Imran Amed, Founder of BoF: "If you don't try new things... You just become slowly obsolete"
An interview with the Business of Fashion pioneer
After recently unveiling a revamped website and a brand new project – BoF Voices, which debuted with a unique discussion on sustainability with Stella McCartney (watch it here), Imran Amed is enjoying rapid expansion and success with his pioneering Business of Fashion (BoF) platform.
Amed started writing BoF as a blog from his sofa in 2007 – just as social media and the era of the smarphone was starting to bubble under the surface. New markets were emergining in China, India, Brazil and the Middle East, and the financial crisis threw the luxury industry into a tailspin. Eight years later, BoF is an award-winning editorial company, with a global reputation for intelligent, analytical content, that is in the midst of a rapid global expansion. Buro 24/7 sat down with its founder, Imran Amed, to discuss its success, and what the future holds...
Silvia Bombardini: A harmony of the right and left brain – of discipline and creativity – is at the core of your work. I understand this might have been the case since childhood, as I read you were pursuing interests like theatre and entrepreneurship from a young age. I wonder, to what extent does this balance come naturally to you, or is it something you occasionally have to remind yourself, or your team, of?
Imran Amed: It feels pretty natural, you know? I think in a way we are all born in certain ways, with certain talents or gifts. From a very young age I was creative, I liked working in groups of people to put on performances, I was always very aesthetically and visually attuned. But then I was also very analytical. I think that for me having numbers, data and information, there was something very appealing about that, instinctually. So it's a real pleasure for me actually to have stimulation on both sides of my brain, that's when I'm the happiest. I'm really lucky, you know, that on a given day I might be doing analysis of some businesses, but I might also be talking to the team about our next cover, or looking at a young designer's collection – and the mix of those things, moving smoothly and kind of fluidly between them, makes me very, very happy. And yes, our team is also the same way. We're a bunch of fashion nerds and media geeks, and everyone on the team has in some ways got a left brain/right brain motivation themselves. Some people might be skewed more one way or the other but everyone really appreciates both sides, and that's how I hire them, right? It's become really a mantra in our office: To think with both the right and left side of your brain.
From a very young age I was creative, I liked working in groups of people to put on performances, I was always very aesthetically and visually attuned.
S.B.: It's hard to believe it now, but eight years ago The Business of Fashion (BoF) began as a blog with only a handful of readers. But there wasn't a great appetite for independent thought and information at the time, whereas today we're grateful for features like the 'Daily Digest' that help us sort through it all. Do you feel the online readership is still the same as it was then, or how has it evolved?
I wasn't really looking for a void at first, because it was a very personal project, it wasn't really done with any kind of market or audience analysis. I simply thought that the intersection of fashion, and business, and ultimately technology was really interesting, and because it was stimulating ideas in my head I wanted to get them out – and writing them down is a really great way to get ideas out. And secondly, I often thought that the fashion industry was shown in such a superficial light, and dismissed as frivolous, with flaky people who go to parties, hang out and don't work very hard. But the more I met them the more I learned that they were actually fascinating, and the companies and the global nature of the industry were also fascinating. So finding a way to explore all that was for me very interesting, and as it turns out, it was for other people as well – and that's how the readership grew, because the website helped me to discover others interested in the same things I was. But yes, looking back in hindsight I do think there was an opportunity there, that something like BoF was needed. I didn't know it at the time but it's very clear to me today with the relationships and feedback we get. I mean, people sometimes say to me now something like "I can't imagine how we survived without it." And it's a great piece of feedback for our team and I, to know that we're contributing something of value to the industry.
Times change as well as readers' needs. Now we have launched a new platform on BoF called BoF Voices. The idea of BoF Voices is to create a platform for conversation and debate about important issues that the fashion industry is grappling with.
S.B.: Especially because the fashion industry is really hard to infiltrate from the outside, and traditional media and fashion insiders still remain suspicious of bloggers today. The BoF, however, became one the most reliable and respected sources by the fashion insiders themselves: How difficult was it to reach this level of credibility?
