Thoughts

The One-Man Magazine.

Business

Kai Brach from Melbourne independent magazine, Offscreen.

As the name suggests, Offscreen is a print magazine that explores what happens off the screen. It celebrates the people who use technology to explore creativity, solve problems and build successful businesses. And it all started with a guy that had no idea what he was doing.

After 10 years of freelance work, Kai felt disconnected from the fast pace and the ephemeral nature of digital work and wanted to create something more tangible. So in the span of 3 months, he ‘converted’ from a UI designer to a one-man magazine and launched the first issue of Offscreen in 2012.

He’s been going strong ever since.

What was the moment when you knew you needed to pivot from UI?

After 10 years as a web-design freelancer, I grew more and more frustrated with the fact that everything I created only existed for a few months or years until it was replaced by a relaunch or a new version number. The ‘unfinished-ness’ and the pace of the web is, of course, its biggest strength, but constantly adapting to new trends and ways of doing things can become exhausting. The speed at which web technologies change felt increasingly overwhelming to me. That was one of the reasons I looked beyond developing websites.

Once I decided that knowing the latest and greatest technology was no longer crucial for earning a living, I stopped worrying about being left behind. That’s not to say that publishing a magazine about technology is easy, but it’s moving at a different pace. I now go deep into one specific topic with an interviewee rather than trying to stay on top of whatever is trending on Hacker News.

How did you come up with the idea for Offscreen?

After I made the decision to change my career path, I took some time off and went travelling. And I met the people I’d known online for years in person for the first time. (Many of them work for interesting tech companies or have founded their own.) The stories I heard from speaking to them in person helped me reconnect with the tech community on a more human level. It felt good to meet real faces and hear the unpolished, behind-the-scene stories of success *and *failure.

During that time, I also visited lots of bookstores and discovered my love for the printed medium. It was a bit of an escape from the screen, I’m sure. Towards the end of my trip, I started thinking about how I could combine spreading the stories I heard with the age-old medium that many of us techies had written off. There was definitely no shortage of blogs, podcasts, ebooks and the like. And so, what first sounded like a contradiction—putting pixel people on paper— turned out to be a great way to get away from the screen and connect with people from my industry in a more tangible, ‘real’ and distraction-free way.

Do you think ‘learning by doing’ was a sort of superpower for you?

In the early 2000s, there was no formal tech education. Building things on and for the web meant that you bought the few books that existed on the subject and started experimenting. You looked at what other people had done, and you used their work as a basis for creating something new. It’s pretty amazing to think that the foundation for everything we do online is based on a small group of people, freely sharing their lessons with others and pushing for certain rules and standards.

I think learning how to learn on your own terms and being driven to experiment and figure things out by trial and error is one of the greatest skills the web can teach us. It certainly shaped me. I like to believe the self-initiated learning that is prevalent in programming and design permeates through everything else in life—from planning your next holiday to guring out how to make a magazine.

What made you want to go it alone?

I’ve always been a loner when it comes to work. I prefer setting my own terms and the freedom it provides. And there is nothing more rewarding than getting all the praise when things go well. Of course, the opposite is true too: when you make a bad decision and screw something up, you quickly find yourself on an emotional downward spiral. Running a company, or being self-employed, is a constant roller coaster of mental highs and lows. The trick is to accept both as such—you gotta toil through the lows to be able to savour the highs. Rinse, repeat.

This is not to say that I sometimes wouldn’t mind having a business partner or being part of a team. The current situation just suits my lifestyle best. But who knows, maybe I’ll join (or start?) a team at some point in the future. I think collaborating in creative ways can be hugely empowering, and I often envy friends who get so much energy from having inspiring colleagues.

How has being a one-man team benefited Offscreen?

Having a bird’s eye view on every aspect of a project and being able to make decisions quickly in order to move things in a certain direction, I think, is the biggest advantage of a one-man band like Offscreen. You can just adapt to new challenges much quicker.

I think being the single face behind the magazine also adds a personal touch. People can more easily relate to one person than a group of people. Whether it’s the blog posts I write, the emails I send out or the thoughts I tweet, it’s not conversion-optimised marketing speak, it’s just what’s on my mind. One email I sent out last year to promote the release of the latest issue was a 2,000-word grumble about being stuck in a creative low. It’s not always pretty, but at least it’s authentic, and I think that is appreciated by my readers.

But I think that personal touch is what gives indie publications (and indie brands overall) a competitive edge. Everything around us says that being human equates to being unprofessional. One-person businesses use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ to look big and important; companies use their horrible corporate jargon to hide any sense of subjectivity or opinion; magazine covers are so photoshopped it’s hard to tell whether it’s actually a photo or a computer-generated render. So, making things personal and relatable by mixing in your honest opinions and the ideals you believe in is refreshingly different. We badly need more of that.

How has being a one-man team hindered Offscreen?

Being the editor, designer, publisher and all-in-one doesn’t allow me to really dive deep into any of these areas. That’s why each issue of Offscreen adheres to a fairly strict structure that doesn’t change all that much. If I want to publish at least 3 issues a year, which is the minimum to be able to do it full time, there is simply no time to reinvent the magazine.

The result is that my writing isn’t always typo-free, my photos aren’t always perfectly colour-managed and my marketing strategy is pretty much non-existent.

Being a one-person operation can only go so far. Eventually, you realise where your boundaries are. You’re either happy with where you’re at and come to terms with the fact that this thing won’t grow much bigger, or you heavily invest and place some risky bets to turn it into a real company with employees and all. As for me, I’m totally fine with staying fairly small and nimble—for now at least. I have no plans to become a big media company. I would much rather have a fairly intimate relationship with a small audience than serve a faceless mass.

