In this week installment of Creative Diaries we talk with Boat Magazine editor and co-founder Erin Spens.
She shares her journey from growing up in a small town in Iowa to launching one of the most inspiring independent travel magazine we’ve seen in a while.
I grew up in a farmland in Iowa and went to a very tiny school. The closest big city from my house was Chicago even though that was three hours away. I went there a couple of times with my family and immediately fell in love with the City and how exciting life seemed to be there. I think I always knew I wanted to go somewhere bigger and I was always very interested in fashion, books, design and writing. Not things you really find in small towns like the one I was living. I think I was always attracted by the urban way of living and thinking. So, as soon as I finished high school, I applied to a bunch of schools and ended up going to FIT in New York to study fashion.
After my studies, I started working at French Connection, a British fashion company, as a visual merchandiser which later led me to work for an agency that designed windows for fashion brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton. It was a really amazing opportunity and I actually loved the job but it was too hectic for me and I never felt like my heart was 100% in it. I like fashion as a creative outlet, but I’m not necessarily interested in the business side of it. My whole life I’ve always written and I’ve always loved reading books and, even when I was feeling really tired after work, I used to spend my evening writing a journal. I had this dream that one day I would do something related to writing even though I don’t think I knew what it really was until my husband and I started our own little design agency in London and later launched Boat Magazine.
We started our agency after moving to London from Istanbul where we met. At the time, we were working for different brands and we were doing everything from logo design to advertising and copywriting. Things were going well but, one specific month, all of our work dried up and we had nothing to do, so we decided to make something that we could use to go out and get more work. That ended being Boat Magazine. Because I’ve always been obsessed with media and journalism making a small publication just clicked for me. We thought we could give the magazine to people we wanted to collaborate with to showcase our work and ideas. For
Because I’ve always been obsessed with media and journalism making a small publication just clicked for me. We thought we could give the magazine to people we wanted to collaborate with to showcase our work and ideas. For me it was the best opportunity to finally do some writing and immerse myself in the creation of a publication. At the time we didn’t think about becoming editors and publishers it was more a desire to share our work and tell people’s stories, it was actually a side project. As we loved to travel and to discover new places we choose to dedicate the issue entirely to one City. As we believe that to really grasp the essence of a country, its people and its culture, you have to be totally immersed in it, we decided to actually relocate there for one entire month. That’s really how Boat Magazine started. It’s a bunch of different routes in my life that have converged into the launch of the magazine.
So we decided to go to Sarajevo for a month and create the magazine from there. We left with a small team of super talented illustrators and photographers, we rented an apartment and we worked for an entire month getting together stories of people we met. It all just fell into place, everything went smoothly and it made so much sense that I asked myself why I didn’t do this before. It’s something I’ve always dreamed but never really thought I could do. When, after one month, we actually had all of those inspiring stories and amazing photos I actually said to myself ‘I can actually do this’. So we went back to London, edited all the content we had, printed the magazine and to our surprise people started asking for it and actually buying it. That’s when we understood that we were onto something that was more than a side project or an agency’s portfolio.
So we decided to continue with our idea and grow it beyond our network. For the second issue, we decided to go to Detroit, and as we did for Sarajevo we gathered a group of contributors that understood our vision and philosophy and left for City. Usually, before we go to a city, we draw up a list of approximately 50 stories we would like to tell. Most of those don’t get published in the magazine as the majority of the stories that we end up writing about come up while we are there. We either meet new people that tell us amazing stories or we discover new things while we walk around the City. We stay really true to the fact that you have to be in a City to fully understand it and to really get the heart of it. If we followed our list of ideas we wouldn’t need to move, we would just find everything online and repeat other journalists and writers stories. We strive to tell the hidden secrets of each City we move in. Of course, while browsing the Internet looking for information on a specific City we always find some intriguing stories we want to tell, but that wouldn’t be authentic. So we make sure to find things that are new and unique. Boat is about telling stories of interesting people that normally would never get an interview in a conventional travel magazine.
It’s crazy how much you really don’t know a City until you live it. These days, with social media and the constant flow of information, we might think we know a country, but we really don’t. The thing is that right now a lot of media out there are just regurgitating stories from press releases. Our goal is to live like a local while we are in the City and to get authentic stories we wouldn’t know about if we stayed in fancy hotels paid by travel companies.
