Just like the media business, stand-up comedy and Hollywood, fashion is having a political moment.
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Business of Fashion Editor in Chief Imran Amed said that the power shift represented by #MeToo has “led to a lot more diversity and inclusivity.” And at the same time, consumers have begun expecting brands to be explicitly political and engage directly with questions like, “Who makes your clothes and how much do you pay them?”
“Fashion is a very visible business ... [and] there’s a lot more need to be accountable about the consumer,” Amed said. “Whether that be the way the images are created and who’s creating them and what’s going on between a photographer and a model, whether that be the people making the clothes in a factory in Bangladesh and making sure that they’re paid a fair wage and they’re treated properly or that be the way people are operating in the retail environment. All of that has now become open and visible to everyone.”
And even when a brand is not, for instance, underpaying garment workers in Bangladesh, consumers are putting pressure on companies to be political. Case in point, Nike’s embrace of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was ostracized by the NFL for protesting racial injustice during the national anthem before games.
“Nike is not alone in this,” Amed said. “Gucci, right after the shooting at the Parkland School in Florida, got involved in the movement of the young people in that school and supported them financially and made a big public stance. When the immigration ban happened early last year, after a bit of coaxing, a bunch of fashion companies came out and spoke out against it. There’s just this idea of activism is kind of coursing through the world right now and fashion is no exception.”
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Imran.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. Here it’s Fashion Week in New York City at Vox Media headquarters. My standard ask is if you like this show, tell someone else, not me. You can tell me too, but tell someone else about this show so they can listen to it for free. Thanks.
I am here with Imran Amed, who among other things is editor in chief of Business of Fashion. I was googling him today. I saw a Guardian headline. Imran, do you remember what this headline says?
Imran Amed: Yes.
It describes you as “fashion’s most influential man.” That’s why I dressed up today. What do you think?
You look great.
I look great.
There was a brief moment this morning. I said, he’s a fashion guy, I should dress up. I should dress nice. Then I thought, the only thing dumber than a schlubby middle-aged dad going to meet a fashion guy would be a schlubby middle-aged dad trying to dress up for a fashion guy.
I am glad you came as yourself.
I am in my streetwear. You look lovely. What are you wearing today?
I am wearing a sweater that I bought at this store called Joseph.
Not Joseph Abboud.
Not Joseph Abboud. It’s Joseph, a London chain of boutiques. They have an in-house brand, which I really like. I’m wearing some APC jeans.
I’ve heard of APC. Here, I’m gonna further explain my fashion ignorance. You’re here. It’s New York Fashion Week.
Yes it is.
Which is ongoing. Ending?
It ends tomorrow.
You threw an event here. Often when I have a guest on, there’s a lot of overlap between ... I’ve had an editor of a publication. There’s a lot of overlap between that publication and maybe my listenership. I’m guessing less overlap but not entirely a lack of overlap. Just so people understand, you’re here because ...
I am the editor in chief of the Business of Fashion.
Which is a trade publication. Can I call it trade publication?
It is one element of what we do, which is to communicate to the industry. Because of the nature of fashion as a highly sought-after, highly influential, global business, we communicate to more than just the fashion industry.
Fashion has emerged in the last decade as one of the most, if not the most influential pillar of popular culture. It’s connected to music. It’s connected to art. It’s connected to technology. It’s connected to beauty. All of these industries are also paying attention to what goes on in fashion. We communicate with those industries as well. As well as consumers. We call them prosumers. Professional consumer.
I’m familiar a little bit with this business. I wanna talk about what you’re doing, how you built it. I just want to give people a little context before we dive into that. One of the reasons you’re here is you have people covering Fashion Week.
You’re also throwing events here.
Yes. We hold an annual gala dinner for what is the BoF 500. It’s a 500 people shaping the global fashion industry.
This is a time-tested tradition for publications. You make a list of powerful people and then hope some of them show up, either at your events or endorse you in some way. That’s what’s happening for you guys.
Yeah. Our original goal in doing it was to level the playing field amongst the people who are seen as influential. Of course, everyone knows the famous fashion designers, models and photographers. The fashion industry is animated by all sorts of other people who are more behind the scenes. The business people, the creative people who craft shoots, the media, the academics who educate the next generation of students.
I was Googling you. There’s a lot of photos of you standing next to the Kardashians. They’re pretty well known.
They weren’t at the event the other night. We did another event earlier this year where they attended.
You got Kardashian power. And Tiffany Haddish crashed your party?
She didn’t crash. Well, I guess if showing up uninvited is crashing, then I guess she crashed. She was a welcomed crasher. She came with the stylist La Roche who was very, very welcomely invited.
You throw an event like that. Do you make money from throwing it like that or is that sort of part of the entire gestalt of what you do, which is ...? Well, you tell me.
