Conversations in Soccer: Mark Kirby and George Quraishi – Founders of Howler Magazine

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Nov 14, 2012

Conversations in Soccer: Mark Kirby and George Quraishi – Founders of Howler Magazine

I first met Mark Kirby last year while I was in New York. Our mutual friend Adam Spangler introduced us and he told me that Mark and his business partner George were in the process of trying to start up a soccer magazine. Both had spent considerable time in the publishing world working for some of the magazines that you and I most likely read. We ended up chatting about soccer of course, but also about launching not only a business, but a soccer based business.

A month or so later, George and Mark were in LA for MLS Cup weekend and we chatted further at the Bumpy Pitch party we hosted. At that point progress had been made for them, but there was a long way to go to get this launched. Over this past year we have stayed in touch and chatted here and there throughout their process of getting the magazine going and the first edition launched.

The first edition of Howler has now been released and it really is a great magazine. So much of what these guys told me early on came to fruition. They certainly made a magazine that the soccer community has never seen. Long form stories, amazing art direction and an attitude that is refreshing in the soccer media landscape.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Mark and George again about their journey in launching Howler. What they have done is no small task. Launching any business is hard. It’s almost impossible to really understand what that takes without having gone through it. But they did it. And they are continuing to do it everyday. I’m stoked to see where they go from here.

Check out a conversation with Mark and George after the jump.

Why don’t we start with you guys telling us a little about your backgrounds

I’m George Quraishi and I grew up in Tampa, Fl. I grew up playing soccer. I met Mark when I applied for an internship at the magazine he was working at when I was a senior in college. Mark was working at National Geographic Adventure. He interviewed me for the internship. We actually started playing soccer together. He was a goalkeeper. I worked for a magazine that no longer exists called National Portfolio. A business magazine. I worked at Harpers Collins as a non fiction book editor. I had an idea and Mark was the first person I called about it. He told me no at first. He said he was too busy.

Haha! Mark why did you say no?

That’s a good question. I was pretty busy at the time. I think also it’s a little quixotic to make a print magazine in this day. And there are plenty of jokes about people trying to start businesses around soccer in the US going back to the 60’s and 70’s and not quite working out. George and I started talking about this idea of making a magazine. We then had a conversation with our now creative director Robert Priest and Grace Lee who had also been talking about making a soccer website. There was just a really nice energy between the four of us. Bringing the editorial side from George and I and then the really tremendous amount of design experience that Robert and Grace have on the art side. It made a lot of sense for us to make a print magazine.

The look and feel of Howler is different than any other soccer magazine we have seen. Did you set out with that in mind?

We wouldn’t claim that we knew how this was going to look months ago. But I thnk the one thing that was importat for all of us was that it would look nothing like any other sports magazine you had seen. Not just in terms of soccer magazines. So we wanted it to look unlike any other sports magazine and I think Robert and Grace really pushed the design that way . So that was really important to us.

When you look at the space of soccer in the US it really grew up over the last decade or so with people who were passionate about the sport, journalists who were passionate, fans who were passionate. There didn’t really feel like there was a home for them in the sports media world. The Sports Illustrated and ESPN’s of the world they weren’t really covering soccer. They are doing more now but not enough. Because of the background of the four people on our team we felt there was something that a print magazine could do that wasn’t being done by a lot of the other websites that are out there covering soccer. We really wanted to play up some of the things that make great print great.  Lots of long form stories. Lots of original artwork and design. Some things that you don’t see as much on soccer websites, and we really wanted to make those assets of Howler.

We also wanted to have some attitude with the magazine. I think there is a feeling around the traditional American soccer crowd of this us against the world mentality where we have to circle the wagons and defend ourselves. And we wanted tHowler to have a little more fun with it. To have a little more cofidence with the idea that the sport has arrived in the US. We don’t need to be so defensive about it. We want to poke fun at ourselves. Poke fun at the game. And just have fun with it all.

That’s an interesting topic. Historically soccer fans in the US have been very protective over the sport and that “us against the world” mentality has been prevalent. It can sometimes be tough to get across to people a sense of being serious about the sport but still being able to have fun with it.

We’ve seen a little bit of this with our cover. When that cover came out the reaction was by far and large really positive. People really responded to it. I believe it was our biggest sales day. But we did have some push back from people we respect. People told us it was offensive or insensitive. My response to that is that I totally respect that but I also think we are creating this magazine for a mature audience that can understand the irony and satire that we intended. Seeing that reaction is really fascinating for me. American soccer has never been very good at irony or poking fun of itself.

With that in mind, do you guys hope to shake things up a little bit?

Definitely. Its not our goal to be controversial for the sake of being controversial. But I think the idea is that we want to be a little more provactive, a little different. We feel pretty strongly that in order to push the culture of the game in the US forward we need to have different kinds of voices. We need to have the ability to laugh at ourselves a bit. What we’re trying to do is be a part of developing the media ecosystem around soccer in the US and we want to make sure that our voice is something different than what you see in other places. And that is very much important to us.

If we put an issue of Howler out and there is nothing in there that surprises you or makes you think about the game in a way that you haven’t before than I don’t think we are doing our jobs the right way.

What was the content creation process like? Did you go to writers with stories in mind? Did they come to you? What was that process like?

