The Evolution of Pop
Rick Baker once ate fourteen man sized beef tacos in one sitting. That was the first of many interesting things we learnt about the masterminds behind one of Australia’s coolest board-riding magazine’s, Pop, over a feed of Mexican on a cold Victorian winter night.
In case your finger has slipped off the throbbing pulse and landed somewhere stinky, Pop is a free print publication with a distribution of 10,000 copies per issue, delivered to surf/skate/snow stores all around Australia. They also simultaneously run an online magazine which averages around 27,000 page views per month.
Pop was founded by snowboarder Rick Baker and friend David Keating back in 2004. Since then they have enlisted the help of Rick’s twin brother Drew to deal with the numbers side of things. As Rick says, “Drew is your quintessential business guy that just gets it done.”
The most remarkable thing about Pop magazine is that is was built completely from the ground up by a couple of guys who really had no experience in the media field. Rick was pretty optimistic about the whole deal from the beginning though. “I knew computer systems, I’m an absolute geek, I was an IT technician after school on the weekends. So the jump for me to go from building websites with flash and HTML and that sort of stuff, I thought it’s a small jump, it’s got the be the same as making a magazine doesn’t it? It’s still just photoshop right?”
The idea for Pop was born out of a conversation between Rick and Australian pro snowboarder Chris Boadie. They’d both seen how popular a magazine called Happy had been in the USA. They even considered distributing it themselves, but when Chris wen on to get a real job with Burton Snowboards, Rick had a re-think, “Well maybe it’s something I can do myself?.”
Having struggled with the boredom of university, Rick dropped out and made some plans to take over the world. His first stop was to call on a friend, David Keating, who he’d been travelling with through Europe a few years earlier. “I thought, I need someone that was a little older than me that had surf/skate/snow experience and my twin brother Drew at the time was in New York, Manhattan. So Dave’s name came up, because he was like a manager at PSC, opening stores. At the time he was working in Real Estate with his old man and his mum, I thought well if this guy can sell houses then he can sell advertising to people, that’s great. Also I didn’t know anything about accounting, I’d failed that a few times, maybe this guy knows. Turns out he doesn’t but that didn’t matter, he knew more than I did, he knew what profit and loss was, so we had that covered. So I thought, we’ve got creative covered and we’ve got the business side of things, and that was issue #1.”
Dave recalls that when he got the call from Rick, he was at a serious cross road in his life. “I drifted into Real Estate but was never entirely comfortable in what I was doing there. Like I could do it and do it O.K. and that sort of thing, but I was never really all that comfortable. Anyway, Dad and I were going through the process of opening our own office and we were about 4 weeks away from being open. I went out to a wedding on a Saturday night and Dad’s best mate turned up halfway through the night and pulled me out of the party, Dad had had a heart attack and had passed away that night. That left me in a holy hell what do I do now sort of situation. I didn’t really know what to do for about 8 weeks, I was lost. Then I got a phone call from Rick saying I’m thinking about doing this magazine do you want in? And I was like yeah.” Dave committed and threw himself into the magazine, very soon they’d finished their first issue.
Pop’s first print run definitely took a few industry people by surprise, “The first issue was a shock to a lot of people I talked to” Dave said “they didn’t expect the magazine to look as good as it actually did and that came down to Rick’s skill. Now we look back and kind of go, ewww geez, it wasn’t that good.”
While their first publication was a feather in Pop’s cap, it didn’t mean an end to the hard work by any stretch of the imagination. “It was still a battle for another 4 issues until we were actually making more money than we were spending on creating it. Our first magazine cost us near 20 grand I think and we brought in maybe $900. But we knew that first one was like our proof of concept and we had to get it right.” Says Dave laughing. “It cost so much because the printer who took us on at that point knew we were naïve and took us for a ride. So we don’t use him anymore.”
During those first few issues, Dave and Rick worked harder than they ever had in their lives, trying to make their dream work. Dave recalls the long nights for both of them. “We’d survive for a couple of weeks with just a couple of hours sleep a night. Rick was doing the same thing. I was working the second job and he was dealing with phone calls from me at 9 or 10 in the morning when he should really be sleeping because he didn’t go to bed till 7 from doing the website.”
Luckily Dave had been groomed by his Dad from an early age to be a hard worker. “I started working when I was 12 years old on an ice-cream delivery truck from 4am till 7pm jumping on and off doing the wholesale drop offs around the state. It was a gnarly job. Not only that, the guy offered to pay me like $70 a day and dad was like, ‘what does he need all that money for? Nah give him $25, he’ll be right.’”
After around 18 months into Pop, Dave and Rick knew they needed help to get the magazine to the next level. This is where Rick’s twin brother Drew came into the picture. “It reached a point where we were going as fast as we could but we weren’t really getting anywhere, just keeping our heads above water. The injection of Drew’s help and his work, it really helped, we’ve stepped forward a huge amount having him with us.”
