" Magazine makes hay of millennium mania"
A publisher in Tennessee attempts to parlay year-2000 phobias into a long-term biweekly appealing to 'techies'
By Ilan Mochari
Tim Wilson drops by the brown-brick First American National Bank branch in Crossville, Tenn. (population 8,575), just about every day to deposit his company's receipts and schmooze with the bankers. "My daddy taught me long ago: stay friendly with the bankers," says Wilson, a veteran publisher of three trade magazines. In November 1997 he shared with a First American banker his latest idea: he wanted to start a biweekly magazine covering computer problems related to the end of the millennium. The banker wondered, recalls Wilson, why he would want to start something with such a short life span.
Despite the banker's misgivings, Wilson kicked off his Y2K News Magazine in July. Even though the shelf life of his business seems limited, he holds that unlike many other millennium-inspired enterprises, his will thrive far beyond the year 2000. Y2K News is part of a wave of varied start-ups that are cashing in on the millennium. Many are grappling with the calendar-related computer glitches that threaten to disrupt the world on January 1, 2000; others are selling products like freeze-dried foods and water pumps to survivalists who are preparing for doomsday scenarios.
With the millennium still a year away, Y2K News is already a hit, says Wilson, although he will not reveal its profits. During the magazine's first four months, 8,000 subscribers signed on, most of them at $55.95 for 38 issues. Although ad revenues were modest at first, some Y2K-oriented businesses--such as Stor-Tite Containers, based in Grants Pass, Ore., which sells dehydrated food and storage containers--have become steady advertisers, according to the publisher.
Wilson, 40, who has a civil-engineering degree and an M.B.A. from Tennessee Tech, has been putting out trade magazines since 1987. In his role as the publisher of the Trades Publishing Co., which produces The Resort Trades, he planned a roundtable for a resort owners' trade show in late 1997 about all things Y2K. Afterward, he concluded that he should start a magazine covering the same subject.
A prompt launch became his priority. By doubling up the magazine's operations with those of his trade-publishing business, which generates $2 million in revenues and employs 19, he saved time and the costs of office space, equipment and personnel. Wilson simply hired an editor and a subscriptions person before rolling out Y2K News.
The magazine is off to a snappy start, but the question remains: How many of its readers--Wilson identifies them as "techies," survivalists and religious adherents, among others--will stick with it into the new millennium? Inevitably, Wilson concedes, it will lose some of its audience, but he insists that some information technology specialists, at least, will stay aboard. Wilson says he'll preserve Y2K News as a straight information technology magazine next year, and on his Web site he is already "romancing" readers to stay with him for the long haul.
Not everyone believes he will succeed at that. Investors are skeptical about the prospects of Y2K magazines, according to Mark Edmiston, a magazine consultant and a former president of Newsweek. "No one wants to spend the money on something that could be a nonissue after December 31, 1999," Edmiston says. Wilson does have at least one competitor, Year/2000 Journal, a bimonthly technical magazine that claims a circulation of 35,000. But its publisher, Bob Thomas, says the chances are only 50-50 that his magazine will continue beyond the year 2000--a question that depends on advertising dollars.
Wilson, in contrast, admits to no doubts about his magazine's long-term prospects. If his optimism is borne out, Y2K News will peak with 20,000 subscribers late this year and retain about 5,000 of them into the new millennium. The only dark cloud Wilson acknowledges is the doomsday view of some of his readers. If they're right about the next millennium, he says, chuckling, "I won't be able to get a magazine to anyone."
Brand equity at last
Hitching a brand to global extravaganzas like the Olympics or the Super Bowl is, of course, a periodic marketing rite reserved almost entirely for heavyweight companies such as McDonald's or Anheuser-Busch.
The coming of the millennium is, arguably, a bigger deal.
Yet as far as brand advantage is concerned, that once-in-a-thousand-years event promises to unfold in a far more democratic fashion. Consider the avalanche of applications received by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to stake out claims on names containing millennium or 2,000. In 1997 there were 1,061 such trademark applications. For just the first six months of 1998, the total was 762.
Some of the players are corporate big shots, but plenty of entrepreneurs are jockeying for trademarks like Millennium BioTherapeutics and Billennium. "A lot of companies have been set up to try to capitalize on the millennium," says Glenn Gundersen, a partner at the law firm of Dechert Price & Rhoads, in Philadelphia.
The rush for millennial trademarks has been so frenzied that some letters have been lost along the way. Active and pending trademarks include "Millenium 2000 Collectables," "Millenium Ale," and "Millenium Protective Gear."
Y2K start-ups: a sampler
Cashing in on the year 2000 brouhaha
START-UP: Y2K Foods of BL Farms, Flippin, Ark.
OPENED: January 1998
BUSINESS: Distributes storable foods
START-UP: Peace of Mind Essentials, Darby, Mont.
OPENED: February 1997
BUSINESS: Supplies food, medicine, and counseling
START-UP: Y2K Home Consultants, Washington Crossing, Pa.
OPENED: February 1998
BUSINESS: Sells emergency-preparedness kits
START-UP: Y2K Solutions Group Inc., Chapel Hill, N.C.
OPENED: January 1998
BUSINESS: Produces educational videos
START-UP: Countdown Clocks, Garden City, N.Y.
OPENED: February 1997
BUSINESS: Sells millennial clocks
START-UP: Y2K Women, Colleyville, Tex.
OPENED: June 1998
BUSINESS: Provides Y2K information for women
Apocalypse now: survivalist companies reborn
The story of B&A Products, a company founded nearly seven years ago by Byron Kirkwood and his wife, Annie, is intertwined with the coming millennium. But for a long time nobody seemed to care much about what the year 2000 would bring.
Marketing by catalog and the Web, as well as at their store in Bunch, Okla., the Kirkwoods pitch products like water filters and first-aid kits to survivalists preparing for global disaster. The eventuality of such a disaster in the next millennium is forecast in Annie's best-selling book, Mary's Message to the World, in which she claims to have had conversations with the mother of Jesus. The Kirkwoods say they created B&A Products to market the book and eventually diversified into other goods in response to readers who clamored for advice on preparing for disaster. But before 1998, the company's sales never topped $150,000; now business is booming. In June of last year alone the Kirkwoods racked up $50,000 in revenues.
The advent of the next millennium is proving to be a windfall for many small companies like B&A Products that depend on the survivalist trade. As perhaps never before, survivalists are preparing for feared disasters. Some of them predict that widespread disruptions in modern amenities such as electricity and telephone service will arise from the Y2K computer problem; others foresee religiously ordained cataclysms. If the picture for next year looks dark to survivalists, at the moment it looks bright for businesses catering to them.
Another beneficiary is Chuck White, owner of American Harvest Foods, based in Santa Clarita, Calif. The company cans and packages dry foodstuffs for distribution to some 200 survivalist-oriented stores, and more than 90% have signed on with American Harvest in the past two years, White says. In 1998 the company's revenues ballooned to $6 million, a 10-fold increase over 1997's sales.