Few people understand the challenges facing modern media better than Emma Perera. The daughter of the founder of Universal Magazines, Australia's largest niche publisher with 63 media titles under its name, Perera has spent decades observing the trials and tribulations of today's media companies.

But she's hardly just an observer. Perera is also poised to take over the family business thanks in no small part to her work as the Founder and CEO of Cosy PROJECT, an online crafting marketplace. Her innovative approach to new media is turning heads (don't be surprised if her name starts showing up on lists of inspiring entrepreneurs ) and lighting a path for other media companies struggling to balance print and digital initiatives. Here's how Perera has successfully tackled the challenges facing all new entrepreneurs --along with some of her insights for paving a new way forward in media.

From Legal to Digital

Perera didn't start out leading digital content initiatives, but her career has always focused on media in one way or another. She practiced media law for years before her father invited her to leave that profession and join the family business. "That was a really great foundation for meeting people, networking, and learning the key legal skills I've used throughout my career," she says.

This foundation paved the way for her transition to Universal Magazines, which her father founded 30 years ago. The third largest publisher in Australia, Universal Magazines has weathered the waves of unprecedented change that have been relentlessly striking the media industry for the past decade or so.

"For TV, radio, and newspapers to go through the changes they've gone through is phenomenal," says Perera. "Around the world, we're facing the same challenges in magazines and media . Circulation and monetization models are changing."

Because Perera entered the industry keenly aware of the challenges facing her family's business, she made it her mission to learn from the best about how to strategize around these challenges.

"That led me to Silicon Valley," she says. "When I arrived , I thought I'd be focused on ad tech and specific media products like advertising. But I got there and was blown away by the amount of startups [and the] growth in other spaces that could be valuable to publishers."

Perera was particularly struck by the advancements taking place in the world of e-learning. She found herself in awe of the democratization of educational content, access to quality teachers, and the ease of learning that comes with taking courses online. She also noticed that most of these courses centered around professional development--and that sparked an idea.

"Instead of learning for your employment, I really thought that people should be able to have access to learning for their hobbies," she says. "Outside of our work, this is what we're passionate about." And thus the idea for Cosy PROJECT was born.

It was an easy leap to focus Cosy PROJECT on crafting hobbies. Universal Magazines essentially owns the craft market in Australia. And they target a demographic that most digital platforms wouldn't see fit to engage with: aging, non-tech-savvy, and rural crafters. "Lots of people are not building tech products to service this market," says Perera. "They're the forgotten generation just because they're not on their iPads all the time. You don't immediately think of them as somebody you want to build a startup for, but they're hungry for content and knowledge."

Meanwhile, Perera identified that the craft market in Australia was starting to catch on among younger generations, much as it has in the U.S. This meant there were multiple demographics interested in consuming craft-related education. "One in five Americans is crafting, and the industry is worth $44 billion," says Perera. "It validates and makes me excited about how this business can grow."

So she and her team got to work. They started by creating 50 high-caliber online tutorials that run for one to three hours, are high-def, well scripted, and mapped out by expert teachers in front of the camera. (The company plans to release another 50 tutorials in the near future.) They also created 400 digital patterns with the help of more than 300 contributors. Another 800 patterns will be released in the next few months.

It was a massive investment, but Perera wouldn't have it any other way. "I didn't want to go to market with a poor offering," she says. "If you talk to niche groups and people who are passionate about something, as a publisher, you can't put crap out there. It's insulting to that group. They're buying this because they want quality content." What's more: "In craft, people like all different things. I wanted breadth of content that would excite people to come back."

Her plan worked. In its first three months, Cosy PROJECT had already become a global company, with 30 percent of its purchases coming from the U.S., 15 percent from the UK, and the rest from Australia. The project has proved so successful that Universal Magazines is now looking to build several startup-style businesses along the same model.

Lessons Learned

What does a young entrepreneur take away from these successes? Not surprisingly, quite a lot. Here are just a few of the lessons Perera has learned during her tenure to date at Universal Magazines.

Communication is essential

One of Perera's biggest lessons has centered around keeping different stakeholders engaged and interested. For example, she says, "When you're dealing with 300 designers whose content you're trying to work with in one way, everybody has different opinions. [As a leader], you have to move these diverse views together." A lot of this comes down to communication, she says. It's all about keeping people informed and taking them on the journey of which they're a part.

Data is key

When she was formulating the idea for Cosy PROJECT, Perera had to figure out how to successfully ask for funding in a struggling industry. "In the media industry, to ask for funding and investments is not easy," she says. "It's not as if we're in our heyday. In going to the board and saying "get behind this," I had to show them so much market research [to prove] that the demographic was worth investing in." To that end, Perera created several focus groups and mined as much data as possible pertaining to the promise of the craft market.

Employees matter

As the leader of a 150-person company, Perera has also learned a lot about cultivating a thriving workforce. She prioritizes maintaining healthy working hours so her team members are able to maintain a good work-life balance and don't burn out.

"When you're dealing with people with that kind of passion [for media]," you really want to look after and nurture that passion and not extinguish it," she says. "The worst thing media or creative industries can do is extinguish that passion in people, because they're the people that are making this content. I think it's really important that everybody's having fun at work and that we're all living interesting lives so that we can come in and write about it."

Mindfulness makes a difference

Finally, Perera has learned a lot about the importance of devoting the time to assess the state of your business and pursue multiple revenue streams. We take time to check the state of the leftovers in our fridge, the air pressure in our car's tires, and our sprinkler and home security systems , yet so many business leaders fail to take regular stock of where their company stands and where it might want to go moving forward.

"If you're in the wheel all the time, you can't see [where things stand and what opportunities might be available]," she says. "You have to look at what you have from different angles. That's what any business should do during times of change or disruption."

Perera will use these lessons as she winds her way through the company's succession plan over the next two years. "I'm really excited that I can have this experience," she says. "The team-leading skills and business management skills that I've learned now will be invaluable to what's ahead."

Published on: Jul 17, 2017
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