Drew quit his high powered job in New York to come back home to join the Pop family. Rick and Dave admit that having Drew leave his job was also a huge boost to their confidence. They knew were doing the right thing by following their dreams. Originally Drew thought the whole project would go bust in the first few months. “Drew came around from his thought of ‘this thing’s going to tank’, to, ‘hey this could be alright’.” Rick recalls. “He was working this corporate job fixing servers and hooking up T1 connections to hedge funds in Manhattan. He was like, ‘yeah it’s good money, but I’m working in a cubicle with no windows.’ Sometimes you’d worry about him, we’d be on the phone and he’d say ‘I hate this job, I just got yelled at by some 500 pound fat dude about his Blackberry’. Drew started to think maybe this isn’t what I want to do.”
With Drew at the helm of the business to business relationships Pop flourished and Dave was able to quit his 2nd job to focus entirely on the magazine. Drew bought direction to Rick and Dave’s ambition. According to Dave, being able to sustain a career from Pop was one of his main goals from the beginning. “We’ve worked really hard for three years for no money and I can’t just let my girlfriend pay the rent every week.”
Now that Pop is making enough money to get by, Rick, Dave and Drew are constantly evaluating the business, looking for things they can improve on and ways to get more efficient. They love nothing more than getting feedback from their readers. Dave especially is ready to hear what others have to say about Pop. “Even negative responses to the magazine are good to hear because at least you know that people are reading and reacting to the material you’re putting out there.”
The Pop boys continue to carrying themselves and their publication in an honest way. It is paramount that Pop makes sure their principals are not compromised when selling advertising or talking about their readership. It is something that they seem to be particularly passionate about. “You can go onto Google Maps and see where everyone one of our stores is, that our magazines are in, and check down to when the last box was delivered, the date and who signed for it. We’re completely open about that. None of our competitors do it and it’s constant. Every distributor we talk to, and they might just say this to everyone, but they’re like ‘oh man I hate spending such and such with some magazine because we don’t get our value for money, I know they’re only printing 8000 copies when they say they’re printing 20,000.’ And then next issue there’s a double page spread from that supplier. I just think that if a magazine is so willing to lie to its advertisers what would make me think that they’re unwilling to lie to their readers?’
Rick is also pedantic about keeping Pop’s content as even as possible between surf, skate and snow, but admits that a lot of the time it isn’t as easy as it sounds. “It’s something that we’ve always tried to avoid, being biased, because it is hard to navigate that kind of cross over sports market. Having said that when you’re faced with advertising sales, your contacts are all what you’ve grown up in, which for me was snowboarding, so it’s easy for me to call Colby at Burton and say ‘hey mate, we’re doing this magazine’ and he could sort of trust me. We didn’t really have those connections in skateboarding. If I’m honest with you when we’ve got four pages left in the magazine, we’ve got to cut something, for us unfortunately it’s always surfing because I’ve always been so uninspired by the creativity in the surf market, outside of Monster Children and Insight, it doesn’t seem like anyone else can do something original.”
Rick’s younger brother Marc jumps in from the corner of the table to support this statement. “There’s only so many times you can run a picture of a cutback.” He says.
Rick seems unsure as to which creative direction the surf side of Pop is heading, since there are already so many existing surf publications that follow the contest scene. “I look at magazines like that and go, well I don’t really want to know what kind of car Andy Irons drives, or if he wears a certain tie or that whole ‘cribs’ thing. But I’ve got surfing mates who love that shit, to use a surfing word they froth over that stuff. But you show that to a skater and they’re like ‘What the fuck? You’ve got Havianna flip flops thongs or whatever? I mean come on.’ With surfing we just need to probably pick a side of the fence and go OK, we’re going to go down that sort of soul, sprout, sipping jet streams side of surfing or we’re going to go down the ‘CT side and that’s it. I don’t really think those two avenues of surfing really get along.”
There is no doubt where Pop is heading on the snowboarding side of things however. They have just created a new DVD called ‘2 Weeks In’. A part-for-part edit of the DVD is already available on the front cover of the current issue of Australian & New Zealand Snowboarding. The final cut, along with bonus features will only available on issue 10 of Pop (for free mind you!). For this movie the boys focused on high production values and out of park action using all Aussie snowboarders. Something they got a mixed response to. “Some people liked the increased production values and the emphasis on no park footage whilst I think some people were expecting more hammers. Fair enough, of course I would have liked to film hammers all season”. Who knows where this side of the business will lead. Dave told us that Drew was unable to make the interview because he was “off shaking hands in Hollywood”. Sounds promising.
For now Pop are concentrating on what they do best, producing interesting content for people who love the board-riding life style, whether that be surf, skate or snow. Exciting times lay ahead. Dave and Rick have some big ideas for their next DVD feature, they’ve just been threatened with their first lawsuit (you can check out the letter on their website), and they say their next print issue of Pop is their biggest ‘skate’ issue ever. Not bad for a couple of guys from Mornington who are all still in their mid 20’s. This is just the beginning of the Pop story.