No brains and no money

When Branko Brkic arrived in South Africa on Friday 13 December 1991, he was travelling light.

Landing at Jan Smuts International, he was equipped with seven kilos of luggage – the sum total of his worldly possessions – and a one-month tourist visa. Branko had R2,500 to his name and spoke virtually no English. He was 29 years old; a book publisher from Yugoslavia in urgent need of a new home. Slobodan Milošević’s war was razing through Belgrade’s intelligentsia, almost tanking the remains of Branko’s publishing company – then the country’s biggest independent book publisher.

Branko had just lost a nation about to reel under the most savage blows of genocide visited upon Europe since World War Two. He had arrived in a country seemingly on the brink of civil war, enduring the brutal death rattles of apartheid.

Eighteen years later, Branko would found Daily Maverick.

A decade on from there, he maintains a thick accent from the country now known as Serbia – an accent rarely heard in public due to Branko’s hatred of speech-making, but often reproduced affectionately via imitations by Daily Maverick staffers. Nobody has ever seen him wear a suit, and a pair of Converse sneakers appears to be permanently grafted to his feet.

The DNA of Daily Maverick can be traced not just to Branko’s iconoclastic spirit, but also to the almost two decades beforehand spent hustling within South African media: an industry he frequently found himself perplexed by.

“Sanctions messed up people’s minds in South Africa, I felt,” Branko says now, remembering his first encounters with local business publications.

He could not understand why the readers of these magazines would put up with such transparent advertorial content: a positive story about a company, followed by an advert from the same company.

“Why do you have to be so sold out? And so obviously? Why does the content have to be so bad? Why does the design have to be so ugly?”

Driven by a stubborn conviction that South Africa could do better, Branko launched Maverick magazine in 2005, followed in 2007 by its sister publication Empire.

The two titles were different to anything else available in South African media at the time. They featured long-form stories draped in massive photographs by South Africa’s top lenswoman, Sally Shorkend. Their covers were distinctly left-field: Maverick’s second issue was printed with three different covers, unheard of at the time. The editorial was laced with the anti-establishment humour that has become Branko’s publishing signature.

Maverick Magazine 2nd edition covers

Maverick Magazine 2nd edition covers

Source: Sally Shorkend

Maverick and Empire developed devoted, but small, followings. They couldn’t last.

Today, Branko attributes their collapse to two – arguably related – factors.

The first was the nature of South African media coming up against the nature of Branko.

“I was pushing Maverick and Empire as an insurgency,” he says now.

“It was a fight against the stale media that was not serving people; media that was making people stupid. I may have mentioned to them, once or twice, or maybe two or three hundred times, that they sucked. Which they did, to be honest. So, I may have also made a few hundred… enemies.”

The second factor was more of the same, but specifically applied to the business side of the operation.

“I was not a good enough business person,” Branko acknowledges.

He admits that while an insurgency mindset may have been appropriate for his editorial approach, a modicum of diplomacy could have helped on the business side.

Maverick took off incredibly quickly. We did not have money for marketing, so I came up with a crazy idea on how to market it. I wanted to define who the reader is. It was so revolutionary, I did not want boring people to read it. I did not want grey people, sitting in grey cubicles, with grey suits and grey bags, driving grey Toyota Camrys with the faux leather grey interior.”

So Branko decided to send an explicit message to this effect.

“For the subscription card insert that you normally get in magazines, in the very first issue it said, ‘Yes I want to subscribe to Maverick magazine…’ and then in small letters it said, ‘Camry drivers need not apply’.”

It was a joke. But an excruciatingly ill-advised one – in a context where Toyota had just bought a year’s worth of advertising space in Maverick in advance.

Maverick’s first issue tagline was: “A business magazine for people with brains and money”.

In the letter that Toyota executives sent Branko cancelling the advertising contract, they wrote: “You people have no brains, and soon no money”.

They were not wrong on the money front. As Maverick’s competitors redesigned and upped their game editorially, they were also able to leverage off their position within a larger organisation, cross-selling ad space across titles, while also squeezing Maverick out of the distribution networks.

Branko says: “When you work in a space where the market is not big, you have no money for marketing and the entire chain is owned by the competition, you are asking for trouble. The printers are owned by the competition, the distributors are owned by the competition, the shops are owned by the competition. I did not understand it in those days, but I understand it now. We did not stand a chance.”

