A year ago today, we started the UNDERenlightened.
In the past year we’ve covered everything from lock outs to hand jobs, drunk texts to internet slang. We’ve offered advice on dealing with your finances, your eyebrows, your car, your face, your period, your apartment, your roommates, and your toolbox. From finding the perfect lipstick or playing Quidditch, going to brunch or making cocktails, getting started with Android or trying out cosplaying, our writers have shared their stories and their experiences. They’ve taken you through being diagnosed with cancer, losing their wallet, turning 26, getting catfished, and going to the West Bank. We’ve created primers on religions, grammar, programming, wines, fan fiction, STIs, and an article on vibrators that is consistently the most viewed post on our site. We taught you how to make a GIF, make new friends in a new city, get from the couch to a 10k. Offered tips on outfits, interviews, restaurant behavior, DIY transformations, and decorating. And whether it’s getting that first number, meeting online, dating long distance, moving in together, or proposing, our writers have tackled relationships, sex, and dating with honesty and insight from their own lives.
When I first dreamed up the idea for UE in my friend’s kitchen, I had no idea it would grow into what it has become today. I am immensely proud of the articles we’ve put up this year, the people behind them, and I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that we are eager to continue bringing you the great content you’ve come to expect from us in this upcoming year.
Like all fledgling projects, our first year has not been without its ups and downs. And, in keeping with UE tradition, I would like to share with you some or our successes and some of our mistakes. While I can’t give you a textbook for starting a blog, collaborative or otherwise, I can tell you what it’s been like to start this one:
Start With An Idea
Back in early 2012, I was listening to my friend tell me about getting her license suspended and it got me thinking about all the things we will forever be learning how to do. I started keeping a list. The more I talked about this idea of being “under enlightened,” the more ideas people gave me. Soon I had several hundred “potential” article topics. Even though I knew most of these experiences had to be lived to be understood, I hoped that by creating a place where we could share these experiences, we could make it just a little bit easier for us.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted UE to be a collaborative site. I had so many friends who, like me, were writers without a place online where they could showcase their work. I wanted to start building an online writing portfolio but I found the idea of starting and maintaining a solo blog overwhelming–plus, let’s be honest, I’m not that consistently interesting. But through our combined efforts, we could maintain a constant content source and build a community where both writers and readers were learning from each other.
Just Do It
I started by talking to everyone about UE. And I mean everyone. Even my Grandmother was trying to wrap her head around “collaborative blog” during those first few months. At first, I was just trying to drum up potential writers among my friends but, to my surprise, the idea struck a stronger chord with some and they offered me their professional skills along with their time and dedication. I’d pretty much planned to beg, barter, and bribe people into helping me with the more complicated aspects of putting together the site (i.e. web design, graphic design, etc.) but before I knew it, my idea had spread from my friends to their friends and I had people sending me emails with their resumes asking if they could help.
I still remember saying right after a “phone interview” with a potential new editor, “Doesn’t she know that we have no idea what we are doing?” The managing editor at the time said back to me, “It doesn’t matter because you sound like you do.” Over the past year I’ve come to realize, with the help of UE, that no one has it figured out: there is no “right” way to do things. You just have to do it and trust that you will work it out.
Find a Team
Through sheer luck, our staff ended up being a mix of very close friends, good friends, and brand new acquaintances (whom I now consider very good friends). I knew there was no way I was going to pull off something this massive on my own but I still hadn’t anticipated running a staff of people dedicated this idea. I already knew how valuable a team could be from years of collaborating on creative projects and I felt an obligation not to waste their time or efforts. It was also important to me that they felt some sense of ownership in the site, so I saw each of them as the director of their own “department.” I knew that giving them responsibility (read: trust) would foster a truly collaborative environment.
The minute you decide to make a collaborative blog, that blog is no longer yours. Even though people will often assume that I do all the work behind the scenes or call UE “Anastasia’s” blog, I do not like this. Whether in praise or in blame, I am always quick to remind them that there is a team running this show.
Be a Leader
Leading isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about guiding a vision. It means listening and learning. When it came to creating something new, generally I would start by offering my vision for a particular aspect but used this merely as a place to get the conversation started. Give your staff the creative freedom to come up with their own approaches and implement them. You’ve put together a team of brilliant minds, trust in their talents. Your job is to keep everyone pushing towards the same goal.
