Every business is different. What applied to me may not be applicable to you. Which is why instead of prescribing you with a top 10 formula on what you should do to succeed in your business, I’d share with you some of my personal journey of running Inspire Magazine.
Hopefully you’d be able to draw some lessons that are relevant to your own situation. For nothing else, I hope that the sharing would inspire you to pick up a copy of the magazine, and learn from the stories of other people to inspire your to succeed.
Part 1 (Before Inspire Magazine)
Our dream was never to start a magazine publication.
Because I knew how difficult it was to run a magazine publication first hand, having worked for Asia Inc magazine during the early stage of my career. Truth be told, Inspire magazine was not even my idea to begin with (more on that later).
We started a marketing consulting agency called Catalyst with the idea of being a marketing department outpost for small businesses. We wanted to be the go-to guy for creative ideas to solve problems and improve businesses.
Our motto was to “Spark the economy”, we believe that the economy is made out individual businesses. We were idealistic and bold, thinking we could change the world.
We were wrong.
Few months into the business, we realized that Brunei companies do not pay for ideas. Not to us anyway. Except for when they are engaging foreign consultants, you know, the type who wear the well fitted, tailor-made suits, but that’s a whole other story. Our initial business model almost got our business busted, had it not been our willingness to adapt to what was required for survivor.
I have the bliss of seeing complex situation with a pair of simple lenses and a natural ability to convey the message in a format that everyone can understand. Instead of selling ideas, companies started coming to me to help craft their corporate messages. I started accepting copy-writing jobs from banks and other major corporations, jobs that had nothing to do with the list of items we offered on our service menu.
Our first magazine project was The Brunei SME Bulletin by MIPR. The project wasn’t even ours to start with. We were the sub-contractor who did all the work for a guy who tendered in the project but had no idea how to do it. As the middle guy, he made most of the money while we did most of the work. We saw the opportunity to get ourselves noticed and didn’t mind the hardwork. We published two issues of the SME Bulletin before it was scraped when there was a change in the cabinet.
[ Don’t be afraid of being taken advantage of. In business and in life, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Even if you may seem to be at the short end of the stick, you would have gained some valuable experiences from the encounter. We wouldn’t have started so many magazines, had we been too concerned about our “return on investment” with this subcontracting job.]
With this experience, we had an idea of starting a business magazine of our own called Vision 2035 in the form of an app. We thought it was a brilliant idea for the nation’s development; helping the entire country to fix their eyes on the national agenda through a periodic publication. What a better way keep everyone focused, we thought. We even used this idea to participate in the LEAP Grant competition by the BEDB. We didn’t win the competition, so we fine-tuned the proposal and took it to the corporations for sponsorship support. No one showed any interest neither. Instead, a cement company got back to us with the idea of staring a magazine about homes.
We hated the idea.
First, we did not have any experience in the department of home and lifestyle. Second, none of us in our team had any background in interior design or architecture. But, we needed the money to stay in Business.
Six months after the initial meeting with the cement company, we launched the first home & lifestyle magazine in Brunei and called it BHC magazine. It was a neat and simple publication that focused (instead) on the stories of Bruneian’s lifestyle at home, with photos referencing their beautiful decorations and designs, telling the stories of the homeowners and their family. It was a perfect recipe for the Brunei readers who love their home and build their ecosystem around the family. We never pretended to be what we were not from the start. And the readers appreciated that. The popularity of the publication soared as a result.
[Be like water (Bruce Lee), be like a chameleon (lizard that changes color). What you wrote on the business plan seldom pens out to be what you actually do. Have the humility to adapt to what the real environment demands of. It is always about the customers. Park your ego at the door the moment you decide you want to get into business. You have a team of people depending on your ability to change (your colors) to feed.]
We ran into trouble in only our second issue. Our inexperience in publishing got the better of us. We made a major mistake of publishing images of a magnificent house that turned out to be blurred and unfocused. The entire team was devastated. The magazine looked amateurish and substandard because of that particular article. We felt like we have let the readers, the sponsors and also the home owner down. One of the reasons for such devastation was that, as a new publisher, we were subjected to the judgment of the few projects we did. There were no other ways for us to show for our work. In retrospect, the biggest and harshest critique had probably been myself, all in a quest for perfection.