The BoF 500 ends up being supported by partners. It is a profitable enterprise. We don’t do it for just making money. We do it as a way of bringing together our community.
You get a flywheel effect, right? You have the list, the list is a big deal, you make it a bigger deal by having a party that you have to be invited to get to, you cover the party...
Etc., etc. The whole industry is watching. It’s a genuine celebration. People came from 33 countries, as far away as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and Australia. It’s a global list.
Besides your event, what is the most interesting thing that you saw at Fashion Week?
I think it’ll probably be what I’m seeing tonight, which is the Calvin Klein show, which the brand is now helmed by a designer named Ralph Simmons. I can’t really speak about that yet because I haven’t seen it. On Friday night, Ralph Lauren celebrated his 50th anniversary with quite a spectacular show uptown in Central Park.
I saw pictures of that in my Facebook feed. There, I’m one level connected to you.
That was pretty amazing because there’s quite an amazing crowd there. It was a real testament to what he’s built in 50 years as an iconic American brand. It was a special moment.
There’s multiple Fashion Weeks around the world. We talked about this beforehand. The point of having a show like that and having it covered. I know in the auto show they’ll show you concept cars that will never be created. CES shows you stuff that’s never gonna show up in your living room. Then they also talk about what actually is gonna show up 18 months from now. Is that the same idea?
Originally, Fashion Week was for the industry. It was when buyers and editors would sit and watch a fashion show and see the clothes that would be available six months from now.
You’d literally be saying, “I would like to order this, I wouldn’t like to order that.”
Exactly. All of that is changing now because Fashion Week was closed to consumers before. Consumers didn’t really see images from those shows until the clothes were hitting the stores. Now, consumers see everything as it’s happening. The industry is in a bit of turmoil at the moment, trying to figure out how to adapt the production cycle and supply chain to the fast-paced community cycle.
These events used to be inward and you wouldn’t really see glimpses of them. Maybe you’d see Anna Wintour was at a thing with some clothes.
You’d see a review. Critics would review the clothes. You wouldn’t see every collection in every single look, every accessory, everything that’s available in the catalog analyzed to death on websites. Live-streamed, Instagrammed.
It’s turned around.
Everybody sees everything now. The model is somewhat broken.
That’s a good opportunity for you to build a publication in an industry that’s in turmoil.
Yes. The opportunity for being a guide and a source of analysis and intelligence at a time when the industry is being disrupted, not just by technology but by globalization and changing social mores. Everything seems to be changing in the world right now. That creates huge opportunity for us.
All right. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren for the takeaways. People can go Google afterwards. Now let’s talk about your business. You bristled a tiny bit when I called your publication a “trade.” I don’t mean that as a derogatory.
No. We do communicate to the trade. There’s no doubt about it. I guess the bristling comes from the fact that trade publications have an old-fashioned way of communicating mostly news. News is a commodity now.
We really focus on analysis. Making sense of the news, making recommendations to our readers about what it means and what it means for them in terms of the actions they take. It’s not just about saying “this happened.” It’s about saying “this happened, this is what it means and this is what you should do.”
Listen, in my entire journalistic career I might’ve been at a trade pub or trade pub adjacent thing. I don’t know what you call Recode. We straddle that line all the time.
First of all, let’s talk about what it is and then we can talk about how you built it. I met you last spring. You explained your business. Here’s my disclosure. I did know of Business of Fashion because Dan Frommer’s wife, Lauren Sherman, works for you.
The lovely Frommer, yeah.
That was literally about as much as I knew about it. Then I met you and said, “Wow, this is a really interesting business, you should come on the podcast.” And here you are. This is a business you created in ... 2006?
2007 I started writing a blog.
We’ll go into the creation story. Just so we level-set. Today, you are selling subscriptions.
We are selling subscriptions. We do events. We have online education courses and we have a careers platform. We are getting close to 100 people across London, New York and Shanghai.
This is a business you built, you bootstrapped.
I bootstrapped it for the first five or six years on my couch. It wasn’t really a business then. It was just a project that I was doing for fun. We raised some money in 2013.
Not much, right?
Not that much.
Next to nothing by 2013/14/15 media standards.
Yeah. Not that much money.
It was like a million bucks, right?
Two-and-a-half million dollars. We did a subsequent series A round, which wasn’t that much money either. We’ve been building it together ...
You own it with your investors.
With our investors and with, obviously, our team.
Not part of a conglomerate. No Conde Nast, no Hearst … so at the one point, very impressive to do it, to employ 100 people and having mostly built the thing with your own money. Both cool that you have done it without the aid of a giant media company. Maybe scary. Maybe there’s a lot of upside now. You see the travails that pretty much every big media company has in trying to support their publications. You make most of your money today how?
