Six Months In
It's been six months since The Launch. Well, six months plus one week. On September 17th, we (finally) launched the new era of IlliniBoard. I spent the next 189 days trying to keep my head above water. As you can see from my home office there, it hasn't gone well.
My wife came into the office to discuss something yesterday. Her first words: "you realize I literally can't sit down anywhere in this room". She was right. That last corner of the futon couch was taken by my suitcase from Indy which I started to unpack but did not completely unpack.
Actually, since you freaks are probably zooming in on everything in the photo, a list:
- Yes, that's a djembe. Now that Covid restrictions are loosening, if anyone has a drum circle planned on campus, hmu. I can ROCK a djembe.
- (I use the djembe as my laptop stand during press conferences while I sit on the futon.)
- On top of the djembe is my old work briefcase in a box. I'm headed to the UPS store to ship it to my son. He started a new job and needs a bigger computer bag and I was all "uh, I don't use my big computer bag from my old job anymore because I quit that job and moved to Champaign so I'll just ship it to you."
- Yes, the Cardinals sent me the three Illini cutouts from Illini Night. So every time I sit here at this desk I have Dana Howard, Lovie Smith, and Brad Underwood staring at me. I like to think that Underwood is pointing at Brandin Podziemski.
- Underneath the cutouts you'll see The T-Shirt Container. Much more on The T-Shirt Container further down in this post.
- The white box is podcast equipment. Well, it's extra cords and mics. I had planned several "four people sitting around 'casting with mics" podcasts but then Covid said that nobody could get together ever again. That clear container on top of the T-Shirt Container is something I purchased in January to store all of the cords and mics but as you can see I haven't found a single moment to consolidate the boxes.
- The jeans I just tossed there yesterday after changing into shorts because it was nice out so hand up - that's just me being a slob. But the rest of the clothes are all tumbling out of my Indianapolis suitcase. That suitcase has been half-packed in that spot on the futon since the trip to Nebraska on February 12th. It's going to break my heart to fully unpack it and put the suitcase in the closet. I've lived out of that suitcase for nearly six weeks (even when home). I'll probably cry when fully unpacking it.
I'm cleaning the room today, so I figured now is a good time to talk about these first six months. What went right, what went wrong, what I expected, what I experienced.
I'll start with a thank-you. To everyone who has subscribed, thanks. You made that suitcase possible. I've never taken a risk like I did when I pressed "publish post" on September 17th - not one single time in my 47 (now 48) years have I jumped without a chute. For you to make this crazy Covid football/basketball season possible, I can't thank you enough.
Perhaps the best way to go through this is to interview myself again. I did that last week and it was a disaster, so let's maybe try to repair that. Robert, if you would, some questions.
What are you most proud of these first six months?
That answer is easy: IlliniBoard was in the building more than any other outlet this basketball season. It was a combination of Tyler covering the games I could not (such as him driving to Columbia to cover the Missouri game while my son was in town from Idaho) plus me attending the NCAA Tournament games as a fan when denied a credential, but because of my trips to Rutgers, Penn State, and Nebraska (where I was the only Illini media in press row), we get the trophy. I'm so proud of that trophy.
Wait, there's not a trophy?
I know you covered it above, but it kind of feels like you should acknowledge who made that possible.
You made that possible. The reason I drove through the snow to Nebraska was because I felt this massive responsibility (and when I say "felt a responsibility", I felt a responsibility) to fulfill my end of the deal. I said "pay me to cover Illini games". You paid me to cover Illini games. I don't care if it's snowing, I'm covering this Illini game because people are paying me to cover this Illini game.
But that went beyond just subscriptions. When I was stranded at O'Hare, I had people reach out to offer lodging. When I wasn't sure what to do with extra time in Michigan, someone offered a warm bowl of chili (which I intend to swing by and eat at some point next season). And when I didn't get a press pass for the Tournament, many of you offered to pay for the tickets to get me there.
If those of you on the Slack are wondering why I didn't take you up on it, one of you did. After the Drexel game, a subscriber got my number and said he might have an inside track on tickets for the Sunday game. I woke up Saturday morning to a text saying that he had purchased a pair for me and my buddy. So Carmen and I attended the Loyola game on his dime. Thanks, James, for making that happen.
The point: the hotel rooms I stayed in, the rental cars, the gas to go to Piscataway and back (two times!) - that was all your end of the deal. My end of the deal was to just sit at this keyboard and write some paragraphs about what I saw. I'm not sure if I should say this but... my end of the deal is amazing. So thanks.
Anything you regret these first six months?
Where do I start? Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too many to mention.
Number one with a bullet: Seventeen Club t-shirts. I have a feeling these paragraphs might go long.
