Eugene Kan didn’t move to Hong Kong with the express purpose of becoming a renowned sneaker blogger. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 2006, and without any idea as to what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he accepted a position in Hong Kong as a professional soccer player. “I was just like, ‘might as well do something I’m interested in for now and figure out the rest of it later,’” he told me. “Honestly, I wasn’t a good student, and I didn’t really have any intentions of just entering a traditional career path.”
As it turns out, being a professional soccer player affords one with plenty of free time. Kan began spending that free time writing for a local sneaker blog, a job that didn’t pay but gave him free discounts on shoes. “Coming from Canada, as much as I was into sneaker culture, it just didn’t really exist where I was from,” he said. “Hong Kong is a city for walkers. So everyone is wearing nice shoes. They treat footwear in a much different light than from the more utilitarian perspective in regard to where I was in Canada.”
Eventually Kan attracted the notice of Kevin Ma, who in 2005 had launched a sneaker blog called Hypebeast. This was back when the sneakerhead community was still a small but fervent subculture, and Hypebeast was one of the first websites to feed that community’s insatiable thirst for more and more footwear content. In early 2007, Ma brought on Kan as a freelancer, and he spent those early months “pounding out” posts every day. After about four or five months of this Ma hired Kan on as the site’s first full-time employee.
Over the next eight years, Kan and his growing coterie of editors transformed Hypebeast into a cultural force. What started as a sneaker blog expanded into streetwear, fashion, and even art. Its entrance also coincided with sneaker enthusiasm transitioning from a small subculture to a mainstream phenomenon. “When I was in LA a little while ago, and they had just dropped the first Yeezys by Kanye West, you saw the whole gamut wearing it,” said Kan. “You saw middle-aged guys wearing them. You saw so many people consumed by that. A lot of these people that you would never perceive to be someone into sneakers were all of a sudden into it.”
Given that these consumer categories are highly valuable to advertisers and Hypebeast was so early onto the scene, its business flourished. In 2016, it filed for an IPO on the Hong Kong stock exchange and was valued at roughly $30 million U.S. dollars. It even launched its own print magazine. “A lot of the people at Hypebeast were really into print because Japanese fashion magazines were always a big inspiration,” said Kan. “And having the opportunity to do that on our own was really appealing.”
But as the audience for Hypebeast grew, Kan and a few of his colleagues began to feel disillusioned with the materialistic worldview ingrained in all of its coverage. “It’s fashion in general,” he said. “It’s built on a cycle where every few months you’re told that what you currently have isn’t sufficient, so you need to add to that. I was looking at it and thinking to myself there’s such a lack of critical discourse because all these people are generally told what to consume.” It was an N + 1 culture where N represents everything you own currently, and if only you could have that 51st pair of sneakers or that one extra t-shirt, then your collection would be complete.
In 2015, Kan and Alex Maeland, who was then Hypebeast’s creative director, started discussing the possibility of launching their own publication. “There was no particular breaking point where we said, ‘this is it, let’s go set off and do our own thing,’” Kan recalled. “It was more like a slow, general degradation of our interest in what we were doing on Hypebeast.” The concept they discussed would be targeted toward those working in creative industries, whether it was a chef at a high-end restaurant, a fashion designer, or a creative director at an agency.
The two recognized that whatever incarnation the publication took on, its business model would have to be radically different from the display advertising approach that had worked for Hypebeast. By 2015, the landscape was already transforming to where banner ads were facing diminishing returns as media companies chased ever increasing scale, flooding the market with supply. At the same time, most website audience growth was coming from mobile, and Facebook and Google were vacuuming up nearly all ad growth online. “We were on the cusp of another sort of transition in media where advertising as we know it is a much different beast,” said Kan.
Kan and Maeland didn’t want to chase scale and they also didn’t want to pump out the volume of content that such scale would require. Instead they would launch a digital magazine, one that had monthly themes and told stories through audio, video, and text. And, perhaps most important, at least from a business sense, it wouldn’t carry any advertising. The publication would be funded entirely by its subscribers, who were expected to pay $150 a year for access to its content.
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In December 2016, Kan, Maeland, and a handful of other Hypebeast employees left their jobs and launched Maekan, a site that would publish about eight stories a month, all told around a similar theme and dropped at the exact same time.
