Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Real Story of JPG Magazine

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about community-building, it’s this: Do Not Lie. People are too smart and well-connected to believe a lie anymore. So, with that in mind, the story I’m about to tell is absolutely true as I experienced it.

How JPG Began

In September, 2004, Heather and I went for a walk in Buena Vista Park and started dreaming up a community project. The idea was to create a printed venue for all the awesome photographers we saw online. That afternoon I checked: was available.

A couple months later, we launched the site. We used every available free web tool we could find: Flickr for community discussions, Gmail for submissions, Notifylist for the mailing list, and ultimately Lulu for printing the magazine.

We maxed out a Gmail account collecting submissions for issue 1. After it was published, my friend Paul offered to whip up a backend in PHP that allowed people to submit online. By issue 2, we were using the system he developed.

We created six issues over two years this way, each with a public call for submissions on a theme, and edited by Heather and I. Each one was a labor of love, not just for us, but for the thousands of amazing photographers who submitted their work out of a altruistic desire to participate.

Inspired by the amazing growth of the magazine, in 2006, Heather, Paul, and I began discussing what we were then calling “JPG 2.0.” We wanted to open up the publishing process to the community to let everyone help make the magazine. I came up with a spec for how it would work.

Paul and I had been doing freelance design and consulting work for a while, and had been talking about starting a design firm. We envisioned devoting four days of the week to clients, and using the fifth for our own projects. JPG was at the top of the list.

But once we looked at the spec for JPG 2.0, we realized that, if we built that tool, we could make a magazine on any topic. The opportunity we had before us was really “Magazine Publishing 2.0.” I remember sitting in Heather’s and my apartment, on our big, blue couch, asking Paul, “If you had the choice, would you rather start a design firm or a publishing company?”

For me, the answer was easy. I’d been working in and around magazines and newspapers since high school. I wanted to start a publishing company. Paul wasn’t sure. But all that changed when he met Halsey Minor.

Birth of 8020

Halsey was the founder of CNET. Paul met him through the editor of Surface Magazine, where Paul was a long-time web contractor. Halsey also had been thinking about a participation-driven magazine company. Our ideas seemed to overlap nicely.

The three of us, plus Halsey’s business partner Ron, got together for a steak dinner (I had the fish). I brought a few copies of JPG. We talked about what we’d learned doing it, and how we thought we could expand the idea to multiple magazines.

Conversations continued. A few weeks later Paul and I were in a meeting with Ron, who asked, “Which one of you would be CEO?” The obvious answer, as I saw it, was: “We haven’t discussed that yet.”

“Me,” Paul said.

Discussing it later, Paul assured me. “It’s no big deal, it just means I’ll have some extra stuff to do, but otherwise we’ll be equal partners.” I believed him.

We called the company 8020 Publishing. I suggested the name based on my experience with virtual communities, after the 80/20 ratio of lurkers to posters. Halsey invested in exchange for a percentage in the company.

After 11 years of working at other people’s startups, I was finally the cofounder of my own. It was a dream come true.

Paul and I talked about all the different magazines we’d start, but ultimately decided to begin with JPG. The brand had two years of momentum behind it and a strong community. 8020 bought JPG from Heather and I for a modest sum. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, because I was still the editor, Heather would still participate as much as she could, and I still owned it because I owned a portion of 8020.

We hired an amazing team and, over the course of the next year, we built the JPG 2.0 system of my dreams. We began selling subscriptions and advertisements, and distributing to bookstores. The community grew by leaps and bounds. We published four more issues in the new system (the fourth, issue 10, should come out soon). We also participated in two different gallery shows. Getting unknown photographers onto the walls of art galleries is still one of the things I’m proudest of.

Fight or Flight

Unfortunately, issue 10 will be the last one that Heather and I will have a hand in. We are no longer working for JPG Magazine or 8020 Publishing.

Why? The reasons are complicated, and the purpose of this post is not to air dirty laundry – it’s just to let the community know why the founders of JPG are no longer there. We owe you that much.

In one evening, Paul removed issues 1-6 from the JPG website, removed Heather from the About page, and deleted the “Letter from the Editors” that had lived on the site since day one. Paul informed me that we were inventing a new story about how JPG came to be that was all about 8020. He told me not to speak of that walk in Buena Vista, my wife, or anything that came before 8020.

Here’s where the whole “not lying” thing comes in. I just could not agree to this new story. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, make any business sense to me. Good publishing companies embrace their founding editors and community, not erase them. Besides, we’d published six issues with participation from thousands of people. There’s no good reason to be anything but proud of that.

We had a long meeting with Ron. I tried to compromise. I suggested we add text to the website, explaining the difference between issues 1-6 and the new issues. I wanted to embrace the truth: Tell people how we started, how we grew, and what we were now. It’s the story of how a successful, organic community begins. It’s the story of how authentic media gets made. And it has the added benefit of being true. Compromse could not be reached.

It became clear that we could not continue to work together with this fundamental disagreement. And because he was the CEO, I was the one who would have to leave. I still own a percentage of the company, so I hope to see JPG continue to grow and prosper. Unfotunately, it will be without its founding editors.

I’m indescribably sad this happened. I invested every bit of my personal and professional capital in this. I spent three years of my life working on JPG. I traveled the world to promote JPG and 8020. I hired my friends and designed the system. I managed the community and we built 10 amazing issues together. I’m very proud of what we made.

What I Learned

If it’s any help to other entrepreneurs, here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Make no assumptions when it comes to roles and responsibilities. Like my dad says: “Someone’s gotta call quittin’ time.”
  2. Communication between partners is mandatory. And you cannot communicate with someone who is not communicating with you.
  3. Decisions aren’t decisions if you have to keep making them. Set on the course and stick to it. If you keep talking about things that have already been decided, nothing will ever get done.
  4. When someone says one thing, but acts in a contradictory way, you have a choice between believing their words or believing their deeds. Believe their deeds.
  5. Never let anyone tell you what you want. When someone says, “You don’t want that,” what they really mean is, “I don’t want you to have that.”
  6. Don’t stay where you’re not wanted, respected, or happy. Even if it’s your company.

Ever Forward

I chose to tell this story because I wanted the community I spent three years growing to know that I didn’t leave on a whim. As sad and embarrasing as it is to tell, I put the truth out there because my personal and professional credibility is on the line.

To my friends and colleagues who supported JPG over the years, thank you. You made JPG a wonderful magazine and community. And to the people I hired at 8020, I miss you terribly. This was not your fault.

And to the members of JPG community, thank you for all of your amazing work. I want you to know that I tried to work through a tough situation with honesty and integrity. And, in the end, I left because I could no longer create the kind of authentic media we set out to make together.

I hope that the next venture I start is lucky enough to have participation from people with the same enthusiasm, talent, and genuine awesomeness.

Until then,

— Derek

ps – Comments here are closed, but there’s a discussion at MetaFilter.

pps – Why did I write this? Here’s why.

← Back to Home

Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.