It’s with great relief (and a tiny bit of sadness) that I’m announcing we just shut the lights out on our Calgary Is Awesome media property.
A few months ago I wrote this long (really long) piece about why we shut down Toronto Is Awesome after 3 years in that market. I gave an in-depth look at the business end of it and shared the hows and whys of its demise. I also let you in on the plans we had to expand our network, then how I killed them in order to narrow our focus on our core competency: celebrating Vancouver and its awesomeness.
As I said in that piece I own 100% of this company and after more than 8 years of slow growth I’m quite happy to run it as a sort of mom-and-pop shop, as of today only in Vancouver. We do well here punching above our weight class and taking up a respectable share of the media landscape thanks to the small team that delivers our readers with engaging local content each and every day. I don’t want to dance on Calgary’s grave but I do want to give you a quick story of its life as a sort of eulogy for it and a catharsis for me.
To go back to the nucleus of Vancouver Is Awesome, when I started it in 2008 I explicitly told my wife that it was never going to make money, and that it was forever going to be an outlet used to share positive stories that keep us fired up about living in Vancouver. At the time I was working as a freelance creative director and had decent contracts with Nike and a few other clients, and the idea for V.I.A. was not for it to be a business. I had recently moved back from a 5 year stint living in Los Angeles and the concept was partly inspired by the “No Fun City” movement that greeted me upon my return and the generally negativity that seemed to be following me everywhere I went. I was tired of it and wanted to hear stories about all the things that keep people in this city despite all of the bad (which has always been well reported)… but nobody was telling them. So I created this thing, not knowing where it would go.
In October of 2008, eight months after V.I.A. went live, we launched a Calgary site to mirror it. Its mandate was to celebrate all things awesome in Calgary, and a couple friends of mine headed it up as the editors steering the ship. I can’t remember if I went to them or if they came to me saying that they wanted to do a site there but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We launched with absolutely no plan in place about how to run it, but it was established that I owned the property and they were going to have fun with it the way we were doing here on the coast.
Less than a year in with Vancouver it caught on and started taking up a large part of my work day. I realized that in order to keep it going we’d need to start bringing in revenue because while it was a labour of love I couldn’t pay the rent with good vibes. That’s important to note here as it was the moment when the Calgary property went on a different path, or maybe just stayed on the original one it was on.
The editors ran C.I.A. for a while then realized that it wasn’t for them, that they had other projects they wanted to pursue, so it got passed on to one of the contributors they had brought on. He managed it for a while, then came to the same conclusion and did the same thing, passing the torch on to another contributor. This happened a couple more times until Irene Seto stepped into the picture. She is greatly responsible for the success that the site had, introducing advertising and really giving it a go, with little help from me. But after a few years running it she decided she’d had enough and passed it on to another editor. That was about a year ago.
The deal we had in place with Irene was that she could make a certain amount of money off of advertising she sold (I want to say it was $25,000 per year, like the agreement we had with Toronto Is Awesome), and then we’d start taking 15% off the sales she brought in, as a licensing fee and for being in the network which provided a platform, sent traffic and offered a solid brand. We also had an agreement where we brought her ads from our clients to place on C.I.A., and we’d take a percentage of the money from them. She made a bit of money but not enough to keep her interest, so she passed it on to a new editor who ran it for a few months. This was before we decided we were going to hire somebody to take it on as a full time project and pay them a salary (the plan that we scrapped), and this editor was not happy when that decision to fill her role happened.
If I’ve learned one thing along the way (I’ve actually learned thousands of lessons, but this one sticks out) it’s to make sure you’ve got contracts in place with people who are taking on roles with your company, even minor ones. Because while you might think everybody is on the same page often they’re not, and when people are stuck on being right they can be entirely unreasonable. Case in point is that when we let the editor know that we were hiring someone new they decided to squat on our social media handles. This person had told us that they weren’t able to take on a role that was more than part time. They had just taken on a job as an editor with a larger media company but they still weren’t happy about our decision to find someone to properly run the thing. We didn’t have the passwords to the C.I.A. Facebook and Twitter accounts because they had changed them, and to add to that they had linked them to their personal email address so we couldn’t even recover them. For weeks I tried to get in touch with them by phone and email but got no communication, so I ended up giving them a 24 hour deadline to give our accounts back to us or the next call they’d get would be from our lawyer. The next day the accounts were back in our hands (one other thing I’ve learned is that hiring a good lawyer who can offer advice is super helpful).
So we took over the site and as we had ultimately decided not to expand and hire people, we ran it remotely from Vancouver. My Content Manager here coordinated with contributors in Calgary to keep relevant local content up on the site and we ran a number of advertising campaigns through it. After our costs we grossed about $18,000 in revenue from it over a period of about 6 months, which is probably more money than it made in the previous 7 years combined.
But Facebook tells the real story of what has happened with Calgary Is Awesome over the past few months since we’ve grabbed the reins, and that is that a Vancouver company who doesn’t care all that much about the people of Calgary – or the city itself – came in and ran a media property with no boots on the ground. It was a financial success but the thing became a hollow shell. A profitable shell, but a shell nonetheless. Check out the engagement comparisons between Calgary and Vancouver below. In it Vancouver is doing 111,623% better than Calgary (remember what I said about core competency?).
Ultimately we’re shutting Calgary down because it became a pain in the ass for me, I don’t feel good about the money we make off of it, and it’s not a sustainable model.
I want to end this by thanking everyone who contributed to Calgary Is Awesome and made it a resource for the community. Even the person who squatted on our social accounts. You guys care more about Calgary than I ever will, and I hope you continue to bring the awesomeness of your city to its residents through other channels.