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Webcomics + VC = The Future

Editor’s note: Joey Manley was kind enough to sit down with me during the opening hours of the just-concluded New York Comic Con to tell me what the ComicSpace/Webcomics Nation merger looks like six months in. John Boeck, one of the ComicSpace investors (more on his background below) was kind enough to join in. What follows is an edited presentation from my hand-written notes, with exact quotations indicated in italics.

Fleen: John, Joey’s previously referenced Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, also from E-Line (and their bios are very interesting) in interviews and the like. Tell us a bit about your background and E-Line Ventures.

Boeck: A little background first — previous to forming E-Line, we were working various places in the world, building up self-sustaintaing ventures with social good as a goal. In India, we helped set up call centers — now there’s lots of call centers in India, but we set them up so a village could have a source of income and be self-sustaining [instead of corporate].

Fleen: Sounds like Grameen Bank.

Boeck: Grameen Bank is a model of ours. I’m a principal in E-Line Ventures; we do acquisitions, venture capital investments, and build infrastructure with an overall goal of distributing business processes with a social mission. Social good within a sustainable business [is the aim]. ComicSpace is our third investment, and I’m serving as the Chief Operating Officer.

Fleen: The merger of the Modern Tales/Webcomics Nation sites and the ComicSpace/Online Comics.Net sites makes sense on the surface, but what led from the ‘we should combine our opportunities’ conversation to the ‘we should be bringing in money guys?’

Manley: We needed to do more than could be done with a pair of underfunded sole proprietorships. Just combining our operations wouldn’t solve all the problems, and would creates some; we needed a business structure to do everything we wanted, and we needed to figure out how to split money. Both [Josh Roberts and myself] had plans to do new things that we couldn’t do without that investment … programmers, designers, artists, ad sales people were needed because we wanted to do it right. Both sites were profitable for single owners, but we needed to make it sustain 4 to 5 people for it to work.

Fleen: So how did you settle on E-Line as your partner?

Manley: Theirs was the first proposal that didn’t skeeve us out. They didn’t want to just write a check, they wanted to work with us — they’re teaching us, they’re not out to steal the IP. These guys have invested in other companies that can help us.

Fleen: How so?

Boeck: Just a hypothetical example — you want to do a mailing of the annual newsletter for your club with 200 members; no business-services company is going to want to do that, because it’s too small. But if [E-Line] invested in a business mailing company, we could leverage that investment to provide a service to [a ComicSpace customer].

Fleen: It’s on the record that Joey and Josh are co-CEOs, but even Ben and Jerry disagreed from time to time. How is that working out?

Manley: John, why don’t you answer that one?

Boeck: Josh and Joey have very different approached. Joey is creator focused, Josh is reader focused. Joey’s front office, Josh is back office — they’re a very good mix, and they’re passionate about the business and their opinions, but have not been passionate in opposition. There hasn’t been a need for it, but partially I’m there to act as a filter between them if there were that opposition. [This model] is a great incubation [that can work] for a number of years … but it may change in the future.

Fleen: What percentage of the combined companies will be retained by the original owners, and what percentage sold to the investors? And, what was the monetary goal in the investment round?

Manley: Josh and I are individually and collectively the largest investors. E-Line and other investors are minority stakeholders.

John: We are closely held; we didn’t throw things open to a flood of investors. The majority of [ComicSpace investors] have participated here at NYCC.

Manley: The goal was to ‘break even’, which we met. Since closing [on 26 December 2007], both the top- and bottom-line numbers have exceeded projections.

Fleen: John, between you, Alan, and Michael, you’ve got a history that spans movies, business, videogames, books, overseas journalism, boutique investments, healthcare management, and various IT fields. So for highly skilled business executives, what’s the appeal of a niche art form with a history of direct creator ownership/control?

Boeck: Bottom line, we believe there’s a social return to empowering creators to sustain themselves. The business services aspect appeals because of the synergy with other companies we’re invested in.

Manley: They see the potential in webcomics; this is where ‘comics’ is going. The old industry is going away, but ironically more people are making them. This is where all media are going, and [web]comics are leading the way.

Boeck: The model we’re talking about, we think it’s the right one for where ‘[web]comics’ is going: entrepreneurial, creator-owned … this is the future of all media.

Fleen: Joey, back in November you got quoted over at CBR saying that ‘the subscription model will be swept away’. That leaves ad revenue and hosting fees as the primary revenue sources if ComicSpace stays as it is now. You also talked around the idea of merchandise (books, shirts, and prints, where current webcomics creators really make their money). And then these two quotes from the same interview:

Manley: We’re not a publisher, we won’t be a publisher. Our merchandise will be with the same strategy as being a service provider, not being a publisher.

Gershenfeld: We’re much more interested in being a facilitator than a publisher.

If I ran a print-on-demand concern in North Carolina, should I be feeling nervous?

Manley: Not at all; our services will be mix and match. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. You could use our hosting, Lulu’s printing, somebody else’s tshirts or ad buys. We want to integrate ‘competing’ vendors to provide best-of-breed solutions to creators.

Boeck: This is an opportunity for Lulu and their competitors.

Manley: I want to integrate so — for example, updating your webcomic also means updating your Print on Demand project so you dont have to do everything twice. If we can integrate the Lulu API into our service, if they want to work with us, we all win.

Fleen: Let’s play ‘what if’ for a moment. This page has called for the creation of ‘Aduz’ or an ‘anti-Zuda’, a business-services provider that works for webcomics creators, instead of creators working for a publisher. Could ComicSpace fulfill an that role, perhaps everntually becoming something like the Freelancer’s Union, providing benefits like retirement accounts and health insurance by pooling together enough creators, and supplying other things that individuals can’t get on their own?

Joey: That’s it. When I saw that post I was, ‘uhhhh’ [grimaces, possibly to indicate annoyance that somebody figured out his plan].

John: We want to allow the artist to delegate the secondary tasks that aren’t writing and drawing, and to pay a fair fee for those services, not to have to give up the IP in exchange for those services. For things like insurance and retirement funds — I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s not on the roadmap right now.

Fleen: Finish this sentence: ‘Because of ComicSpace, in five years webcomics will be ________ .’

Manley: More profitable for more people. And I mean ‘profitable’ in every sense of that word, not just financial.

Boeck: More in control by, and serving the interests of, the independent creator community.

Manley: Maybe some more anti-Zudas will pop up, and some Zudas won’t.

Fleen: So when’s the official launch?

Manley: When it’s ready.

Boeck: Summer. We’ll say early summer, 2008.

Editor’s note: Fleen thanks Joey Manley and John Boeck for their time and candor; we at Fleen will be watching the development of the new ComicSpace and sure to let you know what we think. And does anybody else find it ironic that Zuda’s running a banner ad at ComicSpace today?

And does anybody else find it ironic that Zuda’s running a banner ad at ComicSpace today?

Nope. No different than the ads they ran on DrunkDuck in November.

And looking at the ad, it’s actually not a DC-Zuda-sponsored ad. It’s from one of this month’s contestants.

[...] from Fleen sat John Boeck and myself down at NYCC and grilled us mercilessly. The interrogation notes are now online. Fear the man with the moustaches! Fear him! For he shall cause you to bare your very [...]

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THE FUTURE, CONAN?

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I’d love to see some follow-up on this interview. Early summer 2008 has long since passed and the old WCN is still live. I’ve got my comic there and am waiting for the new version in order to start some new outreach/publishing ventures.

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