Elephant’s 19 years old, as of July.
Yesterday, I got to gather with Elephant’s readers for our 19th Birthday Party—for an hour, I walked us through our history and the hard and helpful lessons that arose from it—with the help of cameos from a few special guests:
We started off as a print magazine, as some of you remember.
I’d gone to meet with this guy about writing an article for his new, start-up magazine, and he asked me to be his editor. I remember I was wearing my retro white Tiger shoes. I still have ’em. I said hell no—I’d just left a burn-out job with bad pay for a good cause, but I wanted to start a business I could raise a family on, eventually, so I would partner. And he agreed.
I didn’t know how to publish a magazine, but I did know journalism, writing, editing, and sales (I just learned on the job, mostly, but it was that feeling of—I’m good at this, I’m not gonna give up, this is of benefit, this is going somewhere, I’ve tripped onto something). I’d been raised Buddhist, and had become an environmentalist, and a Buddhist (being raised Buddhist, and making meditation a part of your daily life are two separate things). I was passionate about equal rights, and politics, and arts, and community…and we made all of those a focus of the magazine, under the slogan, “it’s about the mindful life.” That was a unique thing, then—mindfulness about life, not about spirituality. I didn’t want to publish a magazine for and about the choir. I wanted to offer a magazine about all the things yogis and environmentalists and activists care about, which is everything: food, bicycling, mindful travel, enlightened education, activism, having fun on a rooftop on a cool summer’s evening. Everything!
We started off as a thin black and white magazine. I remember one of my best friends, Pam P., said of the first issue, “I expected more from you, Waylon.” She wasn’t wrong. My Buddhist teacher, the disgraced Sakyong, held it in his hands and said, “Hmm, it’s thin.” We printed eco, we added color, we added pages as we added advertisers, and improved our paper and inks. By we…it was mostly me. We edited, we sold ads, I was on the print floor, I worked night and day and “didn’t have time to exercise.” (I’ve learned that’s BS, even if it’s true, since.) I hand-delivered heavy, slippery, dear magazines by car (my old Saab’s shocks weighed down to the tires), and by bicycle, even the back pocket of my Filson coat.
At first, Rose helped. We paid her $20/hour, an astronomical fee for us, then. Travis left, to get a real job (and start a family). Over time, we had a ragtag staff, wonderful folks like Maron and then Abbey and Merete and Pam (who sat with me endless deadline over endless deadline and designed the entire magazine, then years later, my first book) and Caroline and Timmy and Alex, but mostly part-time, no benefits, decent to good pay.
Alex and others helped make our talk show events happen—they started off huge and grew consistent, and even bigger, sometimes. Now, they’re largely gone, over, but online, virtual, huge in their own way. But I miss those live events, and still dream of an in-person conference, or forum, or school event.
Toward the end of the magazine years, our covers were incredible works of art created by guest design shops and artists. Folks thought I was successful.
We had interns, and gradually evolved that curriculum (we always taught a lot, really invested in folks) into Elephant Academy, or hired them on as staff.
Over the years, we’ve added benefits (we’re still working to improve) and pay. We now have 34 staff.Our pay’s always been ahead of the curve, where it should be. Anyways: we interviewed lots of famous folks. We added some really amazing staffers, and then they left. We added more. I met an intern named Lindsey Block at one of our talk shows, at the Boulder Theater. I might have met her once before, at a group interview in the back of our offices with New Era Colorado, on 16th Street (years later, I’d rent the office next door for five years. Now, we own a little office right downtown, in Boulder).
Lindsey—that intern—is now our COO, and a mama, 13 years later. My original partner, Travis, (remember Yoga in the Rockies, anyone?!) left me with my original accountant, Samara, who intro’d me to my next bookkeeper, Kaitlin, who helped shape the business we’ve become. She just left, and I found Mary, who’s our bookkeeper, today. I found her through her hubby Brian, who I interviewed when he ran for City Council here in Boulder.
I’ve interviewed maybe 1,000 folks, maybe more, at conferences and festivals in Boulder and around the US. I’ve never been very good at it, but our videos did well, and our podcast, and our blogs drew in many millions of viewers and listeners and readers.
We went online. I remember one day posting six blogs in one day, or something, and thinking—I can write online. I started writing on the Huff Post (and other publications), too, and made their front page several times, drawing many more readers to Elephant. I jumped into social media with both feet, lost all our advertisers in the transition from print to online (with no readership to start, advertisers had no one to advertise to), and soon went into default, toward foreclosure. I kept going, though I was broke and hungry and stressed and my dog didn’t have basic healthcare (nor did I, but I never cut my foot badly on a hike, requiring medical care I couldn’t afford, as did poor Redford).
The magazine grew, online, from a local and national community to an international community. Suddenly, gradually, slowly, working night and day and in between times, all the hours…all at once, we had a community of hundreds of thousands, then millions, not just many thousands.