I.A.: It's very much a difficult industry to break into, that's for sure, and I was kind of the consummate fashion outsider. I was one of those people peering in from the outside and just observing. It was such a hard world to access at the time, I remember I had a couple of friends working there who used to sneak me into shows and that's how I started getting a little bit of a sense of the machine that the industry was and how it worked. Building credibility isn't done overnight, it actually takes quite a long time. Eight years doesn't sound like a long time, right, but in my world it's been a long journey. People don't immediately trust you, it's like a friendship. Many of our readers think of BoF like they would their friend. And I think what helped us was that our friends referred us to their friends and the credibility really came from word of mouth at first. So when a friend tells you "there's someone you should meet, I think you'd really get along with them", it's kind of the same thing, there's already some built-in trust there. Social media also helped: it took that word of mouth recommendation and it just turbocharged it, took it to a whole new level. But I'm also really conscious that trust is something that can be taken away very quickly if you don't live up to what people expect, so we don't take it for granted. We are still doing everything we can every day to build, earn, and deserve that trust. It's core to what makes BoF different from other media organizations, that because BoF was born as a blog people feel quite a strong emotional connection to it. They talk about it with words such as "love" and "addiction", and I really believe that's because of the way BoF was first started, as a personal project. We don't want to lose that special emotional connection we have with our readers.
S.B.: And now you also have a printed publication twice a year. Now that more and more people have come to accept, rely on, and consume news and opinions via the web, what in your view makes a magazine special enough to be owned in print?
I.A.: Well, from our very first print edition, we did it to launch something online. It's kind of a funny thing right? To launch something digital in print. At the time, we had just come up with this idea to do the BoF 500, which is what we call: The people shaping the global fashion industry. It was an idea we had been cooking up in our little office for many, many, many months, and then we started thinking about how we would get people to pay attention to this, how would we introduce it to the world. For many years I had been asked if I would ever do a print edition and I didn't know, but I wouldn't rule it out, in my head I thought it might be a fun thing to do and if there was ever a time when it made sense then I would certainly take the opportunity to try it. And that moment came when we were doing the BoF 500. We managed to convince Tom Ford to be on the cover and nobody knew the BoF 500 was coming, nobody knew we were doing a print edition, it was all a big surprise for everyone. As it turns out doing something in print was a really great way to launch something online – so every print edition that we've done subsequently has been associated with a bigger purpose.
S.B.: You mention that you and your team have travelled a lot to reach the experts on these topics, meaning that they are scattered all over the world, and even the last edition of the BoF 500 shows this in particular, how widespread nowadays the industry has become – which is surely also thanks to the Internet. BoF China was introduced in late 2014: How well has it been received, and why was it important for you to provide this kind of localized content?
I.A.: From the very beginning BoF attracted a global audience, I knew it for sure in the August of 2007 when someone wrote to me from Korea, for an expert comment to include in an article that they were writing for Korean Vogue. People wrote from all around the world, and I realized that probably one of the most important contributions that BoF could make to the fashion industry was to connect it globally. You know, somehow the industry, although it is global and reaches people everywhere, still feels fragmented. Especially with regards to the separation between emerging new markets, in China and India and Brazil and Russia, and the kind of traditional Western European and North American markets. So I think that the global voice BoF has, means that we can also think about tailoring that voice to specific markets, because while there are always going to be things that are interesting to everybody around the world, the Chinese fashion industry is a $300 billion one, and Brazil has its own native fashion ecosystem and so does India. And many times the same problem that I identified back in 2007, that the fashion industry isn't being taken seriously, also exists in some of these other markets. So with BoF China, which was actually our second foreign language version, because we do have a French version in partnership with the newspaper Le Monde, we have taken really small steps at the beginning because I wanted to learn from the audience what they were looking for, and we're starting to get a much better sense of it now. Of course, the Chinese readership cares for global stories, movements and trends, business leaders and creative people, but they're also interested in learning about and discussing the local fashion industry, so striking the right balance between local and global content is really going to be quite important as we think of how BoF China develops. But so far the response has been really great because there's no resource like BoF in China. So if we can contribute the same kind of analysis and intelligence that we've done globally within the Chinese market, then I see that as an absolutely massive opportunity.