Maverick’s death-knell was sounded when local airline Kulula cancelled the deal that had seen it distribute thousands of copies on its planes monthly.

On 14 October 2008, the news broke in BizCommunity that it was over, with the publication of a Maverick obituary, headlined: “The Death of a True Maverick Empire”.

Branko read the article. And that afternoon, he sat and designed Daily Maverick.

What his critics failed to realise was that the “Maverick empire” was not dead.

It was just going into guerilla mode.

I have a dream…

It’s spring 2009. Still licking their wounds after going down with Branko’s crumbled Maverick magazine endeavour the year before, a tough, battle-worn audience of journalists have taken up position in Branko’s single-bedroom flat in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, to hear his pitch.

Branko’s new idea: a daily online magazine.

“That won’t cut it – we’re going into an online market flooded with daily news. There’s News24, Mail & Guardian, everybody’s using the wires,” long-form journalist Kevin Bloom tells Branko.

Newsprint is still ruling supreme, its big brands shining powerfully, and profitably, but Branko is not fazed. To him, the picture is very different: print’s reign will soon be history, and he’s keen to write the future in a different medium – digital.

“I just feel it. I know it in my heart,” Branko insists.

“The speed of the world is about to change. Want to run a successful website? People must see new things. Every day. I’m not thinking about alternatives.”

“The speed of the world is about to change. Want to run a successful website? People must see new things. Every day. I’m not thinking about alternatives.”

Bloom objects.

“Look Branko, Maverick folding was a big blow. We were doing the sort of in-depth journalism I loved. It was a monthly. We had big travel budgets. Could work three to four weeks on a 6,000-word feature. We were running important cover stories,” he says. “Why not recreate online what Maverick was famous for? We need to differentiate ourselves based on what Maverick achieved in the three and a half years it was going.”

But Branko is adamant: “Nope, the model must be daily.”

Bloom laughs. This is not the first time he’s faced off with his editor’s iron will, to his detriment.

Long-time Maverick contributors Phillip de Wet and Tanya Pampalone are also present, as well as senior freelance journalist Laurice Taitz and the digital strategist, and Branko’s then-partner, Max Kaizen.

What everyone in the room knows for certain is this: they’d be entering a volatile, saturated market with an extremely idealistic plan after already being hanged, drawn and quartered by the industry.

“Well, I have nothing better to do, nowhere else I’d rather be, and guess I’m suffering from this terrible delusion that it’s important to create new media voices in South Africa,” interjects Phillip, Maverick’s founding deputy editor.

He’s echoing what every dreamer in the room wants to believe. But: bills, school fees, retirement annuities…?

“Ridiculous … I … it’s just ludicrous – how are we meant to compress a whole month of Maverick long-form journalism into a single day – every day of the week?” is all Tanya can manage.

“Daily,” Branko shoots back. “What can I say? I’m a stubborn guy.”

There’s a deep sigh among the Maverick wounded. It’s obvious that Branko’s vessel is leaving the harbour again, with or without them. Question is, do they pick the predictable but drawn-out demise of a dying print industry? Or do they jump off the pier onto the captain’s mad but probably visionary ship, careening into an uncertain horizon?

Phillip has already declared his allegiance. Tanya, not unwisely, gives no indication that she wants to do anything but wave off the departing circus from the safety of the shore. It’s up to Bloom.

“Right, Branko. I’m sad,” Kevin sighs. “But you’re the best editor I know and I want to keep this brand alive, no matter what it takes. If it has to be daily, daily it’ll be.”

Branko was now assured of at least two punchdrunk stalwarts on his crew – Phillip de Wet and Kevin Bloom. What he needed was someone to help turn his mad vision into something approaching reality.

A revolutionary and a chartered accountant walk into a café

Styli Charalambous wasn’t looking to join an insurgency, but he got conscripted anyway.

It happened over a coffee at Seattle in Hyde Park shopping centre in Joburg in October 2009. There, a fast-talking Serb showed Styli his mock‑ups for the next iteration of the resistance – the Daily Maverick website – and told him how it was going to revolutionise the business of publishing online.

The common thread between the two men? Tech entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig Junior. Alan knew Styli from their university days. The chartered accountant had recently returned to South Africa after a few years spent working in London.

Alan saw a chance to play matchmaker. He told Styli: “I’ve given these journos and editors some money. They could use someone with business and finance experience.”