Mostly through subscription products. We have two main subscription products. One is sold. One is a content product that’s mostly sold to end users.
That’s standard subscription, right? I pay you x. How much is it?
It’s $240 a year.
That scales up and down. There’s a student rate.
It scales up and down. Students get it for free. We want students to start reading it as soon as they’re starting to get interested in the industry and we’ll build a relationship from the very beginning.
The standard rack rate is 240 bucks a year. That gets me access to the website and ...
And events. Online access to some of the events. They get access ... paid annual subscribers get the two print editions that we do. We also, we do some content that’s exclusive to members only and some that’s open and hits a metered paywall.
This is a new model for you, right? This is only in the last couple of years.
Yeah. We launched that in October 2016 and it’s already become the biggest part of our business. It’s a really nice business model for a business like ours.
By the way, this is I think, half-jokingly, I think nearly everyone who comes into this room to podcast now has a subscription business they either launched or are about to launch.
We decided about three years ago that it was the right move for us to make. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted to do it, how we would communicate it to our community, which was used to getting everything for free up until that point. We’re really, really pleased with the results. It’s been phenomenal.
Then you have other revenue streams. You mentioned job boards …
We have a product that we sell to companies as well. Companies can now buy a page on our website, which is an employer-branding kind of page. There’s different modules that companies can add to that. They can buy access to all our content for all their employees and/or they can buy access to our jobs-advertising service, which is called BoF Careers. It’s like a very, very beautiful experience to talk about what it’s like to work in the company. There’s video. There’s content that we’ve created. There’s descriptions of executives. There’s links to news. If you were interviewing for a job, anything you want to know about the company is on that page.
How many readers do you have?
We have over one million unique.
What percent of those are subscribers?
I don’t disclose the subscriber figures. We have coming on half a million daily newsletter subscribers. They are not all paying subscribers, but a lot of that leads to the conversion.
Who are you displacing? Who are you competing with? Competing with everyone, but in the core. Your core business is covering the ins and outs of the fashion industry. I’m assuming you bump up against people like Women’s Wear Daily. Who else are you competing with for people’s time and money?
There is or there has been a tradition for a hundred years of trade publications focused on this industry in lots of different countries. Yes, Women’s Wear Daily is here in the U.S. but there’s also Le Journal du Textile in France and there’s Drapers Record in the U.K. There’s their equivalents in Australia and Germany. On the traditional B2B trade publishing side of things, those are the players we tend to bump up against.
Our BOF Careers, the platform for companies, competes mostly with LinkedIn. Our events business competes with the likes of TED and the New York Times. Each of our businesses competes with different ...
When you say competes with TED or the New York Times, is someone deciding to spend ten thousand bucks to go to TED or to one of your events?
Yeah. The ticket price for our event is £6,000. It’s in the same bracket.
That’s in the Code bracket. Competing with me.
We’re competing with you. People choose. People’s time is limited and all of the different products that we have, a lot of it is about limited time. There are people who choose between spending time at TED or spending time at our event, which is ...
Let’s say Code versus BOF. That sounds better, right?
Code versus ...
Yeah, the Code Conference.
Yeah, I haven’t been.
We’ll get you in. We’ll figure out content for you. You’ll go as press.
Imran, I love hearing creation myths/stories. What’s the best version of your creation myth?
Without extending it out over too long.
We have time.
Essentially I was a McKinsey consultant and I’d been a career consultant both before and after business school. I’d had my fill of consulting.
Did you have a specialty within McKinsey?
I didn’t. That was part of the challenge.
Just parachute you into whatever business, you tackle over three months.
I did pharmaceuticals, I did financial services. I did real estate. I did construction. I did that all over the world. It was amazing for a few years.
Some people love that life.
It’s a great life until a certain point when ... You reach a certain point in the career at McKinsey where you have to choose a sector. As I went to try to choose a sector, there were no sectors I was really passionate about. I was always interested in working in creative industries. At the time, McKinsey didn’t really have much of a presence in the fashion industry.
Say something good about consultants because the standard, the way I end up covering stuff and the way I talk to people about stuff, when the consultants are brought in, it’s either an ass-covering exercise to tell someone to do something that’s very obvious, it’s to give someone advice that’s actually not very useful, and/or it’s to fire people and then to give them cover. I guess that’s also ass-covering. Presumably there’s actually a value that good consultants are giving companies that pay them, as well.
Yeah. I think if you have the right kind of relationship with your consultant and you listen to them, I think a lot of times the problem for consultants is when all this work is done and the advice is not really followed or taken and there’s no actions taken from it. I’ve seen, over my career, relationships between a consultant and a CEO where there’s a genuine trust-based relationship.
The idea is you are gonna bring me ... I want outside perspective. You are not in this industry. I want fresh eyes on this problem. You are smart and you will deliver. A minimum of fresh eyes.
