From the October 1999 issue of Startups

Eric Shefferman had his own desktop comic book publishing business, and his wife, Mary, was working as a medical editor for a publishing house in New York City, when something unexpected happened: They fell in love with a ferret.

The merry little mammal was about to bring them fame and, if not exactly fortune, then at least a whole new career path--as magazine publishers. Like other entrepreneurs who decide to launch their own magazine, the Sheffermans thought their publication could succeed, despite fierce competition in the publishing industry.

The key to that success? With so many magazines out there, survival depends upon finding that unique niche that sets you apart from the competition. In the Sheffermans' case, they quickly realized that dogs and cats hogged the spotlight in the publishing world, while ferrets were left out in the cold--even though 7 million domesticated ferrets dwell in U.S. households, and they are the third-most-popular companion mammal.

Within months of adopting that first fuzzy wonder, the Sheffermans had scraped together $10,000--using credit card advances, loans from parents and wedding gift money--to launch their own magazine for ferret owners. Modern Ferret provides tips on ferret care, medical advice, new product updates, ferret-related fiction, an events calendar and even a ferret centerfold.

"Both our families are entrepreneurial, and I have a reputation for going a bit off the beaten path, so it didn't seem odd for us to do something like this," says Mary, now "mother" to nine ferrets who roam the Sheffermans' Long Island, New York, home, which also serves as the headquarters of Modern Ferret.

The first 3,000-copy print run, funded with $5,000 of the Sheffermans' start-up capital, appeared in February 1995 and was sold in pet stores and pet and ferret shows on the East Coast. Today, the hip and humorous bimonthly, which has been dubbed "the Rolling Stone of pet magazines," is sold nationally through Borders, Barnes & Noble and the Petco chain. Modern Ferret has been featured in the New York Times and was named one of the 12 best magazines in the publishing industry by min magazine, a media-industry trade publication, which praised it for being in tune with its readership. Better yet, the magazine, with a circulation of 23,000, has begun landing ads and thus earning money: Eric, 33, and Mary, 35, project $250,000 in sales this year.

Read All About It

The magazine industry today is more open than ever before to small, specialty publications launched on a shoestring by clever, energetic entrepreneurs who see a niche left uncovered by the media giants that churn out dozens of slick general consumer publications.

"We are seeing more young people starting their own magazines," confirms Mary McGeachy, vice president of communications for the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), a trade association. The trend is driven by a good economy and an ever-growing number of market niches, which make it easier for would-be publishers to enter with limited capital.

One key to success is finding a topic no one is writing about or covering a region or market that's overlooked. One would think a major city like Atlanta would be home to at least one magazine devoted to business there. But when Gina Wright discovered, to her amazement, that there was none, she knew opportunity was ringing her cell phone.

The former advertising sales executive, who had helped a publishing company launch numerous magazines, was ready to take the helm as publisher of her own magazine. In 1997, using $25,000 in personal savings, she launched Business to BusinessMagazine, a 50,000 circulation monthly geared to high-ranking business professionals and executives in Atlanta who run companies with sales of $1 million or more.

Working from home initially, Wright, now 30, got out those first issues with the help of an editor and writers who worked on a contract basis. She sold $153,000 in ads to pay for the first run of 50,000 issues. Forty thousand were sent by direct mail to key businesspeople in the region; 10,000 were sold on newsstands. This year, the magazine, with an annual subscription rate of $18, is expected to earn $3 million.

Last month, Wright launched her second title: CatalystMagazine, a publication designed for young entrepreneurs and business professionals in the city. Her company, The Leader Publishing Group, which employs 18 full-time employees, also does custom publishing.

Mike Blackstone, 26-year-old owner of The Gen-X Press in Towson, Maryland, saw his publishing niche open up while working as an intern at Fortune 500 financial companies.

"The managers just didn't know how to work with [younger] employees," he says. "They totally missed the boat when it came to Generation X. Then they wondered why they couldn't keep their employees."

