How Permanent Style works as a business

Wednesday, September 2nd 2020
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Fashion media has had a hard time of it in recent years, with near constant disruption - which Covid-19 has only made worse. 

So why am I confident that Permanent Style can survive this turmoil? What revenue streams support that, and what investment? 

How PS works as a business was a question readers brought up a few times in last year's Readership Survey. So I thought I’d try and lay it out today. 

This is not about why I quit my job (we’ve covered that before) or why Permanent Style started (ditto). But rather from a pure business point of view, how does it work: where does the money come from, and what are its dynamics.

The aim of this is primarily to answer those reader questions. But it's also nice to increase transparency - reemphasising what we take money for and what we don't - and perhaps make readers feel closer to PS.

It might be helpful for other small businesses too, in the same vein as the 'How to launch a menswear brand' article last week.

Permanent Style didn’t start making any money for about four years.

It started as a simple blog, and took a while to gain traction and a following. Even when it had a healthy 300,000 page views or so each month, and was one of the biggest classic menswear sites, brands only advertised when I went out and asked them. 

The first was Drake’s. They advertised on Will Boehlke’s A Suitable Wardrobe and I asked if they would be interested in PS. Michael Drake kindly said yes, and they’ve been there ever since. 

Others followed, including Edward Green and The Hanger Project. And when other brands saw their peers advertising, inquiries started to come in. There began to be enough money to fund trips, or to commission bespoke to review. 

The high renewal rate of these advertisers is a fundamental reason Permanent Style has been able to develop. 

The revenue has been constant, and reliable. It's not project based, and does not require me to spend time seeking new customers or making pitches. 

Brands advertise because the content is good, and popular. And because they know from experience that it delivers, they make no demands on coverage. 

This kind of relationship between advertising and editorial is probably the ideal one, and something magazines (including those I used to work for) aspire to. 

But in my experience, this relationship is either prevented, or established and then undermined, by a demand for growth: a constant push for greater sales than the publication naturally generates. 

(The modern obsession with growth is also an interesting topic, encompassing loss-leading start-ups and governments’ focus on GDP. But not something for here probably.)

The way the advertising slots work on PS is both a blessing and a curse. 

Because brands have their place in the right-hand column reserved, it’s hard for new entrants to get enough exposure. They have to start low down and gradually move their way up, when those above them leave. 

But that pressure from below also encourages advertisers higher up to stay. They know that if they left, they would have to start all over again. 

The end result is even greater stability. Which is helpful for PS as a business, but does mean there is a lack of new openings for brands. 

When the newsletter started (above), I partly addressed this by limited advertising to one month per brand, giving everyone an opportunity to get top billing. 

The other main revenue stream for PS is the shop.

It was growth in this area that allowed me to quit my job three years ago. But I’ve been particularly specific here that growth is not the aim. 

The shop started as small collaborations with brands (Breanish Tweed, William Abraham) where I suggested or helped design a product, and received commission on sales. 

Over time, I started to want greater control over these projects, and moved to holding and selling everything. 

This was a much greater financial risk. Each time I'd be spending thousands of pounds buying stock. But I liked the fact that readers knew what they were getting - that they were buying from me, not from a brand via me, or some mix of the two. 

Retail is exciting: you can make quite a lot of money quite quickly. But it is also riskier. 

With all the costs built in (see previous article on starting a brand) and charging a fairly low margin (as PS does), you normally have to sell more than half your stock before you stop losing money. 

It’s easy to see how brands get into a situation where they haven’t made their money back, and begin selling all the remaining stock at a discount, just to get into profit. 

And here’s where the growth point comes in. 

I've deliberately run PS conservatively, so that it doesn’t matter if some things don’t sell. Luckily pretty much everything has, but I never want to be in a position where I’m scrambling around to make cash, and as a result forced to do things I wouldn’t otherwise. 

I've found some businesses get into that position by taking on extra costs in order to grow. They hire more people, rent more stores, and all of a sudden they need to sell large volumes just to break even.

For fans of Nike, Shoe Dog by founder Phil Knight is a good illustration: at every stage, whether revenues were $10 million or $100 million, the company was almost going bankrupt because it was growing so fast. 

I've found - personally - that being conservative with what we do has worked well. It just creates freedom. It means you can come up with a nice idea and see how it goes, rather than trying to push sales every way possible, or worrying about what the next big thing could be.

The constant of the advertising helps too: I try to make sure it always covers PS’s basic costs, and a basic salary.

And in any case - as mentioned variously in the past - the aim is for the shop not to grow too large, as I don't want it to affect the ability to cover other products. Permanent Style is fundamentally an editorial publication, with a shop on the side. 

A Japanese friend recently told me of how the magazine Free and Easy collapsed in this way.

From what I understand, it went from being a popular magazine, to having its own physical store, to selling its own branded product (Rugged Factory). Eventually the need to sell more things every season harmed the credibility of the brand, and it all folded in 2016. 

Others will know much more about this than I do, but it sounds like an object lesson in the dangers of letting a shop run a magazine.

I’m sure there will be big challenges for Permanent Style in the future. I'm certainly no industry veteran, and I've barely seen one fashion or economic cycle pass. 

But I did think it would be nice to pass on my personal experience of what works well for this site, now, with these aims. Because I know some will find it useful.

I’ve learnt for example that physical events, like the pop-up shop, rarely make much money - their value is in other things, such as a physical connection with readers. 

I’ve learnt that consultancy or speaking has to be charged at a high rate, unfortunately, because it’s so time intensive. 

And the reputation of PS has made it easier to turn down the brands that email every week wanting to pay thousands for a link, a recommendation, or an article. 

(Though I’ve also learnt that some people will always remain cynical - never believing you do this, let alone giving you credit for it.)

I do hope this is the kind of article readers were after. If not, please ask questions in the comments.

If there’s general advice here, I think it’s that it pays to spend time creating genuine, original content, and not trying to sell yourself early. 

And think carefully about how you define success. For too many people, I think, growth is a big part of that definition. This is not about greed - it’s just about wanting to seem successful in the eyes of others. 

For me, success is being able to confidently support my family, doing something I love. And now and again people tell me they appreciate what I do.

It’s hard to see how it could get any better than that.