Most interviews we read in magazines are shit. It’s what inspires us to do what we do. That and other magazines that do brilliant interviews. Magazines like SneakerFreaker – Melbourne’s very own incredibly good and culturally important international publishing success. Founded, edited and owned by the original sneaker freaker himself, Woody has built SF into a global behemoth. He’s also seen his fair share of young upstarts float through his office, lived and worked overseas, moved from career to career, started a family, and even has SF translated into Spanish. Which means he has some fascinating shit to say and some incredibly crucial advice to give. As usual, over many a beer, we sat and talked for hours. Ergo, this fucker is long. But that’s cool, cause the ones who need to read it most have a lot of time on their hands. So grab a tea, put on your headphones and use this as a guide to figuring out what the hell you’re gonna do for the next twenty years.
Junior: Hey Woody. What’s your coming of age story? When were you at uni?
Woody: I spent five good years doing the Media course at RMIT in Melbourne. I was involved in a bunch of stuff and ended up becoming the co-editor of the student newspaper, Catalyst, which was literally a catalyst for me in terms of how my life panned out. I was introduced to a whole bunch of people who’d been the editors before and I ended up living with them for years, and for some reason they took me under their wing, which was weird because I was a wildman from the suburbs. Fitzroy was a very creative place then. We started a magazine from our house called Radar and had these awesome parties in the bank vault where we lived on Smith St. They were good times. I hate getting nostalgic when we’re only one question in…
Jr: Ha, man, you can do whatever you want one question in – it’s your interview. So tell me more about Catalyst; the student newspaper.
W: Oh yeah. So because we won an election to edit the newspaper, all of a sudden we had to learn how to make it; you know, write, design and create the whole thing. We were the first editors to get a Macintosh computer too. It was totally primitive before that point. We started the year with a bromide camera which we used to put screens on images for manual paste-up, as well as creating multiple tones for hand-made colour work which we did with scalpels. My memories involve a lot of sliced fingers and layouts lost in the wax machine. When we saw a scanner for the first time, we were really, really impressed. Actually my entire design career started when my friend Bert showed me how to move things around on the Mac screen. It’s hard to imagine how boring life was before the machines existed. No one I knew was a graphic designer. It was a trade, like being a plumber. People spent years learning how to do things in a really mechanical sort of way. When the computer came along, all of a sudden, you could have fun with a machine and make stuff. Straight away I really got into design which was totally unexpected. I never thought about a career in design at high school, where art classes were seen merely as a bludge. Random things can spin your life off in a whole new direction, it’s the kind of thing your mum tells you but you never believe her.
Jr: Damn straight. As long as you open yourself up to happy accidents you’ll be fine for sure. So we know you moved to London for a while after uni. What brought on the London thing?
W: I’d encourage everyone to head for the hills immediately after school finishes, because you’ll never get a better time to do it. But the real reason I left was because I almost got involved in some trouble with the fuzz after doing the O-book where we wrote the usual student articles about shoplifting and taking drugs and shoplifting while on drugs and not paying for tram tickets. All the cliches.
Jr: Ha! Wow. Really? That was you?
W: Oh yeah, it was par for the course in those days. It was a tradition to stir the pot so we just rewrote the same articles over and over every year. I think a year or two after my indiscretions they nailed the editors of Rabelais (another student newspaper) for the exact same type of content and it seriously fucked them for years – so going to London was a great move.
Jr: Sounds like it was. So what was the plan?
W: I thought I could parlay my limited experience into something design related, but all I really knew was that I didn’t want to work in a pub like every other aussie dingbat. I’m pleased to say I did one day as a street cleaner and that was enough motivation for me. I got so, so close to a design job at NME, which would have been awesome. I also made the final two for Penthouse as well. That would have been interesting for sure.
Jr: So were you into ‘The Face (http://www NULL.flickr NULL.com/groups/thefacemagazine/pool/)’ and all those types of magazines coming out of the UK at the time?