In 1997, Blackstone used $5,000 of his own money to buy a targeted mailing list of companies he thought might be interested in dealing with Generation X issues. He sent a letter to human resource directors explaining his idea for a quarterly newsletter about Generation X. Based on the positive response, he and his business partner, Daniel Greene, 27, created a sample newsletter and mailed it to select executives in January 1999.

TheGen-X Press discusses everything from how to advertise to a Gen X audience to how younger employees can make the most of a 401(k) plan. Blackstone expects $35,000 in 1999 sales from the newsletter, which he sells for $35 per year and promotes on his Web site (http://www.genxpress.com). He hopes eventually to also offer consulting services to businesses.

Page By Page

Tight budgets and demanding schedules are a reality for most fledgling magazines, which is why many start-ups begin as homebased businesses that either employ no outside help or use contract employees to produce the first issues. Wright didn't take a paycheck for the first 18 months--supporting herself by buying and selling real estate. Blackstone plans to continue working as a full-time advertising director for a while. "Our biggest challenge has been [finding money] to advertise," he says, "but we know you have to invest money to make money."

The Sheffermans still do most of the writing, production and promotion for Modern Ferret themselves. "We finish an issue and think, `Wow, that was a lot of work,' " Mary says. "Then we have to start the next one. There's little time to market and promote the issue that just came out."

Start-up publishers say they are fueled by the excitement of running their own businesses and treating readers to information they want and need. "You run on emotion and enthusiasm," says Wright, who was thrilled when Business to Business landed interviews with the likes of former president Jimmy Carter and the CEOs of Delta Airlines and UPS, both based in Atlanta.

Although magazine publishing can be one of the most exciting types of businesses to run, those in the know say it's also one of the most challenging. Blackstone, like the others, cautions enterprising publishers not to expect miracles overnight. "Take it slow," he advises. "If you try to do everything at once on a small budget, it'll kill you."

Publishing Pointers

Before you start your magazine, take some tips from successful magazine publishers and:

  • Get some magazine or publishing experience under your belt.
  • Find a niche.
  • Research to determine if there's a market for your publication, and learn what their interests are.
  • Get enough funding to keep you going at least through the first two or three issues.
  • Write a detailed business plan.
  • Work with an experienced editor and writers, starting on a freelance basis.
  • Publish bimonthly or quarterly in the beginning to keep costs low.
  • If possible, work from home.
  • Remember, success takes time.

Sex Sells

What are the most popular categories for new magazine launches?

The Winners

1. Sex

2. Sports

3. Media/personalities

4. Crafts

5. Computers

6. Special interest

7. Automotive

8. Home/home service

9. Music

The Losers

1. Bridal

2. Gardening

3. Gaming

4. Travel

Source:Samir Husni's Guide To New Consumer Magazines 1998

Mag Team

Resources to help with your magazine launch:

  • Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management is the industry's major trade journal. One year (16 issues) costs $96. Write to P.O. Box 10511, Riverton, NJ 08076, call (800) 795-5445 or visit http://www.foliomag.com
  • The Magazine Publishers of America, a trade association, offers seminars, books, newsletters and more. Find plenty of useful links, too, at its Web site (http://www.magazine.org) or call (212) 872-3700.
  • Samir Husni, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi in Oxford who's known as "Mr. Magazine," has a useful Web site (http://www.mrmagazine.com) that highlights notable new launches and offers info about publishing. You can e-mail Husni with questions or order publications, including Samir Husni's Guide to New Consumer Magazines (Oxbridge Communications Inc., $95 plus $10 shipping) and Launch Your Own Magazine: A Guide to Succeeding in Today's Marketplace (Oxbridge Communications, $26.95 plus $5 shipping).

    Contact Sources

    Business to Business Magazine,ginawright@mindspring.com

    The Gen-X Press, (410) 464-2020

    Magazine Publishers of America, (212) 872-3700, http://www.magazine.org

    Modern Ferret, fax: (516) 981-3710, http://www.modernferret.com

    Freelance writer Pamela Rohland (prohla@aol.com) is a self-proclaimed magazineaholic who reads and writes for a myriad of them every month.