Greg Sullivan and AFAR Magazine: Five Years of Going Against The Odds And Making It In The Print Business – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Co-Founder And CEO – Afar Media.June 13, 2014
“Print is coming back. It has credibility and it’s deeper; it just has so many attributes to it that the digital world lacks.” Greg Sullivan
Passionate, caring and extremely open about what it takes to keep a travel magazine growing and sincerely true to its mission and brand; Greg Sullivan – Co-Founder and CEO, Afar Media – talks about the wild and challenging ride of Afar Magazine over the last five years and how “far” (pun intended) they’ve come.
From the ink on paper magazine to the nonprofit foundation, Learning AFAR, which provides scholarships to lower-income high school students to go on life changing trips and another division, AFAR Experiences, that puts on travel events; the man and his mission stays focused on what’s important to himself and his vision: making travel make a positive difference in people’s lives.
No matter where you’d like to go in your mind’s eye, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Greg Sullivan should be able to take you there – so pull up your favorite chair, grab your drink of choice and get ready to go Afar as you enjoy Mr. Magazine™ and Greg Sullivan’s animated and passionate conversation…
But first the sound-bites:
On the five year journey of Afar Magazine: Well, it has been a wild ride. It’s been fun and it’s definitely been challenging. In particular, those first couple of years were tough.
On his most pleasant surprise over the last five years: There have been a couple of pleasant surprises. One was the receptivity that Afar had, just in general. There was certainly some degree of skepticism, but there was also a lot of wow, this is great, how can I help and we love not only the fact that you’re doing it, but we love what you’re doing.
On his biggest stumbling block: The biggest stumbling block was just breaking through the whole credibility thing.
On whether having no magazine experience was an advantage or a disadvantage to him: Both. If I’d had the experience, in my opinion, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
On how the non-profit Foundation and the program Learning AFAR is going: We’ve sent over 300 students, basically we’ve been sending 50 or 60 kids every summer from all over to places like Peru, Cambodia, China and Mexico; just amazing trips and these kids are coming back and they have you in tears as they tell you about the effects these trips have on them.
On the advice he would give to someone starting a new magazine today: Well, it’s not for the faint of heart. First of all, it takes cash. And it takes a lot of work.
On what role he believes print plays in today’s digital world: Print is coming back. Three years ago, people didn’t even like to talk about print and now you’re seeing more and more people going to print again.
On what keeps him up at night: What I think about in the middle of the night is execution issues; how are we delivering on all of our promises every day.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Greg Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO, Afar Media…
Samir Husni: Afar is still going strong after five years; tell me about this five year journey from that launch party where I first met you in August 2009, when you were just beginning a magazine during one of the worst economic times in the industry, until today.
Greg Sullivan: Well, it has been a wild ride. It’s been fun and it’s definitely been challenging. In particular, those first couple of years were tough. You know, even in the best of times, it’s tough for magazines to break out from the crowd and make it economically. But during that time I think it was especially challenging with lots of doubting about print and magazines.
Yet, we’re making money this year. Our circulation has gone up fivefold, and I can’t even tell you just how much our revenue has increased, but yes, it’s been a very gratifying and exciting ride and I’m really pleased.
Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant surprise during this five year journey?
Greg Sullivan: There have been a couple of pleasant surprises. One was the receptivity that Afar had, just in general. There was certainly some degree of skepticism, but there was also a lot of wow, this is great, how can I help and we love not only the fact that you’re doing it, but we love what you’re doing.
It was a little about what the magazine was doing, of course and that’s the fact that we try and help people have deeper, richer, more authentic travel experiences and it comes through a little that the passion we have is real and people have really rallied to that and said that they love it and want to participate in it. Readers, advertisers and industry people have all been jumping on and have been very supportive and that’s been the most gratifying thing.
Samir Husni: What has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve had to overcome?
Greg Sullivan: The biggest stumbling block was just breaking through the whole credibility thing. You know it’s back to the question: are you going to make it, or are you just this oddity and are you going to be a real and successful business?
And like I said, even in the best of times, lots of magazines failed. In this environment, people were asking were we really going to make it; so it was getting by those questions of whether we were going to make it or not, I would say, was probably the biggest hurdle.
Samir Husni: I remember at that launch party five years ago and it was almost a consensus that people were giving you six months, maybe three to six issues and you would be out of business. Having said that; you came to this industry with no magazine background, was that an advantage or a disadvantage to you?
Greg Sullivan: Both. If I’d had the experience, in my opinion, I probably wouldn’t have done it. We brought freshness and a competence with a we-can-do-this attitude that showed an outsider’s point of view really helped. But yet, there’s a lot of reality to everyday business and of course we brought in a lot of pros to help us, from our editor to our publisher, people who have a lot of experience and that made up for the lack of experience on my part with their great industry connections and knowledge.
Samir Husni: Did you expect to spend as much money as you did? I remember, and please correct me if I’m mistaken, but I remember you told me that you budgeted something like $20 million to spend on this; is the $20 million gone?
Greg Sullivan: That’s about right. But we’re still in good shape.
Samir Husni: And now five years later, you’ve been in the news again in the last month or so about native advertising and the deals that you’ve made with naming the hotels; do you think that will impact in any way the credibility that you’ve established over this last five years with the magazine?
Greg Sullivan: No, we won’t let it. What we’re doing in the hotels category is we’re recommending great hotels, some of which pay for support. You don’t put this kind of money or this kind of investment without always being very true to the brand. You’re not going to do things just for short-term profit and that’s always been our approach and so we’re not going to do anything that’s going to confuse people in terms of what we’re about and we’re not going to put our name somewhere that we think is going to not be appropriate. So I’m not at all worried about that.
