It’s like a constant flow of reference materials with new stuff coming across your desk, almost like a business tool.

With digital technology on the rise, Stack founder Steve Watson backed his intuition and love for magazines to launch a fiercely independent business in 2008. It’s still going strong today.

The love for magazines

In hindsight, launching a magazine company in 2008 was quite a gamble. Nevertheless, Steve Watson was determined to make a success of his new project, Stack Magazines. More than 15 years later, the independent magazine subscription venture he launched is still going strong and his passion burns as brightly as ever.

“I’ve always loved magazines,” Watson says. “I did feel that reading them felt like cheating though – when you read a book you’ve got this wall of text that you know you’ve sometimes got to fight your way through. Whereas magazines just make it easy for you. So I realised that I really like magazines and particularly independent magazines at an early stage.”

Independent subscription service

It was while working at a publishing company that Watson got increasingly frustrated that he wasn’t able to tell all the stories he wanted to. That’s when, and how, the seeds of a business idea, a subscription service for independent magazines, began to take form. 

Printed magazines in stacks

The business model is simple. Subscribers pay an annual fee and receive one magazine – chosen by Watson – each month in the post. It’s tempting to think his selection process must be like randomly choosing a song on Spotify and recommending it to customers. Unsurprisingly, it’s much more thought through, Watson says. “I work about six months ahead with Stack. We’ve sent a fashion magazine this month, so we won’t do that again for the next 6-12 months. Or, if we’ve sent a very image-heavy magazine, we’ll try to go more text based next time,” he smiles.

A business tool for designers

When Watson has decided which publication to highlight, he then places an order for its next issue. He plays no role in the editorial process of the publication though, and the first he gets to see of the finished product is an advance PDF. It has, he admits, given him a few nervous headaches at times, but the large, loyal subscriber base he has built up suggests that while you can’t please all the people all the time, most find something in every magazine. 

The customer base is generally between 20 and 40 years old, city based and skewed slightly more female than male. Around half are in the creative industries and about a quarter are designers. “That makes sense. It’s like a constant flow of reference materials with new stuff coming across your desk, almost like a business tool,” says Watson. “The point of Stack is that you’re going to discover something new every time.

Reading something in print

Watson has managed to create a thriving business based solely on print. And in his office, surrounded by bulging bookshelves, he says his reasons for promoting the use of print in the digital age go beyond just wanting his own business to flourish.

“I really enjoy the feeling of sitting down with something in print and reading it again and again. When I’m reading online, there’s a better chance that I’m going to be skimming it to get to the bit I want. But when I’m reading something in print there’s a better chance I’m going to be laying down and relaxed, allowing this thing to wash over me.”

Perhaps one conclusion to draw from the success of Stack Magazines is that there will always be a place for those driven by a need for independence. Being so close to his customers and suppliers gives Watson a sense of what “success” really means, he says. “When we’re able to step in and help a publisher do something they would otherwise struggle to do is a great motivator” he says. “And it’s very gratifying to hear comments like one I got from one of my favourite magazines, Real Review. We took their third issue, and the owner Jack has said that if Stack hadn’t done that, they wouldn’t have survived. They’re still going now.”