By: Susan Van Epps
You’ve succeeded with I Am Modern magazine at a time when other publications have folded. What’s behind your success, and what’s the lesson for others?
Success really came as matter of circumstance. We wanted to create a magazine that had a low overhead, because we knew that print costs are one of the biggest challenges in print publications. We decided to take what works for online media – content from the community – and applied that concept to print. That was seven years ago, and we were profitable with our very first issue. By making it reader generated, we enabled our very first contributors to become huge brand advocates for us. We didn’t have to hire a marketing crew, because the people in the magazine became the voice of the magazine. People always tell me they read about their doctor, or their neighbor … there’s always somebody they know in this magazine. This helped us with the virality and getting it to everyone quickly — us trying to not [spend money] helped it turn into an amazing publication.
The big lesson is don’t be afraid to take chances. Something that works for one industry doesn’t mean it won’t work for another – we took what worked for online media and applied it to print, and it turned out to work.
How do you advance on this success?
For our seventh birthday we will be renaming and rebranding. We and our readers really belong to the artery of Northern Virginia – which is Route 7. Since we started, our lifestyles have been defined – the people here are people who want a luxury lifestyle for less. I call it the Costco crowd – high quality for less. We will be announcing our new identity as “Posh 7” later in the month.
Your newest venture is Critic Mania – a tool for customers to give feedback via text message directly to business managers. Why is immediate customer feedback important for businesses, as opposed to email or online websites?
The most valuable asset a company has is its own customers, and you need to reach out to them using the technology they prefer – and texting is more popular than all of social media combined. I created Critic Mania because I knew the pains that small and medium-sized businesses were having with online review sites, where anonymous reviewers can vent about anything and there was no tool out there to help businesses protect themselves. In addition, a study just showed that 97 percent of angry customers never voice their opinion [to a business], and if they do it never makes it to the C-level manager. There was also no way to document it, study the data or immediately engage with customers. I believe there’s a big future in Critic Mania because customers don’t want to make a problem, but people want to voice their opinions. Customers need it easy, convenient and real-time.
You get pitched frequently – what are some common pitfalls you see among entrepreneurs?
What I’ve learned is that the businesses that do well are the ones that treat their employees and their vendors with respect and good customer service. I’ve never met a business that was rude to an employee or a vendor that stayed in business. Also, sometimes people don’t spend time validating their idea, they tell me their idea and show me a 200-page business plan. I say before you do any of those things, try it out and sell it, see if people will pay you for it. If you have a great idea, put it into action, test it, and then after that, if you have a good product people will pay for it. And if you are nice to your employees, the rest all falls into place.
Loudoun County has a very sentimental value to me. I believe anything I can do to support Loudoun businesses … I am here for it. The reason we were successful is because we were in Loudoun County. From the beginning we had very progressive readers and advertisers who understood the value of reader-generated content and a magazine tailored for women. In calling other places we would get scoffed at on the phone. In Loudoun we never got anything but a community that valued and respected our leadership. The Loudoun Chamber of Commerce was very embracing and welcomed me with loving arms. It’s like a family in Loudoun and I have a lot of loyalty here. Any Loudoun business and any Loudoun Chamber member gets special treatment from us.
Any final advice to entrepreneurs?
Loudoun County is such a great place to start a business. If I moved I think I’d keep my office here. It’s been a great place to find talent, a progressive market that adopted new things quickly. I suggest anyone looking to start and grow a business, don’t leave Loudoun! This is the best market to test ideas.