IN a cosy office above Bolton Street, Newcastle, Zac Zavos is trying to be a hands-off boss.
Scrolling through one of his company’s web pages, the managing director of site producer Conversant Media notices a very minor glitch in an advertisement – the kind of glitch that would probably go unnoticed by 99per cent of people.
His natural impulse is to intervene, like he would have had to so many times in his company’s short life. But these days he has a team of 10 doing every facet of what was once his job, and has to force himself not to get involved.
‘‘That’s my challenge,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve now got people who are better than me at each particular aspect of the business, so I need to be able to take my hands off those day-to-day things.’’
That he might find it difficult to take his hands off the wheel is easy enough to understand when you know the company’s story.
Conversant Media is the brainchild of Zac and his brother, Zolton, and produces three web pages – culture site Lost At E Minor, sports opinion site The Roar, and most recently a consumer-friendly tech site called Techly.
Today the sites attract a combined 2.3million viewers a month, with a reach of more than 5million on Facebook.
They have 75 paid writers, thousands of fan contributions, a major television network investment and revenue in the millions.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
The company was born in 2005, when the two brothers were living either side of the Atlantic Ocean; Zac in London caught up in the heady days of the Dot Com boom, Zolton in New York (he still lives there) working for street press publication Riot Magazine.
Together they started Lost At E Minor as a newsletter circulated among friends, ‘‘just things we were seeing that we thought were interesting that we were sending out each day’’, an ethos that remains on the site to this day, a collection of the weird and wonderful ranging from art to architecture and technology to travel.
They quickly picked up subscriptions – 8000, in fact – and turned it into a website.
‘‘The effort involved in getting first 10 or 20 thousand readers is exponentially harder,’’ Zac says. ‘‘It’s simple maths, but it’s brutally hard, it was real word of mouth.’’
By 2007 the site had grown enough to give them the confidence to branch out and launch The Roar, a mix of news and opinion that blends expert columnists – such as their father Spiro, a respected sports journalist and writer – and amateurs.
‘‘Everything was done following success,’’ he says. ‘‘It wasn’t like there was this grand vision.’’
Zac moved to Newcastle at the end of 2007 when the company was growing but still wasn’t profitable. They’d received an investment from a friend, and after years working in the technology industry he’d taken the plunge to quit a well-paying job and take the reins full-time.
Newly married with a young child and another on the way, he was working manic hours from his new home in Merewether.
‘‘To be honest, it was the hardest period of my life. I’d given up a lot to do it and there are moments I remember very well of feeling I was in a corner, and I couldn’t get out,’’ he says. ‘‘My day would be: wake up at six, do site content, then be across content all day while trying to get meetings with advertisers, liaise with writers, build the site, and have those meetings.
‘‘One or two days we got hacked and I didn’t leave my bed, I was alerted at about four or five in the morning and I didn’t leave my bed. I just spent the whole day trying to sort through it.
‘‘I had my family on the line, [but] because we took investment from a guy I really respect, I couldn’t walk way. If we hadn’t taken investment, it could have been the case that I would have walked away at one stage.’’
In many ways, it was being in Newcastle that made Conversant possible.
The story of Newcastle’s transformation from steel city is well known.
After 80 years of living with a steel spine, the city, like an ageing Roger Federer, was forced, rather than chose, to adapt its style to something more flexible. Employment in the primary and manufacturing sectors had fallen steadily since the early 1980s, with tertiary and health sectors booming.
But there is that other. About a year after he moved to Newcastle, Marcus Westbury started having meetings to discuss an idea he’d had for a program to be called Renew Newcastle – an initiative that over the next five years would transform the city by allowing creative start-ups to use empty space.
Conversant was among Renew’s first intake, taking up residence in an old CBD optometrist that would become known as The Clinic, working alongside graphic designers Neon Zoo and Heath Killen, stylist Tim Neve, and others.
‘‘Having that space with other, I guess, like-minded or interested people was so important,’’ Zac says.
‘‘We referred work to Neon Zoo, they referred work to us, Heath [Killen] did our design, and all of this was business that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.
‘‘There’s something about having a space for business. You’d have meetings more readily with good people and the most important thing was that people knew they could just drop in.’’
Conversant’s story didn’t happen in isolation. There is a growing online industry in Newcastle that looks set to continue.
When Zac first moved to Newcastle, he made contacts by calling like-minded people.
Craig Wilson was one. The head of Newcastle digital marketing firm Sticky since 2005, Wilson was one of the first in the city pushing a purely online product. He says the digital scene in Newcastle today, compared with nine years ago, is ‘‘chalk and cheese’’.
‘‘As far as I know, we were the first marketing firm to openly talk about a digital-first marketing strategy and I think a few people raised their eyebrows at the time,’’ he says.
‘‘Back then the market place was very different because the awareness and willingness to adopt online marketing strategies was very limited, especially in Newcastle.’’
Eventually, inevitably, that changed, and now Wilson agrees that there is a growing digital scene in the city helped by idea-sharing initiatives such as the Lunaticks Society and DiG festival.
In fact, Wilson says, digital business has allowed companies like his to exist in Newcastle.
‘‘I’d say 60per cent of our revenue still comes from Sydney, and it used to be a lot higher,’’ he says. ‘‘But the nature of the work is that it’s not hard for us to work for our clients up here, because what we do is online.’’