In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
The way founder Kevin Ma describes it, Hong Kong-based Hypebeast — one of the biggest online destinations for trending sneaker news, streetwear and broader men's fashion — has had a surprisingly organic evolution.
Ma, who had no experience in writing or blogging, started the website in 2005 simply out of a personal interest in sneakers. Once a site that published four to five simple blog posts a day, Hypebeast now churns out anywhere between 40 to 50 articles and boasts 5.4 million unique visitors, garnering 46.9 million page views monthly. In 2012, the company launched both an e-commerce store and a quarterly print magazine — again, without prior experience in either field. The shop, called HBX, started off with roughly 10 brands and now carries over 300, from Adidas Originals and Stussy to Marni. Overall, Ma now oversees a staff of 100. It's not an easy feat for a website that has yet to raise outside funding; but clearly, Hypebeast has found a formula that works.
On a recent New York evening/Hong Kong morning, we spoke to Ma about his early interest in sneakers, maintaining editorial integrity and the lessons that his team learned along the way.
Could you briefly tell us how Hypebeast started? Why the name "hypebeast"?
During my university years, I started reading these fashion magazines for guys. The ones I looked at were more from Japan or Hong Kong and they would talk about sneakers and streetwear. I started getting into the culture and started to become a sneakerhead. I was online as well so I [thought], "Since I'm super interested in this, why not document it in one place?" Sites at that time were updating maybe once a week or once every two weeks; I was doing around four or maybe five blog posts a day.
The term "hypebeast" had a negative connotation when we first used it because it meant that you were just following the hype. And I thought it was funny to use this name; I didn't think about it too much. Nowadays, "hypebeast" can mean a lot of different things for different people. You might have someone who likes sneakers and he can be considered a hypebeast. And you have another person who only likes high-fashion mixed with streetwear and you can consider him a hypebeast. Someone who's into cameras and photography, that guy or girl can be a hypebeast person.
Hypebeast started out covering sneakers. How has the content diversified over the years?
From sneakers, you start to learn about different collaborations. So back in the day, sneaker brands were doing collaborations with different artists. So organically connecting the dots to other topics — streetwear to graffiti art to toys in the beginning. Now it's gone to high fashion, gallery art, a lot of design, even cars.
What stories tend to do really well?
Obviously the big brands. People like talking about Nike and Adidas and streetwear brands like Supreme. But people like more topics than fashion; sometimes music folks [and] travel posts do very well.
What kind of advertising do you have on the site? Is it mostly display or native?
We started off with display ads and nowadays everyone is getting into native advertising. Obviously, we still have a really high filter. If we think this brand isn't cool, we're not going to force ourselves to work with them.
In 2012, you launched HBX, Hypebeast's e-commerce site. Where did the idea for e-commerce come from?
I guess when you're young, like a kid, you want to have your own brand or your own store at some point. People were coming to our site and they were always [saying], "It would be great if we could actually buy this stuff that you're talking about."
How do you guys maintain editorial integrity and not dilute your interests?
I think in terms of our e-commerce, the brands that we stock are brands that we personally enjoy. It becomes much more natural that way. If we start stocking stuff because we've got to increase our revenue, then it starts diverging from our integrity.
Did you bring in anyone from retail or merchandising when you first started HBX?
Actually, we did not. We kind of knew what retail was about because we had friends in the industry; but for the most part, we learned [the daily operations] along the way. A lot of the things that we do, we tested it out on a small scale.
Does Hypebeast's revenue come more from e-commerce or advertising?
[It's] pretty even for the most part.
A lot of companies like Hearst and Condé Nast are trying to merge e-commerce with editorial content. Do you think they're doing well? Do you think it could work?
I haven't really seen any good examples that have worked to be honest. But I think it could work. I think it has to come down to the execution and how you do it. Stay small, lean and just experiment with what you have until you get the right formula. We're still far from being successful, but it's about trying this, trying that. I think that for the big companies, they're like, "We need to make this big so let's put a lot of budget into it." That doesn't really work all the time.
And do you ever see yourself looking for investors in the future?
For us, our goal is to make Hypebeast better. The thing is how can we make it better? If investment is needed to make it better, then that's the way it is.
Why did you launch Hypebeast Magazine when you did?
I started out reading print so the passion was always there. Obviously, print is not easy to do; there's a lot of costs involved. In the beginning, we didn't raise any money and I don't come from a wealthy family, so online was the easiest to do. But then at some point, we had a little bit more resources.
We had editorial experience by that time, but in terms of print experience, definitely no. Our team was really awesome to help figure it out.
How does print allow you to cover things differently than online?
When we first started [the website], we talked about sneakers and streetwear, so we were very pigeonholed into this streetwear/sneaker/urban category. But the very first issue that we did was about combining high fashion and streetwear together because I think that's what Hypebeast is about — the conversions of all these different cultures into one place. So on the cover, we featured [Dior Homme's Artistic Director] Kris Van Assche. And people were like, "What? What's this about?" But then eventually they were like, "Oh, ok. I'm starting to get it."
Hypebeast is located in Hong Kong — did you ever consider that a disadvantage, considering that fashion seems to revolve around New York and Paris?
Yeah, you could say so. But at the same time, Hong Kong is also a very international city. We know a lot of brands that come through for manufacturing. They go to China or Vietnam [and] they pass through Hong Kong. We talk a lot about what's happening in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan [and] Southeast Asia. There's a lot of energy that's happening; I think it's actually made Hypebeast much more global than if we were maybe just in North America.
What does an average day look like for you?
I spend half the time on the editorial side and [the other] half on the e-commerce side. I meet up with different teams and just solve problems, and that goes on until the end of the day. I don't get myself involved day-to-day on the print magazine nowadays, but we have a great team who does. Obviously I have some input.
What are some things you look for in a new editorial hire?
Passion and personality. Are you very open-minded? Are you willing to learn? I've talked about our staff — learning along the way, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. That's kind of our style. It doesn't matter if you don't have a lot of experience because I think nowadays, you can learn everything, for the most part, online. So, if you have the heart to learn about it, I'm sure at some point you'll master the skills. But that depends on your personality.
And what advice do you have for those who want to break into this industry?
Just do what you love. After I graduated [from college], I went to do banking, [but] on the side I was doing Hypebeast. At the end of the day, my heart was into Hypebeast. As long as you love what you do, then you're going to be passionate about it and it's not going to feel like you’re working at all.
This interview was condensed and edited.