What did the early days of Offscreen look like in terms of your hours and schedule, and what do they look like now?

Adhering to regular work hours is still a challenge for me.That hasn’t changed much since I started Offscreen. As a bit of a workaholic, I easily get drawn into emails and social media at random hours of the day (and sometimes night). And I’m not proud of it.

I find letting go and sticking to some sort of ‘standard’ 9-5 schedule very difficult. This is particularly true when working with people from around the globe. Just when I finish my day here in Australia, most of Europe wakes up and email responses start to trickle in. It’s tempting to ‘just answer one more email’ in order to keep things moving along.

For all the talk and advice about work-life balance that’s floating around online, I still haven’t really found what works for me. I think it’s important to realise that we all go through phases, though. Sometimes my private life takes priority, and sometimes work does. In that sense, maybe the perfect work-life balance is not a static set of rules to live by, but rather the recognition that we all naturally go through waves of busyness and stress, followed by more mellow downtime. One begets the other.

So, how do you switch off?

Turning off ‘work mode’ remains a constant struggle for me. It’s a well-known dilemma of entrepreneurs: you made this thing and at some point this thing makes you. It defines you. Self-respect and self-worth go up and down with it. And because there is always something to do, and nobody else there to do it, it’s really hard to punch out at 5pm and stop thinking about it.

I sometimes envy some of my friends who aren’t so emotionally invested in their jobs. For them, leisure time starts after work and that’s when they flourish creatively. They don’t take their work-related stresses with them to bed or on their holidays.That’s why I’m very critical of the adage ‘Love what you do!’ that we print on posters and t-shirts. It’s not as black and white as that. I can love what I do, but I can also really really dread it when I lie awake at 3am worrying about deadlines.

How has your curiosity and passion for the project kept you going through the tough spots?

I’ve been doing Offscreen for the past 5 years, which is an eternity for people in the tech industry. Admittedly, I’ve experienced countless moments when I considered abandoning the project and trying something else. The idea of starting from scratch is always enticing—a blank slate!

But I also believe that good things take time and perseverance. I don’t believe in overnight success. Great work usually comes from stubbornly showing up every day, even—or perhaps especially—when you are facing hurdles. Ideas need room to grow and establish themselves to be validated. That rarely happens overnight. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do: concentrate on making Offscreen the best it can be while trying to not get distracted by the 700 other things I could be doing. It’s harder than it sounds, because when you work on the web all day, there is always something new and shiny to grab your attention.

When I go through the trenches, my lovely readers are always there to pick me up. The heartfelt response I get from readers is worth sludging through the swamp every single time. That’s when ‘making it personal’ really pays off. My readers know me. They know that I value (and respond to) their feedback, so they are kind, generous and always polite. It really is a big love-fest. It’s such a great way to keep your batteries charged.

If you ever want to make someone’s day, send them a quick one-liner or a tweet to let them know how much you appreciate their work. It can really lift someone up at just the right time.

Has interviewing other people about their projects inspired or encouraged you?

Absolutely. Every conversation teaches me new ways of looking at life’s daily challenges and the big issues faced by all of us as a species. But there are particular interviews that stand out for me personally. The people that inspire me most are able to put purpose and ideals above personal gains like status or money.

A good example is Yancey Strickler, one of the co-founders of Kickstarter. I’m so impressed by how a successful company of that size defies the typical corporate growth path. Kickstarter registered as a Public Benefit Corporation, which are for-profit companies that are obligated to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not only shareholders. They bought their office building in New York so that they could naturally restrict their growth, somewhat, and become more heavily involved in the local community. For instance, they provided a free space for art exhibitions and events. Yancey talked at length about the importance of not giving up on those ‘naive’ ideals many founders have when they get started. According to him, we too often sell out in order to optimise for maximum shareholder value (while trying to get rich or famous along the way).

I find that pushback against idolised versions of success really inspiring. We need more thoughtful companies like Kickstarter to come off this unsustainable path we’re on. On a much, much smaller scale, I’m trying to do that with Offscreen. For instance, by caring about the environment and only investing in 100% recycled materials.

Do you have a go-to person that you bounce ideas off of?

There are a few different people in my life that I’m grateful for. My partner is always there to offer much- needed emotional support. I couldn’t do it without her. I also work from a shared office space a few times a week to make up for the lack of social and creative interaction that comes from working at home. And then, there are a few people I occasionally consult as mentors for long-term guidance — not just for work.

It’s amazing how a 10-minute conversation with the right person can provide you with weeks’ worth of food for thought.

Do you see your team growing at all in the future?

Maybe. I’ve recently launched a new Offscreen website that makes subscribing to the magazine easier. If things go well, and I can increase the subscriber number over time, I might be able to hire a part-time editor to help me with some of the workload. That would free me up to focus more on promoting Offscreen and collaborating with friends on some exciting projects, like an Offscreen live event. There are plenty of ideas, just not enough time.

Do you have any advice for a budding ‘team of one’?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to make it as good as you can, but remember that your audience/customers are usually a lot more forgiving than you think they are. Whatever it is you’re making, it doesn’t have to be perfect in its first release. Nothing ever is. In fact, if you openly share your progress
and the lessons you learn with your audience, they will probably like and support you more because of it. Have strong ideals and build them into what you do, even if it means missing out on some customers. Like-minded people will slowly gather around and get behind you. Be grateful for their support and don’t be shy to acknowledge it publicly.

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