W: I was obsessed. I never felt iD so much but I loved Raygun (http://www NULL.flickr NULL.com/photos/joekral/sets/72157621244439899/) and The Face. From a design point of view, Neville Brody (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Neville_Brody)’s work was great but it was the mix of content that hooked me. The Face made London seem underground and wicked cool and it had fashion and art and politics and serious stuff as well as loads of club news and even it has to be said, quite a few sneakers. It was probably the most effective marketing tool any city has ever had but you go there and you find that it’s a grey depressive shithole. But that’s only one visual side of London, the other is that it has the most vigorous youth culture – certainly it’s the top city for music in my opinion. I really regret not keeping my collection of The Face, I had years and years of them but they were too heavy to lug from house to house.
Jr: Ha, awesome. What year did you go?
W: 1993 or something.
Jr: OK, here’s a good question: For a lot of fresh faced uni kids that go overseas, the ‘big break’ rarely comes. They haven’t got any contacts, they haven’t done any work yet, so they’re not even that good.
W: Well the thing is they’re pretty much unemployable. Sorry to break it to you kids but it’s the truth, no matter how cocky you are. I think bullshitting is perfectly acceptable in order to get a break, just be sure you can do what you say you can do. I was fortunate enough to get picked up by a freelance agency. I also went to the UK at a time when no one really had the skills that I thought I had, so it was a bit easier in hindsight. My big break was to learn on the job at someone’s expense even if I taught myself.
Jr: What were the skills?
W: Well, I mean, desktop design as it used to be called. At that time it was Quark Express, a very early version of Photoshop and Illustrator – so the programs are still the same, but at that time no one knew how to use them. You couldn’t learn it anywhere. It wasn’t in the tertiary system. So I turned up to London expecting them to be high tech and super advanced but then realised I was one of maybe a few hundred people in the city at the time who knew anything at all about Macs.The advertising agency I worked for had no computers except for the receptionist’s PC. Everything in the creative department was done by hand and illustrators did all the mock ups with Yoken markers. It was seriously like the Dark Ages.
Jr: So who picked you up?
W: I started working for a few freelance agencies. I bought a suit to wear to big banks to create flow charts which I did for about three or four months.
Jr: Did you make much money?
W: I think I earned ten pounds an hour or something like that, which was pretty sharp in those days, certainly better than pulling pints. Luckily my agency really liked me and they gave me a crack at a job that was going at a small advertising agency in SoHo.
Jr: How long were you in London all up?
W: Quite a while. I developed a really bodgy English accent that got me through. I guess you could say I was slightly overstaying my welcome, officially speaking.
Jr: Ha, yeah we know the one. Did you make friends when you were there?
W: Yeah. I made all my friends, still ten or more years later, based on this time.
W: Yeah. All my closest English friends except one have emigrated here to Melbourne.
Jr: Wow! Really? Why?
W: It’s a great place to live. To come here from London and have sunshine and space and freedom and this ‘Neighbours’ lifestyle dare I say it, it gets more and more attractive as you get into your 30s. One of my oldest friends even had his mum emigrate. I think going back to London now would be pretty devastating from a lifestyle point of view. Melbourne has its weaknesses, but the lifestyle isn’t one, although with the price of houses now, we’re in danger of it becoming unaffordable for anyone creative or less than committed to the corporate grind.
Jr: A lot of people think the same way I suppose. Although London has all the culture and so on.
W: When you’re in your twenties and you’re mad for it, for sure. If you’re going out all night, every night, it’s a great place to live. It was absolutely brilliant, there was always something entertaining to do.
Jr: Did you do that? Did you go out all night, every night, while you were working?
W: I gave it a good nudge!
Jr: What happened when you came home?
W: After the usual case of mild post-travelling blues, I worked in advertising for a year at Patterson Bates (GPY&R). It wasn’t a great time for the company; I think they lost a lot of pitches. It was ok. I wasn’t excited about what I was doing. It wasn’t that creative. Maybe I should have been pushier and tried to get into writing TV ads or something. But my priorities were elsewhere, I was DJ’ing and organizing events at night and doing other stuff that was a lot more fun.
Jr: Did you like the advertising industry?
W: Yes and no. I was a little disenchanted creating junkmail which to be honest, which is what I did. In the 80s, it must have been a wild scene with so much money floating about. In London I arrived at the tail end of that and they were all misty eyed about these crazy times when, you know, ‘Steve rode his Harley down the hallway and crashed, knocking himself out on the photocopier’ or one classic I remember was when a new guy called Nobby joined the firm. The story was on his first day he managed to spill a Flaming Lamborghini on the boss and set his shirt on fire at dinner. In Australia it was much more conservative. I had green hair. It wasn’t going to end well and I wasn’t thinking about a career. I never have really.
