Jolyon Connell: forge ahead and deal with your mistakes

MoneyWeek's founder, Jolyon Connell, talks to Matthew Partridge about how he went about establishing Britain's premier financial weekly 15 years ago.


MoneyWeek's founder Jolyon Connell

As deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph during the mid-1990s, Jolyon Connell became aware that, while "people were getting ever busier", newspapers were expanding, with glossy supplements and long features. His wife, Alexandra, complained that this made it hard to keep up with what was happening in the world and what all the columnists were saying. During a walk in Scotland during a winter's holiday in January 1994, Jon realised that there was a gap in the market for a weekly digest that could both entertain and inform.

Convinced it would be a success, he decided to quit his job to start planning the new publication. However, most people who knew him thought it was madness; his editor-in-chief, Max Hastings, even wrote to him saying he was going to treat his departure as a sabbatical, expecting that he would soon be wanting to return. Meanwhile, he had problems raising enough money, finding that the £1m he had budgeted was "too small for venture capitalists, but too large for friends and family".

Undeterred, Jon launched The Week anyway, with just £200,000, half of which came from the sale of his London house. Operating from a small garage in Paddington, with the help of the talented writer, Jeremy O'Grady (now editor-in-chief), the new magazine, which launched in May 1995, quickly attracted both praise and a core of devoted readers. Within a few months Jon would receive a letter from his former boss admitting that he had been wrong to doubt him. However, as Jon ruefully notes, a lack of funds for marketing meant that sales took a long time to build up.

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As a result, Jon decided to sell a large chunk of the firm to publishing mogul Felix Dennis. This kept it afloat until it started making a profit. Jon remained a long-term shareholder though had he funded the magazine properly from the start he would have retained control for longer and benefited more fully fromThe Week's huge success. (It now has more than 200,000 UK readers and 500,000 in America.)

Anxious not to make the same mistake, he made sure MoneyWeek (launched in November 2000) was properly funded from the outset. The problem this time was that the original editorial concept for the magazine had to be modified, since readers expected analysis and guidance, as well as a digest of the financial news. He therefore agreed a deal with American publishing house Agora in 2003, enabling him to benefit from the expertise of Agora's owner, bestselling author and newsletter writer Bill Bonner.

Jon found it a relief to work with "someone who understood financial publishing". Bonner's guidance, along with founding editor and now editor-in-chief Merryn Somerset Webb's expertise and city contacts, meant that MoneyWeek would grow at a rapid pace. Within a few years it had supplanted its competitors as the premier UK personal-finance weekly. In the role of editorial director (the same role he now plays at The Week), Jon retains a stake in the magazine, and is delighted by its success.

Since he believes that "businesses are at their most fun when they are small", it's unsurprising that he has recently begun his third venture, Connell Guides.This came about when his eldest daughter, Flora, wanted to re-sit anexam on Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Her struggle to understand the play alerted Jon to the poor quality of existing study guides, inspiring him to create a new set, distilling, Week-style, critical analysis of key literary texts. More than 300 schools now subscribe, and he plans to begin publishing a set of similar history guides next year.

Jon is a firm believer in the philosophy outlined in the book Ready, Fire, Aim. He argues that it's better to forge ahead and deal with mistakes, rather than "spend endless time planning things". However, he believes that early mistakes, especially failing to raise enough money, frequently end up being the hardest to deal with. He points to his own experience with The Week, where a lack of funds pushed him into giving up control far too early, his one big regret.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri