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While Ma, originally from Hong Kong, double majored in economics and psychology and eventually landed a job at a bank, he was also swept up in the culture of streetwear, surfing the web for sneaker blogs and paying premium postage for access to luxury print magazines from Japan. He chose the name Hypebeast, which was a derogatory term for a trend chaser, and created the site on Blogger in April of 2005 (but moved it to Wordpress shortly after). Ma's blog was a self-serving online journal; a place where he could document his interests in clothing, fashion, and more importantly, sneakers.
"There were lots of forums for sneakers enthusiasts, but everything was very Web 1.0," he told the Business of Fashion in 2011. "I used to check out tech and gadget blogs which were updating their information on a daily basis, so I thought ‘Why can't fashion be like this?'"
"I used to check out tech and gadget blogs which were updating their information on a daily basis, so I thought ‘Why can't fashion be like this?'"
Ma wrote some five posts a day and signed up for Google AdSense and several other affiliate link programs, in the hopes of seeing some profit for clicks. Much to his pleasant surprise, clicks did eventually translate into cash. Lots of cash. Six months after creating the site, he quit his job to focus solely on the blog. He was basically bringing in the same income as his bank salary.
Ma didn't realize he had created a goldmine until he was standing in line outside a store for a debut of new sneakers — as devoted sneakerheads do — a few months after creating the site and heard people talking about it.
"The guy in front of me said ‘Hey, did you read about this cool sneaker on Hypebeast?'" Ma told Forbes. "I kept quiet and nodded. At that point I knew Hypebeast had influence."
At this point, "influence" is an understatement. Hypebeast has grown into a lifestyle brand, with several different sites bringing in over 46 million pageviews a month. Last year, Hypebeast filed for initial public offering on Hong Kong's stock exchange and this past Monday the stocks were listed for the first time at 13 Hong Kong cents. According to Bloomberg, the company raised HK$65 million and now has a valuation of US$270 million; it's Asia's best performing debut stock of 2016.
To a sporadic reader like myself, who pokes around on the site every so often, or for people who know very little about the Hypebeast, or for those who have only heard about it just now, the same question beckons: How on earth did a creative blog about sneakers transform into a multi-million dollar brand that's now being traded on the stock market?
Since its inception, Hypebeast has been able to tap into a unique and engaged audience, an influential group with disposable income and digital sophistication. Its readership is predominantly male, ranging from ages 18 to 30, and according to Ma, the readers are "coming from high school, college, or those that graduated and just entered the workforce." In other words, the readers are looking to shop. Hypebeast's content is approachable yet smart, and from the get-go, has been educating shoppers about the ins and outs of men's fashion and culture.
Hypebeast developed a cult-following before the days of SEO. Ma says the blog spread solely through word of mouth and links on forums.
By focusing on sneakers and streetwear, Hypebeast capitalized on a niche within men's fashion that wasn't necessarily getting the same attention from publications like GQ or Details. While the term hypebeast is technically derogatory ("Sneakerheads who only rock hyped up shit to get props b/c they got no self worth or sense of style," goes the definition on Urban Dictionary), and Ma really only invoked the term to be cheeky ("Hypebeasts we know aboutchea, don't buy shoes unless they popula," goes Trinidad James's 2012 song "All Gold Everything"), the site helped solidify a culture of men who were proud of their expensive sweatshirt and sneaker collection. These days, the brand as 2.2 million likes on Facebook, 2.3 million followers on Instagram, and over 330,000 followers on Twitter.
Hypebeast developed a cult-following before the days of SEO. The blog intially spread solely through word of mouth and links on forums. Ma also credits American rapper Lupe Fiasco as one of the individuals who put his site on the map in the hip-hop world. Because of Fiasco's connections in music, Ma told Forbes, "artists such as Kanye West began blogging and tweeting about our site and even mentioned Hypebeast in one of his songs." Kanye even used to leave frequent comments on the site (now he's moved on to Twitter rants).
Of course, like many popular style blogs, Ma figured he'd have to expand his site's coverage in order to continue offering original content, and Hypebeast eventually branched out. In 2008, it launched Popbee, its women's fashion and beauty site targeting Asian countries, and in 2010 it rolled out Hypetrak, its music destination.
Today, all three sites go beyond sneakers and fashion and cover music, culture, art, design, lifestyle, and cars. In 2012, the brand also launched a print magazine that is purchasable from its website; these issues often sell out and end up being flipped on Ebay. Ma told Port Magazine in 2013 that his ambitions for his brand now go way beyond sneakers: "My goal is to educate people and tell them that there's amazing things happening around the world. It doesn't have to pertain to fashion, people can also learn about what's happening in different cultures as well," he said.
Much of Hypebeast's revenue, which helped the site get to the position of an IPO, comes from its ability to monetize — and monetize well. It has a healthy revenue stream from its advertising arm but in 2012, the company launched its digital store, HBX, which carries over 8,000 products from brands like Marni, Rick Owens, Adidas original, A.P.C., and Maison Kitsune. Although Hypebeast is headquartered in Hong Kong, 51 percent of its business comes from the U.S. According to Bloomberg, HBX helped bring in almost $99 million in revenue in 2015, and in 2013, Ma told BoF that 78 percent of its readers were buying merchandise off the site because they saw it on the blog first. This is clearly a sweet spot for readers: Why browse in retail stores when they can read about the latest and coolest products from their favorite designers and then buy it straight off the site?
In addition to its success in wrangling in profit, Hypebeast earned such an extensive database of readers that it's become synonymous with influence. As Fast Company noted in 2013, Hypebeast's "stamp of approval can help make or break an underground or indie brand trying to catch the attention of influencers or even savvy mainstream consumers."
Fashion brands have seen the effects too: in 2008, the site launched Hypebeast TV, where the site reviews products and conducts interview with influencers. Hypebeast TV also works with fashion brands like Diesel and Adidas, who want to leverage its cool by sponsoring integrated content. As the company stated in its IPO filing, "we possess a valuable brand name in the digital media industry that drives growth of our business and our position as a trendsetter in the field of fashion allows us to attract international brand owners for our advertising services and to supply their branded products to our e-commerce platform."
While Hypebeast was one of the first sites to jump into the now-crowded space of style blogs, its success can also be attributed to the rise of streetwear: "There has always been a [streetwear] community, but it has grown with technology," Ma told BoF's Lauren Sherman this week. "That's when it started to bloom. With social media, it's just natural that more and more people are interested in it."
While brands like Supreme, Stüssy, and A Bathing Ape were companies that appealed to a niche group of shoppers a few years ago, these days they are verging on mainstream and have paved the way for many other streetwear brands. And while the lines between streetwear and high fashion are now pretty blurry, with brands like Public School, Hood By Air, and Off-White invoking the aesthetic while using the price point (and retail space) of Net-a-Porter and Barneys, Hypebeast is the site that's been closely involved with the space all along — and remains the most reliable place to explore streetwear.
The streetwear category today is huge. In 2011, Reuters valued it at $60 billion; last year, a report by industry research company WeConnectFashion found that the market came close to $75 billion in the fiscal year of 2013. New companies dubbed as "streetwear" are constantly popping up — as the WeConnectFashion report aptly put it, "in a way, streetwear is like porn — we can't exactly define it, but we know it when we see it." There's Kayne's Yeezy and a company like Vetements, which is just one of the latest streetwear brands to enjoy buzz from all over the place. Not every site can do e-commerce — Lucky is a perfect example — but Hypebeast's IPO is a nod to how well its leveraged the space, and how powerful the streetwear category is.
Additional reporting by Nia Porter.