Illustration by Karol Banach

When most founders start talking to me about all the ways their business is so much more than just a company—that it’s a community—my eyes do backwards somersaults in their sockets. And that might have been the case when the founder of Hello Mr. magazine, Ryan Fitzgibbon (a former IDEO designer and AIGA San Francisco board member) shared how he’s growing his beautifully designed and much loved “magazine about men who date men” by tapping into its fervent community—except I’ve witnessed evidence of just how fervent this community is for myself. Suffice it to say that out of all the independent magazine makers I’ve seen at live events, Fitzgibbon is the only one who seems to be perpetually trailed by a huddle of squealing fans, wringing their hands in excitement and emitting actual squeals.

With the growth prospects looking scarce for even the most enthusiastically supported niche titles operating on subscriptions and ad dollars alone, more independent magazines are diversifying their business beyond the printed page. Just last week Riposte founder Danielle Pender let it drop to the Stack’s Steve Watson that she’ll be opening the doors of a Riposte creative studio later this summer. Pender’s in good company with other editorial platforms that have sought the steady income of client-driven content production (even if those words alone make many involved recoil just a little), but Fitzgibbon isn’t sure that’s the right move for Hello Mr. to make. Instead, he’s steering the business towards a membership model, fueled by the magazine’s ardent fans and its deep community support. But what exactly does it mean to be a member of a magazine?

Hello Mr. readers are already pretty adept at connecting with each other both online via social media and in person at Hello Mr. events, but what if they could connect with clients, business partners, and employers, too? “One thing I’ve noticed is that creative talent agencies and advertising companies are looking for queer talent, and there’s not really a great source to find them,” says Fitzgibbon.

But with Hello Mr.’s established practice of publishing user-submitted work, it’s naturally grown a visually creative readership, and has become a go-to source for discovering emerging, majority gay talent. Fitzgibbon receives between 500-700 submissions each year—much more than the biannual magazine can ever hope to print or share on Instagram.

Fitzgibbon sees this as an “opportunity to create a larger platform and spotlight the people we’re already working with.” Like a gay Behance, I offer? No, Fitzgibbon demurs, comparing his ideal platform to content-first sites like Medium, where members can create profiles, upload the Hello Mr. work they’ve made, and share it with like-minded clients.

A core part of this membership model is access to a private online message board styled after the popular Facebook group Hello Mr. Guild that’s spurred so many IRL connections (fellow members meet for coffee, establish mentorships, or even couch surf in one another’s homes). But if these conversations are already happening organically on all of Hello Mr.’s social platforms, why move them behind a member wall—even if people are happy to pay the fee?

“Changing people’s behaviors and asking them to migrate to a new platform is difficult,” Fitzgibbon concedes, “but I’m not trying to create a new gay social network; I’m creating an option for people who are already loyal to the brand to have a safe, shared space for those conversations.”

While the brand alone instills a sense of trust, creating a private, members-only space free from anti-gay trolls might just be they key to enabling more fruitful conversations around divisive issues. “The LGBTQ community is shifting and experiencing a lot of turmoil about our sense of togetherness. I’m cautiously watching and experimenting to see what could encourage a better dialogue,” says Fitzgibbon. As an example, he cites the recent “inclusion of two new colors, black and brown, to the rainbow flag brought on by the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs. The community is struggling to accept it, and these inner internal conflicts are counter to the cause of equality.”

No matter what the conversation, a highly engaged community corralled in a single digital space is good news for advertisers, which Fitzgibbon has previously struggled to attract. With print ad sales dwindling across the industry, a magazine like Hello Mr. with an annual circulation of 15,000 (compared to, say, The New Yorker’s annual circulation of just over 1 million), advertisers have failed to see the bigger picture and the value in what Hello Mr.’s small audience can offer. But Fitzgibbon is now turning that idea on its head by asking advertisers what they can offer his members instead. By securing deep discounts and deals from brands he knows his members love, advertisers can get their message in front of a keyed-in group that’s eager to support worthy causes and the businesses aligned with that same message. Plus, for those of us who are skeptical of being sold to, and a branded discount offer doesn’t feel like a traditional ad, even if it serves the same purpose.

“This was born out of a sense of necessity to stay alive as an indie magazine.”

Members can also allocate a portion of their annual fee to one of six charities selected by Fitzgibbon, and there are other membership perks, too, like subscriptions (a first for Hello Mr.), early issue reveals, and special digitally downloadable gifts, which will feature exclusive work by guest artists and musicians. “I want to create more moments of surprise and delight; you never know what it’ll be, but it’ll be new and exciting.” We never say no to more surprise and delight. Sign us up. 

Illustration by Karol Banach