The senior people will be specialized. The senior person serving Conde Nast will have ...
Which hires a consultant every 18 months to tell it to cut.
Exactly. I think BCG is doing work there right now or something. The senior people from BCG that would be serving Conde Nast will have lots of media experience. They will have seen the inside of lots of media companies. They will have an understanding of what’s going on in the market. They’ll have benchmarks and a knowledge base that reflects inside information about what’s going on everywhere.
While the consultants are quite disciplined about not giving out confidential information about their clients, there is a certain knowledge base and reference point that they have. I think in certain cases if you ask the consultant the right question, if you get them to focus on the right things and if you have a good, trusting relationship with your consultant, they can be very helpful in bringing that perspective.
My snap judgment is it always seems like this is couples therapy. By the time you call in the consultants, by the time you go to couples therapy, you’re too far down the road. You’re not gonna be able to salvage it.
I don’t know if that’s necessarily always the case. I think sometimes consultants are hired for the reasons that you mentioned earlier. In some cases, I think it can be a very useful exercise. Sometimes it’s just a practical thing, which is time. If you have a really big opportunity you’re thinking about and you do not have the resources internally to focus very quickly to figure out how to go after that opportunity, getting a bunch of smart people in a room for three months in your office, like some are holed away working on that problem, can maybe help you come up with an answer more quickly than you could do on your own.
You’re doing that. It’s going well, but you don’t want to do it and you think, “I’m gonna start a fashion trade publication.”
No. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I went and did this in depth. I took three months off. I went and did a mediation course in South Africa. I came back from that mediation course and decided that actually I was gonna quit. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I resigned. I had some, what they call in the U.K. “gardening leave.”
That’s the best expression.
I spent some of that time doing my last engagement and then really starting to meet people in different creative industries. I met people in the music industry, which was going down. It was a ton of Napster and peer-to-peer file-sharing and no one knew what digital rights management was gonna do [to] that business. I got an offer in the television industry, but that felt really corporate and boring and not very creative.
You wanted to do something media-y or not?
I never interviewed with any media companies but I was really somehow drawn to fashion. A friend of mine was working at the British Fashion Council. She snuck me into a few fashion shows and I started seeing this universe. Her boss introduced me to some fashion designers.
I’ll never forget those first meetings because these really young, creative people would show up at these meetings with a stack of press. They’d have all these famous people wearing their clothes, but they’d have zero business training. They would graduate from fashion school, many of them, and launch a “label.” That’s what they’d call it, a label. They wouldn’t have the first idea of how to turn that label into a sustainable business.
There’s a lot of creative pursuits, right? If you’re an artist, if you’re a maker, for a lot of people even still today, it’s looked down upon to think about the business. Someone else should be handling the business. There’s a new breed that says, “Oh no. The business is a fundamental part of the creative process. They’re intertwined.”
Yeah, 10 years ago I think in the fashion industry, creative people used to look down their nose a little bit at the business people. In the last 10 years, I think that’s really shifted.
You thought, “This is cool. Watching people make stuff is cool. I want to do that?” Or, “I want to be adjacent to it.”
I wanted to be the business partner to a designer. That’s what my original idea was. Lots of the most talented fashion designers historically have had a counterpart. I thought, well, there’s Marc Jacobs had this guy called Robert Duffy. Yves Saint Laurent had this guy named Pierre Berge and Tom Ford had this guy name Domenico De Sole. I thought maybe if I met a fashion designer that I had a good personal connection with, that I could play that role. Then that evolved into an idea for setting up an incubator for young fashion designers. I tried that for eight months and it didn’t really work out.
All those things seem like better ideas than starting a media publication ... this is 2005, 2006?
2006. 2006. In the time when I was on this little adventure, I was keeping a personal blog for my friends and family. I’d be writing little tidbits.
On a Blogspot?
Typepad. Oh, excellent.
I really somehow enjoyed the process of uploading the photos and writing things. I’d always kept a personal journal. The idea of reflecting on things and taking time to figure things out.
I remember, there was this boomlet of people saying, “I’m going to keep a blog.” Then all of them stopped blogging because they realized no one was reading their blog and no one cared.
That’s not what happened with me. When this company, this incubator I was trying to set up didn’t work out, I took the password off my blog. I erased all the personal stuff, which is just my friends and family, and I just started writing a blog and I called it the Business of Fashion.
What was the thing people were responding to at first? What were they reading?
It was such a hodgepodge of things at the beginning. The first thing that got a lot of response was a series I called “How to Set Up a Fashion Business From Scratch.” It was called “The Business of Fashion Basics.” That got a whole bunch of comments underneath saying, “We want more like this.”