Very late in the process, we came up with the idea for a third tier. When we used to have the old subscription structure (first $12, then $24 per year, mostly to cover our expenses), we left the amount open in case people wanted to give more. A few of you gave $100 per year. You wanted to support my hobby and you wanted me to be fully covered when getting a hotel room for a week to cover Camp Rantoul. We decided that we should have what, at the time, we were calling the Benefactor Tier. Those who wanted to help by giving a little extra could choose that tier. You don't get anything extra, but we're not in the business of turning away money so here's a $90 tier on top of the $30 Blue and $60 Orange tiers.
As we got closer to launch, we decided that people who chose that tier should get something extra. So we settled on a One of the Seventeen shirt. We had that shirt planned for the store anyway (when people recognize me in Champaign or in Indy or whatever, that's what they say - "hey Robert I'm one of the seventeen!"), so why not just give a shirt to those people who choose that level? So at launch we went with the $90 tier as the Seventeen Club and we said we would give everyone a shirt.
I honestly - honestly - expected less than 17 people to choose that tier. It was just for those who had given $100 before and wanted to again. I had the numbers on that, and it was in the single digits, so maybe we'll get 15 Seventeen Club members and they'll all get a shirt. As I explained in the newsletter back in December, we got... more than 17. I'm not going to say how many because you people already have your calculators out, but it was a large number.
Which was amazing. And also immediately terrifying. How do I produce and distribute this many shirts?
The first option I landed on was the easiest. It's 2021, so you can build an online store, give the people who get a shirt access to that store, have them pick out their size and enter their shipping address, and then the shirt is printed, packaged, and shipped to them with the entire bill coming to me. Easy breezy covergirl.
The issue: that costs nearly twice as much as purchasing a bunch of shirts and shipping them yourself. Knowing what I know now, I wish I would have chosen the easy but expensive route. But since this is my income now, I decided on the second one.
I already went into all the details of what went wrong in the newsletter. I don't need to go through all of that again. I'd just like to note this one thing: I had no idea that I'd come to hate spam filters. Six months ago I loved the advancement of spam filters. I'm old enough to remember waking up to 211 of the same overnight email from the same spammer. So glad they got that under control.
But it means that sometimes, I send you an email and you never get it. And yes, there's supposed to be "this is an approved email address so everything goes through" but then I include some link in the email and it gets screened out. So you're waiting for an email from me, and I'm sending an email to you, or I'm waiting on a response from you, and you sent it but I don't know that, and none of us have our cell numbers so it's not like we can just text "hey I sent that email", so I'm left to try sending secondary emails from secondary accounts hoping they go through.
There are, I think, so many different layers to this. Some email services (I think, but I don't know) will filter out emails that are sent as a massive BCC. So when I'm sending a bulk email to subscribers, some people don't get it because they're part of a massive BCC. And yes, I know that's why Substack and MailChimp and a bunch of other "we promise your emails will get through", but then SubStack stuff often goes to Promotions in Gmail and around we go again with "Robert I never heard back from you".
Some of you are getting a chuckle out of this, I'm sure. At least I hope you are. "Guy who just worked for a company for 24 years suddenly does his own thing and learns 1,300 lessons about how the world works in only six months" should be a chuckle-inducing thing. I feel like I see the world of business so differently than any of my previous 47 years. I wish I could go back and warn myself.
ALL of that to say, the second shipment of Seventeen Club shirts were hand-delivered to me in Indianapolis. I'm slowly working through them and mailing them out. If you subscribed to the Seventeen Club in the last month or so, you'll get an email from me about a shirt soon. The offseason is here (ugh), so I'm going to get caught up on absolutely everything soon.
My biggest regret? Not just taking the monetary hit and making the Seventeen Club t-shirts easy-breezy.
Can you share how subscriptions are going so far?
I can. Not with numbers, but in generalities. And yes, I know that the best way to write posts like this is to claim poverty. If I say "unless 75 more people subscribe today we might not make it" I can televangelist my way to financial success. But that's just dumb. I'll just lay it out there (without numbers).
We set a goal for subscriptions between September 17th and December 31st. We hit the goal on September 19th. This does not mean it was a smashing success - it means we're really bad at setting goals.
It also means that the longtime subscribers invested right away (and for that we thank you). Maybe the best way for me to share the numbers is that the number of subscribers from September 17th to September 27th = the number of subscribers from September 28th to today. Am I sharing too much? I'm probably sharing too much. But that's how launches go. Especially when you've been doing it for 11.5 years before you truly "launch" - everyone who was in before invests right away that first week.
What those first ten days meant: this is my career now. I'm officially a full-time Illini blogger/reporter/fanalyst. I won't have to say "welp, didn't work - time to look for a real job". That was such a great feeling, so thank you one more time.
Getting to a sustainable number was the first hurdle to clear. We could take that ten day number and, knowing it would significantly slow down, project a total number of subscriptions over 12 months. Anyone who already knew about the site (at least anyone who would likely subscribe to the site based on the previous 11.5 years) would likely subscribe that first 10 days. So then the second goal is growth.