We just came back from Bangkok where we did our latest issue and I was so surprised by it in a positive way. Usually, people stay a few days there to party and then go to the islands but I thought Bangkok was more than just a two days stopover. It’s a City filled with intense energy and it hides so many little treasures for anybody who is willing to look for them. When we decided to do our issue on Bangkok we had this idea to write about Sepak Takraw, which is a sort of kick volleyball from South-East Asia. We knew we wanted to meet people involved in it, but we had no idea exactly how we were going to find them and what the story would be about. One evening while walking around the City we ended up finding an amazing court where people were playing Sepak Takraw. It’s a massive court with fantastic lights that illuminate the night and we ended doing some amazing shots with our photographer there. But, what really stuck in my mind from this travel, is the story that I’m finishing writing right now. It’s about the life journey of a 93-year-old Orchid Master we met through several connections. He has worked for 75 years growing and caring for orchids. It was the most amazing story I’ve ever heard. I went to meet him with the idea of asking him about plants and flowers and their connection with the Thaï culture, but instead he started talking about his philosophy of life. He uses orchids and flowers to study people and so we just sat there for an entire day listening to one the wisest men I’ve ever met. It was one of those incredible experience one cannot forget. That’s the type of story that we want to share and that we wouldn’t be able to find if we didn’t move to the City for a longer period of time than just a few days. I hope people will enjoy the issue about Bangkok as much as I’m loving putting it together.
Our previous issue was about Los Angeles where we just moved from London. After spending five years in the UK my husband was relocated here and it was a great opportunity for me to come closer to my family. It’s also a great opportunity to start growing Boat in the US. We have managed to make Boat well known in Europe and we are trying to do the same here. Even though we are selling mostly online it’s not that easy to get a global readership. In London and Paris, we have managed to get into quite a few shops and I would love to do the same here. I remember that, at the beginning, I was literally walking around London and Paris with the magazines in my hands asking store owners, that I thought would fit with Boat philosophy, if they wanted to sell it. Distribution has always been a headache for me, even now, after having published ten issues.
We have a really amazing distributor in the UK who we are really happy with, but I still have not found an international distributor who understands independent magazine. At the moment, we are handling all of our own international distribution so we are not in many shops, but we handpicked them and we sell pretty well there. At the beginning we were losing too much money doing the distribution with a big distributor because they take tons of copies and then they don’t really care where they put the magazine so, in some shops, the copies ended up staying in the shelves for weeks.
Our numbers aren’t massive. We can’t grow too fast because we’ve never had an investor and we never had a bank loan. We’ve always paid everything upfront ourselves. We basically started by investing our own money to make the magazine and then we would recoup everything from the sales. At the moment we have a base of approximately 1500 subscribers and we do a lot more single sales via our site. We are at a point where we break-even with every issue and we don’t have any debt which is a great achievement in itself. I have been really careful with the costs since the beginning and I believe that taking the time and doing something with passion while being totally aware of all the costs involved, is the road to success, whatever that might mean to you.
THE BEST ADVICE I WAS EVER GIVEN
Back when I was in New York I was texting a friend in the middle of the night. We were writing about how stressful my job was and she wrote “What doesn’t have to be done today, keep it off until tomorrow”. Basically, what she was saying, was that if for a lot of people procrastination is negative, for a perfectionist, like me, who never knows when to stop, procrastinating on something is actually ok. It means you’re going to give more time and space to the thing you are working on. I remind myself her advice each time I spend too much time on a project. It helps me go to sleep at night as I know that if it’s not urgent I can still finish it the day after and that a good rest will only make me good. I know it’s a weird thing to say, I don’t want to promote procrastination, but I think for all the people that love what they do and often have difficulties taking time off it’s important to know they can allow themselves to rest and to give each project the right time to flourish.
MY FAVORITE MAGAZINES & BLOGS
MY TIPS FOR TRAVELLING ON A SMALL BUDGET
MY DAILY ROUTINE & PRODUCTIVITY TRICKS
I work from home so I am here most of the time. The biggest challenge for me is focusing on work when the house needs to be cleaned. I have a hard time working with mess around me. The other challenge is to switch off. I can get my head down and work for hours and hours and hours and then it’s time to go to bed again.
I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE DINNER WITH…
Images courtesy of Erin Spens