It’s hard to know where to begin when listing Serena Guen’s accomplishments. I could start by telling you that she’s been described as the “Mark Zuckerburg of publishing” by Bloomberg, or perhaps by telling you that at twenty-six years old, she’s the world’s youngest magazine proprietor. Or maybe I’ll just lead with the wildly unexpected fact that she started SUITCASE magazine whilst she was still a student, somehow juggling launching a magazine with her third year as an undergrad at NYU.
In the four years since its launch, SUITCASE has grown into a fully-fledged travel platform, with the print magazine distributed in over 35 countries and complemented by a slick digital offering - not to mention a forthcoming expansion in the form of a separate magazine launching early next year, focusing specifically on destination weddings and honeymoons.
Still, being the boss of a travel magazine isn’t all jet-setting and awe-inspiring Instagrams (although there is plenty of that). Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear just how much hard work - and how many late nights - it’s taken to translate the wanderlust inspired by Serena’s international upbringing into a cutting-edge travel brand. Over cocktails at The Hoxton (a stone’s throw from SUITCASE's Holborn office) we talked about how she’d successfully launched a print magazine in a digital age, the challenges of managing a team, and how she manages to stay one step ahead of an ever-changing industry.
ON WHAT INSPIRED HER TO LAUNCH SUITCASE
There just wasn't a travel magazine for women of my generation, and I spotted a niche for that audience when I was studying in Paris [and looking for recommendations]. I wasn't a backpacker, I wasn't going on my honeymoon, I didn’t want to eat at Michelin starred restaurants every night. I wanted something in between and a bit more local… and just fun! Part of the reason I wanted to launch SUITCASE as a print magazine is because there's so much crap out there on the Internet. I wanted to cut through all the noise and make a statement – that this was the travel source you come to.
Fashion is so creative and exciting, and it's such an easy access point to any culture, so I decided to incorporate that by doing shoots on location. I thought it was a cool angle because part of the problem with travel magazines is that a) they weren't representing cultures properly, and b) they’d become so boring.
HER BIG BREAKS
I talked to everyone that I knew, asking if they had any contacts that worked at magazines, and if I could talk to them. I also cold-emailed a lot of people. One of the people that I cold-emailed was Anna Harvey (then VP and Editorial Director of Condé Nast, and responsible for launching Vogue in new markets) not expecting anything back.
I sent her quite a concise email, which I think is really important - I get a lot of emails now from people starting things, but they're often very longwinded. The idea behind SUITCASE was quite different - there wasn't a travel magazine for women of our generation, so she responded well to it and emailed me back two days later saying “I think what you're doing is a great idea. This is what you should do”. She gave me advice for the first issue about advertising, airlines, people to contact – and said I could use her as a reference, which was amazing.
We just did a ‘friends and family’ funding round to print the first issue and throw a launch party. I decided I didn't need to raise a lot of funding for what I wanted to do, and I wanted to keep control of my project. The model that I built meant we grew quite slowly. Some magazines start a lot more quickly because they receive investment early on – but I was still learning and thought 'imagine if I get loads of money but don't know what I'm doing, and just spend it all!' These days, the majority of our revenue comes from partnerships, although we're very picky about who we partner with.
FROM EDITOR-IN-CHIEF TO CEO – A TURNING POINT
In the beginning I was wearing every single hat you could wear – and I still obviously am, and will be for a while. But the end of last year was a real turning point because my team were so competent – they each have their area of expertise and are really good at what they do. They were really good at running the day-to-day, and better at commissioning content, writing, and photography than I was. Plus, me doing that just took up time and meant I couldn't focus on anything to do with business development or marketing. I didn’t even have time to make a proper growth plan, because I was so caught up in the day-to-day of deadlines.