Really, the whole business has been built through this dialogue with the readers and getting feedback from them. Right from the very, very beginning, people were interested in the analytical take that I would use on reflecting on the fashion industry. When I’d go to a party and take pictures and put them up, people weren’t interested in that. I very quickly learned by doing and responding to feedback what was resonating with people.
This was around the same time that over here there were a bunch of tech blogs that were launching, generating a lot of audience or at least influence right away. A lot of them were either boostery or takedown-y. Sometimes a mix of both. Sometimes they’d be reporting and sometimes there’d be some made-up reporting. A common theme that undergirded a lot of it was, “We are going to take down the existing publications. We’re gonna take down Time and we’re gonna take down the New York Times and even though our readership is 50,000 people, we have this outsized influence.” It was very much an us against them, David/Goliath asymmetrics thing. Was that part of the appeal of what you were doing?
I don’t think so. I think what people were coming for ... And it was very much built by word of mouth. There was email newsletter from the beginning that people would share. It was just a different perspective. I think ...
But you were setting yourself up as oppositional to the existing trade publications or ...
It wasn’t set up as a trade publication or a business at all. It was just a project. For the first six years there was no business model.
“Here are my thoughts. This is interesting to me.”
I’m just writing what I think. I think in an industry that sometimes has suffered from a media environment that’s very much in the pockets of the big brands, it’s very hard for people, if your business is based on advertising, to be critical.
Tease that out a little bit. This is what I’m getting at. You say “in the pockets of big brands.” Do you mean the designers, the advertisers? They’re often the same thing.
If you think of the big fashion magazines, those have traditionally not made money from subscriptions. They’ve made money from very, very big advertising relationships with the big fashion brands.
You’re talking about a Vogue or publications like that, that are both getting advertising from people like Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren or whomever and then deciding to showcase their work.
Yeah. It’s a perfectly valid model. It works. It just means that content you create is going to be, almost by definition, complimentary and celebratory. The content is not there to take an objective position on the industry. The content is there to help sell and position the brand or the products of those brands as desirable. And that’s what —
You don’t have those relationships. You’re outside that world. Are you consciously saying because that’s not the case, I’m gonna care about my own space where I can be critical?
I wish I knew what I was doing at the time. You have to remember, I didn’t know anything about fashion, I didn’t know anything about media and I didn’t know anything about technology.
It was a good way to start a company.
Yeah. This was just the mindset at the time was, I’m enjoying this and people are leaving comments and I’m getting into a dialog with these people. They’re all over the world and there’s clearly other people who are interested in this intersection between the creative and the business sides of this industry.
You’re writing under your name. People know who you are.
I didn’t really make it about me. It wasn’t called Imran Amed’s blog. It was called the Business of Fashion.
It wasn’t anonymous.
It wasn’t anonymous, but I wasn’t putting my face all over the place.
Again, when I think of the tech blogs, you knew who Michael Arrington was or Rafat [Ali] or Om Malik. People were identified with the publication even if their face wasn’t on it or it wasn’t called ...
Om’s was called GigaOM, right? Paid Content and TechCrunch. I guess this was in the same ...
It’s owner-operated. It’s really one person’s viewpoint, even if they start to hire staff. It’s pretty much reflective of the way they think about the world, like Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg were at the beginning of the AllThingsD days.
Yeah. I think that’s a fair analog.
When you’re building this, what made you think “this could actually be a standalone business that would pay my rent and maybe one day employ 100 people?”
Sure. What I was doing at the time to earn a living was I was an independent consultant. I was thinking of the Business of Fashion as my version of McKinsey Quarterly. When I was at McKinsey, they had this publication where they put out their ideas and it would lead to engagements and opportunities and thought leadership that would lead to conversations that might result in getting a new client. That’s how I rationalized it to myself.
You were doing marketing.
It was like content marketing. Saying “this is what I think this is gonna mean. These are my ideas at a very high level.” Very soon, it became clear that it was very hard to scale a consulting business. I started receiving inbound interest about what I was gonna do with this blog. It was really listening to the market again. People were saying, “You should do something with this. Are you looking for investment? How can I work with you? How can I help you?”
Did you have a model for how you could turn your thing you were doing in your apartment into an actual business? Or was it self-explanatory?
There was no model. It wasn’t until I sat down in 2012 and said, “This has grown beyond my ability to manage it on my own.” By that stage in 2012, I had a few contributors. I had an editor working with me in New York part-time. I had a full-time assistant in London. That rickety infrastructure could just not sustain or benefit from all of the opportunity.
The only way to really scale it was to hire people. The only way I could hire people was if I went and raised some investment. Of course, we had some hypotheses about what the business model might be. Back in 2013, 2012, 2013, going and raising money for a media company wasn’t easy.