Take the Time to Get it Right
Since our staff (and our writers) are located all over the country, we had to do all of our communication via the Interwebs. We embraced the power of Google. We use Google Drive to keep all of our articles, photos, publishing schedule, to do lists, etc., in sync and Google Hangouts to run our staff meetings. For many of us, UE is the job we do in addition to our full-time jobs. So, when we were building the site, gChat became an essential tool for getting things done during the work day.
We spent weeks working to get the look and feel of the site just right. We all agreed that it was essential to have a fully polished site before we went live. Even if this meant pushing our launch date (initially planned for early July) all the way to early September. We spent those months finessing every single little detail on the site. No link or font or color choice was too small to warrant some sort of discussion. We wanted UE to be a brand, so this meant coordinating not only the site but also our social media accounts as well. Every time we crossed something off the to do list, five more things would get added. And as the launch date moved closer and closer, it seemed like it would never get done.
Honing Your Tone
I was so focused on putting the site together that I neglected the editorial side. I wanted us to have a backlog of articles before we launched the site. But what I didn’t anticipate was that when you are asking people to write for an unestablished site, no matter how much explanation you give them upfront, you’re going to get a lot of different tones back because they don’t have any clear examples as a base. And even if you thought you had a clear sense of your tone, once you start reading articles it will start shifting. So you have to balance deciding exactly what you want your tone to be, and communicating it back to both your writers and your editorial staff, all while carefully nurturing these fledgling professional relationships. This took time, practice, and a lot of mistakes. And, even a year later, we’re still working on getting it all just right.
Learn Your Limitations and Admit Your Faults
I believe the best managers are the ones who can admit their own faults: mine is deadlines. Despite all of my delegating and my best intentions, I’d overestimated the workload that I could handle. I was taking longer to edit submissions than I’d allotted time for, and since I couldn’t stick to my deadlines, I felt bad nagging my writers to stick to theirs.
Even with my team, for the first few months, I was still the lynchpin to the site running. If I went dark for a day, so did the site. So while I’d dreamed of UE publishing content every day, it got harder and harder to do so with both my managing editor’s and my own increasingly hectic schedules. We struggled along for a while, with a lot of last minute posts, but without either of us to keep the publishing schedule together the site fell silent.
We were dark all through the holidays and I felt tremendously guilty. I didn’t want to admit where I had failed but I also wasn’t willing to let all our hard work go to waste. I wanted to get the site back up and running but I knew that I needed to take a hard look at where we’d fallen short and be very honest with myself about what I could and couldn’t handle. I knew this would mean handing over control on things I’d previously been overly concerned with. But, as I said before, this was not “my” blog and if I wanted it to really thrive, I had to really let it go.
I called my managing editor and we had a very frank conversation about our time. This is where a lot of people might say working with your friends can get messy, but I thought our honesty in that conversation only strengthened our friendship. Together we reached out to one of the editors and asked if she might be interested in stepping up to take on the role.
When she agreed, I handed over complete control of the editorial side. I asked her to come in and implement her own ideas and system and to let me know where I would best fit in. I still wanted to read every article before it went up on the site but no article would again be held up by me in the editing process. We shrunk our publishing schedule down from five or six articles a week to a much more manageable three and we spent a lot of time making sure our new system worked before we were ready to officially “relaunch.” I really can’t thank Meggyn Watkins, our incredible managing editor, enough for her tremendous dedication and persistence. Without her efforts we would not be here today.
But if I have learned one vital lesson from UE this year it is:
The Importance of Commitment
This includes the commitment of the staff and writers, but I mostly mean a leader’s commitment. If you want to create something like UE, you have to remember that you are the reason all the wheels keep turning. If you lose drive, if things stop being shiny, if you don’t have time, or you stop pulling your part of the weight, everyone else around you will do the same. Not only are you the barometer of motivation, you’re also the source. If you’re not meeting your deadlines, why should anyone else? How can you be annoyed at someone for not doing their job, if you’re not doing yours? Teams are only as strong as their weakest link. If someone on your team is dropping the ball, it is not their fault, it is your fault for letting them.
To everyone reading this and to everyone who has ever taken the time to read any of the articles on our site–thank you so much for being a part of the UE family. We look forward to continuing to bring you great content for another year. If there is ever anything you’d like to read on the site, please let us know here. If you are interested in writing for UE, drop us a line over here.
Again, thank you for this incredible year.
Founder & Editor-In-Chief
Photo by Anastasia Heuer