HONG KONG, China — With its steady stream of over 3 million unique visitors per month, generating 28 million monthly page views, it’s hard to believe that streetwear bible turned lifestyle site Hypebeast started out as a hobby for a double-major in economics and psychology who was lusting after cool sneakers for his personal collection.
In 2005, as a Hong Kong-born student in Vancouver, Canada, Kevin Ma was forced to rely on hard-to-find, pricey print magazines imported from Japan and Europe for information on cutting-edge sneakers and streetwear, so he decided to start compiling what he discovered into an online “personal journal,” using simple blogging tool Blogger, then Wordpress.
“Before I started, there were lots of forums for sneakers enthusiasts, but everything was very Web 1.0. I used to check out tech and gadget blogs which were updating their information on a daily basis, so I thought ‘Why can’t fashion be like this?’” says Ma, who, with self-deprecating humour, chose to call his site Hypebeast after a popular term used on Internet forums to make fun of people who buy a pair of sneakers because of the hype that surrounds them. (“Hypebeasts we know aboutchea / Don't buy shoes unless they popula,” rapped Trinidad James in the 2012 hit “All Gold Everything.”)
Six months later, Ma graduated from university and secured a “real job” at a bank, but still spent his evenings blogging. He signed up for Google AdSense and a number of affiliate programmes in the hopes that he would generate enough income to cover the costs of running the site. To his surprise, the cheques soon grew from mere cents to hundreds of dollars, inspiring Ma to quit his job and dedicate all his time to his budding venture. “After six months, that income was more than what I was earning at the bank. I wasn’t making tonnes, but for someone freshly graduated I was happy,” he says.
In those days blogging was still a relatively new phenomenon, so without SEO or SEM, Ma relied heavily on word-of-mouth to drive traffic to the site, which soon became an important hub for sneakerheads and other streetwear enthusiasts. “Fans would take our info, post on forums and link it back, which got the word out. We were the new guys on the block and because of that, word-of-mouth really helped grow the site. There were a few turning points for us, but the first came when hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco reached out and told us how much he liked our site,” he says.
Eight years later, Ma is back in Hong Kong and Hypebeast is publishing 20 to 30 features a day. Importantly, it has expanded beyond its sneakerhead and streetwear roots into content that covers design, fashion, technology, music and art. “We diversified because we were passionate about different topics. We felt if we only talked about sneakers, we would be pigeonholed as a sneaker site. We talk about a culture, so we need to represent that. It’s about what we are feeling at the moment,” he explains.
But its greatest influence remains in streetwear. Earlier this year, Complex named Ma one of the “25 Most Powerful People In Streetwear.” Kanye West, a self-professed Hypebeast fan, is an active user and often leaves comments on the site.
Ma says that Hypebeast has been profitable from day one. Its largest revenue stream is online advertising, which makes up roughly 50 percent of the company’s turnover. But in addition to traditional banner campaigns, Hypebeast offers advertisers “integrated campaigns” that can include sponsored editorial content, banners, video and social media. “We really like the brands we work with and together think of creative ways to get the message across to our readers. The goal is not for us to just force messages onto our audience, but to let them get something in return. Education is important,” says Ma.
Many of these integrated campaigns include sponsored video content, which appears on a section of the site called Hypebeast TV, launched in 2008. Hypebeast TV currently has 30,000 subscribers on YouTube and recent clients include Adidas and Diesel. Content ranges from interviews with a brand’s creative director to product reviews.
An endorsement from Hypebeast can do wonders for a brand. According to the company, 78 percent of readers have purchased products because they have seen them on Hypebeast. “Hypebeast is on the radar for most fashion and lifestyle brands, whether high-end or streetwear. Getting a post in Hypebeast is like getting a nod of approval from the cool kids,” says Fed Tan, founder of Hong Kong-based PR agency Social/Capital, who has worked for J.Crew, Net-a-Porter and Converse. (Disclosure: Tan's business partner Kevin Poon is a contributor to Hypebeast).
Today, Hypebeast has diversified beyond its origins as a content site, with a print magazine, newspaper, online store — selling the very products it champions — and, most recently, a creative agency, all housed in a new office located in a former warehouse space in the industrial neighbourhood of Kwai Chung in Hong Kong, which also serves as stockroom and fulfilment centre for the e-commerce business. The company currently has about 50 employees, including its global contributors.
While advertising remains the top driver of revenue for Hypebeast, Ma says e-commerce has almost caught up — the online store currently sells almost 200 brands, including 3.1 Phillip Lim, Band of Outsiders and Billionaire Boys Club — and offers the most potential for growth.
“As a kid I always wanted a store, or my own brand,” says Ma. “Two years ago, we also felt the Internet was changing and I started seeing editorial sites starting to sell stuff. I always wanted to do it but I was careful about tipping the balance. At the beginning, I was very hesitant, because promoting and selling products seemed a bit contradictory. I didn’t want conflict between editorial and the store. Then one night I was checking our Facebook page and saw people leaving comments on posts asking where to get certain items. So I thought why not change the model? Why not also give our readers the access to purchase cool items we were talking about anyway?”
Ma started out selling a small selection of 10 to 20 labels, many of which were previously featured on the site. Soon brands came calling, asking to collaborate on exclusive and limited-edition items, and Ma added his own personal product picks to the site, often sourced on his travels. Today, the men’s-only store sells mix of fashion and streetwear. “We are not luxury. It’s about fashionable products you can mix with the street. We want to be that bridge between high-fashion and streetwear,” he explains.
The creative agency offers a range of services, from branding and photography to website and campaign development, and has secured its first few clients, though growing e-commerce remains the focus, says Ma. “Building Hypebeast into a business has happened through various stages. We’ve never had any investors. I self-funded everything and every dime we make is put back into the business. It’s a big risk, but I think the opportunity is there. Readers trust us and what we present to them which means that they will always come to us for a curated selection,” he says.
“For the long-term, we want to make this a proper business, do everything better and grow the company to make sure our employees are happy. What I really want to do is keep educating people, telling them what’s happening in the world and about all the cool things being created,” says Ma.
“The web is so much harder to crack nowadays than before. Everything has to be done with a plan, with an even better idea than before. It’s integral to keep your eyes and ears open. Technology is always going to evolve and improve — so follow it.”