs for free than you can imagine. Even stuffing envelopes for 8 hours. Yes, I did all of these things. The owner is in the floor slapping labels on envelopes and getting them to the post office. Be prepared for the non-glamorous side of business, because that’s what you get more often than not.
If you’re ready for this, then the next step is to find a true mentor. It doesn’t even have to be someone in the same business as you, but someone with experience who is willing to guide you through the tough decisions. And who will be honest with you if one of your ideas is bound to end in failure. But on the flip side, you also have to know when to allow your gut to override any advice you’ve been given. If you don’t have a strong relationship with your gut, I wouldn’t recommend starting your own business.
SS: Any advice you’d give women who want to start their own publication, specifically? Asking for a friend 😉
JW: Run. Run away and never look back. No, in all seriousness, a publication company may very well be the toughest gig to do successfully. I have been told “Print is dead” more times than I’ve been told how brave I am for trying (and that’s been a lot). Courage is great and all, but you’ve got to have a real business plan. There are so many factors involved, but the main ones are: do you have a strong enough niche, enough content to sustain you? Is there an audience for it, and if so, can you properly reach these people with your publication? Is anyone else already doing what you’re doing, and if so, how are you going to convince people that you can do it better? Do you want to go the traditional newsstand model route or do it as an independent publisher?
It’s a lot of questions, I know, but these are only a handful of the ones you need to be able to answer before you decide to jump in with both feet.
SS: What’s the gutsiest thing you’ve ever done?
JW: Ha! Call them gutsy or stupid, but I have a lot of examples. For starters, spending my entire inheritance from my mother on starting this business was a giant one. She passed away unexpectedly, but she was around when I first started putting the idea together. I knew she would have been proud of me for chasing my dream, so I went for it.
The other gutsy move I made was the decision to not make a digital version of Story. We have a kickass website, but we only put a couple stories from each issue online to give newbies a taste of what they’ll get when they buy the printed magazine. I’m of the “why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free” tribe, you know. Plus I wanted readers to disconnect from everything around them and sit with the magazine in hand, digest it, dog-ear certain pages that really spoke to them.
I email stalked Johnny Depp’s agent for weeks until I could get an interview with him for our Hunter S. Thompson issue. I got the interview – via email – but I got it!
And finally, I am facing the decision whether or not to shut down the magazine. Now that’s gutsy, to make the call on whether it’s worth it (emotionally, fiscally) to keep going or move on. I’m sure you want me to elaborate on that part, but I can’t right now. Stay tuned.
SS: What’s something you wish you’d had the guts to do at some point in your life and 1) what held you back and 2) how would you handle things differently today?
JW: I’ve always wanted to learn to surf. I feel like I was a ‘70s sun-kissed beach girl in a former life. I’ve watched Dogtown and Z-Boys about five times, and I never tire of it. What held me back was the fact that I am nowhere near the coast and not very graceful, so I can envision my attempt at surfing to become a “what not to do” viral video. But who knows, maybe someday!