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Q&A: Cool Cleveland's brain trust tells how it all happened

Thomas Mulready of CoolCleveland. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Thomas Mulready of CoolCleveland. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Each and every Wednesday, tens of thousands of inquisitive folks open up their email inboxes to find the latest e-blast from Cool Cleveland. Started in 2002 by Thomas Mulready, the newsletter has become a trusted guide to Cleveland-specific events and activities. A lot has changed in the past eight years, and Thomas Mulready's Cool Cleveland has been one of the few constants throughout that time.

So, what was the impetus behind the creation of Cool Cleveland?

I knew there was an untold story of Cleveland's inner coolness. Much of the criticism this town was receiving was from locals, not out-of-towners. I started sending out emails linking to positive economic development stories, op-ed pieces, and to good things people outside the city were saying about Cleveland. The purpose of the newsletter wasn't to help make Cleveland cool, but rather to reveal its coolness.

What did the early newsletter look like?

It was just one long email all text and no graphics. I highlighted two or three things to do each week. It wasn't very organized at all. But people thought it was great and forwarded it to their friends. I started finding events for every day of the week. Then I added graphics to break up the days.

What was the tipping point that turned a good idea into a solid business model?

After about four or five months of doing this, I had so many subscribers that I had to move it out of Outlook. I had been sending the newsletters from my desktop email. Call me dumb, call me whatever, but I never put two and two together. It took a couple of people calling me and asking what I charge for advertising for me to figure it out. We never had a business model that said let's go out and make money. We said let's do what's right for Cleveland, not for Cool Cleveland. That's still how we do things.

How has the advance in technology changed the way Cool Cleveland operates?

What has really changed in the past eight years is the ubiquity of broadband. Early on you couldn't deliver a video and expect a large audience to view it. Now with streaming video it's easier. Digital cameras are smaller. I can shoot video interviews on my iPhone and upload them from anywhere. But at the same time we work hard at keeping things simple despite all the technology.

Since Cool Cleveland began it was always an email newsletter. Why did you recently launch a companion website?

Having a robust Web presence allows us to post content more timely than we can with a weekly newsletter. If we missed something in the email we can add it to the website. We can pre-publish in anticipation of the Wednesday push. It's another way to build the Cool Cleveland brand.

Speaking of brand, how do you nurture the Cool Cleveland image?

We have a strong brand, and we've been careful to say no to a lot of opportunities. Knowing what your brand is and isn't is important. It's a different world now. There are fewer print publications, but there are more websites getting in on the act. Cool Cleveland continues to hand-pick events. Our readers want somebody who has filtered through all the options and selected just the cool stuff.

Is Thomas Mulready Cool Cleveland, vice versa, or neither?

There is this alter ego thing where you go in the phone booth and change your look. For me it's the hat. I've had to subsume my own personality and let this other one take over because that's what people want. That's fine; I can learn to live my own life through that person and brand. It's also a great business strategy to have a personality who is real, not manufactured. I have always wanted Cool Cleveland to remain personal. That's why the email still comes from Thomas Mulready and not Cool Networks LLC.

Can there ever again be a Thomas Anonymous?

That has certainly become an issue. I have close to 5,000 Facebook friends and it's hard to go out and not see people who know me. But there are "friends" and there are friends. I have a family with soccer games and piano recitals that I won't be blogging or tweeting about, sorry. Thanks to a larger staff, I've been able to take a step back and enjoy Cleveland not as the founder of Cool Cleveland, but as a Clevelander.

So, what's cool in Cleveland these days?

We've got this foodie culture that is the envy of people across the country. I think that is a surprise to a lot of people and it's something we can leverage better as a community. Great food is something people will travel around the world for. When you're looking for the real America, this is the place. The cool stuff in Cleveland isn't trendy it's been cooking for a real long time.

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