CAMBRIDGE — For Newton native Stephanie Kaplan and two of her closest undergraduate companions at Harvard University, Seventeen magazine is “too young,” while other female-targeted publications, like Glamour and Marie Claire, are “too old.”
Most notably, the three 20-year-olds feel there are no mainstream periodicals that focus explicitly on issues commonly shared by the country’s 9 million women enrolled in higher education – from joining a sorority to combating the ‘‘freshmen fifteen’’ to decoding what the text message sent from a guy you like “really meant” to trying to land a job in the post-commencement ‘‘real world.’’
So last summer, Kaplan, fellow senior Windsor Hanger, and junior Annie Wang began discussing ways to fill what they see as a void in today’s magazine industry; and now they’re set to launch the results of that initial brainstorming.
Today, HerCampus.com makes its debut as an online magazine and media company, which the trio describes as “a collegiette’s guide to life.”
“There really isn’t media out there that targets college women,” said Wang, the company’s website designer and creative director.
The site features six main sections – Style, Health, Love, DormLife, Career, and World – which will include content targeted to the broad audience of college women nationally. “My Campus” pages will individualize the site’s content college-by-college, beginning at Harvard and with the hope of eventually expanding to over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States.
“The best part of the whole process has been watching the ideas you have turn into a reality,” said Kaplan, co-founder, CEO and editor in chief, during an interview Tuesday.
“These are ideas we’ve been thinking about for so long,” added Hanger, president and publisher of Her Campus. “Part of what is great about running this is that we are the readership.”
In March, the three Harvard students along with senior Kelly Peeler, who has since left the group because of other commitments, were among several winners at the university’s business plan competition, the i3 Innovation Challenge, which received 50 entries.
The group said the competition proved to be a major challenge, but was also beneficial in starting the Web-based business because it required them to write comprehensive business plans, prepare presentations and drove them to consider things they otherwise might have overlooked.
“But we knew we were committed enough to this project that it was going to happen whether we won or not,” Hanger said.
Their successful finish in the competition also earned them the Harvard Student Agencies Investment Award provided them with some office space and other resources helpful in starting a business – including free coffee – for one academic year.
The students said they understand the challenge of starting a business in a struggling industry like journalism in the midst of a recession, but they also see reasons for optimism.
If Her Campus can draw in its targeted audience – college students, who spend over $230 billion annually yet as group can be difficult for advertisers to reach – the Harvard entrepreneurs hope to cash in on what will be their main revenue source: selling online advertisements.
Her Campus reached its first ad deal recently with Juicy Couture, a women’s clothing company.
Additionally, they plan to keep costs low by not going into print production and by not paying their writers, since many college journalists are happy to have the experience and see their work published.
“As female college journalists, we know how hard it is to get published nationally,” said Kaplan.
Running the company solely on the Web is not only more cost-efficient than a traditional print magazine, but also easier to update, more environmentally friendly and more appealing to their readers who are “on their laptops all of the time,” said Hanger.
“We bought a whiteboard at Staples and that was about our biggest cost so far,” said Kaplan.
The Harvard co-eds acknowledged there are other websites which attract a significant number of college women, but they said they won’t try to duplicate the type of content on those sites.
“People.com, for example, is the best source for celebrity gossip, so we won’t try to compete with that.” Kaplan said.
They said they plan to stick with the start-up for at least three years.
In May, when Kaplan and Hanger graduate, they hope the business will be successful enough to pay them each livable salaries. In the meantime, however, as students they will not need to rely on the site to feed themselves, so that gives them several months to try ideas and fewer risks.
And, the slow economy, they said, clears more room for entrepreneurial pursuits like their own.
“It’s still really scary though. There’s always risks,” said Hanger.
“I think the future is really transitioning online, and we hope to show how a magazine can do so successfully,” added Kaplan.
The three women worked on the board of “Freeze College Magazine,” a lifestyle and fashion magazine founded in 2005 which dropped its print version to run exclusively online in 2007.
As colleagues at “Freeze,” Kaplan, Hanger and Wang became friends, gained experience, and decided the magazine’s success at Harvard – including national recognition from a “Mr. Harvard Freshman” contest – could be expanded to other college campuses.
"I think the site is a great build on the work they've already been involved with and they created something I think will really reach their targeted audience," said Paul Bottino, co-founder and executive director of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, which co-sponsors the i3 Innovation Challenge.
After placing an ad over the summer, Her Campus received over 50 applications from students with prior internship experience who wanted to work as an unpaid correspondent for the site.
Of those 50, 20 college journalists from 18 schools across the country have been chosen so far, including writers locally at Wellesley College, Brandeis University in Waltham, and Emerson College in Boston, as well as from schools in Connecticut, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and California.
“We’re really seeking to highlight the best college journalists,” said Kaplan.
“It needs to be engaging, intelligent and really well written,” added Hanger.
And the entrepreneurial trio has experience and credentials, beyond being students at a top Ivy League school, to help choose and manage their staff.
Kaplan, a psychology major and economics minor, was editor in chief at “Freeze” and has interned at the American Society of Magazine Editors, “SELF” magazine, and at “Seventeen.”
Hanger, who is from North Carolina, is a history and science major with a minor in French. She was the executive editor at “Freeze” and was a marketing intern at Bloomingdale’s and an ad sales intern at “OK!” magazine.
Wang, who lives in Ohio, is majoring in fine arts with a minor in neurobiology and was the creative media producer at “Freeze” and interned at The Envisage Group, a leather goods product development and merchandising company.
“We got a really good sense of what we are each good at from working together at ‘Freeze’,” Kaplan said. “We had so much fun, we thought ‘why not do this as our jobs?’”
As an added measure, the three Her Campus founders bought and now own the domain name HisCampus.com.