It wasn’t easy. Although, you were catching the upswing. Right? Because it got easier and easier, at least you saw bigger and bigger rounds going into things like BuzzFeed and Vox Media, which is still here today. To the point where by 2015, they’re raising tens of millions of dollars a round. It went from something investors wouldn’t touch to something they were quite excited about.
For a little bit, a lot of them were very enthusiastic about Facebook, which is a funny thing to say in late 2018. That was a big hypothesis. Were there people saying you’ve got to figure out how to make this a mobile product? Or you’ve got to figure out how to get Facebook distribution?
I think people were interested in two things. They were interested in the brand that had been developed. There was a real resonance of this thing, the Business of Fashion. There was a real emotional connection that BoF had with the fashion world. There was also a genuine community. People saw those core assets and they said, “Okay, let’s see what this guy and his team can do.”
You raised money in 2012?
Yeah. Closed it in 2013.
You got a paywall four years later. Did you see that? Was that part of the plan? “This will be a free product and eventually we’re gonna ask people to pay.”
Yeah. I always knew at some point we would start charging for the content. The question was when. Back in 2013, we had 100,000 unique visitors a month. We really, in the early years, needed to scale the content from a couple of articles a week to a more steady flow of content. Two, we really needed to scale the audience. Our focus in the early years post investment was really on, how do you grow this content without diluting the quality?
To make more stuff, make more good stuff, attract more readers, and eventually we’re gonna ask some or all of them to pay us for this content.
Exactly. We of course, we played around with different types of content to native content, sponsorship, advertising. We tried lots of things. We still do some of those things. But the real focus of the business is now on the subscription business, which is the main driving force.
None of this is easy. It’s all hard and it’s hard to get people to pay for this stuff. It seemed like if you’re gonna ask people to pay, your best bet is to do it in a trade environment where people are used to paying for things. They might be asking their employers to pay for things. They’re expensing something. Was that part of your thinking?
Absolutely. We were also conscious that while people had become used to paying for media, we had to think about what people were already paying for different products that were available in the market. It wasn’t 100 percent clear. When you’re choosing a pricing for your product, you have to kind of guess, really.
What was your initial ... you’re at $240 now. What did you go out at?
What we did is we were really conscious of the fact that for almost 10 years the content had been free. I really felt a strong obligation to our original readers who had been following BOF from the very beginning to acknowledge their commitment and loyalty. They really built the brand and the business. They’re the ones who shared the content, spread it around, talked about it with their friends just like you asked everyone to do with your podcast.
It’s really a word-of-mouth brand. We did an early-bird offer where if people signed up before the paywall actually went up, we gave them a 50 percent discount on their first year.
So like a fan club early adopter ...
It was basically like, “This is the next natural step in the journey of BoF.” Many of the readers had been following since the beginning. Actually, I think a lot of them decided to sign up because they really believed in it and it had become such a critical part of their daily professional life that they wanted to support the continued existence of this thing that had become a critical professional tool.
Does the content change once the wall goes up, once you have a new revenue stream? Do you go, “Let’s write this article maybe we weren’t gonna do it prior to this when were dependent on ad revenue but now I feel there’s more freedom to do that”? Are you doing the same thing you always were?
I think the core focus remains the same. However, the really nice bit about putting up a paywall is it ups the ante in terms of the whole editorial team, I think, feels a much stronger responsibility now that people are paying for this stuff. You can’t just get away with ...
Slapping something up there.
No. We take it all very seriously. Our subscription product, membership product, is called BoF Professional. Around our editorial meetings now there’s a phrase of being “Professional-grade.” “Is this Professional-grade?” It’s been a really nice focal point for our editorial team because it’s really upped our game I think in terms of what we do.
You can measure what’s the most popular story on the site. I was looking today. There’s an Amazon story that’s predicting the death of Amazon. That’s not hard to imagine why the new, popular Amazon has replaced Apple as the thing people are most interested in. I’m sure it’s a huge deal for your readers. What are your paying subscribers most interested in? Do you have a sense of “this kind of article is most likely to convert to a subscription” or “our subscribers are most interested in this” as opposed to people who are browsing the site for free?
It’s hard to say with a general sweep because the way I think about our community is there’s all these personas of different people. There’s a strong group of marketing and PR-focused people. There’s a bunch of people who want to invest in fashion. There’s the financial community. There’s young people who are looking to build business, entrepreneurs.
When we’re commissioning the content, we’re thinking, “What does our Professional reader want?” I’m thinking about which part of our community would be interested in it? All of the things I’ve just mentioned are interesting.
One of the top-converting things that we’re doing right now is this new series for people building [a] fashion business. Going right back to that first series that I did in February 2007. There’s a lot of entrepreneurs that are reading BoF.
These are how to think about this. This is a higher ...
