Robin Thurston, an entrepreneur in outdoor fitness technology, is on a magazine buying spree.
At a time when the print magazine industry is collapsing, the entrepreneur who made millions developing the MapMyFitness workout tracking app has purchased dozens of active lifestyle publications including Backpacker, Climbing , Ski, Trail Runner, Triathlete, VeloNews, Women’s Running and Yoga Journal. .
In February, it made its biggest purchase to date – Outside Magazine, an outdoor general interest publication with over half a million subscribers. With the acquisition, Thurston became an active lifestyle media mogul and formalized it by renaming his Colorado company with the name Outside.
“I don’t believe the print is dead, I just think it’s changing,” Boulder-based Thurston said in an interview with Zoom. “And for the companies that don’t scale, I think they’re going to have problems.”
Thurston said print publications must fight against declining subscriptions and ad sales, attract younger audiences and compete with an avalanche of free online content while remaining authentic.
His solution is to bundle digital subscriptions to all magazines into an Outside Plus subscription of $ 99 per year. Members get print subscriptions to Outside and another magazine of their choice, plus perks like a charting app, two books per year, and reduced entry fees for sporting events. Thurston compares the model to Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, and Netflix.
“I felt there was an opportunity to bring everything together under one umbrella and really unify the experience for the consumer,” said Thurston. “When you combine services like Gaia GPS and event discounts, and add video on demand courses and all the premium content, I felt like it was an offer for consumers who could really be a base for their active lifestyle world.
Beyond magazines, Thurston’s acquisitions include book publisher VeloPress, Outside TV, Warren Miller’s ski films, the Fly Fishing Film Tour, and even a company that takes photos of the finish line at races. races.
He hopes to develop feature films and documentaries, as well as short videos to engage younger people on TikTok or Snapchat.
Outside already has a strong social media presence. His Instagram account, with one million subscribers, posts a constant stream of sponsored content from companies like Adidas, Ford, Under Armor, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Thurston, an avid cyclist who also enjoys skiing and hiking, started building the business in 2019, when he bought the Pocket Media magazine group including Triathlete and VeloNews. In 2020, he bought another group of magazines, including Ski and Backpacker, from Active Interest Media. In November, Outside owner and editor Larry Burke unexpectedly asked to sell the magazine.
Launched in 1977 by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who sold it to Burke a year later, Outside rose to fame for its high-profile feature films that spawned successful non-fiction books like ” Into Thin Air “and” The Perfect Storm “and movies like” Blue Heart Stroke. It also features a constant mix of gear guides, fitness tips, and where / how stories.
But by the end of 2020, Outside seemed to be running on steam. Outside Online acknowledged its financial difficulties when appealing to readers for donations, and Thurston said the magazine had put a number of employees on leave. He hadn’t paid some freelancers for almost a year. In a March statement, Thurston pledged to be faster. “Earlier this week, following our acquisition of Outside magazine, we sent out checks to every freelancer with an overdue invoice,” he said.
Thurston sees an opportunity in Outside, and investors love his vision. He said he has raised $ 180 million in venture capital since 2019 for his media empire. With the combined publications, the company grew to 475 employees. Thurston believes it will be profitable within a year and hopes to take the company public within three years.
Outside still has a loyal base of 530,000 print subscribers, and the other magazines have a combined print circulation of 680,000. Thurston aims to grow its revenue from 70% ads to 70% subscription in just three years. Thurston said converting 10% of free visitors to its website into members would achieve this goal.
This has been the biggest challenge magazine publishers have faced for the past 20 years, as the print ads that have provided most of their income have dwindled. Most are not doing well.
Industry watchers say it’s a tough time to enter the magazine business.
“From a business standpoint, I can’t really think of anything that clearly worked,” said Kevin Lerner, assistant professor at Marist College and editor of the Journal of Magazine Media. “I don’t know if anyone really got it all.”
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, associate professor at Columbia College and former magazine editor, said the past few years had “just been brutal, brutal for magazines.” Still, she thinks Thurston might be on to something.
“It’s no secret that magazines have a broken business model. And convincing consumers to pay for carefully created and carefully curated content has been really tough when they are inundated with a sea of free content, ”said Bloyd-Peshkin. “Here’s that brand that says a magazine or two is part of our value proposition, but what you’re really buying is a bunch of things you’re used to paying for.”
Thurston plans to continue reducing the frequency of print publications, but said he would not discontinue any. Outside has already moved in that direction, going from a monthly issue to just seven issues in 2020. He said he plans to place around 40% of online content behind a pay wall.
Women make up about 52% of the Outside audience, and across all titles, the audience is evenly split between men and women. But six of the company’s seven board members are men.
That’s typical, according to Ann Shepherd, COO of Him for Her, a nonprofit that advocates for greater diversity on boards. Shepherd’s research shows that only half of private companies that raised at least $ 100 million had even one woman on the board. Investors held the majority of board seats, she found, and only 9% of investor directors were women.
Thurston said he is actively seeking another woman to join the board. “This is a great initiative for us across the company,” he said, “not just gender diversity, but diversity in general”. The magazine has also published articles on how to make the outdoors more inclusive.
Thurston believes its formula for grouping publications is aligned with the interests of its readers. “Most spectators don’t just do one activity,” he said, “they do three or four activities a year – like skiing, biking, hiking.”
Tom Bie, editor and publisher of independent fly fishing magazine Drake, is intrigued by Thurston’s model but somewhat skeptical of cross-pollination among readers.
“The real enthusiast concerns one activity, maybe two, everything else is bubbling. And stories for amateurs will not interest dedicated enthusiasts, ”he said. “I’m as curious as anyone to see if they can make it work.”
Thurston has already resisted conventional wisdom. When he launched a fitness mapping app in 2008, skeptics said few people would carry their phones while running or biking. Five years later, he sold MapMyFitness to Under Armor for $ 150 million. Now, Thurston has said some people think he’s just building Outside before he goes public, bundling the posts into what’s called a private equity.
“And that’s really not what it is,” he said. “It’s really about creating a whole new drinking experience that takes away the hassle of getting more active and staying engaged in the sports you love. “