HipGuide.com’s founder Syl Tang

HipGuide.com’s founder Syl Tang

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Website of the Month
 

03 Sep. 2013

Interview: Syl Tang, founder of Hipguide.com

Launched in 1999 the HipGuide website is an editorial source for both travel and fashion. Offering brand consulting for beauty, beverage and automotive companies, HipGuide also contributes editorial content for major lifestyle publications. Covering all that is “of the moment” in major cities such as London, Las Vegas, Miami, Paris and New York, HipGuide features everything from zip-lining to camel riding and a how to do it yourself experience. Our Latin American Correspondent Rudy Gonzales recently spoke with HipGuide’s founder Syl Tang, the ultimate futurist, to delve into her secrets of brand consulting and adventures in editorial coverage. Interview by Rudy Gonzales

How did the site come about?
We started out as a city guide in 1999. I had been working for Accenture building organizations but I always wanted to work for myself. A couple of other Cornell alumni had just had what was then the largest IPO for any company. They were a year younger and it was a wakeup moment for me. At the time, and this was before daily e-mails,before social media, there was not much on the Web telling you where to go and what to do if you weren't just a regular Fodor's type traveler. We evolved very quickly though into more. Travel is an influence meter so it quickly became about what leads influencers to a place in HipGuide. I am a futurist who tracks and shows how consumers spend. On the editorial side, I produce content around the two barometer topics on influencer spending: travel and fashion. And we create that content for other publications as well. On the consulting side, I work with product companies (beauty, beverage, automotive) to market to HipGuide type influencers.

When exactly did it launch and what has the initial reaction been?
We are hitting our 15th anniversary. There was something blissful about starting in the dotcom boom years. It's difficult to express the energy but it was as though an extra dose of oxygen was constantly in the air. So initially the press was all over us. I was in New York Magazine, Newsweek, Fortune and hundreds of publications in a few short years. It was such a funny time that I even won the New York Times Most Datable contest such was the attention on anyone trying to start a company. But then the bust happened, and I think a lot of us got very serious about learning how to make money. It forced us as a site and me as an owner to think about our business model, and what we really make money doing, which is actually trend consulting and editorial. So in the years since 2002, brands have a lot of anxiety around how to make more money and survive, and the reaction to the site was around what we could do to help them.

What editorial offerings can we look forward to in the coming year?
I am in the middle of changing our newsletter from a "72 hours in one city" format to a "bucket list experiences" format. Early on, I fought the "me, myself" mentality in the sense that I wanted it to be about the brand, HipGuide. But I realized that we engaged readers the most with my personal travel adventures. However to just tell you what I've done is very dull. So now we're going to offer them: “I've gone falconing and here's how you can. I've gone camel-riding in the desert and here's how you can. I've zip-lined Whistler, here's how you can.” And so forth.

How many members does the site currently have and how many are you looking to have in the long run?
We have 3/4 of a million subscribers. I don’t know; I never really had a target. We aren't a website in the traditional sense (lots of eyeballs equals ad dollars) but more of a resource (when we helped to launch an alcoholic ice pop company, I cherry-picked just 20 ideal consumers to help pick flavors and packaging.)

What had been the biggest challenges of running the site thus far? And the greatest joys?
One of the things no one ever tells you or speaks about is how many startups are run by entrepreneurs who came from wealth. It is incredibly easy when your parents have connections in venture capital or banking to either raise money or just to be introduced to people who can make strategic alliances that change the future of your company. That makes a huge difference, those connections. So I would say the toughest thing is we've been through two recessions as a company and when I decide to launch a new product or take us in a new direction, I have to make very strategic money choices that could easily make or break us. On the joy side, I have been able to see actual brands take off because of the work I personally have done. When I launched Armani Beauty, Saks had to stay open for extra hours because they were selling so much on the first floor the first four days of our campaign. It's amazing to see something you do come to life. As well, I joke that I eat what I kill. If I don't go out and make it, I don't make money. No one is responsible for my future except me, which is both amazing and terrifying.

What are the short-term and long-term plans for the site overall? Are you looking to add more genres to the mix?
I am also about to syndicate our trend editorial (call our guy Matt!) so we are streamlining our cities and bringing the product closer to what we do as a company on the consulting side. I'm also starting to build a corporate site, a meta site that will explain how we work editorially and for brands.

The site offers many products for both men and women. How do you source these items?
On the travel side, I go for things that appeal to me. They have an adrenaline component or are new or different or simply worth trying out. On the fashion side, because we're tracking trends, I am looking for things that form a pattern of who we are now spending. For example, wearable technology is very interesting to me. I am obsessed with technology clothing.

What do HipGuide editors look for when featuring product?
New. Different. Hasn't been around before.

How often is new product offered on the site? And new editorial content?
When we think something is worth adding. When we have syndication partners who need a bit more, we refresh things to match their calendars. Editorially, we'll do the e-mails once a month.

How do you stay in touch with your members?
Depends on who they are actually. Some we engage every day, some just like to hear from us once a month, some like to come to us and not be bothered with e-mail, which is fine. I feel like sites don't allow you that option anymore. We have a fair amount of celebrity readers as well as CEOs. These are not people you blast daily.

What is your personal favorite aspect of the site?
It will become the e-mails because I am looking forward to new adventures, but I also love our polls. Sometimes I ask crazy things such as how people feel about the Greek economy.

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