We managed to convince Tom Ford to be on the cover and nobody knew the BoF 500 was coming, nobody knew we were doing a print edition, it was all a big surprise for everyone...
S.B.: And if there's going to be one more BoF, perhaps in the future, where do you think that would be?
I.A.: I really don't know, there's so many, we actually get e-mails almost every month from someone in some part of the world where they say: Would you ever do a BoF Brazil, or a BoF Japan, a BoF Israel... and I'm definitely not ruling out further expansion, for the time being our main focus is on China but we will continue to engage those other markets by covering them at least. And stay tuned! I think it's inevitable we'll come to think about those other markets as well at some point.
S.B.: You took a great risk right at the beginning by leaving a comfortable career in management consulting to try something that was then truly new, and I would guess uncertain..
S.B.: ...Very uncertain. We don't hear in fashion many stories like yours, especially of late, when playing it safe seems to be for the best. Is there anyone in the industry at the moment, who you would like to see taking more risks?
I.A.: Well, I think that what you say is true, and taking risks is part of being an entrepreneur. It's probably one of the hardest things to do. It was very hard for me at first, right? I had a very secure, prestigious, global, high-paying job. But at the end of the day it comes back to what we discussed at the beginning, which is, that job just ended up being too left brained for me. If you know yourself, and know what your talent or passion is, and you can align that passion with a career, I think that can be really powerful. It was risky for me, but at the same time inside my head and inside my heart I felt like I didn't have a choice but to take that risk. And taking risks subsequent to that has become easier and easier. Every time you take a risk, not a completely uninformed one, but if you take an educated risk because you're thinking about it and you have an idea or an instinct about something, it becomes easier and easier to do so. Who would I suggest to try it? Well, I think probably the biggest brands. Fashion has become a very formulaic world. As it has become a very big business, almost by definition it has become harder for certain kinds of companies to take risks. But it's curious, one of the very first designers that I met, when I was still starting and trying to figure out what my place in fashion might be – and I was looking at my notes the other day, it was actually ten years ago, March of 2005, that I met him, he said something like "in fashion there's no right way or template to do something, you just have to go and do it". He was talking about designers but I think that applies to fashion, generally. I think this is an industry where, it might not be that everything goes the way you want it to go at first, but if you work hard, you can learn and start to figure out how to make something that works. And that was very much my case; my first foray into fashion was a start-up that lasted eight months. It didn't work out, but that was such a great learning experience for me. So if that risk-taking, entrepreneurial approach were something that could be understood by bigger companies, I feel like we would see a lot more advancement in fashion, say with regards to technology, or with regards to other markets. It's interesting that an industry that's built on change, and newness, and innovation, sometimes is such a risk-averse one. People are so stuck into old models of doing things, but we need to break out of these models and start thinking about how the world is changing, around us, rapidly. You know, the rise of technology, the globalization, these issues around the planet and the way we all live together in this global community. We can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend the change isn't happening, it's happening now. And that requires nimbleness, flexibility and a willingness to try new things. So I think the whole industry, but especially the bigger companies, need to try and do things differently, take risks.
S.B.: Even if they might worry that they have more to lose.
I.A.: Well, obviously the hardest thing for a big company to do is to put its core business at stake. But what happens over time if you don't try new things is that you just become slowly obsolete. So if you don't somehow inject innovation into your business, especially in an industry like fashion, especially at a time like the one we're living in now, it's very likely that you'll become irrelevant. So yes, you have a lot to lose because you're a big company, but you also have a lot to lose if you decide not to change...