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March 28 2012


Mandarin-English luxury magazine boosts revenue for Observer Media Group

In the span of a decade, the number of visitors to New York City from China more than quadrupled. Ten years ago, 59,000 Chinese tourists visited the city. By 2010, the tally was at 266,000, according to the most recent data from the tourism research firm NYC & Company.

This wave of new visitors has brought an influx of cash to an otherwise recession-addled retail market. But the jump in visitors from China has also presented a magazine publishing opportunity.

In November, Observer Media Group — parent company of The New York Observer — and China Happenings jointly launched YUE, a bilingual Mandarin-English luxury magazine aimed at those affluent Chinese visitors and influential Chinese Americans in the tri-state area. Editor Chiu-Ti Jansen says YUE takes editorial cues from publications like Vogue and Departures, but serves a niche audience that hasn’t yet been served by the luxury magazine market.

It’s not just expanding into a niche — it’s expanding into another language. At a time when U.S. and U.K. publishers are looking for expansion overseas and international publishers want to break into English, Observer Media is pursuing a linguistic opportunity in its own neighborhood.

“We cater to the Chinese, and we do it in a bilingual way,” Jansen says. “Another thing is, the predecessors of Chinese publications in this country, they all end up being very culturally, traditionally Chinese. I never envisioned this as an ethnic publication. I know it’s a niche publication, but we start to be able to interact with both the U.S. and Chinese audiences in a much more avant-garde way. I call it a Chinese sensitivity: we are very sensitive to Chinese interests but it’s an international outlook…These people are not interested in coming to New York and shop like a Chinese [person]. What they are interested in is to learn to live as an international.”

One major area of focus is contemporary arts and culture: “Art buying is the ultimate symbol of luxury consumption in China,” says Jansen, who also looks for profile subjects who bridge the gap between East and West.

“We started with [pianist] Lang Lang, and then we had [designer] Jason Wu, and next issue our cover story will be [actor] Lucy Liu,” Jansen says. “You cannot just throw a New York or U.S. celebrity on the cover…But we also stretch the connections they know, and we challenge them.”

The magazine printed 35,000 copies for each of its first two issues, which were distributed to tour companies, luxury hotels, Chinese cultural centers in New York, as well as sent to about 8,000 Mandarin-speaking homes in the area. Those “very, very high end” readers include hedge fund managers and board members of New York’s major institutions. Getting advertisers like Chanel and Fendi was “a fairly easy sell” as a result, according to New York Observer editor Elizabeth Spiers.

“We have a lot of ancillary publications that have targeted a similarly high-income, affluent, well-educated demographic,” Spiers told me. “But YUE is original because we were looking at the luxury market from the business side of things, given the demand for luxury goods in New York among Chinese tourists.”

(In Chinese, “yue” means “invitation, promise, and rendezvous,” Observer Media says. It’s also the second half of Niu Yue, the Chinese name for New York.)

Spiers says YUE has been “very successful,” enough so that Observer Media Group is mulling the launch of a Los Angeles edition, as well as a location-based app that would serve as a food and retail guide for visitors.

“It’s something we’ve discussed, [but] we don’t have it in the works right now,” Spiers said. “You’ll notice that [YUE] is very product-heavy. It sort of tells you where to go to do your shopping and eating, so we’re thinking it probably makes sense at some point to integrate with a mobile app.”

In the meantime, YUE has snagged top luxury advertisers that have been otherwise elusive for Observer Media Group. The pages of YUE — both editorial and advertising — are lined with pricy ideas on how you can reinvent your wardrobe: Ralph Lauren ball gowns, Chanel diamond rings, Harry Winston watches, and J. Mendel minks.

“We have a lot of fashion, watches, jewelry, and shopping-related information because this is their No. 1 priority,” Jansen says. “According to New York City statistics, Chinese rank shopping first as opposed to food or concerts or other types of activities. We know we need to satisfy their interest in this aspect. I am fully aware of where their tastes stand, but I think the Chinese taste is evolving very, very fast. We have to convey the same message to our advertisers so they don’t have a fixed idea of what the Chinese want, because it’s a work in progress.”

September 07 2010


Entrepreneur summer school reveals startups aren’t easy

Fall’s just around the corner, so we thought it would be a good time to check in on how the pupils of Elizabeth Spiers’ summer school for entrepreneurs fared.

We mentioned back in June that ten small companies would get to participate in a 90-day program designed to get their startups off the ground. They’d get free advice, instruction and homework assignments from Spiers, a media consultant in New York whose had a hand in founding a number of successful sites, including Gawker and Mediabistro Fishbowl sites. The class hosted guest speakers from companies like LearnVest, Guest of a Guest, the Barbarian Group and Conde Nast.

Did the students all pass with flying colors? Of the ten companies, one dropped out, a few didn’t make much progress, but about half made a serious dent in meeting their summer goals.

