What I’ve learned from year one of Boothby

Thoughts on navigating the first year of business in a year unlike any other.

What I’ve learned from year one of Boothby

One year ago Boothby launched. We’ve had a big year since then: bars have opened and closed and reopened (and closed and reopened some more); we found out the pandemic is actually just How We Live Now. I’ve spoken to bartenders and bar owners, written about their exploits, sipped their drinks, and was stoked to see this little publication named among the top 10 in the world at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.

It hasn’t been an easy year — it hasn’t been an easy year for anyone. But it has been a year.

I’d much rather be in the bars talking about this than banging away at my keyboard, but this is where we’re at. One of my favourite themes to write on and to talk about is bartenders who go on to open their own bars, launch spirits brands, and bring new things to life — maybe it’s a new drink, a list, a book, whatever.

Sum it up as “bartenders doing interesting shit.”

It’s with that in mind that I’m sharing a few of the things I’ve learned throughout this first year. The media business is different to the bar business, but I’m sure a few things are translatable. I hope it helps a couple people to take the leap to make something amazing.

Before I go on, though, a word: if you’re reading this — thank you. Thanks for supporting Boothby with your shares, follows, and subscribes (you can sign up to be a Boothby member here for free, by the way), but more than that, for your time and for sharing your stories. It’s wonderful to get to bring these stories to you, and without your support it wouldn’t be possible. Thank you.

Embrace uncertainty
I think I’m hardwired to be okay with uncertainty.  We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I like being on the road. But I think that embrace of uncertainty is made easier because I’m lucky. I have good family around me, supportive friends, all of whom know me for who I am and (thankfully) tolerate me at my worst. This, friends, is a crucial contributing factor to embracing the chaos that comes with going out on your own.

But things have never been more uncertain than they are now. You’ve heard that there’s a global pandemic going on, right? I left my job in June (I think — it feels like a life ago) last year in what we now know were the early days of the pandemic. I thought that it was the right time to jump.

Why did I think that? I feel disingenuous putting it into some cohesive narrative — it was less planned than I’d like to think. But that’s what I’m going to do here.

At times of crisis, everything goes up for grabs. It felt to me like the pandemic was a big fricken rock thrown into a pond and, frankly, who knew where things would shake out? Who could know what things would look like after we emerged from that first lockdown. Who could guess we’d be where we’re at today?

There were things I knew and things I couldn’t know. I knew I could build the Boothby website — I had done that before. I knew I could write about bars, bartenders and booze; that’s what I’ve been doing since 2012. I was convinced I could make something that looked good and that I found interesting.

I thought that if I liked it, then maybe others would like it too.

But I didn’t know how I was going to make money to live. I dipped into my super to get me through a few months. Beyond that... I really didn’t know what would come of things.

The other thing I did know was this: if I didn’t have a crack I’d bitch and moan about it forever — and nobody wants that.

So I jumped. And I lent heavily on friends and family. And we’re still going today. When friends ask me how things are going, I usually reply that I still have money for beer, so we’re good.

There have been successes along the way. I’ve worked with some supportive sponsors who get what I’m trying to do with Boothby, and that’s been amazing. But I’m always kind of waiting for the other penny to drop; sure, I had a success today, I think, but what about tomorrow? And the day after that? It’s something I’ve talked about before with bar owners. I’m not sure that ever goes away. We’ll see, I guess.

It’s okay to suck at sales (hopefully the work is good)
One of the biggest concerns I had starting Boothby was this: I’ve never been a good salesperson. I suck at it. I mean, I’m fine if someone wants to buy something, and I happen to be the person selling it at that time and am there to conduct the transaction — that I can do. That’s fulfilling an order. But whenever I’ve had to upsell, whether at a table as a waiter or in a meeting with an advertiser, it has never gone well. I don’t do it. It doesn’t come across as genuine.

I’ve worked at places which value the sales of a product more than the actual product itself. And though I’ve always thought that without the product you’ve got nothing to sell, I’ve always had that nagging doubt that in fact I was wrong.

As I said, I’ve never been much of a salesperson.

But so far we’ve kept the Boothby lights on. I’ve focused on trying to do good work. Whether it’s my bread and butter stories about the bar and drink scene in Australia, or if it’s been work sponsored by brands, I want to make things I’m proud of. And I’ve been fortunate to have the support of brands that have seen the value in what we do.

