Online Magazine Caters to Savvy College Women, Scores Major Ad Deals

by Susan Johnston on July 13, 2011
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Despite headlines predicting the publishing industry’s demise, online magazine HerCampus.com, is flourishing thanks to a team of college-aged writers and partnerships with Juicy Couture, LOFT, The Body Shop, and other major brands. Cofounders Stephanie Kaplan, Windsor Hanger, and Annie Wang were also named to Inc.‘s “30 Under 30″ Coolest Young Entrepreneurs last year.

We chatted with HerCampus.com president and publisher Windsor Hanger (pictured at right) about choosing the right business partners, managing large teams, and more.

ISBB: What inspired you and your cofounders to start HerCampus?

Hangar: We started HerCampus when we were undergraduates at Harvard. We got the idea while running a student publication. It was essentially like one of our campus branches is now: a women’s lifestyle magazine focused on what’s happening on campus. We had it all online, and we had our friends at other schools reading it. They said, “I wish there was something like this at my school that I could write for.”

We looked at the market and saw that there wasn’t [a publication] that speaks directly to the needs of college women, more specifically motivated and smart yet still stylish college woman. We wanted to found something that not only had career insights but also had style and beauty advice and things like how to get along with your roommates, so we combined those two things, and had it written by the nation’s top student journalists. We’re now at 130 schools.

How did you fund HerCampus in the beginning?

We entered in Harvard’s i3 Innovation Challenge, Harvard College’s business plan competition, and were offered a small investment award but we turned it down because the terms just didn’t make sense at the time. We each pooled a little bit of money to pay for our legal fees to file as an LLC and other costs.

We’ve been bootstrapping every since. We’ve been profitable since before the website launched on September 16, 2009.  I was able to close an ad sale with Juicy Couture, so we paid ourselves back well over that initial $1,000 investment.

Was it challenging to walk away from that investment award? How did you know you were making the right decision?

It was very challenging for someone to say very early on, “Here’s some money, I want to help you do this.’” Wow, wouldn’t it be easier if we could just take the money, but I think we’re a lot better off for not taking the money. You might want to think about the fact that it feels like free money, but the person who’s giving you this free money will have a stake in your business. Bringing on any investor is like a marriage. You’re going to be together unless you get divorced or they sell their shares. I think a lot of people don’t take it seriously enough and they take any money that comes their way.

What were the biggest business challenges?

There is never a lack of enthusiasm or excitement among women when they hear about HerCampus. One of the challenges was figuring out how to manage this large team of remote women (and a few men) that are collaborating. It’s challenging when you can’t have a face-to-face conversation. We Skype, we use Gchat, we email constantly. We have Google Groups. Occasionally we have meet and greets. We just had one in New York.

What would you say to people who think publishing is dying?

I absolutely don’t see publishing as a dying industry. It’s an industry that needs to learn how to be a little bit leaner. It’s becoming more democratized when bloggers can gain a loyal following. We’re seeing a lot of overlap between publishing and commerce. You see big magazines with their iPad apps selling those products and earning some revenue off of that. It needs to evolve.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

My proudest moment is when we hired our first full-time employee, who started a month ago. Being able to provide a job and a steady income for someone else is really incredible. We were financially able to do so and we found the right person to be our marketing services manager. She came in at the right time; she’s the right person. It’s really nice to have someone else working full time and bringing in fresh new ideas.

You founded HerCampus with two classmates. Any thoughts on choosing the right business partners? That can really make or break a business.

Be on the lookout for business partners who have complementary skill sets. ‘I can code a website’ or ‘I know how to do accounting’ or ‘I know how to put together a whole editorial calendar.’

There are things that the three of us do that do not overlap. For example, Annie built our entire website. She coded the entire thing and does all our graphic design. Neither Stephanie nor I know graphic design, so we don’t try to do her job. Stephanie’s expertise lies in growing the team. My expertise is in anything that deals with money. We have very different interests and skill sets, so we don’t step on each others’ toes. You need someone you don’t mind spending 60 hours a week with. You’re working long hours so you’d better get along.

Any other advice to young entrepreneurs?

I think something that’s helped us a lot at first was that we weren’t afraid to take risks and fail often, but fail in a cheap way. Don’t invest a lot of money into an idea if you’re not sure if it’s going to work yet. Try things out. I think people will wait too long to build a whole team and put together all this collateral. People just need to do more but do more on a very small budget so they can learn what part of their idea is valid and what part needs to be changed.

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