That's the goal of these next six months (well, five months and three weeks). Until renewals start in September (let's call that Phase III), I'm hoping to grow the site to the point where we can grow the site. I have a lot planned which will show you that we're worth your $30 or $60 per year, and that it will be a 12-month thing. Once spring football is done we enter the "offseason", but I have a lot of things planned for said offseason.
And then, once September 17th arrives, we'll have an idea how much we can expand on what we do. Emphasis on "we", meaning we can add more content from more people.
By the way, who is the "we" of IlliniBoard?
We're an LLC. The LLC is Robert, Brumby, and Tyler (Walkon). And then we pay other writers per-post. Tyler and Brumby maintain full-time jobs. For me, as of Valentine's Day last year, this is my full-time job. We just couldn't launch until September 17th because some global event happened.
What can we expect next?
Well next I have to clean this office. Have you seen all the clothes just piled on top of my open suitcase? That green dop kit has been my only friend the last six weeks, but it's time for it to go back in the bathroom drawer. Then I need to make sure every shirt goes out on the mail. And then I have to go back through my emails over the last four months because, honestly, there's at least 25 I know require a response.
You'll laugh at this (well, for some of you it might cause a nervous twitch) but I also need to do an expense report. FOR THE ENTIRE SIX MONTHS. As I said, I basically put everything aside and just cranked and cranked on articles and podcasts while traveling from here to there. I have a big box of receipts on my desk here. Probably tomorrow (maybe Friday) I'll go through the entire box and, you know, reimburse myself.
THEN I can sit down and plan out the next few months. Spring Football has begun, and even though my heart still isn't there (I still can't believe this basketball season is suddenly over), I need to cover it. So expect a ramp-up in football coverage.
As an aside there - yesterday was a benchmark of sorts. Brumby, Tyler, and I had planned to launch the site last March 16th (and then the world shut down on March 12th). We put that launch on hold. When discussing that launch in February last year, we came up with the Slack channel (for Orange Tier subscribers). And one of the main ideas behind the Slack channel: I could go to football practice and then immediately share my thoughts with all higher-tier subscribers. Yesterday - more than a year later - was the first time I could do that. Why? Because yesterday was the first time anyone was allowed at any Illini practice in over a year. It's only 15-20 minutes (before they get into scheme stuff and the media is ushered out), but putting those thoughts on Slack yesterday was a big "FINALLY!" moment for me.
So in that sense, there's a lot of "what this would have been if there wasn't a pandemic" coming. I had a hotel room booked for the Big Ten Golf Championships last May but it was canceled. I plan to do the same this year at Crooked Stick. Gonna cover some baseball too. I have about 11 different posts/series planned for May and June - "offseason" stuff I've written down throughout the year (some of it suggested by readers). My point: there's a lot of content coming. Gonna try to earn your subscription right up until day 365.
Oh my gosh Robert that sounds amazing and you're telling me the lowest tier is only $30 per month how is it that something so amazing could be priced so low how can I subscribe?
Pretty simple, thanks for asking. Blue Tier ($30) gets you every article on the site (paywall goes away). Orange Tier ($60) gets you all of that plus the bi-weekly newsletter, the Slack Channel, the season previews, and a 17% discount at the IlliniBoard store. And the Seventeen Club ($90) gets you all of that plus a t-shirt in October of 2027.
If you're interested, all you need is an IlliniBoard login (free, used for commenting) and then you can make your subscription choice on this page.
Yes. I want to toss out a mass apology. Don't you dare "you don't need to apologize" me - I do need to apologize.
In the last six months, there are "hey Robert just wanted to let you know I love the site" emails I haven't responded to. There are Twitter DM's that took two weeks before a response. Some of you are Month Four without your shirt (it's coming, I promise). For some it took two weeks from subscription until the "here's your access to the Slack channel and here's your discount code for the store" arrived. One time I copied the wrong list and two weeks-worth of subscribers didn't get their names on the newsletter list. Three people didn't get their shirts because I transposed their mailing address wrong.
I get that some of you will want to say "Robert it sounds like you were really busy don't worry about it", but "worry about it" is my job title now. Being overwhelmed by the day-to-day stuff is maybe to be expected with A) doing this on our own and not part of some website network and B) football and basketball are overlapped and stacked on top of each other right up until Christmas, but I could have planned better. My God could I have planned better. I look at September 16th-me and see the most naive person on the planet. He had no idea what was about to hit him.
Because of that, you deserve an apology. I did not plan well. Because of that, I was overwhelmed, both logistically and emotionally. I didn't delegate enough, I didn't organize enough, and the website, at times, has looked like the futon over there. So I'd like to apologize for everything I've missed.
The next few weeks is about cleaning up that mess. Starting with the couch. And the shirts. And my email inbox. And the pain of this amazing season somehow being over already.
Thanks again for joining me on this journey. Lots more to come.
Phase XVII goal: be there on media row when Illinois finally wins a basketball national title.