Almost immediately, the Maekan team encountered some hard realities about what it meant to launch a subscription-only publication in an era when not a lot of hard paywall publications were thriving. They had modeled their paywall largely on the approach pioneered by The Information, a tech news site that’s seen success charging $300 a year for access to its content. But The Information is a B2B news site, and Maekan’s founders realized pretty quickly that the dynamics of a B2C website like theirs were much different. “It’s really hard to do pure media plays under this type of membership model where everything is hard gated,” said Kan
Though there were a small number of hardcore fans that immediately converted into paying subscribers, Maekan had a difficult time marketing itself and attracting new devotees. “On the outside looking in, Maekan was a very strong brand,” said Kan. “But nobody had the ability to experience what it was.” The staff realized there’s a long lead time between when one starts consuming content from a publication to when they actually build up a strong enough affinity for the brand that they’re willing to open up their wallets. “For us there was a lot of the marketing we were working through to understand the value proposition. What are people actually gravitating toward in the Maekan experience?”
So Maekan started putting some of its content in front of the paywall, and Kan told me that the plan is to open up even more of its work to non-subscribers starting in the Fall. “If you come to Maekan today and you’re not a member, you would see the first seven stories before there’s a little line that says everything after this is for members only,” said Kan. The staff also began uploading audio stories onto iTunes and other podcast apps, usually with a three-month delay between when the story was made available to members and when it was released as a podcast.
Speaking of podcasts, Maekan has placed increasing emphasis on audio stories in recent months, often at the expense of text. In the early days, the writer would simply record an audio version of themselves reading their article so the content consumer could pick between listening to or reading the piece, but the quality of such an experience, at least on audio, was less than ideal. So Kan and his team members taught themselves how to tell stories that were actually designed for the podcast medium. “We pretty much sat down with Adobe Audition and just started feeling things out,” he said. “This is a testament to our days at Hypebeast, where if we didn’t know how to do something, we were sure we’d find a way that’s reasonably acceptable for our own standard, and then we’d just build on it.” Audio production improved even more when the team brought on an actual audio engineer.
While it’s certainly enjoyable to listen to a Maekan story as a podcast, many are meant to be experienced visually. In a piece titled “Sounds of Tokyo,” we’re treated to a beautiful slideshow montage of the city’s subway, streets, and people with sounds recorded at these locations overlaid. A story about a dumpling bar in Copenhagen is accompanied by several photographs, and the audio player hovers at the lower end of the screen as you scroll through them. “There was a point in time where there was a larger text component,” said Kan. But with so much emphasis on audio, he said, they realized that it was too difficult to produce a text version with equal quality. “If text were to come back, then I think it would probably be more in a transcript form, just so people have something to follow along with.”
As more and more content migrated in front of the paywall, Maekan’s team had to figure out the continuing value proposition for paying members. One area where they’ve seen success is the publication’s Slack community, which is only open to paying subscribers. Launched in tandem with the magazine itself, the Slack forums boast hundreds of comments each week on topics ranging from photography to fashion. In a channel simply called “podcasts,” users paste in shows they’ve discovered and enjoyed. “The Slack community has been great,” said Kan. “It’s been really one of the best opportunities for us to bring together all these creatively minded people. What’s been really valuable is you have people that are kind of looking to make their mark in the creative world, and it’s like, ‘hey, I’m a designer, but I don’t know how to go about the business side and I have questions on how to do this.’” The Slack group has been especially valuable for those who live outside of urban hubs and so therefore lack a sense of community within their profession. “Not everyone can live in a New York or an LA, and for all the creatives in between, they’re always looking for some guidance, someone to share thoughts with, to banter with, and that’s sort of what the Slack community has provided.”
In addition to the Slack channel, members have found value in the Maekan briefing, a twice-a-week newsletter that curates and comments on the news. Lately, Kan and his colleagues have begun to think about what other experiences would induce casual fans into considering memberships. “Do they have first priority access to the merchandise we’re releasing?” he said. “That could be an Adidas collaboration. Maybe it’s a Japanese whiskey with a distillery we do a story on.”
Kan has also become more open minded about revenue models, including the possibility of allowing brand sponsorships. In fact, he and his colleagues have already taken some brand work on; with 300 subscribers and a run rate of approximately $45,000, the memberships aren’t generating nearly enough to support the seven or so Maeken employees, so they’ve accepted some branded storytelling projects in which they create content for companies’ blogs and social media accounts. “We had an opportunity last year where we took on a big job with Adidas,” said Kan. “Someone from Adidas had seen the site and they were like, ‘you know what, I really like your art direction. Can you take some of that essence and apply it to this upcoming project we have?’ Those are the kind of opportunities that have come up.”
And despite the early stumbling blocks when it came to marketing Maekan’s core product — its content — the site is seeing meaningful growth. According to Kan, their monthly recurring revenue is growing by about 10 percent a month. But as Maekan explores new business models, Kan is determined to not get distracted from the site’s core mission of producing beautiful, thoughtful content. And whatever ends up happening, Kan is in it for the long haul, determined to see it through. “We’re definitely grinding through it,” he said. “At the end of the day I knew what I was getting into.”
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