Chicago entrepreneur Joshua Karp is a busy man. He’s running three businesses — all social media related. He publishes The Printed Blog, a subscription magazine, which includes content from all over the blogosphere; The Top Sheet, a one-page hyperlocal newspaper covering Chicago neighborhoods that includes content from blogs and other sources; and Kumbuya, an online community platform originally built for bloggers that allows marketers to target specific niches. SocialTimes recently caught up with Karp to discuss why he’s so passionate about social media and print, and how his business models work.
The first version of The Printed Blog was launched by you in January 2009, but it folded in July. What lessons did you learn from The Printed Blog 1.0? Talk about how the business model worked — or didn’t.
The objective of The Printed Blog 1.0 was to create a twice-daily newspaper. The primary business model was to be largely the same as traditional newspapers – print ads. Before we even had a design, the press caught wind of what we were trying to do, and we received more press in a shorter period of time than pretty much any other company in history. There was so much excitement about what we were doing that we got pulled off the notion of actually generating revenue – we figured that if we focused on building a great product, we’d secure an investment and worry about building a business model later. We decided to publish The Printed Blog 1.0 in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and to quickly grow into a national brand. Unfortunately, with newspapers in a tailspin in 2009, investment never materialized. The unfortunate truth is that we never really tried to make the business model work. The most important lesson was a general “startup” one: it’s better to have a functioning business model on a small scale — revenue generating — and to grow it over time than to try to be big at first and worry about revenue later.
You decided to bring back The Printed Blog in August 2010 in a new format and subscription business model. Why did you decide to reincarnate The Printed Blog with a subscription model and in a magazine format?
The new business model is a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is that thus far, we’ve not secured any substantial investment. To be fair, however, we haven’t really sought it until now. I could continue to fund a model that allows us to publish one issue a month in a magazine format, so that’s what we’re doing. Also, with the addition of The Top Sheet, we now have our “solution” for the daily print newspaper. In terms of the subscription model, the thought process is that there are millions of bloggers and photographers who publish their work online, and we’re hoping that they see the promise of The Printed Blog and will subscribe to it. We also intend to pay our contributors from a percentage of our revenue, so the more subscribers, the more contributors get paid – another motivation for bloggers to promote The Printed Blog subscriptions. We are also about to distribute a media kit to potential advertisers, with the caveat that ads must be “content,” too, and that we’re going to be very selective about which brands we work with.
You must be pretty passionate about both blogs and print. Why do you think people like to read blogs in print? Doesn’t it make more sense for them to just read it online?
The online world is an open ocean of content, and millions of blogs are being created, updated and read every single day. Even the thought of the sheer numbers can be overwhelming. We sift through all the content to pick out the very best so the reader doesn’t have to. Essentially we are curating the Internet where there is never any filter. I like to think of ourselves as philanthropists — giving recognition and exposure to writers and bloggers who otherwise would be lost in the vastness of the blogosphere. Blogs in print is not just a reverse publishing phenom but a memorialization of content that otherwise has a short and temporary life on the Web.
Also, I’m a big believer that physical “experience” matters. Everywhere we look, it’s going away. You can watch movies on your laptop — you don’t need to go to a theater with hundreds of other people. You read books on your iPad — book stores are closing, you buy electronics at Amazon. Circuit City is gone, and Best Buy is on its last legs. You can visit, with audio and video, pretty much any person anywhere — you no longer need to meet. The list goes on and on. There’s something special about the tangible experience of picking up a beautiful print publication and reading it, and I do not want to see this go away.
How is Version 2.0 of The Printed Blog doing in terms of subscriptions at this point? How many subscribers do you have?
Not too many. But we’ve only just started to roll out our subscription drive.
Three months ago, you began publishing The Top Sheet, a daily, print, hyperlocal newspaper in Chicago with summaries of blogs, news, information and entertainment. How does the business model work for this? How is The Top Sheet different from The Printed Blog, and why did you launch it?
The Top Sheet was launched as a daily newspaper that is tailored for its own neighborhood. It tells you the most important news, blogs and other information that is relevant to you and the community you live in….While The Printed Blog is an artistic and literary endeavor, The Top Sheet is a functioning, intelligent newspaper.
…I believe that a year from now, The Top Sheet could be the single largest circulation daily print newspaper in Cook County – we’ve identified 500 “viable” locations, i.e. where there is enough traffic and local businesses to support a profitable edition.
You also recently launched Kumbuya, which lets people create online communities aka Tribes and lets advertisers target groups. Talk a bit about Kumbuya – why did you decide to launch it, and how can it help bloggers?
Kumbuya was first launched with bloggers in mind. I saw a huge problem: Bloggers who work tirelessly at their craft and dedicate so much time to it are unable to make money from their blogs in a way that’s respectful to their readers. The name Kumbuya, as you may have guessed, takes inspiration from the “Kumbayah” song. I wanted to create harmony between bloggers and potential advertisers.
…Facebook for example, forces ads onto your page in the sidebar and makes a profit from your Facebook friends. They’re utilizing your network without you even realizing or making a percentage from it. Kumbuya returns the control to the user.
…The bottom line is that Kumbuya gives bloggers the ability to monetize their communities in a respectful way and control which businesses market to them and how. The benefit for businesses is relationship-building with the blogger, or “influencer” and targeting — placing ads, sponsored content, product sales, event tickets, deals, etc. — to the best possible customers.
As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to others looking to launch social media or print publications?
Answer the question, “How is my product or service going to make a difference in the lives of our users?” Allow this “value” to drive your approach to product development. Try to “prove” your value proposition is valid before your product even exists. Start as small as you can – deliver one feature or function really well, and then move to the next one. Make sure to be listening and learning all of the time, and have the courage to make a course correction when it becomes obvious you need to do so.
Tim Sohn is a freelance writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @editortim.