First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 Times?
Shilpa Ahuja: Covid-19 has been a difficult time for most businesses. While media hasn’t been as heavily affected in terms of readership, the industry has seen tremendous losses in terms of advertising revenue. More and more businesses are finding it difficult to pay employee salaries, let alone have a marketing budget, which is why ad revenues are at an all-time low.
Tell us about you, your Career, how you Founded Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media
Shilpa Ahuja: My love for writing started at the tender age of 7 when I began writing poetry. At 11, I published my first handmade magazine and developed a passion for art, creative writing and editing. From there on, I began to make handmade magazines every year, collecting articles from my classmates and editing them, and then moved on to become the Editor of my college magazine later too. Even though fashion, art and writing were always my interests, I first chose architecture as my career option. However, working for a few years in architecture and hotel project management made me realize that it wasn’t helping me realize my full potential. There was always a lot I had wanted to do, and I had already worked in graphic and web design too.
After my wedding in 2014, I had to move to a new city (Chennai), where work opportunities in that field were limited, and finally, I began to consider other careers when the idea of starting a fashion blog came to me. My company began very organically, from a tiny personal blog that was ShilpaAhuja.com. Its readership soon grew, and I realized I had so many more ideas I could work on.
Traditional fashion magazines have always drawn the line between the fashion world “insiders” a.k.a. Fashionable people and outsiders a.k.a. Those who need to learn fashion. However, coming from a non-fashion background, I felt there was a gap in the market for a magazine that catered more to the modern working woman’s practical style needs rather than extra trendy high-maintenance stuff that a regular woman could neither afford nor maintain. I was very excited about the idea of creating a fashion magazine from a fashion “outsider’s” perspective. So I evolved ShilpaAhuja.com into a full-fledged digital magazine, and then much more – a whole resource for everything fashion and lifestyle.
I also made use of my other interests like graphics designing, web designing and art. For a layman, a glossy fashion magazine seems like a glamorous profession involving fashion shoots and attending fashion shows. However, as a media entrepreneur, I also have to see other geeky aspects of it, like web development and PHP scripting, UI/UX and CSS, big data analysis and insight mining, server management and optimization, SEO, etc., which takes up more of my time than any glamorous task!
We have worked with some of the biggest brands in fashion and lifestyle, including Nike, Dior, SSense, M.A.C., GAP, Expedia, Nexa and more. The team grew too, and now we are a team of 17, and our media company reaches an audience of 250K users monthly in over 150 countries worldwide.
Thereafter, between 2018 and 2020, our company launched four other unique websites in education, interiors and people/society genres, making us Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media. I want to make websites about topics that I have a real passion for, and have the first-hand experience in, so that the end-product can be transparent and truly valuable for our readers.
How does Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media Innovate?
Shilpa Ahuja: Content and media technology – that’s what our company is all about, and these are the two areas we innovate in. For content, we are always trying new ways of storytelling, new web technologies and services. Here are a few examples:
Innovations in Content:
- New ways of storytelling: Although comics are a widely popular medium, they have never been used by magazines as alternatives to articles before ShilpaAhuja.com’s Audrey O. comics. I created my webcomic series Audrey O. in 2017 to talk about unpopular opinions, start discussions about new lifestyle issues or women’s issues in a funny, self-deprecating or subtle way.
- New ways of making content more authentic: Glossy fashion magazines represent the cover girls or “influencers” in a non-relatable way where they are always perfect-looking, perfectly posing, etc. This left a gap in my ambition of really connecting with my readers as a “fashion outsider”. So I created my comic character Audrey O. Based on myself, she helps me represent my more raw, relatable side that my readers can connect deeply with. Audrey O. often pops up in articles to give readers fashion advice or talk about her own style preferences, which helps keep the magazine’s tone conversational, as ShilpaAhuja.com’s earliest tagline was “Your Style BFF”. As recently, our company has expanded to non-fashion media channels too, Audrey O. also pops up in our other websites to give readers career or education advice, which also helps me portray her as a more wholesome person who has other interests than just fashion, making her even more relatable to readers. This strategy also helps me do brand-building by connecting the Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media universe.
- New ways of brand positioning: Fashion magazines are never (except Marie Claire) named after a person, so to a lot of readers, a website called ShilpaAhuja.com felt a lot like the name of a fashion designer’s eCommerce shop rather than a magazine in the early years of ShilpaAhuja.com. To help my readers connect our magazine’s scope with the brand name, I created web “magazine covers”, starting in 2018, one for every month. This is one of the most innovative branding activities I’ve ever done, which got us both audience and industry recognition.
- Mixing employee training with content creation: The fashion industry is fast-evolving, and there is new terminology to keep up with every season. However, fashion writing and critiquing involve the use of proper lingo, which makes it difficult for us to train employees from a non-fashion background. So in 2018, we created a fashion trend glossary/ dictionary called SlubWords that we update every season. Both our readers and employees can learn from it and contribute to it. Slubwords also acts as an academic archive for fashion schools, and it aims to become an independent free to all resource for fashion students and industry professionals.