Jr: The employment prospects haven’t always been great for school leavers have they?
W: Nope. When I left Uni, there was nothing going on. I think a lot of kids leaving university are facing a similar sort of situation. The pressure is to get a break somehow, but beyond that, if you are useful and you can justify your own existence at a company they will always find room for you. The hard thing is when you have no experience and you can’t prove that you can or can’t do something. You have to make yourself valuable.
Jr: Is that something that you had to work on? Making yourself valuable? Or were you just like that?
W: I wouldn’t say I ‘worked on it’. I just worked. The harder you work, the luckier you get. I was annoying, quite frankly. I got into radio by annoying people, and ended up working at various radio stations while at Uni. I bugged people til they let me have a go. I think that just being super keen is all you can really expect from somebody at a young age.Think about it, you can do whatever you want with your life but only if you have a crack. However, I think there are some things you can teach people and some things you can’t. An understanding of the world and how things interrelate – you can’t teach anyone that. It’s an instinctive thing. If you are going to work in fashion, you need to ‘get it’. There’s no point just trying to be in that industry because you think it’s glamorous or you’ll get to root models. You’ll be chewed up by someone who’d climb over your dead body for a job.
Jr: Have you gone through your fair share of young people who aren’t diligent at Sneaker Freaker?
W: We’ve had a pretty good track record. A few times I’ve tried to advertise and get someone out of college but never really found the right person. We’re a really small outfit and I don’t have time to teach someone from scratch. It’s frustrating for me but I learned that you can’t expect too much initially, you have to be patient and let them work it out. I’ve had some pretty funny experiences. One kid trying out for a job told me that I couldn’t teach him anything about Photoshop, and he’d probably been using it for two years. He was actually quite skilled, but I think his attitude alone rang bells for a potential employer. You want a little bit of cockiness but you don’t want someone who doesn’t listen and doesn’t think that they can’t learn. You mainly want accuracy and speed, that’s super important. That is one thing that the school environment doesn’t seem to promote in my experience. Young kids get tired and need a little nap to get back on track. It’s a grind. You’ve got to be productive 8 or 9 hours a day.
Jr: There’s a lot of talent going around, but not a lot of work ethic. I suppose there’s always going to be someone more talented than you, but it’s about how passionate you are and how hard you work.
W: True. I gotta say, the work ethic of Gen Y kids is a hot topic amongst my peers right now. I think that’s because they are now managing staff for the first time, but there’s definitely a sense that the GFC could be a good thing as it might take a few uppity kids down a peg or two. I’m not so sure this generation’s work ethic is that much different from my own Gen X clique… just a little more distracted by the overdose of technology.
Jr: What’s the most valuable skill to have aside from being keen?
W: A knack for networking. It’s a shit name for it but it is what it is. You can’t teach someone how to do it, though you might learn the secret someday through observation. It’s a vague business. Some people just have a knack at making friends with other people who can help them. That’s why starting a mag or writing a blog can become so universally useful. You meet people. Forget about the rest of it, meeting people and connecting the dots is crucial. You can base an entire career on knowing people.
Jr: Oh god, don’t get me started on social media and ‘networking’. I think we’ve got to be careful, you know. Everyone seems to get so caught up in the conversation and being part of the technology that they actually forget to do stuff. Everyone is talking about it, making comments, but not actually creating anything.
W: No shit! I picked up a biz card recently where this kid had over 12 ways of contacting them and I wondered how the hell he gets anything done? People get obsessed with Twitter, but six months ago something different was happening. I’ve seen it with trends, and in footwear, certain things have come and gone so fast I’m still scratching my head. I must admit the pace of change recently has really kicked up a gear. We’re now facing a world where TV, newspapers, magazines and even radio are no longer the foundation of our media diet. The porn industry is on its knees! Books are on the way out as well, at least in a printed sense. I’m really intrigued as to whether this new Kindle could really do for books what the iPod has done for music.