“Some people think they want to run a business,” Spiers told me, “then you go do the actual work and you realize you don’t. It’s better to learn that in the classroom setting.”

Spiers says she thought the program was successful enough that she’s planning on another course in the spring. She expects the structure to largely stay the same. This time around, the class met for 12 weeks, along with individual meetings with each founders. Once a week she brought in an interesting speaker. The multiple perspectives helped round out the curriculum.

“If it had just been me hammering away, it wouldn’t have been as good,” Spiers says. “I think most of the questions were answered one way or another.”

Before the spring, Spiers says she plans to incorporate the class as a nonprofit to cover its costs. This summer she handled supply costs and found some space in a client’s office.

I spoke with the founders of two of the startups Spiers said made good progress this summer. Fashism, a site where you can get unbiased feedback on questions like “does this dress look frumpy,” has been live for about a year. Its owner, Brooke Mooreland, quit her job recently to make the social fashion site her full-time focus. Her goal for the summer was to launch an iPhone app (which is live in the iTunes Store) and to get ready to meet with investors, which she says she did.

Mooreland says the key to the class was access to Spiers, who’s been through the startup process many times. She ran her business plan and her investor pitch by Spiers, looking for input. “Does this sound good to you?” was one of her frequent questions — “[Spiers] was able to give me good advice,” Mooreland says.

The founders of Of a Kind were not so far along. Their goal is to launch the site November, which they say they’re on track to do. For them, the summer was about getting all the details in order to actually launch. The site will offer stories about up-and-coming fashion designers, who will sell an exclusive item on the site. (It’s inspired by the art site 20×200, where artists sell original prints for as little as $20. The founder, Jen Bekman, was one of the speakers in class this summer.)

“One of the things we really took away from the speakers in the class was flexibility,” cofounder Erica Cerulo told me. “Our original business plan was very much ‘this has to be this way.’ We learned that this business has to grow and change. We had an inherent sense of that, but hearing people say it really makes it sink in.”

As far as changes to their original plan, the course helped them realize that editorial should get equal weight with selling. They need an invested, engaged audience to sell the products — plus, it opens up the opportunity for advertising revenue.

I asked the two founders, Cerulo and Claire Mazur, what they’re working on in the final days before launch. Their answer in unison: “Everything.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

June 11 2010


Elizabeth Spiers’ media-entrepreneur summer school

This summer Elizabeth Spiers is teaching summer school, and you can apply for a seat in her class.

The media consultant, founding editor Gawker, and builder of DealBreaker, several Mediabistro blogs, and other sites is looking for a handful of people with smart ideas for a small business — but not experience launching one — to join her two college interns in a 90-day class. By the end of the summer, Spiers expects her students to have learned everything they need to get their media projects off the ground.

Here’s Spiers’ take on why you should apply:

What you get in return: dialogue with other beginning entrepreneurs, some good contacts for your project and what’s essentially free consulting from me (the latter of which would be price-prohibitive for most beginning entrepreneurs if I were charging.)

I spoke with Spiers about the project and why she decided to do it. Turns out she’s a kind-hearted boss: She didn’t want her two interns completing only menial tasks all summer. So she’s requiring them to spend at least 10 hours a week on their business idea and to meet weekly to discuss their progress. Her idea, she notes in her Tumblr post, is ripped off of a similar project Seth Godin ran that he called an alternative MBA.

Spiers, who teaches at The School of Visual Arts Design Criticism program (and is off for the summer), also said she sees a lack of support for entrepreunerialism in journalism schools. Her current interns are writers with the editorial skills you need to run a new media project, but not the business savvy.

“That’s one thing that I think — in journalism programs, they don’t really equip people to start new media products,” Spiers explained. “They equip them to work within the context of an existing publication. I’m just trying to fill in the gap a little bit.”

There are, of course, j-school professors already teaching classes which require entrepreneurial spirit. Among them is our Lab colleague C.W. Anderson at CUNY, whose course Entrepreneurial Journalism requires students to cook up new media ideas. (He’s also working on a white paper on innovation in j-schools. If you know of a school working on something innovative, let him know.)

For j-schools wondering how much time to devote to more business-side coursework, consider Spiers’ 10-hours-a-week-for-90-days argument. “Starting a new company seems more intimidating than it is,” she told me. “I do think it’s the kind of thing you can transform and ramp up in 90 days. As long as you have a process in place, I don’t think it’s as difficult as people think it is.”

(If you need funding, though, then you’re looking at a longer timeframe. Tack on extra months to the process to get your project actually going.)

When I asked Spiers if she would keep readers posted on her students’ progress, she said (earnestly, no Gawker snark) she has high hopes for her students. ”I sort of expect that some people are actually going to go out and launch their projects, and I’d be happy to promote them. And intend to do that anyway,” Spiers said.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

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