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November 5, 2004

Chow Magazine - How to lose $300,000 and have a blast


I never fail to be fascinated by people who start businesses.

What optimists.

Consider that most of them will fail, losing their and their investors' hard-earned money.

Among the very riskiest things to do is start a restaurant.

90% of new restaurants never make it past one year.

Yet 100% of those who start them think they're for sure among the fortunate 10%.

I guess it's a little like marriage: ask any couple getting married and they'll assure you theirs will last.

Yet half of them are wrong.

Even more likely to crash and burn than a restaurant is a new magazine.

Tons come out every year, then vanish.

So I was intrigued to read the New York Times Dining Out story last Thursday by David Carr about the debut of Chow magazine.

I was even more interested when I read that the magazine's founder and editor, Jane Goldman, is a former high-ranking editor at The Industry Standard, the flagship weekly of the internet bubble magazine fleet.

It went down with gusto, after burning through more than $100 million before crashing and burning in 2001.

This time, when Goldman couldn't convince people she knew in Silicon Valley to finance her new magazine (why am I not surprised?), she put the arm on family and friends for the $300,000 she needed to finance the first issues.

bookofjoe tip: buy it at the newstand; don't subscribe quite yet.

If Jane were a member of my family, I would've declined her offer to invest.

I give this magazine a less than 1% chance of getting to year two.

Not my kind of odds.

But I guess people really don't mind throwing their money into black holes.

Here's the Times story.

Chow Mag Goes Well With 'Tude

Most recipes for starting a serious magazine include dozens of staff members and many millions of dollars, but Chow, an independent magazine making its debut, is being produced by a few hardy souls working with a low six-figure budget.

The differences do not end there.

Most food magazines are the glossy equivalent of an expensive chef knife: gorgeous to behold, and sometimes a bit challenging for the average amateur to use correctly.

Chow is more like a Buck knife, utilitarian in the extreme and no-nonsense in approach.

And unlike established magazines, Chow is far more irreverent and less bent on establishing foodie credentials.

On the phone from the world headquarters of Chow - her apartment in the Castro district of San Francisco, where she put together the first issue - Jane Goldman, the founder and editor, said she and her staff had set out to make a food magazine that was mostly serious about having fun.

"There are a bunch of people who love food but don't read food magazines," she said. "Food writing has become sanctimonious and predictable."

Ruth Reichl, editor in chief at Gourmet, disagrees with the claim that magazines likes hers are stodgy.

"That's a pretty old idea of what a food magazine is," she said by telephone. "We've been working very hard to bring what we do down to earth and have some fun doing it. Nothing is taboo in our magazine."

Ms. Goldman said that the aim of Chow was to make a magazine for "people who are passionate about food but have fairly primitive cooking skills."

That demographic would include Ms. Goldman, who was a high-ranking editor at The Industry Standard, the weekly magazine that famously captured the essence of the Internet economy and burned through more than $100 million before crashing in 2001.

"The Standard was a wild ride," Ms. Goldman said.

"I was busier than I ever thought I could be. Chow is hectic, but in a different way. We are putting out a magazine with very little money and not that many people."

After failing to obtain financing from people she knew in the world of Silicon Valley venture capital, Ms. Goldman turned to friends and family to come up with $300,000, which she said should finance at least the first issues of the magazine, which is to be published six times a year.

With little money on hand, West Coast publishing friends provided articles and designed the magazine, and Francine Maroukian, a former caterer, longtime food writer for Esquire and the author of several cookbooks, came aboard.

The first issue of the magazine includes a feature on procuring illegal cheese, an alcohol-infused tour of the globe and a guide to ingredients to keep on hand to let you entertain on the spur of the moment.

Many-starred chefs offer their best breakfast ideas, and Alan Richman, the food critic, contributes an endorsement of Wendy's and other improbable recommendations.

Many indie magazines struggle in part because it is such a battle to reach consumers at the newsstand and to define a niche of people willing to buy into them.

"If there is a runway there, it is a very narrow one," said Mark Edmiston of AdMedia Partners, a media investment bank.

"But if you come up with something consumers are interested in, you can make a go of it."

For the time being, Chow is a tidy snack of a magazine, with an initial circulation of 50,000 and a future mostly predicated on high hopes and the kind of optimism that keeps people putting out new magazines even as major publishers struggle against a punishing set of industry economics.

"This is a very grass-roots model," Ms. Goldman said.

"Of course we would like to have a big investor, but for the time being we think we can find readers because there is such a clear need that recognizes that food is supposed to be fun."

November 5, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Here is an update if anyone gets to this thread as I did through a random google search. CHOW stopped publishing the magazine a while back and turned into a website, same content yet even broader coverage of recipes, restaurants and food news.

Check it out: http://www.chow.com

Posted by: jerry | Jun 5, 2009 6:54:50 PM

Suspended publication. Subscribers can get a refund or wait and see if it ever comes back.

Posted by: James | Feb 15, 2006 1:42:40 PM

check out fervormagazine.com been around a while, food ,travle..its a fun read!

Posted by: jst515 | Feb 1, 2006 9:49:23 AM

Is it time for an update on Chow's prospects? Seems it might make it into year two after all, eh? FWIW, I'm an occassional reader, not a subscriber, and came across your original post through a random Google. Not a shill or anything.

Posted by: mattS | Jan 23, 2006 4:25:43 PM

Is there not enough legal cheese?

Posted by: Lisa | Nov 6, 2004 1:14:59 AM

A year or two ago, I saw a magazine at the newsstand titled "Hydration." It was about drinking water. It was on slick paper, with excellent production values, and had articles about drinking water.

Someone thought this was a reasonable investment. Needless to say, I've never seen a second issue.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins | Nov 5, 2004 4:52:04 PM

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