Jr: That’s an interesting point. Sneaker Freaker is kinda like a book. It’s a bit nicer than the usual magazine really. You must sell a few more older issues than any other magazine. Do you think the content goes out of date?
W: It does and it doesn’t. You can’t buy those shoes anymore, but every magazine becomes a document of its time so you can go back and still enjoy them as a snapshot of the years they were made. We sell a lot of our old issues, more than most magazines perhaps. Magazines are a good barometer of style and opinion and when you go back you do get a good insight into the times. We’ve been going about seven years or so and really the first one was pretty raw when you look at it. I have to say it was actually designed that way on purpose, but still, it was pretty loose. I wish I could have seen into the future.
Jr: Ha, I totally have that copy. How many people were working on it then?
W: The magazine didn’t have any staff for probably the first four years. Hans DC came to work with me part time helping in various ways. I wish I’d ramped it up earlier but I just didn’t have the foresight to go for it. I was also still working on my label called Wankuss (with my friend Alasdair McKinnon), as well as doing design work for films like Ned Kelly and Queen of the Damned and other stuff. I liked to keep my options open.
Jr: Really? It was just you? Wow. Back then a lot of clever people put out free magazines. I used to read Stu Magazine and Large whenever I could get my hands on them.
W: Stu was good. Vice came along. And Lucky. There were about seven free magazines floating around. Our first edition was free then I decided to charge for it. People still think it’s free.
Jr: Yeah it seemed to be the heyday of free magazines.
W: Yep. Not sure we’ll see too many new ones open up for business. But I have a killer idea for a new magazine that would be awesome which only proves how out of touch I really am.
Jr: Haha. Maybe. Maybe not. You’d probably be surprised. I’m sure that’s what people said when you came up with an idea So why sneakers?
W: I thought that I was one of the few people who were into sneakers, but then I could see it was bigger than I thought – there were a lot of guys like me who had 50 or 60 shoes in their closet but we didn’t know each other. Sneakers are one of those things that men can talk animatedly, dudes are really into their feet. It used to be about Air Max and chunky runners but it’s flipped on its head now. Pointer and Clae and Gourmet are doing very well, brands with simple things, not super jacked-up runners. Trends are definitely changing. You can’t stop progress, but it’s easy to feel like a dinosaur.
Jr: Was it difficult starting up a magazine?
W: Not really, because I only needed a few thousand dollars to get it printed. Then by issue two people wanted to buy it. Our first international customer was a very well known store in Paris.
Jr: Wow! How did they find you?
W: Through our website. We were one of the first online sneaker sites. The reason they are so renowned is because they find out about something before anyone else. They’re the top of their game. I was in there last week and it was mental how many people go in there. It’s like a tourist attraction! Once we went international I also had to learn about things like international shipping, which became crucial to the business growing. Boring things like this are so important and can be the difference between survival and death.
Jr: That’s the thing with publishing in Australia. You can print it here but then you’ve gotta ship all those heavy issues overseas. Some magazines print overseas and distribute it that way. Do you ever do that?
W: Once about five years ago we sold out of an issue in about a week and we got another order of 2000 copies. The reprint quote locally was nuts, so I found a printer in China and got them shipped straight out of there. I haven’t done it since. We’re still printed in Melbourne, five blocks from my house. It’s just too stressful to not know where your job and therefore your whole life is at. I remember all too well a launch party in Sydney where the magazines were still on a truck locked in the warehouse as a result of a snap industrial action.
Jr: Can you raise a family on a niche publication?
W: I can now. In the first few years I never had staff to pay so the overheads were low. I learned over time how to make money from a variety of sources. You can sell magazines, advertising, online banners, syndicate your content and do marketing for brands and product development. I have to say in every respect, I learned the hard way. Piece by piece. I learned a lot from watching other people and making mistakes. I also had to learn to trust people in other countries. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I’ve been pretty lucky in that department.
Jr: And I guess you have that giant monolith Nike to buoy you up.
W: Nike has always been good to me, right from the start. But we are also supported by nearly every other brand in the footwear biz. If you wanna start a niche magazine, make sure what you do is invaluable to the marketing managers of multinational companies or you’ll forever be pushing shit uphill.
Jr: How would someone who really wants to work in big brand sneakers approach getting a job at a company like that? How do they go about it?