Looking back, I’m glad we made the mistake early in our publishing career, because we had not allowed the repeat of the same mistake since. What seemed to be the biggest problem of that day looks so trivial in hindsight. Aside from the homeowner, whom we have since apologized to, I bet no one else have the slightest, most remote recollection of the pictures I’m talking about.
[Don’t be too consumed by your mistakes, no matter how great it may seem. Truth is, you will make plenty of mistakes throughout your business endeavor. Mistakes mean that you are trying, making progress and innovating. Mistakes are just a part of your learning. It is ok to grief over a mistake, but don’t lose sleep over it. Don’t let the mistake own you. The best way to own up to a wrongdoing is to not repeat it. I promise, 5 years later, no one would remember it, not even you.]
[Believe in serendipity. Our mission for Catalyst was to “Spark the Economy”. That was our BHAG (Big Hairy and Audacious Goal). Frankly, even if it sounded logical, we didn’t quite believe we could pull it off. We were just a few guys with some ideas, dreaming out the perfect mission statement. Two years after abandoning our dream of “Sparking the Economy, inadvertently, BHC magazine became the indispensable tool for the home industry to communicate and promote their products and services. The home industry is the second most important economic engine in Brunei after the Oil & Gas industry.]
Part 2. The Making of Inspire Magazine
So, how did Inspire Magazine get started?
Back in the second year of BHC magazine, we introduced a small section during Hari Raya and subsequently, during Chinese New Year by reaching out to some of Brunei’s biggest names and personalities to post their greetings on our featured columns. Those postings turned out to be the most read section in our magazine. The amount of feedback, shares and buzz they created were simply unprecedented. It turned out that there was a distinct interest in our community to read about other people’s stories.
Heeding this idea, our previous designer Azeem came up with the brilliant idea of starting a magazine about successful people in Brunei. Through many debates and self-examinations, we decided that we did not want to start a magazine like Tatler or Prestige; that glamourise the rich and famous. We told ourselves that if we were to do it, we wanted to dedicate our time into producing a publication that is meaningful to the society and make a difference.
And hence we started coming up with a series of ideas of what we wanted the magazine to do: to be a vehicle to recognize ordinary people doing extraordinary work; a source of inspiration for other Bruneians to look up to and strive for; a catalyst for change to improve livelihood.
That was how Inspire was born.
[You do not need to be the hero or the person with the best idea. Listen to the people around you. Wisdom lies in the ability to filter out the best advice and apply them into good use. BHC magazine was someone else’s idea, and so was Inspire magazine.]
We started our first issue on Brunei’s Creative Industry, highlighting some of the most outstanding talents in the creative realm, featuring Fakhrul Razi on the cover. Our second issue that featured 50 of Brunei’s Most influential Women held all the newsstand record as the most number of magazines ever sold in the country up until today.
We continued to aspire to break boundaries and push ourselves to outdo our previous publications. We subsequently published Choose Happiness and Ordinary Heroes in the first year; two of my most favorite publications to date. I can spend all day talking about these two issues like I’ve just written them yesterday.
[Never be satisfied with the status quo. Always challenge yourself to become better, always try to outdo your previous record. Be your own best competitor. Do it with zest, do it with plenty of gusto.]
In Choose Happiness, we took the bold step of printing just the two words on the yellow cover with a smiley face at the bottom. The gamble paid off. This became one of the most instantly recognizable publication on the newsstand, and we pride ourselves in coming up with the original idea.
It is still a cover I am most proud of up until today. You need to understand the context before you can appreciate what this simple cover meant to us. We really really believe in the importance of a good cover in reflecting the quality of any publication. The amount of emphasis in choosing the right person, the kind of image to portray and the messages is no joke. At times, my colleague and I would end up not talking to each other for a few days simply because we can’t agree on trivial elements on the cover (it is a miracle that we have not killed each other in the name of love for what we do). So, you can imagine the kind of pressure we set for ourselves when we turned in the unanimous decision to run a cover with a blank sheet of yellow cover and just two simple words.
