On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.

> When you do something new, people will predict your failure based on fitting you into a past pattern. Don’t listen to their predictions, but do pay attention to their reasoning. On the first press trip I ever went on, fresh off issue 1, I met another journalist who took great pleasure confidently predicting CPC’s imminent failure to me. This was on the grounds that CPC was “like PC Gear.” Not only was this an insensitive thing to say, it was wrong-headed: CPC was ultra-technical, rigorously focussed on hardware and had evolved from a successful section in PC Pro, all of which made it the opposite of PC Gear, which had tried to bring in men’s lifestyle elements and a blokey tone.

People see what they want to see – said journalist was about to launch an independent review website, so he was quite bought into the idea that all big publishers were clueless. I love a good analogy but they’re best suited to explanations, not predictions.

While he was completely wrong, throughout the first few years of CPC’s life, there were a few attempts by our publishers to push it towards lads’ mag style publishing, which we as the editorial team openly derided. The logic was that CPC’s audience was almost all male, lads’ mags were popular, and CPC’s biggest print rival, PC Format regularly had covers featuring a scantily clad model holding a graphics card. It was even once suggested that we cover-mount a photoshoot DVD from Maxim, which Dennis also published. None of these arguments made any sense, and were all ignored by the editorial team.

CPC’s girl-free covers were hugely important in establishing it as technically heavyweight, which lead to excellent access to hardware from the manufacturers. This in turn meant we could put out long, in -depth reviews of the best stuff, and the readers would respond by buying it – further increasing the likelihood for manufacturers to give us access to stuff. Most really good businesses have at their centre a virtuous circle like this, where a few early fundamental decisions help drive a successful feedback loop. Be on the lookout for these; break them at your peril, and be aware when you’re called upon to “fix” a business that creating these loops is incredibly difficult.

> Culture eats strategy for breakfast[1]. Looking back, 2003 was not an ideal time to launch a computing magazine, and few other print launches from that period have survived. CPC was successful and surprisingly profitable for Dennis, in a large part due to the fact its culture gave it a strong sense of direction. Firstly, like all good magazines, the editorial team was a good reflection of the readership [2]. We liked the things we wrote about, which meant the work was easy and we had a good supply of ideas. The culture helped generate the tone, and when a product has an inherent tone, everything is easier. You can write copy more quickly, you know what your covers/ads/etc should be like, and you have a moral compass to make decisions with. There were also a range of different personalities and interests[3]. One thing which magazines excel at is letting individual voices thrive as part of a mix. The web is either completely choral or entirely individual (Jezebel might be the exception to this).

> If you add a good dose of being data-focussed to a strong culture, you will be unstoppable. CPC featured pages of graphs (often somewhat masochistically, as in the fabled water-cooling issue which featured something like 13 pages of them), but this really gave us the confidence to back what we recommended. We knew which products were good and which were bad. When people bought the stuff we recommended, it worked well for them. Our advice was good. People are often sceptical about using data to help make decisions, but the reality is that many things about technology can be quantified and need to be quantified in order to be understood.

> Sometimes you are what you are. Reinvention is really hard, and this is compounded by the fact that sometimes, people buy you because you do this one thing. They want to hear about that, even if that one thing waxes and wanes in terms of its own success and interest levels. CPC began organically, but it was always quite a narrowly defined magazine that struggled to entertain topics outside of performance PC hardware. People wanted to hear about graphics cards even when they weren’t that interesting. Ultimately, that’s fine – any consumer publication is for consumers first, for its writers second – but it left some of the team frustrated and meant we were at the whims on the hardware market itself for things to cover.

That definitely lead to my departure; I was fascinated by touchscreen smartphones and the iPad. While we tried blogging about iOS and discussed benchmarking smartphones, it just never felt like it fit.

CPC only asked me to write 50 words for the anniversary issue, and I think that’s right. Nostalgia is great for individuals, less so for institutions. It was fun for me to think back to the magazine – I’ve carried a lot of lessons forward from it, even if I do spend most of my time on Macs and touschscreen devices these days.

[1] This is probably a Peter Drucker quote. Wouldn’t be surprised, his writing is excellent.

[2] If you’ve wondered why the printed music press is so moribund, this is why. Anyone who is really into music just isn’t reading the NME, whereas in 1994, it was absolutely central to Britpop.

[3] Maybe we got big headed. One Christmas, the publisher’s secret Santa presents at our party was a framed photo of staff writer Josh Blodwell, signed “famous Josh”.

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2 thoughts on “On ten years of Custom PC

  1. Great summary on what makes a magazine ultimately successful. My only addition is that it is very easy to ignore how your competetive set will react when yoiu “disturb” their market and that sometimes you need to be able to flex quickly to react to that, as long as you stay true to your core values.

  2. It’s so therapeutic to be able to give one’s ‘leaving speech’ in a positive manner. I identify with the culture issue very much – keep true to the culture you believe in.

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