It was Alan who had offered Branko the seed funding to get Daily Maverick off the ground. Without that, Daily Maverick might not have seen the light of the day. Despite the reputation Branko had built as an editor – a maverick in both name and deed – the media industry had closed ranks on him.

For his part, Branko was done with playing by the rules of standard media engagement.

Enter the money man.

Branko says: “Alan called me out of nowhere and said, ‘Why don’t I give you some money in return for a 10% share, and you go start your publication.’ He never even saw what we were doing, the mockups or anything, he just believed in it. Two weeks later he called again and made another offer, saying, ‘Why don’t I get you my friend, Styli? He’s got some spare time and I know you’re not interested in business. Why don’t you get him to do it?’”

Branko did not need any convincing. The collapse of Maverick had made two things abundantly clear.

  1. He knew that if he was going to have a fighting chance against the media monoliths stacked against him, he had to take his operations digital.
  2. He realised he needed help.

I thought I was getting someone who could organise my life. What I did not actually count on was getting a genius.

Says Branko: “I was very much aware of the fact that I have a faulty brain. I needed help. I am just too disorganised. I thought I was getting someone who could organise my life. What I did not actually count on was getting a genius. That’s what probably saved us.”

The genius came in the form of Styli Charalambous, now CEO of Daily Maverick. But when he recalls his first meeting with Branko, Styli admits to not having any real way of telling if what Branko was banging on about was any good.

“I wasn’t skeptical about what he was saying because I had no media experience or industry views to be able to gauge what he was pitching,” Styli recalls. “Branko is actually a much better salesperson than I am in terms of selling a business proposition or a big idea. He doesn’t like asking for the order like a salesman needs to, but he’s an artist in terms of ‘making them think it’s their idea’ and bringing people round to a way of thinking. Regardless, Branko’s plan for Daily Maverick was less crap than my other options at the time, so I thought: let’s see where this goes.”

Seed capital may have been sorted, but Daily Maverick still needed operational funding to get things moving. A couple of angels arrived shortly before Christmas 2009 in the shape of Branko’s friend Valentin Micic and his business partner Brand Wolmarans, both tech entrepreneurs. Branko had done the hard yards of preparing them for an investment; Styli’s first real gig was to get the deal over the line with a business plan and a term sheet for funding that was supposed to last a year.

It was a plan of such lofty ambition that it made Elon Musk’s space colonisation vision look boringly practical.

Despite keeping things leaner than a fasting Buddhist, Branko and Styli would return to these angel investors for another round of Greek bailout funding a year later. They would also help with emergency payroll funding on a couple more occasions as part of the collective effort to keep the Daily Maverick project alive.

Looking back, the way Styli describes these investors and the others they would beg, borrow from and pitch to is: “Heroes.”


On 30 October 2009, a single sentence was sent into the Twittersphere: “The Daily Maverick, now live.”

An article the next day in Johannesburg-based Business Day hinted at the implausibility of what was being attempted.

“Frustrated former readers of Maverick magazine can rejoice – the indomitable Branko Brkic yesterday launched an online version of the business magazine, called The Daily Maverick,” the newspaper reported.

“Brkic said yesterday that he can run his website with 100% in-house-generated copy and pictures for four months on the money used to produce just one edition of Maverick.”
The subtext: Good luck with that.
On board one of South Africa’s earliest digital-only news businesses were not only Phillip and Kevin.

A youthful Branko Brkic with the first version of THE Daily Maverick

A youthful Branko Brkic with the first version of THE Daily Maverick

Source: Martin Rhodes for Business Day/Financial Mail

Tim Cohen, Theresa Mallinson, Stephen Grootes, Brooks Spector and Mark Allix would fill out the rest of the editorial starter-pack in the Johannesburg newsroom. Long-time collaborators Ivo Vegter and Jacques Rousseau came on as columnists. Jason Norwood-Young coded the website. Llewelyn Kriel took on the role of sub-editor.

It was a painfully small crew, but Branko’s belief was that a team of well-informed and experienced writers could change the media world and chart a new future for digital-only publications.

Daily Maverick’s initial offering involved five big original features and around 25 “shorter” stories, also original. This volume of original content was, in the context of South African media, both novel and daunting.

As Business Day would put it: “Brkic’s intention to move away from websites padded out by international copy to a site with copy generated only by its team is an ambitious undertaking for the small team.”