W: Actually we did a feature about how to get into the business a while back. There’s a few simple things. Every brand needs accountants and pen pushers but if you’re talking about shoe design, a lot of the guys at Nike and other brands are originally architects or sculptors, in other words they had an idea of three-dimensional space that could be translated to footwear. Shoe design school didn’t really exist til recently. Doing research on any company that you want to work for is a must. Knowing everything about them, but also having an understanding of how they hire is essential. If you want to work for adidas, find out how to get in contact with their HR department. Start on the phones or in their factory outlet and build your way up. There are plenty of CEOs who started in the mailroom. It’s also thinking strategically. Working for Sneaker Freaker could be a good way to get in as it’s an insight into the industry. Foot Locker wouldn’t hurt either. You need to know what you’re talking about and have a foundation of knowledge.
Jr: Loving sneakers isn’t enough at the end of the day; you have to have some sort of skill or craft.
W: Correct. Loving something can actually be a handicap, if you wanna be a hardass about it. When you love something too much, your opinion and judgment can be clouded by sentiment. But if it was me, I’d go for the passion every time. I think one of the biggest things that kids could learn is to be persistent. Some kids expect to start as a junior and take over the company in two years. Or if you start your own thing, that you’ll be rich overnight. The reality is that businesses mature over a few years and it takes you time to work out what you are actually doing, unless you are super advanced or lucky. It’s human nature that is probably exacerbated by this frantic model we’ve built up. Everyone wants everything yesterday. If only it was that easy… whatever happened to paying your dues?
Jr: I think that’s a wonderful point to make. Persistence is something we’re big on. But sometimes persistence isn’t even enough. You know, it’s really hard to do something big in such a small market place like Australia. Take publishing for example: If you want to get distribution of your magazines, you’ve got to be in a bigger market.
W: That’s true, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to do anything. It’s like procrastinators who never do anything because they’re too cool to put themselves out there or they think it’ll never work so why bother. Melbourne is full of creative people, the only problem is that most of them are, like anywhere else, mildly talented at best. The most talented ones find it a struggle to attract the same benefactors they’d find in Europe or the US. Look how many talented Australians have to leave? We are a nation of 22 million, the same size as greater New York. So to answer your question, you def need to be in a bigger market, but it’s not going to happen sitting on your date in Fitzroy drinking Chai and smoking rollies. You have to work your ass off. In my own world, I realised that if I wanted to succeed beyond Australia, I learned from others that staying home in my office wasn’t gonna make it happen. I’m on the road a lot.
Jr: Isn’t Sneaker Freaker translated into Spanish?
W: Yeah, it has been for the past two years. It’s been going really well and we have a great partner running the office over in Barcelona. I’m pretty sure we are the first Aussie magazine to be translated into a foreign language.
Jr: Do you ever think about moving it all overseas?
W: I have at different times, but this is where I’m from and this is where I’m staying. The footwear industry in Australia is in Melbourne. But I think I do regret not moving a bit. Maybe I’m just not the personality type to really take it to the max… Either way, we have been successful on our own terms which is just part of the story.
Jr: Maybe because you married and had kids. Was that the plan? To settle down?
W: I think that cycle of life is inevitable. I wish I’d had a family earlier in hindsight, but we can all look back and say that. Luckily I have a very understanding wife who encouraged me to go for it, even if she recently confided that she thought the magazine was a crazy idea and would be lucky to last six months.
Jr: Any plans to expand your team?
W: I would like to find an Editor to take over next year so I can spend some time working on different ideas. We are always looking for writers. But it’s hard to find anyone who can write these days, as well as have a command of sneakers. If anyone is interested they can email firstname.lastname@example.org (info null@null sneakerfreaker NULL.com).
Jr: So that means that you could focus on running the business.
W: Absolutely, I could move to the Bahamas and sit under a palm tree with my blackberry.
Jr: And a cocktail! Any final advice for the kids who wanna start a magazine and make a living out of it?
W: My advice is go for it. What the hell. What’s the worst that can happen? You might go bankrupt and have to flee to Brazil… just don’t let anyone tell you something can’t be done or you’ve got a stupid idea. I had that plenty of times. How many people get rich from stupid ideas?Tweet