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Culture Compass podcast

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Loma-Ann Marks talks about her arts and culture website

Tell us about why you started Culture Compass and what it does.

I actually did a combined arts degree many moons ago which covered dance, art history, English and music. After I graduated, I was a jobbing actress for a little while in various pub theatres that had two people in the audience. So the arts have always been my first love and then I got into journalism and - by chance really - ended up at a tabloid which I really enjoyed and loved doing, and learnt a huge amount.

But as I said, arts was my first love, and when I found the right time I decided to combine what I had learnt at the tabloid in terms of appealing to a larger audience - writing in an accessible way, writing very quickly and to deadline, with my love of the arts. At that time in 2008, online was still relatively new, unbelievably, and there weren’t that many purely online magazines so I thought I would start one and give it a try. I did do print, but just didn’t have the money really or the know-how of how to start a print magazine, so I thought I would start it online and I’m glad I did - combining the high arts with popular culture.

What do you enjoy about working in the arts industry?

When I started Culture Compass, one of the main reasons I began was that a lot of arts and culture reporting around that time was very much preaching to the converted. You already had to have a knowledge about that play, that playwright, that artist or that gallery in order to enjoy it or to feel welcome and that it was for you. That has very much changed now, but that was one of the reasons I started. I loved arts and culture and I think it should be accessible, and the artists themselves tend to be accessible but sometimes the whole thing around it isn’t so much. I wanted to report on it and make it relevant, and to explain and report on it in a way that people can grab hold of and give them a little window into what they might think is not for them, to show them that maybe it is.

How do you differentiate yourself from similar businesses?

Well, as I said, when I began Culture Compass, there weren’t that many. Online there were a couple of others that were in print and had a website. Since then, there have been a lot more which meant I had to evolve as well. When I started, I wanted to cover everything and typically when you start a business you think, ‘I’m going to do all of that’ and I learnt quite quickly that I couldn’t do everything, so now what I try to focus on much more is the ‘why’ behind things.

Culture Compass isn’t a listings and I think that is really important to mention. I’m not trying to compete with Time Out and other listings that do that extremely well, and do absolutely everything that’s going on in the arts world - that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. I tend to focus on the ‘why’ so that I get the larger story and I tend to lean towards longer form pieces as well.

I’ve always really loved doing interviews, be it with a really well known name to someone who is up and coming. We’ve had Helen Baxendale, Myleene Klass, we even had Madonna some time ago, as well as people that no one has ever heard of or has just got a part in a soap and has gone on to do a fringe play somewhere. We’ve had David Cronenberg, Martin Fowler from Eastenders, Terry O’Neill who is an amazing photographer, Stuart Semple who is a cool artist, to recent graduates who the reporter or I thinks is doing something good. That is what I thinks marks us out - there is no name big or small that we don’t want to find out more about if what they’re doing is good.

What was your biggest challenge when setting up your business?

Gosh, there were loads! I think the biggest one is trying to do all of it. Coming from a paper and being a real magazine fan, I wanted to do all the sections, and even now I think there are probably too many sections on the site and I’m looking to streamline it even more. But I think trying to do everything, and trying to do everything really well, you just end up doing none of it really. That was tricky.

Also, the business side was difficult because I had never started a business before, it was my first one, so I was having to do everything. For example, trying to do a very good editorial but then equally strategy, or getting advertising, so it was hard at first. Learning to trust other people and to delegate is important. Do fewer things, but do those few things well, rather than trying to do absolutely everything and just skimming the surface with all of them.

What does a normal working day look like for you if there is such a thing?

It really does vary, it varies a lot! I have two children so I start early and drop them off which highlights one of the other things I like about working for myself, in that I can fit work around my other commitments. Then I get to my emails which is what I start work off with quite early on in the day since I get probably 100 plus emails every day, and it can be a huge challenge plowing through them and picking out the ones that are relevant and following them up.