Yeah. How to find an investor, what you should be doing to acquire users. Lauren Sherman has become one of our top writers for this kind of content. People really respond to that. Then again, we do a bunch of stuff on what businesses’ investors should be looking at. We’re analyzing the rise of influencer marketing, which is very popular with our community. The thing that all of those things have in common is it’s really much more than just information. It’s real analysis and recommendations.
Are there things where you think, “You know what? I know this piece would generate a lot of attention. I’m sure it would generate decent SEO, etc., but it doesn’t provide any value for our readers fundamentally. Let’s skip it.”
We still have a focus on what we call top-of-funnel content because we still want to grow the user base. Our newsletter every day will contain a BoF Professional piece. It will also contain a piece that’s designed to sit at the top of the funnel to acquire new users. When we’re commissioning, we’re thinking of both of those kinds of stories. Sometimes a story that’s not Professional-grade might be really good on the user-acquisition side.
Again, I want to underscore what a big deal it is to have started at a media company 10 years ago and build a new thing that employs 100 people.
Almost. Is getting close to 100.
Getting. Close enough. Maybe after here you’ll have 100. How many times during this journey are people coming to you saying, “It’s a cool business you bought, it’s not really gonna scale. What I’m gonna do is help you out by buying your publication. I’m gonna add you to my portfolio of brands and we’re really gonna scale you up.”
There have been approaches but we haven’t really taken them very far because my focus always has been on building this business independently. I think I appreciate the ability to be able to make fast decisions, to be able to work with the team that I’ve built. While those opportunities have obviously presented themselves at various points in the journey, it’s not been anything we’ve entertained.
Are there opportunities conversely for you to go out and say, “You, Conde Nast or Hearst, or whomever, you have a distressed asset over here in Publication X and I’m gonna take it off your hands”?
We’ve never considered that.
Maybe I’ll go do some homework tonight.
Jessica Lessin, who we’ve both met, makes a point of saying, “I want to own Fortune.”
Yeah. I don’t think she actually wants to own Fortune. It’s a nice big airy audacious goal to say whatever size we are today, we want to be much bigger. It’s aspirational. It helps us both internally and externally. I’m making all this up, except that she says that. I’m imagining what’s going on in her head. You’re a smaller company. You say, “We have this big outsize goal and that’s what we’re aiming for.” Do you guys that sort of motivational thing going on?
Not about acquiring another brand. We are very fortunate to have a very well-known and well-respected brand. I think perhaps maybe other smaller companies are looking for the kind of credibility that comes with a Fortune or a Forbes or something else that’s distressed out there. That’s not something I’m particularly concerned about.
We started off talking about things that are changing in your industry, both the industry you’re covering and the media industry. If you listen to this podcast, you understand what’s changing in the media industry. What are the fundamental changes that are affecting fashion that might be resonant to people who listen to this podcast? We talked about how stuff like the fashion shows that used to be strictly B2B and didn’t leak out into the outside world are now fully displayed for everyone. What else is going on like that?
There’s a big shift of thinking right now on #MeToo. Like other industries where there’s been a big power dynamic in place between those at the top and the people at the bottom, the power dynamic between men and women in particular. It’s really shaken the industry up. That has been a real reckoning. What it’s led to is a lot more diversity and inclusivity in the industry.
There’s just a consciousness now that ... First of all, fashion is a very visible business. Everything that happens in the industry is more visible, whether it’s starting right at the early stages of the design and production process all the way down to the way people are treating a store. When you have visibility across the entire value chain of a business, an industry rather, like the fashion industry, then there’s a lot more need to be accountable about the consumer. Whether that be the way the images are created and who’s creating them and what’s going on between a photographer and a model, whether that be the people making the clothes in a factory in Bangladesh and making sure that they’re paid a fair wage and they’re treated properly or that be the way people are operating in the retail environment. All of that has now become open and visible to everyone.
These are all discussed …?
These are all things that we are really trying to put out there into the forefront. One of the reasons that we’re ... You were asking earlier why we’re here this week. We did our BoF 500 event. Our four different covers were reflective of different issues the industry is grappling with. We have on the cover a woman named Kalpona Akter who is an activist in Bangladesh who started working at the age of 12 in a garment factory and she now represents four million garment workers in Bangladesh. We have the chairman and CEO of Caring who’s a pioneer in the space of sustainability in the fashion industry. Etc.
Like media, right? I think even more so in some cases, this is something where there’s a bunch of money in the industry, but it’s very stratified. A lot of people are willing to work in fashion, I’m assuming for very little, because they like the glamour and like being associated with it and maybe it’s aspirational for them to make money, but probably not. You can probably, depending on what kind of person you are, you can abuse that imbalance. Obviously you were just talking about people who literally make the clothes and make very little money.
$62 a month for a garment worker in Bangladesh.
Do you think that’s fundamentally gonna change?