Not that the shorter pieces were short, really. “They never materialised,” says Branko. It was all deep-dive narratives from the get-go – following the long-form model set by Maverick magazine, but with the difference that Daily Maverick was not just a business publication. It presented a wider overview of the latest political, economic, sports and entertainment news.

Apart from eschewing superficial coverage and sticking to its renegade values, Daily Maverick also broke a few other rules – but not before doing around 130 research interviews with leading business executives. The end result of this research: instead of annoying pop-up banners, the new advertising model featured panel adverts that lined the page margins and stayed static during up-and-down scrolling.

Registered users also got a newsletter featuring daily sunrise-fresh headlines, after resolving a few teething problems.

Phillip had poured cold water all over Branko’s initial newsletter template, sometime in summer 2008, with a simple put-down: “I’m not feeling it.”

Says Phillip now: “In my defence, I wasn’t exactly getting a healthy dose of sleep, and I’m not the most emotionally sensitive person at the best of times. Which may have contributed to me telling him, with no embellishment, that I wasn’t very impressed.”

Phillip says that he doesn’t remember Branko’s exact words, but to this day he does remember the “devastated expression on his face, and the slump in his shoulders as he walked away”.

Branko says he was furious, until he realised Daily Maverick’s deputy editor was right: his attempt looked like everyone else’s newsletter.

Inspired by his perpetual guilt for sleeping while the clock of current affairs ticked over, Branko came up with a new angle. The result was the “First Thing” email bulletin, designed to “plug the reader back into what happened the night before”, explains Branko.

“That’s how the tag line ‘While you were sleeping’ was born.”

When Branko sent Phillip the revised concept, he became a believer. Phillip’s reward? Waking up at 4am, Monday to Friday, to finalise First Thing for public consumption. It paid off, eventually evolving into a suite of successful and eagerly awaited newsletters – clocking 10 million sends to more than 115,000 subscribers by June 2019.

But the early days were a monumental slog.

“Ever tried to launch something on a complete shoestring?” asks Phillip. “I coddled a tiny audience outrageously, and tried to convince readers to spread the word. I tracked down a local T-shirt manufacturer that agreed to a deal partially on an in-kind basis. I got up at 3.30am every weekday to write that email newsletter before popping into one radio studio and one television studio to be a talking head in a branded T-shirt. I tried to establish both a unified voice for the platform and a culture of civility on comment forums. On occasion I even did real journalism – once the live-tweeting and photos were done.”

Within the first month, Daily Maverick had netted, more or less, 60,000 eyeballs belonging to 30,000 unique readers.

The fledgling editorial team, Branko in particular, recalls being “over the moon” – until they stumbled upon a “crushing” crumb of data: at the time, competitor publication Mail & Guardian had more readers in Australia than the sum total of Daily Maverick’s readership.

“That’s when I realised the mountain we had to climb. We had an Everest to scale.”

“I was still thinking in magazine terms,” admits Branko. “Thirty thousand people in the world of print is big. Not so much online. That’s when I realised the mountain we had to climb. We had an Everest to scale.”

And, even then, Mail & Guardian was a minnow compared to News24, the flagship news site of Media24, that living megalodon of African media generally annihilating most competition in its wake.

Branko says he regrouped with a “very simple” motivational mantra.

“It’s called ‘I have no choice’. Unless you’re being crushed physically to the wall, you have no choice. You just have to make it.”

After Maverick magazine’s foundering, there was also the issue of credibility to reconquer.

Although official reviews of Daily Maverick’s October 2009 launch were encouraging, behind-the-scenes reactions to the publication’s ambitious plans to challenge established players hinted at just how competitive the landscape was.

“The laughter… The laughter: ‘You’re going to do what?’ People were incredulous that we wanted to position ourselves at the top of a giant industry cornered by the existing media monoliths,” Branko says.

The determination to launch a daily news and opinion website with original content and a burning ambition to redefine the space seemed a fool’s errand to many.

In reality, starting it was the easy part.

“Anyone can launch a publication like this,” says Branko. “Keeping it alive for 10 years? Not so much.”

What it would take, however, was a decade’s struggle – in the manner of Odysseus (a long and eventful journey), Sisyphus (never-ending pain), and Hercules (fighting demons and cleaning up giant piles of shit).

A family of traders from Saharanpur, India had no idea what was coming their way.