I might be doing an interview on Skype or going to an artist's studio and doing it face to face, or going to visit a rehearsal. Sometimes I do video pieces, so I take the videographer with me and interview the artist in question, or else I’ll be writing up a piece from my dictaphone that I’ve done in the past, so I write it up and format it since I publish it all on Wordpress myself. I also have to make sure I get images in and meet up with PRs which is quite a big one.

I also try and make a point, at least once a fortnight, of just wandering around London. Which might sound a bit odd, but just to see what’s about, see what people are wearing, see what the adverts are on the tube, see what the window displays are in the shops because I’m quite keen on trends and finding patterns, looking at why certain things are happening right now and what’s behind it and maybe what’s coming next. That fits in very much with me and Culture Compass because the arts do reflect that. They are often the beginning of trends, so yeah, my day is very varied.

Who would you say was your biggest inspiration when setting up your business?

Their names escape me I’m afraid, but the women who set up Not On the High Street [Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish] - and I’m not comparing Culture Compass to them at all, it’s a completely different thing and their website is absolutely massive, but they started it with just a few little suppliers and now it’s enormous.

Also, Julie, and I forget her surname [Deane], who set up the Cambridge Satchel Company. She started out on her kitchen table and has done incredibly well, and obviously it’s a huge international business now so I think she’s really inspirational. I was lucky when I met her very briefly once at an event. I like her because she didn’t follow the rules. There are a lot of set things people say you should do when you set up a business, and I found that that’s not always the case and that sometimes you can just follow your instincts. That might sometimes be better than following set rules, set patterns and following the same path as everyone else.

Obviously within reason, but I think if you can be yourself and you’re passionate about what you do, that comes across. If you really believe in it, that really does come across well, and that’s much more important than following a set set of rules like, ‘you must allocate that much to marketing’, ‘you must get premises’, you must do this that and the other. I think you should listen to all of that, because there’s a lot to be said for learning from other people who’ve done it before you, but ultimately you have got to be passionate about what you are doing. So anyone that has been passionate and seen it through to success, I would admire and would be inspired by.

What advice would you give to people starting their own business?

I don’t know if I know enough about business really to give advice, but in terms of starting an editorial business or starting an online business - which most business are nowadays or need to be - is find out all you can about online and digital. When I started Culture Compass, I had a lot of false starts, with a lot of smoke and mirrors, and online business might seem a bit like a dark art if you don’t know much about it, but it really isn’t. That’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve learnt since I’ve made it my business to learn about online, digital, social media and how WordPress works and just have a general understanding of it. I’m not saying I have a huge understanding of it, I’m not a developer by any stretch of the imagination. I have someone who helps me with it, but I think if you’re a business starting out, you should find out as much as you can because otherwise you can end up wasting a lot of money and time by not knowing, and thinking it’s more complex than it is, or that you don’t need it, because you really do.

I think the other thing in terms of advice is to keep going and also learn to change, so if something’s not working and you’ve given it your all and it’s still not working, I think have the flexibility to just go, ‘you know what, that’s not working’ and move on, change it, develop it, or even ditch it if you have to and start something else. I think you need to be honest and confident enough to know when something is working, but also to know when something isn’t working and to change it.

How has Clear Books changed the way you do your accounts?

It makes it easier because it keeps it all in one place, and I’m not a hugely good at that side of things, I have to admit, and Clear Books has made it easier. It’s given me a bit more peace of mind to know that I’ve done it, rather than having loads of different bits and bobs in various places like email inboxes, box files, or whatever. It has consolidated it and put it in one place and that’s given me peace of mind more than anything else, so yes, that’s the biggest help.

Where can people find out more about your business?

Online you can go to www.culturecompass.co.uk/ and you will see all the interviews and features. One of our reporters is going up to Edinburgh so you will get daily reports from him. Do have a look - there’s a good archive as well, there are some really nice articles from when we first started that are still relevant now. Also, following us on Twitter and Facebook would be great as well!

To find out more about Loma-Ann Marks, take a look at the Culture Compass website.

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