I think it’s changing. There’s real reckoning going on. At the end of the day, the CEOs out there and their boards are gonna listen to what consumers want. Because so much of this is now more transparent to consumers and consumers are asking for things, brands are getting much more aware of this. They’re thinking a lot more about it. They’re even taking much more open political stances. If you look at what Nike did with this ...
Is that in your wheelhouse, to cover Nike?
Yeah. We cover Nike, we cover Target, we cover H&M. All of these companies are grappling with the same issues. We go all the way from mass to luxury. I feel like we’re living not just in fashion. Just generally we’re living at a time of huge change and disruption.
Do you think this is lasting change, lasting disruption? Nike embracing Colin Kaepernick is not a thing they’re doing in 2018, but reflects their values and how they’re gonna do business for years to come.
Fashion brands — and Nike is not alone in this — are taking much more public political positions. They’re taking a stance. Gucci, they got involved right after the shooting at the Parkland School in Florida, they got involved in the movement of the young people in that school and supported them financially and made a big public stance. When the immigration ban happened early last year, after a bit of coaxing, a bunch of fashion companies came out and spoke out against it. There’s just this idea of activism is kind of coursing through the world right now and fashion is no exception.
That’s not something you expected to cover when you launched this thing.
No. It’s been really, really fascinating. In terms of other forces, there’s obviously technological disruption. There’s the rise of the Chinese market, which now drives a huge portion of the growth in the industry. And there’s an obsession with millennial consumers. Now their younger brethren, the Gen Zs.
Gen Z is familiar to people. Not familiar. We’ve discussed that on this podcast a few different times. I’m particularly fascinated by Instagram and Facebook and what those things can do as commerce businesses. Is that a focus for you guys?
It’s something we’ve looked at. Up until now, neither Facebook nor Instagram have proven particularly successful at actually selling stuff.
But there are a lot of brands now who are figuring out how to use those platforms.
They use those platforms to promote their brands, but the transaction happens somewhere else.
They’re not transacting yet.
Undeniably, particularly Instagram has become incredibly important in the kind of exchange of information between brands and consumers.
Instagram just announced, I guess formally announced, “We’re gonna do a shopping app.”
Did they announce that or was that a rumor?
No, it’s been reported by Casey Newton from The Verge. I’m taking it as fact. I don’t know if it’s formally announced. It seems obvious they’d want to do that. Does that make sense to you as an actual commerce channel?
If it’s true that they’re launching a completely separate app to do commerce, I’m not sure I understand that strategy because the consumers are all on the app on Instagram. The question is how do you connect those two things, because I think the most natural place where the desire is created ...
“Let me buy the thing while I’m looking at people online.”
Exactly. Why do I have to go to a separate app? I guess we’re gonna have to wait and see what Instagram eventually announces about their strategy. I think it’s gonna be really important that there’s not a ton of friction between the desire and the transaction.
Do you spend much time looking at Silicon Valley? Do you have people who are based there doing reporting? Or is that adjacent to your core stuff, which is more fashion design?
No. Technology and the disruption of social media and all of the other technologies that have been emerging are a big focus for us. We don’t have anyone based in Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cover the impact. We have relationships with all the big social media companies like Facebook and Instagram. That’s become a big part of what we’re known for. Even back in the early days of BoF, I started writing about the impact of social media back in 2007. It’s certainly a big part of what we do.
You are 10-plus years into this. What is the thing that surprised you the most about building this business?
I think the fashion industry has a reputation of being filled with superficial, frivolous, lazy people who socialize all the time.
Some of that. That makes it fun.
There is a glamorous, glossy side to this industry. There’s no denying it. We have a lot of fun in the fashion industry. But what’s really unique about fashion is most people are drawn to it just because they have a love and interest in the industry and the products that are created and how they’re created. You’re not gonna make necessarily millions of dollars going to work in a fashion industry like you could if you went and worked in hedge funds or something else.
You have a bunch of people from all over the world who are drawn to the industry. There’s an incredible fabric of very smart, very talented, very committed, very hard-working people who work in this industry. It’s been a real honor and pleasure for me to get to know how the industry works and see all these people, meet them. They’re the ones who taught me everything.
It would suck if you were reporting on people you didn’t like.
Yeah. That’s why I take quite a bit of pleasure in what we do, because we work in an industry that’s very exciting. It’s become really influential and visible. That’s given us a platform to really effect change and create impact far beyond what one might have expected for what you earlier have called a trade publication. There’s a real opportunity for us to take this platform and use it responsibly to effect change in fashion and beyond. I really love that.
I promise not to use the words “trade publication” again.
That is fine. That is fine.
Okay, good. This has been great. I think what you have built is really interesting. I love people who build new businesses. They’re difficult to build. Especially without the aid of deep-pocketed platforms and friends and investors. Congratulations. Thank you for your time. Thanks for coming on.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.