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How a dancing robot led to Londonist

How I left a safe job, tried writing for money and got involved with Londonist.

In 2005 I left a safe job and went to study for a Masters in English Literature. It was the year I discovered the internet and fortuitously found a bunch of interesting virtual people to talk, argue, banter and write to for hours on end in an old fashioned forum. I started working freelance to support myself and began to explore if I could write for money.

Dance has been a passion all my life. I was going to see lots of shows so I started my own blog for dance reviewing, called Flailbox, in which to store my writing if no one else would take it.

Flailbox logo

I won a place on “Resolution Review” in January 2006, an emerging critics programme that accompanies Resolution! the annual festival of new work at The Place, London. My mentors were dance critic Sanjay Roy and journalist Keith Watson (now more commonly found reviewing TV) and I reviewed multiple triple bills of often obscure dance work throughout that month. It was good training. My aim was to make the best of this accessible to your average, culturally interested person.

Subsequently I joined the review team of Londondance.com and criticaldance.com (both now sadly defunct) and continued to watch and review some amazing, strange and maddening performances. I was commissioned to interview Probe, a dance duo that I tried hard not to be in awe of, for Dance Theatre Journal. An actual print magazine that paid me! I sent copies to my childhood dance teacher and all my family.

In 2007, one of my internet friends introduced my to Londonist, a quirky everything about London website full of wit, knowledge and cleverness… and an open call for writers.

I submitted a pitch. There was a new contemporary dance piece being staged at St Bartholomew’s Great Hall, featuring a computer generated avatar, a robot, live music, film and a scientific underpinning. I’d ticked 7 of Londonist’s interest boxes in one email and my pitch was accepted. My preview persuaded the editor, Matt Brown, to buy tickets. And I was on the team.

Much London nerdy fun ensued. I loved being part of the (virtual, unpaid, colossally dedicated) team. It was a labour of love by like-minded individuals. Everyone had a passion for London with a personal slant, be it science, architecture, history, art, theatre, photography, transport, food, maps, exploring or pubs.

I rapidly branched out from my dance niche, tackling TfL, London’s green spaces, things to do at the weekend, obscure events and stories from the outer boroughs. I got to see a whole load of wonderful theatre, dance and comedy shows, meet fabulous London photographers, experts and nerds, go to exhibition openings, previews and parties and generally live an amazing London life.

Londonistas drinks at the Kings Head Mayfair… jazz hands. L-R: Julie, Paul, Dean, Giacomo, me, Dave, Hazel, Chris, James, Amanda. Others left earlier. Lightweights.

There was an extended family of fans and followers, who would turn up to drunken monthly meet ups where crazy ideas would bubble up and become fantastic projects that we would make happen, like photography exhibitions, A-Z pub crawls, hand drawn maps and really long yet topically purposeful ridiculous exploratory walks around London (still happening to this day.)

By 2008 I was co-editing with Hazel Tsoi. We spent every spare minute around work (and sometimes during) making sure Londonist poured out brilliant content from its extended network of volunteer writers and photographers. Our core team often disagreed about editorial policy but we mostly worked it through together in the pub.

We were early adopters of social media, learning fast about content and digital marketing on the hop, free to experiment. There was real love around the collective endeavour. All of us wanted the best for Londonist and recognition for the great product we were nurturing from cafes and bedrooms, around day jobs and families. We built an impressive following of engaged readers and noteworthy web stats by keeping our audience at the centre of what we did. We knew we were nothing without them and that only quality content and editorial integrity would make us successful.

None of us were business-minded at the time. The website was operated by its parent company Gothamist in New York on a ‘break even’ basis, supported by the old fashioned banners that used to make websites a little bit of money (remember those American Apparel ads?!). To create a business in the UK, we needed to set up a UK company and take a gamble on creating advertising sales that would bring in proper money, enough to pay a franchise fee, run the tech and pay some of the team. We dreamed about it and starting talking to every aspiring blog entrepreneur, tech start up type we encountered.

It never occurred to us we were already pretty much running a business together.

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