For nothing else, with this issue I learned about a very important secret in life; Happiness is always a choice, not an endeavor or an aspiration.
In Ordinary Heroes, I had the honour of interviewing Lt Redzki who died 2 weeks after our meeting. It made me realize the meaning and significance of my job, one that I’m proud to call my vocation. That I am not just writing a story, but helping to draft a legacy for the person I am writing about, and for his family.
Of the many people I interviewed for the past few years, three of the most promising, most extraordinary young people have since passed on; Lt Redzki, Wan Krisnadi and recently Shawn Narcis, all of them had a reputation that precedes their name.
[We are all mortal. People die. Not just old people. How do you live your life will have a direct consequence on how you’d be remembered . Be like Shawn (Narcis)]
What happened to BHC Magazine?
After two years of publishing BHC Magazine, we realized that change was inevitable for the continuous growth of our content, our team and the company’s profitability. We were unable to agree on the same direction to move forward, and ended up parting ways with the sponsor.
It was a huge risk departing from BHC, because it meant that we were on our own; no financial backing, no endorsement. We walked away from a place that we poured our heart and soul into for two years.
For the first time in two years, we felt vulnerable and scared. I remembered looking into my colleagues’ eyes, asking each other: what had we gotten ourselves into?
On the other hand, we also felt an undeniable sense of peace. Liberated from the accountability to any particular organization but our own two hands.
[Take Risks! Be ready to walk away from your comfort zone. Draw confidence from your past achievements. Have faith. Know that there will always be better things waiting in-store for you.]
Within a month, we launched the 2.0 version of BHC and called it Inspire Living. We wanted it to uplift people’s life with a fresh new perspective. We figured, if Inspire magazine feeds the mind and soul, Inspire Living would play it’s part of improving one’s wellbeing starting from their home.
That moment on, we asked ourselves two very important questions: What if we could set our own rules? How do we kick our own ass? In no time, we started setting Our-Own-Rules and created one issue after another with boldness, innovation and imagination that surpassed anything we have ever done before.
[Make your own Rules. The greatest gift of being your own boss is the ability to listen to your guts and make decision and be held accountable to yourself. Empower yourself. Write your own set of rules. Do not be held hostage by other people’s perimeters.]
[Never stop asking yourself: How to kick your own ass? As an entrepreneur, it is good question to be asking yourself from time to time. Because if you don’t, sooner or later, someone else would come along ask the question for you. And by the time that happens, it will be too late.]
How did we kick our own ass?
Along that time, I traveled to Bangkok and visited a bookshop. There, I opened up a beautiful architecture book filled with pictures of the most amazing houses in Asia. I started to imagine what it would be like if those mansions were featured on our magazines. What does it take for me to source this kind of photos and editorial content? I thought to myself. I started dreaming about traveling to different countries with our photographer, knocking on doors, taking pictures of the most beautiful houses in this part of the world. That would be a dream come true for me.
I took a picture of the book cover and the publisher’s information on the inside page and walked away from the bookstore, forgetting about it altogether.
Back in my office one afternoon, as I was drifting off at work scrolling through the past photos on my phone, I came across the picture of the architecture book that I once took in Bangkok.
And I had one of those eureka moment!
“Why not try reaching out to the universe and see what happen?” I said to myself.
I put down the phone and googled the publisher and made a proposal for them to share their content with me on Inspire Living magazine. The rest was history. To next to no credit of mine, Inspire Living was graced by the pictures of the best, the most outstanding houses in the whole of Asia on our cover, month after month ever since.
The standard of the magazine improved 100 fold overnight. That, along with a thousand little things we did by asking ourselves to kick our own ass had been a source of inspiration for all of our team in everything we do.
[Travel. The best business ideas often come from travels. Some of the greatest business people I’ve interviewed were successful not because they are any smarter than you. But because they have a wider exposure by observing how others do it outside of their country. And have the courage and determination of bringing it back to make it work. If you think traveling is expensive, try staying put.]
[Reach out to the Universe. Allow yourself to dream. Embrace wishful thinking. But don’t stop there, act on it. Because you’d have zero chance of making it happen if you don’t try. Sometimes you may just get lucky – look at us!]