My biggest claim to fame is taking a media startup from $0 to $1.3M in three years. 4WD Touring Australia is a monthly, national offroad travel magazine and TV show airing on Network TEN. I was actively involved in all areas of the business including but not limited to business development, production, advertising and sponsor procurement, marketing strategy and planning, and editorial. From 2012 – 2014, 4WD Touring was the highest circulating monthly 4WD magazine (CAB Audit 30,000 print magazines per month), won best cover in the Magazine Cover Awards ‘Maggies,’ and Escape Media nabbed runner-up for small publisher of the year at the Publishers Australia Excellence Awards in 2014. Our success was a result of disrupting a market, designing the brand philosophy around travel as a spiritual journey and providing superior customer outreach and service.
After the sales success at Bauer Media (read that case study here), I co-founded Escape Media and launched 4WD Touring Australia, Australia’s first monthly magazine and TV show. One of our biggest challenges came in the first year. We were printing 30,000 magazines in Hong Kong with a three-month lead and distributing them nationally with a small distributor called Integrated Publication Solutions (aka IPS which is part of Fairfax Media) who billed us based on percentage of sale instead of delivery fee. During the first few months of business, and with three months of printed magazines locked and loaded, we anxiously waited for our first round of sales figures to come in. And when they did, it was bleak. But this didn’t make sense to me.
I knew the advertisers loved our magazine – we were the first monthly 4WD travel magazine with a TV show in Australia. And I knew the readers loved our magazine based on our feedback and subscription sales. Our database was consistently filling up with emails and we were and talking to customers at trade shows across the country and receiving positive reviews. But sales from the newsstand were still very low.
I asked my team in Melbourne and Sydney to canvas newsagents. For three months we went into 120 newsagents across Australia (Sunshine Coast, Sydney, Melbourne) each week and tracked sales. We talked to the newsagents about selling and distribution and discovered some distressing data. The newsagents paid the distributor on commission. They tore the magazine cover off and sent it back to the distributor if the magazines did not sell. And the distributor billed them based on this data. Most newsagents did not report any sales at all. And despite having barcodes, there was no integrated sales technology to track anything. We were simply relying on honesty and we realised that these small business were struggling financially as magazines went digital, combined with the extra annoyance of sending back covers, resulted in them not reporting sales. We were frustrated, the newsagents were frustrated and the distributor was frustrated.
After several meetings with IPS, they agreed to bill the newsagents for each copy sent and only refund based on returned magazine covers. As soon as this new payment requirement took hold we went from generating $5,000 in monthly newsstand sales to $25,000 in monthly newsstand sales. It was a huge success.
Prior to our revised newsstand strategy – and lack of cash flow – it forced me to get creative. Looking at the market, I knew we were the only monthly 4WD travel media company with a magazine and TV show. I also knew that we were a new brand and I wanted to make sure people knew about us. During this period, it was not a requirement for a magazine to have an impressive website (2012). But being a pioneer, I designed a new website using Shopify to capture email addresses, sell merchandise and subscriptions and promote our shows and products. We also approached the aftermarket accessories leader – and one of our advertisers – ARB and asked them to help us distribute magazines. We asked them to give away our magazines to paying customers as a token of their appreciation (a smally loyalty program), which would help ARB show their customers that our brand was the same quality as ARB. Distributing through ARB allowed us to claim the highest distributed 4WD travel magazine in Australia and align ourselves with a great brand. It also allowed us to raise the advertising prices and generate more income.
Keys to Success
Our success was a result of using customer research to design products people wanted and loved. I was also very close to many of our advertisers and spoke to them regularly about their experience and ROIs. We were the type of company who sent our clients handwritten thank you notes with a copy of the magazine each month and thoughtful Christmas presents. We supported them generously through editorial and as a result, they took care of us.
After our second year, and a healthy cash flow, we were able to approach TEN and take our series to network TV. We also launched a digital magazine through Apple and Google Play and grew our database from 0 to over 120,000 subscribers with huge giveaway prizes (worth over $120,000) linked to subscription purchase.
We had five staff spread out across Australia with no main office and six regular contractors. As everyone worked from home, we used phone, email, Dropbox and our FTP to share files (as well as magazine proofs from China). Our staff knew the deadlines and we trusted them to get the work done – which they did. We allowed them a lot of freedom and we rewarded them with yearly bonuses and raises and I always made sure their personalities came through their work. I hire people to fill the roles and then evolve the roll around the person. We cultivated a culture of openness and hired people from surf brands who understood our philosophy: it’s about the journey not just the destination. And because our staff felt included and appreciated, ideas flowed and knowledge was shared.
Biggest takeaways: align yourself with people, companies and philosophies that match your values; hire experts – the less involved you are in the operations of the business, the more time you have for strategy; and don’t underestimate the power of gratitude.
And finally, managing a film crew in the middle of the Australian desert for weeks on end is best done if you channel your inner mother: keep them fed, talk through the tough emotions when you see someone struggling, and make sure they are in bed at a reasonable hour each night.