I think we started by looking at the landscape and what kind of writing wasn’t really being done. And we thought about some of the stories that we want to tell and who are some of the writers that could tell these stories or stories that we didn’t even know about. We tried to draw from a pretty wide range of outlets. We have bloggers. We have people who write novels. We have people that basically edit others for a living so they know good writing. So we went to them and told them we have this idea would they like to do. In some cases they pitched us really awesome stories and in other cases we came to them with an idea. For instance one of the stories that we have already put out there on our blog is the “What is American Soccer” story. That’s a story that I really wanted to tell from the very beginning and make it a place where we can have a conversation about what is the American style of play. What defines the way that the US National Team and MLS teams play. So we went to Matt Doyle at MMLS because he writes a tactics blog there. Matt is used to writing shorter pieces and this was more difficult and took a lot of time. But he did an awesome job. He really stretched himself on this and it turned out amazing. We want to be an outlet for ideas like he had in that piece that maybe wont find expression on in his blog. At the same time there are some awesome writers like Josh Dean who wrote the story on Stu Holden in the first issue. Josh writes for magazines that we all read. And to bring his experience and ability to get a story to Howler is awesome for the soccer community which may not be used to having that great in depth reporting.

I think George’s point is a good one. I think the goal is to have a real mix of people that write about soccer but then to bring in other writers that are huge soccer fans but might not write about the sport all the time. The NY Times Magazine will maybe do one story about soccer every year, and we want to bring in the kind of quality caliber and talent that they do there and to have that in every issue.

Another example would be Sasha Hemon, who did a short piece on going to watch his favorite club Liverpool play at Anfield. He is a brilliant National Book Award finalist novelist, he is just an absolutely incredible writer who is so passionate about the game. It’s great to have someone like him in our pages. So I think the key for us is to really have that mix of different kinds of voices in each issue.

It sounds like that for some of these very talented journalists that are fans of the game you guys are giving them an outlet to write about soccer.

Absolutely. The outlets that they write for are not typically running a lot of soccer stories. So it gives them a chance to really dive into their passion.

You guys did a Kickstarter campaign to help get this off the ground. How was the process for you guys?

I would say that if you look at publishing right now there are two main models. There is the one that big magazines like GQ uses. You can get a subscription to one of them for like $5. It doesn’t pay to make the magazine, but they are selling ads against their subscription base. That’s not something we could do. We knew that from the beginning. The other model is you charge a premium for your product but you are making something for a niche audience that they really want. And we thought we would have a much better chance of going that route. American soccer is great because you reach a lot of people who care about the sport pretty easily online. You can really reach the people you really think will be your readers.

We started with these assumptions. Kickstarter is great because it allows you to build a sense of shared responsibility in terms of getting something out. If you see something on Kickstarter that you want to see exist, then you have a stake in helping to make it happen. We started with some of our writers who have online presences to help get the word out. And then people who subscribed or bought the first issue thought that they wanted to help this magazine come into being. That created a wave of momentum. I think we got something like 15% of our funding in the first six days which was crazy. But it shows what can happen when there is support and there is this online ecosystem that helps cultivate little projects like ours. Kickstarter helped make this magazine happen.

The price point of producing Howler is quite high. When you see the magazine, it’s printed in big beautiful full color pages. It costs quite a bit for us to make. The Kickstarter money was really fantastic for getting the project off the ground but going forward we are going to have a mix of the business models. We are really focused on growing our subscriber base. And we will have strategic partnerships with advertisers who like what they see in the magazine and want to reach the American soccer fan. We think a combination of those two things will make the magazine sustainable going forward and we will need both to make it work.

Has there been any one thing along the way that has been the most surprising?

It’s really amazing to watch the internet work. That sounds crazy and Ben you may have a better perspective on this dealing with it everyday. But for me, being an old print guy and a trepadatious Twitter user. To actually watch the enthusiasm spread and then to watch people just come in and support the product. Like George said, we hit 50% of our funding in the first ten days and it was just one of those things where I remember putting out the Kickstarter campaign. We were asking for $50,000 and we thought it was crazy, that there was no way we were ever going to do that. And then we ended up surpassing that goal and just watching all of that was surprising and exciting.

Actually getting the first issue in my hands. I had seen it on the wall, in the studio and on the computer. But there is nothing like flipping through this thing. To know that a pretty small team made this, and then the writers and the editors who worked with us because they love soccer and believe in the project. Then to get this in your hands and think that this looks like a magazine that was made by 50 people. I’m not just saying this because I made it. A lot of it has to do with the look and feel of it and that is all down to Robert and Grace. It just blew me away to get it in my hands and to think that we did this. It doesn’t take a huge company behind you to do something like this. I kind of knew that all along but it was kind of shocking to get in in my hands and really understand that.

That’s perfect and part of the reason I wanted to bring this up. I want peopole to know that if you have a dream and want to start a business that you can do it. You guys are living it. When you get that first edition in your hands it’s almost like giving birth. We’ve had that feeling with some of what we do. It’s very inspiring to see what you guys are doing and I think its really great.

I just got an email from one of our writers who we’re publishing in the first issue. Somehow a book agent got a hold of his story and contacted him and wants him to make a book proposal based on his story. For me that was incredibly satisfying. It felt so good to think wow, we gave this guy a couple pages and asked him to write a story and now he might write a book because of it. That’s just amazing to me. And feels so good to be a part of something like that.

That may be further proof about how important this platform is. And how something like this has been lacking. Obviously there must be interest for a book publisher to have so much interest so early. Seems like a great sign for the magazine itself but also for long form stories in the sport.

I think part of what is going unsaid is that soccer in America has matured to the point where it needs a media to cover it really seriously. I remember reading Grant Wahl’s book about David Beckham and thinking we have a real journalist looking into soccer in the US. And that hasn’t happened in the past. That was a real marker for me. I thought we can enrich the media culture around the game and it needs that. That requires people to put their resources and time and energy into following a story and reporting it over weeks and writing more than 500 words. And I think there is a real price for that now in the soccer ecosystem in this country.

I think so too. Thanks for taking the time to chat today. All the best going forward.

Thank you.

Howler Magazine Issue 1 from Howler on Vimeo.

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