Innovations in Media Technologies:
- Chatbot for audience engagement: As a media company, we try always to find the best medium to represent content. In some cases, that’s an article, in others, it’s a video or a visual. Also, some readers like consuming content in the form of audio, some like watching videos and some like reading. So back in 2018, I created a chatbot called Shilbot, to which I gave my personality. Although we’re still working on it, the aim for Shilbot is to be “Your Style BFF”, where she can give style advice, make small talk or tell you what’s trendy. It helps us casually connect with consumers who aren’t a big fan of reading articles.
- Big Data & Trend Analysis: The fashion industry is fast-changing, and these days, it’s common for large fashion brands to come up with anywhere between 8-24 collections every year. Fashion trend forecast, however, has always been our expertise. To streamline the process, our company has created innovative ways of mapping trends in databases. This method of trend analysis helps us come up with definitive forecasts every season in every fashion category.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business and how are you coping?
Shilpa Ahuja: Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media has different media channels, and they have been affected differently. While there has been little change in readership and audience, we have seen a major decline in ad revenues. Fashion and lifestyle space is doing worse than before, while the education space is doing slightly better.
Our major channel, ShilpaAhuja.com is in the fashion and lifestyle space, whose readership suffered a drop this year, as reading about the latest fashion trends is not the first thing on people’s minds right now. So we had to come up with content that’s relevant in these times to bring the readership back up. However, the competition for lockdown-specific content is huge as major media houses are also investing in such content these days.
The fashion industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, which is an important advertiser for us. The major blow our company has had to face is because fashion brands are hardly advertising these days. So in these months, we’ve temporarily shifted our focus to brand-building and doing community engagement that will have long-term benefits for our startup.
We have been doing Summer Internship Programs to engage college students as their studies have been affected due to lockdowns. This has helped us find talented young individuals who are passionate about education, arts & media, fashion and journalism. Pre-pandemic, our team was all Chennai-based; however, the lockdown & work-from-home has blurred the differences between local and remote employees, forcing us to rethink conventional hiring strategies. So we have also been able to hire employees from all over the country. This has helped us re-build our team as we were unable to operate a full-time office.
During these times, we have extensively integrated our company processes with cloud services in order to streamline collaboration within our team. And we have made use of video-conferencing to keep the workflow as normal as possible.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices, and what are the Lessons Learned?
Shilpa Ahuja: Thankfully, with a small team, we haven’t had to let go of any staff, and we have been in a much luckier position than many other businesses in terms of this. The biggest lesson learned is that for any startup, it’s always good to consider business viability and set a sustainable revenue stream before deeply investing in any idea.
In the post-Covid digital world, the days of “launching a business” and “overnight success” are over. These difficult times call for slowly building and testing your product or service with real consumers so you can focus on actual brand-building that will make your business sustainable in the long-term, something that can survive a calamity like this.
In the coming times, it’ll be very difficult for copycat businesses to survive. So startups need to have a real value proposition if they want to survive. And one has to understand that entrepreneurs will need more than hard work and a good idea to make a successful startup.
How do you deal with Stress and Anxiety?
Shilpa Ahuja: Personally, I work with fixed (but somewhat flexible) work-hours, and I have set up an “office” at home, where I try to mimic a proper work environment. I also try to keep weekends (at least partially) free and don’t encourage my employees to work after-hours. This helps me keep my work and leisure separate, which I feel is very important to keeping mental peace.
At the beginning of lockdown, my husband and I started doing yoga every morning, which has also helped us feel healthy and calm. Cooking and keeping up with hobbies like TV, art or learning French also helps me deal with stress. I try to spend some time with nature every day. And sometimes, just simply sharing my work troubles with my family or talking about my day with my husband or mom helps me lower my anxiety.
How do you Project yourself and Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media in the Future?
Shilpa Ahuja: The days in which media operated behind closed doors are over. The consumers of the internet-era want an open dialogue, thought-clarity, and brands with transparent motives. Internet is now an open discussion forum, and this changes the way media should operate. However, this doesn’t change the media’s role – to be the voice of society. To make cultural & intellectual contributions.
We at Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media believe that well researched and quality content can be the only sustainable growth strategy in a time where we are overloaded with click-bait content. Today, social media platforms try to polarize people’s views by projecting biased content through their algorithms. We believe in serving our readers not only based on what they are searching or what’s popular but also to make an effort to share opinions that may not be very popular.
We believe that media has the power (and the responsibility) to start public discussions and educate readers so they can make informed opinions. We aim to provoke thought in the minds of our readers rather than just instill 3rd party opinions in their minds. We also want to give an opportunity to readers by creating an open platform, which helps them share their own opinions with a wider audience.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the Game?
Shilpa Ahuja: Our competitors are various large media houses like Hearst, Conde Nast and The Times Group, etc. In the media business, one needs to have a long-term view, as it’s difficult to expect exponential growth.
One of the ways we try to create market share is by being a niche-media house, as these larger companies have a large majority market share in general news and non-niche content. Being a startup in the media business, we have a long way to go in terms of creating a name for ourselves and being known as a trustworthy source of news or content.
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