Samir Husni: And you were on a mission; I remember the first time I met you, you were telling me the experiential aspect of travel, where you decide one day to buy a ticket for Buenos Aires, hire a cab once there and have it take you to some hotel without any planning; has experiential travel evolved at all and are you still going on those wild trips or are you planning a bit more?
Greg Sullivan: Well, even then I told you there are a lot of different ways to do experiential travel. I would do them on trips and I would also do them on what I call deep dives where I would go somewhere and I would study or take art classes; I actually studied philosophy at Cambridge and I took eco trips in Borneo and we took spontaneous trips.
So there’s various ways to get beneath the surface and try to experience the distinctive parts of a place and I guess that I’m still doing that; however I don’t do it as much or for as long before I started the business.
You know fortunately and unfortunately the business has caused a lot of attention for me, but I’m also able to do deep dives so much easier. We have connections all over the world now and Afar gets me through doors that before I couldn’t even get beneath the surface of so quickly by just saying, “Hey, I’m Greg from Afar.”
And I guess the thing to me is experiential travel has become more and more of a thing. When we were first talking about it the consensus was, isn’t that just for backpackers, and now it has just become more and more accepted and part of the vernacular.
When we launched, hotels said we don’t want to talk about what’s going on outside our four walls and now they’re widely accepting of being a part of the local community and helping people have experiences outside of their properties.
And by the way, that goes for all kinds of businesses, not just hotels. Car companies are talking about experiences, so it has become much more of the mainstream in some sense.
Samir Husni: For you, it seems as though you’ve been on a mission, not just to publish a magazine. You had the Foundation idea, where you wanted to take high school kids overseas who had never gone; how has that multiple mission worked?
Greg Sullivan: When we started the magazine in 2009, at the same time we started our non-profit. It’s all the same heart; it’s about travel that makes a difference in people’s lives and that’s what we believe in. And if you really believe in that, you want to get younger people or people who would never be able to afford traveling and take them and you know it will change their lives and their communities.
And we’ve sent over 300 students, basically we’ve been sending 50 or 60 kids every summer from all over to places like Peru, Cambodia, China and Mexico; just amazing trips and these kids are coming back and they have you in tears as they tell you about the effects these trips have on them. And that program is really beginning to take off too as we’re beginning to grow and get our message out.
We just received a donation last week, our biggest donation yet, over $400,000, toward Learning Afar, which will be for another 40 kids. And what we want to do now is not only talk to the students who are making the trip, we’re going to try and start spreading that message by doing assemblies in the schools and getting everybody there to start thinking about travel, even if they don’t get to make these trips. Expanding their horizons and their perspective will broaden the possibilities in their lives.
Samir Husni: I can hear in your voice that sense of satisfaction; do you feel that now you’re on the right track and ten years from now you and I will be talking about the fifteenth anniversary of Afar and the Foundation and the success of the trips?
Greg Sullivan: Absolutely. And you’re right; I do have a passion and a determination in my voice that’s probably the same tone you heard five years ago. What you hear a little bit different now is confidence, a little bit more experience. We’ve reached profitability and we’re on this great path. This is like the 4th business I’ve started and this one is definitely the one I have the most passion for and hopefully it will be the last one I start.
And it’s interesting being an entrepreneur. I always talk to people about having a vision and you also have the reality and keeping those two in sync is always interesting and it can be difficult. Some people are very good at vision and some at reality and it’s hard to find people who can do both and keep them in sync. And that was really hard five years ago.
But today the reality is so much closer to the vision that we have, it’s easier and more and more people get it and it’s more and more believable.
Samir Husni: With the five years of experience in your back pocket and the other three businesses that you’ve started; what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who came to you with an idea for a new magazine?
Greg Sullivan: Well, it’s not for the faint of heart. First of all, it takes cash. And it takes a lot of work. You need to have both of those and you need to bring in some people to help you. I’ve been very fortunate to attract an amazing team that has really helped to make this all happen.
But I totally believe it’s a great way; I would not have wanted to try and build our company as an all-digital company. I don’t think we would be here today.
It takes a much bigger investment than just trying to start being a blogger on the web or something. Just don’t underestimate the financial and time commitment that it’s going to take would be my best advice.
Samir Husni: One of the points that you mentioned, and I remember when I first met you five years ago, you were focusing on print first, then the web, but you just said you don’t believe you would have been as big of a success as an all-digital entity. What role do you think print still plays today in this digital age?
Greg Sullivan: Print is coming back. Three years ago, people didn’t even like to talk about print and now you’re seeing more and more people going to print again. And they just see the value and the break out from the clutter. It’s also a tactile and a permanent thing. It has credibility and it’s deeper; it just has so many attributes to it that the digital world lacks.
In reach, we’re bigger digitally than we are in print, but that would have never happened without our print component.
Samir Husni: Are you making more money from digital now than print?
Greg Sullivan: The revenues are not bigger, it’s probably a little bit more profitable, but they’re both profitable.
Samir Husni: Can you imagine Afar existing without the print edition?
Greg Sullivan: No.
Samir Husni: And feel free not to answer this question, but have you gotten any money back from your $20 million yet?
Greg Sullivan: Yes.
Samir Husni: And when do you think you’ll break even or recoup that money?
Greg Sullivan: That’s harder to say. That depends so much on what else we get into. You can tell by our approach, we’re introducing new things all the time. There are always new opportunities, so that’s hard to say.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Greg Sullivan: I go back to the vision and the execution thing. What I think about in the middle of the night is execution issues; how are we delivering on all of our promises every day. Which I shouldn’t be worrying about, but that’s a part of me that is a reality. It’s like each of our things are always trying to get executed and I wake up once in a while and ask myself, “Wow! Is that program really delivering what I want it to?”
Maybe not a classic answer, but that’s the honest truth.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
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