How we got here…
– by Wade Wallace
Welcome to Escape Collective, a website dedicated to showcasing the most beautiful sport in the world – cycling.
There are about a dozen of us. We believe that a cycling publication should not live or die by its ability to sell you other everyone else’s stuff. We think this sport deserves better, and that cycling media shouldn’t be 100% reliant on the industry whose sponsorships, products and athletes we aim to cover with honesty and integrity.
To understand what Escape Collective is and what we aspire to do, you need to understand where we came from.
Up until November 2022 most of the Escape Collective staff had been working at the now-defunct website, CyclingTips.com.
Back in 2021, OutsideInc went out and raised millions of dollars in venture capital (including from Lance Armstrong’s fund, Next Ventures) and went on an acquisition spree that targeted outdoor publications. They owned big titles such as Outside magazine, Velonews, Warren Miller Entertainment, as well as approximately 30 more businesses ranging from publications to mapping apps to events.
CyclingTips.com had been acquired a couple of times since its inception in 2008, and OutsideInc acquired it along with PinkBike and Trailforks (our sister businesses). That’s a long story in itself that we’ll get to later…
You can listen to the extended version of our story here:
Roughly a year after Outside had started making disagreeable changes to CyclingTips, I (the founder) left the business. We were being pushed in an unpalatable direction that I could not get behind. Soon after, Outside made a number of layoffs to key people at CyclingTips including Editor-in-Chief Caley Fretz, Senior Tech Editor David Rome, Managing Editor Matt de Neef, Advertising Director Steven Brawley, and Velonews Editor-in-Chief Daniel Benson (with who we worked closely).
CyclingTips was a tight-knit group of not only staff, but friends, and a vibrant community behind it. Protesting the layoffs of their editor, friends, and colleagues, as well as the general mismanagement of the business and its direction, current employees began to walk out in late 2022.
After Caley was laid off, the two of us began discussions about creating a 100% membership-funded cycling publication with the other unemployed staff. We sat down, made some projections, and decided that this just might work if we took a punt.
The Escape Collective journey began with a crowdfunding campaign whereby hitting 100% of our member target would enable Escape Collective to have a fighting chance to get off the ground. To our disbelief, our target took us less than a week to achieve. You can see our thousands of founding members here who backed us and allowed us to resurrect.
OutsideInc shut down CyclingTips soon after and most of the content is inaccessible now. Fifteen years of our work, with the aim of showcasing the amazing stories in our sport, is now gone.
We’re only 6 months into our journey at Escape Collective and have no interest in resting on our laurels. There’s a renewed sense of energy within the team and we feel like (and are) in start-up mode again.
This is the story of how we got here, but if you want to understand why we’re doing this and why this was more than some little hissy fit we all took because we didn’t agree with our new owner’s vision, we need to understand some of the bigger drivers in the landscape and ecosystem we live in.
The problem with advertising in cycling is not that the industry tells us what to publish. I can count on one hand the number of times an advertiser has tried, and we’ve always managed to stand our ground. Most of them are really good to work with, and great people in the cycling industry. However, the collective interests of the industry force the homogenization of the cycling media. It all becomes bland with very little freedom for original ideas or values. Press releases are pushed out to keep everyone happy. Pages are filled with auto-play videos and pop-up ads that make content and advertising indistinguishable. It’s an incentive structure that does not align with the audience’s best interests. Who is the customer here? It’s a fine balance. Without the audience, you don’t have a product to sell (i.e. their eyeballs). But without the advertisers, nobody is getting paid. It’s an enormous distraction to the business to make sure everyone is happy, and at the same time, nobody is happy.
There is a better way, and that’s being 100% clear about who our customer is. And that’s the readers/members who support us financially to focus purely on the work we think will be interesting to you. This is what we have set out to do, and it’s working.
The version of CyclingTips that we left was a very popular one. Each year millions of people visited the site. We had thousands of paying members. We ran events. We supported local events whenever we could. We contributed to charitable and social causes. We tried to give a voice to those who didn’t have one. We were among the first to recognise the importance of women’s cycling coverage and invested heavily (financially and with our time) to show that it mattered. If you came to the homepage you could visibly see a heartbeat. We weren’t the biggest, but we liked to think that we made an impact in our little corner of the world. Readers wouldn’t come to CyclingTips just to scan the headlines. Readers came to us because they wanted to see what to say. And more than that, they wanted to interact with the rest of the CT community.
Where did it all go wrong? I don’t think I could have done anything differently in hindsight. I sold a majority of the business to BikeExchange in 2016 because of the horrendous effects Facebook was having on our advertising revenue, and it was decimating the media in general. The writing was on the wall if we wanted to survive. It was a very murky time in the world of media. At that point, I lost control of the major decisions within the business. BikeExchange went through tough times, and selling CyclingTips was their only way out. I don’t begrudge that decision, as difficult it was for me. After that PinkBike bought the business (who was then owned by Private Equity) and when OutsideInc came along, everything had its price. We were along for the ride at this point.
What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again, you ask? We’ve experienced what can happen when we lose control of our business. Our business model, being member-funded, is far more resilient than an ad-funded model and allows for more predictable, sustainable growth. If we only grow to be a certain size, we’re fine with that. None of us wants to relive that journey, and we’ve structured the foundations of this business to prevent that.
Will we take on advertisers ever again? That’s an interesting question that we’ve thought a lot about. Brands in the cycling industry do provide immense value, and most are excellent to work with. And let’s be honest, this entire professional side of the sport depends on sponsorship and brand’s involvement. Difficult situations arise when we become dependent on the industry. More than that, advertising is simply a horrible business model if you want to do high-quality work. There is absolutely no correlation between advertising revenue and the quality of the audience, or even the size of the audience. At the present moment, we’re just not set up for advertising and our time could be better spent elsewhere – such as serving our members. If that sounds like a non-answer to the advertising question, it’s because we don’t fully know the answer of how this will look yet.
We don’t cover everything and aren’t here to be something to everyone. We want to be everything to someone. We don’t churn out content that’s empty of values and ideas. We believe that creating good content that makes you every bit as passionate about this sport as we are and will result in a loyal membership that sustains us. To that end, Escape Collective is structured in a way such that we are entirely member-funded. We take every single dollar we earn from our members very seriously and each time we spend $100 in the business we ask ourselves, “Was this worth the cost of our member’s hard-earned money? Will it make us better?”
We intend to be around for the next 20+ years. For me, this is the final stage of my career. It’s my last job, assuming my career pattern continues. I want to do it right, I want to make it count, and I want to build something that we’re proud of and that all our employees will move forward for the next 20 years.
I have a whiteboard hanging over my desk that says only one thing: 50,000 members. Wouldn’t that be something?
BECOME A MEMBER ->
See you down the road.