Last year I got really sick in the Philippines - I got E.Coli from eating shrimp, and it knocked me out for about two months. I didn't go to work for 7 weeks, which is ages! But my team were so good that I didn't even need to tell them what to do - they just knew. They came up with innovative concepts as well as keeping the day-to-day going, and I realised that I'd built a really strong team who were really passionate about what they were doing, and that actually it was time for me to step back so I could push things along in a different direction.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
I want to focus on the print magazine first, because that was our flagship product. I think of it almost as a really expensive business card, as it's in all the shops for people to see. But obviously the first thing anyone does when they go away on holiday is look things up on Google, so another one of our main focuses for this year is improving our digital platform - we want to make it as practical as possible so it’s really functional and easy to use, whilst also making it more personalised and social. It's important to be an authority, but people need to be able to tailor things. We're aiming to become the #1 travel source for people with a creative, tech-savvy, nomadic mind-set.
Something else we’re working on this year is finding a charity partner, and incorporating a social aspect to what we do. We're carbon neutral and print on recycled paper, but it would be good to do something proactive as well.
DEALING WITH DOUBLE STANDARDS
I'm quite lucky that the industry I'm in isn't that prejudiced towards women. The only sexism that I've encountered is a subconscious one, and it's not just to do with my industry - it's to do with working women in general, and the fact their success is always linked back to their family life. For guys, no one ever really asks if they're married or if they've got kids – but for women, once you're over 30, if you're not in a serious relationship or you don’t have kids, you start being portrayed as cold-hearted.
ON STARTING OUT YOUNG
In terms of being young, the biggest challenge was being inexperienced, and I was so naïve… I didn't think I was inexperienced at all! I didn't think my age would be an obstacle. It just meant that I had to teach myself everything, and sometimes I made really stupid mistakes - you don't know what you don't know. But once you've made those mistakes, you’ll never ever make them again. Also teaching yourself everything from scratch means you'll be so much more experienced than people who've just come in to a specific role and progressed within the industry.
ADVICE FOR BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS
The one thing you really need to know before starting a business is yourself. You need to know your limits, and how far you're willing to go. You're going to have to work really hard - do you have that in you? Is this something you're really passionate about? What are your strengths, what can hold you back? Once you know all these things, you won't be so naive and you won't end up moving in the wrong direction.
"The one thing you really need to know before starting a business is yourself."
You also definitely need to figure out your priorities. When you're starting out, nothing seems more important than your business – but at the end of the day, your business might not work out. When you're really stressed out your family are the ones who are going to be there for you, and the friends that stick around when you're starting a business are so valuable - the ones that understand are gems. They're the keepers.
There's now this huge culture of supporting young entrepreneurs - all these workshops, and networks… things that didn't exist until recently. Young people's ideas aren't dismissed as easily.
ON MAINTAINING A HEALTHY WORK/LIFE BALANCE
One thing I've introduced which made a huge difference is I've started exercising again – I work out 3 or 4 times a week. I have to wake up a little bit earlier, but it just makes me feel so much better. You need to do something that makes you not think about work for a bit, and exercise really helps. If you don't spend time away from work, you'll never get the perspective you need to make really good decisions. So the two things I always try to do are: sport (or at least walk a certain amount in the morning), and have a bath in the evening where I'll put my phone away and read a book or a magazine.
ON THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF BEING THE BOSS
People management. It's something I really wasn't expecting - it's not something people talk about that much, and it's not something that you're taught. When you're managing people you need to inspire them, create an atmosphere that you like, make sure they're all happy and that everyone is doing their job. I try to lead by example - if I want everyone to work hard, then I need to show that I work hard too.
WORDS TO LIVE AND WORK BY
Lean In really inspired me - Sheryl Sandberg was so vocal about what women's rights should be.
Creativity Inc. by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. It's his own story, interwoven with advice for running and starting a business. It's like a case study for starting a business.
Loop Tail by Bruce Poon Tip, who started the first truly social travel business, in the sense of being ethical, sustainable and benefitting the local economy and population. It has a foreword written by the Dalai Lama (!)
All photos by Matthew K. Firpo.