I like to think that if you work hard at making something good some people will like it and some will support it.

Let’s see how that stacks up in year two, shall we?

Boothby.Talks: How Whisky Works with Ross Blainey — live, free, and online
Join Sam Bygrave and Ross Blainey as they go beyond the brand chat to get at how the whisky world works.

You need people who will say you’re wrong
If you’re working for yourself, you don’t have anyone to tell you no. This is both good and bad. I’ve often found that I’ll be working on something — maybe a photo or video edit, maybe an article — and find myself in the weeds after a couple of hours. I’ll stand back from what I’m working on for a minute and think to myself, “Is this any good?”

When I’m in the weeds like that I never know. It could be self-indulgent dreck of the first order.

So I’ve made liberal use of a few key close friends who aren’t afraid to tell me that I’m a dickhead. In those moments, they’ll do a quick read-over and let me know if I’ve strayed too far from the main road. I don’t always agree with them. I always appreciate the feedback, though. Tell me what sucks and I’m a happy guy.

Find the focus — and keep coming back to it
I’ve found that working to a focus helps. What do I mean by this?

For me, this means that I keep returning to a few broad themes — one of them being bartenders making new stuff. Whether it’s a bartender opening a new bar, starting a spirits brand, creating a cocktail or technique or whatever — those are stories I’m interested in whether it’s in print, through photos, or video. I keep coming back to the Boothby tagline: Better Know Your Bartender. You can know your bartender better, and frankly, you better know your bartender.

That’s not all I write about but that’s the key focus for me. Having this focus helps me to know what to experiment with and what to avoid. It’s like knowing which balls to play at and which to let through to the keeper. Sure, I might get bowled over every now and then buy a shiny new ball, but at least I’m playing my game and not someone else’s.

And I find that the bars which operate along a similar premise — they’re not everything to everyone, but they know which pitches to swing at — those are the bars that mean something to me and to others.

Social media companies are not your friend
Wait, what? A controversial opinion I’m sure this ain’t. 10 years or so ago it was possible to grow your Facebook followers quickly, to share stories and get a lot of visitors going to your site. The quality of those visitors — often blow-ins who never returned — was never an issue, because the numbers were great. Big numbers! And you could do this without paying Facebook for the privilege.

Turns out, though, that Facebook and Google and Instagram and whoever else, they’re all businesses, and they all wanna get paid. That ‘audience’ you built on their platform? You don’t own them. You rent them from Facebook, and even then, it’s often not worth the money. The traffic is often garbage traffic.

Boothby’s Facebook and Instagram accounts got up to 1000 followers quick enough but it has been a slog from there. The type of stuff Boothby publishes doesn’t lend itself to virality and it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories so a bunch of nutters aren’t sharing posts widely and clicking dubious links. It doesn’t seem to matter how much genuine Facebook users share or like or engage with Boothby’s posts, if I want them to get in front of people who have liked the Boothby page I gotta pay to get it out there. That’s the way it works, and I get it — Facebook is a business. The gripe I have isn’t about that — it’s about getting my stories in front of the people who like the page. You can pay for clicks, but they’re often poor quality visitors who at the very best weren’t looking for Boothby’s content anyway, or at the worst, are a bunch of digital bots. I’m not interested in that just for the big numbers.

It’s why building out the Boothby member base has been so important. We’re still a small bunch in terms of numbers, but at least you’re real people. Getting people to subscribe to the newsletter means that I get to send my stories to people who want to read them. (And those people are wonderful.)

It’s why I think an email newsletter sign up — for Boothby or for your business, whether you’re a bar, a writer, a designer or whatever — is 20 times more valuable than a social media follow.

Every day is day one
It’s a cliche, I know. But if we’re doing this whole Boothby project right, we’ll continue to grow and evolve what Boothby does. If that focus is clear — Better Know Your Bartender — and the work is good, I’m hoping this second year will be even better. Mistakes will be made. Hopefully a lot more will go right. With the world the way it is for bartenders and bar owners and drinkers and producers, it’s not  going to be easy, but it will be exciting. I’m willing to bet it’s going to be delicious, too.

And with any luck, I’ll see you at the bar.

And on that closing note, did you know that becoming a Boothby member and receiving the newsletter is free? And that it’s a great way to support Boothby?

Boothby is turning one year old, with prize packs for subscribers
It has been a year of openings, closings, and sharing the stories and recipes of bartenders.