But we were still broke, no matter how much we grew. Eventually…I recalled my magazine days, when we sold what we made for ~$4. So I created a paygate, with a volunteer named Colin who created half of our success then. He was a Scottish developer, kind, grumpy, generous…and with my guidance, we created our paygate. That was a big deal, then, an innovation–every other site was offering paywalls, folks clicked, saw a “please subscribe, you can’t read” and left. I figured we’d offer 98% of our articles for free–folks could read three a day, and if they wanted more they could retune the next day, or subscribe for $1/month. Overnight, I went from broke to making a basic income, and we were off to the races.
We started an online school, Elephant Academy, that’s graduated 1000s (and hopefully benefited their lives). We’ve hired many from the ranks of the Academy. It’s getting bigger and deeper and richer, with more mindful offerings, every year, thanks largely to Molly and Emily (co-directors).
We hosted live forums around BLM (with guests like Jane Elliott and Senator Cory Booker, one of dozens of leading public servants we’ve had the honor to feature over the years), and Covid/Quarantine, and free training events.
I won some awards, as did Elephant. Every year, we evolve (whether we like it or not, it’s a changing landscape). We reached 20 million readers a month, at one point. We were voted top in #green on twitter, twice, and I saved my home from foreclosure by tweeting at CitiBank, and getting them to let me pay my mortgage, again.
I went from broke, to making a little, to broke, living on couches and counting change and eating day-old muffins, twice. As in, two different years, five years apart. And then, 9 years ago, I remember calling up my mom after talking with Samara, my accountant, and telling her I could start supporting her steadily. And I’ve mostly done that, ever since, which is a more meaningful way of saying: I’m no longer poor, I’m no longer afraid my debit card (I never had a credit card, ’til I was 37) will bounce at the grocery check-out line with a long line behind me. That feeling, of being broke, was a lifelong feeling I’m happy to have mostly left behind. It never quite leaves you, but that feeling doesn’t make you afraid and greedy—it makes you empathetic for all the others who are going through losing their homes or seeing their cards bounce.
We grew organically an audience of 15 million fans on Facebook, over 60 pages, far bigger than a corporate media company like MSNBC with a budget to buy fans. We gained nearly a million fans on Insta, on five accounts, and broke stories every year. Real stories, that mattered. We taught a generation that their voices mattered, if they were directed to be of benefit, and honest, and fair, and that we’d be happy to publish them, through our editors, who would make sure the stories were honest, and fair. We’ve published some amazing voices, and stories, and played a small role in countless lives. Sometimes we hear about our effect, and are inspired to work for another month or year. We haven’t done near enough, given the crisis of climate change, and equity, and democracy—we want to become a worldwide reference point for truth and humor and empathy—but it’s a start.
I wrote a best-selling book, Things I would like to do with You, and published it independently and locally and eco-ly. I’m nearly finished with my second, now, tentatively titled It’s Never too Late to Fall in Love with your Life.
Staff like Emily, Cat, and Nicole, and Molly came and mostly never left. They’re like family. If I could give them each a $10,000 raise today, I would. If you all subscribe, I could, and I would. Hold me to it! Over the last five years, largely thanks to my best bud Dave, who’s now gone, we hired up and worked with the likes of Shanon, and Brian, and William, and Kerry, and our site went from huge and ragtag to huge and professional. We added an app. We improved everything we do.
But, in that time, Facebook turned from an ally to quality media, to a suppressor of it. We’ve had to fight to stay alive—swimming upstream in a Big Tech/Social Media monopoly world. Most of our competitors are bought up or dead n’gone. We’re still here for one reason.
You subscribe. You read. You share.
If you do all of that, thank you thank you thank you. If you do any of that, thank you. You keep us alive, and thriving.
Now, that’s all the behind-the-scenes. Externally, we’ve shared 100,000s of articles. Most of them good. Helpful. Inspiring. Some of them drive me crazy. But that, too, points to something lovely about this community: we’re okay with open, respectful, fact-based disagreement. Huge authors came, grew from nothing, left us for bigger platforms, or got mad at me for something and moved on. That’s the cycle. Some huge authors stayed forever, and still write and share and serve. May it be of benefit!
Today, we’re stronger, more stable, better at what we do than we’ve ever been before. Why? We’ve learned. I’ve learned, and grown up (somewhat). We’re finally able to pay well for 32 talented, caring staff. But Facebook continues to smush indie media, mindful community. Their algorithm is tighter than a bleep-bleep’s butt. With 15 million fans on 60 pages, we are lucky to get 100 readers at any given time. It used to be upwards of 2500 readers in any moment.
Will we make it to 20 years old? That’s not up to me. I’ll work hard. My team will work hard.
It’s up to you. We will continue to exist, and serve you, and our world, but only if you’ll subscribe, and read, and get our free newsletter, and open it, and share articles you dig.
Subscribe here, elephantjournal.com/subscribe
….today, right now, if you value a community with helpful advice, inspiring stories, respectful debate and disagreement. Help us pay our staff and top writers and complete our “ecosystem,” which will make Elephant fully independent of social media/Big Tech.
If you don’t, that’s fine, too. But we may not be here, and we’re one of the last great indie bulwarks against the Big Social tech monopoly.
Below, if curious for more, please find two other earlier histories, that are more detailed, with a video interview or two of me about Elephant.