Behind the Curtain of STAB Magazine w / Sam McIntosh


Sam & Son. Photo: GA

Sam McIntosh grew up inland in a small town called Casino. He learned to surf on the north coast of NSW, around Byron Bay and Evans Head, and used to work doing paper runs when he was young. When he turned 13, his parents bought The Pacific Hotel in Yamba, a move that changed his life forever, and one that fuelled his fledging love affair with the ocean.

Sam also loves charging big waves, something he’s done for a some time with good mate Mark Mathews. And thats put him right in the zone with the worlds best surfers. To run a successful magazine and online platform that engages the best in the business, you have to walk the walk, and indeed he has.., and still does. Sam also poured over every surf mag he could when he was young and after producing a learn to surf book with Taj Burrow, he hatched the idea of starting his own publication with Derek Reilly.

In the beginning the magazine polarised – it was so different to every other title that went before it and many didn’t know how to take it – and many also predicted it’s downfall in those formative years. Fast forward over a decade and STAB has not only survived, but flourished, innovated and pioneered through the up’s and downs that the industry has gone through and by embracing the digital era has lead the way the for others to follow. It quickly become the magazine that kids wanted to be featured in, and despite some of the vitriol thrown around through its online forums, it never seemed to deter the stars. Their early concept shoots was what set them apart (read about the latest iteration – The Makings of The Dock here) and along with projects like Little Weeds and Stab in the Dark the media business has established itself as one of the market leaders in the space.

The title was acquired by Surfstitch in 2015 and the parent company has had its fair share of turbulence to negotiate in recent times.

The Business of Surf has always been curious about how life might look from the inside for STAB, now that it’s under the wing of a publicly listed company. We asked Sam a few questions about the journey, the acquistion, the digital space and the separation between him and Derek Reilly. Did we get more than we bargained for? Maybe, but our mission is to always to get under the surface a little, and indeed thats what we got – a candid and transparent response from Sam McIntosh.

Q. You grew up in Gods Country up in Yamba.  Where are you living now?

I currently live in California but all these years, Yamba still feels like home. Deceitfully, my home address on my license is still Pacific Hotel, 18 Pilot St Yamba.

Q. The STAB journey would have been a wild ride. Looking back… has it been everything you guys envisioned when you made the decision to start a new mag?

When we launched other Australian surf titles said we’d last three issues. They were almost right. We made some silly mistakes and have learned some hard lessons. We’ve been lucky. We launched when the surf industry was buoyant, invested in digital and social at the right time despite almost beaching ourselves a few times.

You never really know where things will take you but I never thought surfers would be called athletes and never ever thought our biggest competitors would soon be trillion-dollar companies.

Google and Facebook are hella good businesses and affecting us as much Amazon is changing the way the surf industry do business.

Q. Was an acquisition something you ever thought about along the way?

Liquidity events are rare. And, you are only a target when things are good and you’re least looking to sell. And we weren’t. So, for all of those reasons Tom and I jumped at it.

Q. Although it’s been a little while, how have things changed for you under the new ownership?

SurfStitch was always a big partner of ours and, strangely, we do less business with them now than we did prior to acquisition. It didn’t change much at all ‘cept for helping us fund a few projects we were passionate about. Projects like Remember Ricardo and Stab in the Dark.

I feel we’re taught to think corporations are evil and similarly there’s a collective “industry”. But there is no industry, it’s just a group of people doing their thing.

Q.  Aside from a whomp of cash, what has Surfstitch brought to the business? And what as STAB brought to SurfStitch? 

They brought some great process and also brought some red tape because of being a publicly-listed company. Stab had been private for over a decade, essentially operating in a closed loop. The change taught us all a lot. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It’s been amazing to have a front row seat to machinations of the stock market as well. Like gambling on beige heats in surfing, it’s fascinating watching how market dynamics can outclass performance when you have cash on the line.

Q. What is your day to day involvement with the business now?

I was very hands on at SurfStitch straight out the gates, working on the strategy of how the different parts work together and how to make sense of very different businesses. This clip was one of the things we took to market and presented this And, the Julian boardshort featured was a best seller for Hurley and there wasn’t a single logo in Stab in the Dark.

When the CEO Justin Cameron departed, so did this strategy. Day to day now I’m hands on at Stab. I still do all of the big concept shoots, deal with the surfers and then run the commercial side of the biz in the US. And, trying to wage the daily pursuit in the battle against mediocrity.

Q. Surfstitch has been in the headlines a lot in recent times – has this affected the STAB brand in anyway?

As how most businesses operate, when a leader changes, invariably does the strategy. We were initially part of a larger ecosystem but we’ve been operating in isolation for some time now.

Q. STAB identified the digital space early and in many ways pioneered the path for others to follow. Has that been the key to your success?

Interestingly, we had a real print and social media focus more than digital. Tom Bird (who later became my business partner) had just started with Stab and he was running the commercial side of the business. He kept asking for a new Stab site build. I was reluctant to write a six figure cheque for an extensive build while the surf industry was experiencing the pains of the GFC. He threatened to leave without it. So we put a lot of time into the build and it fuelled our growth, in Australia and then surprisingly in the US. Little Weeds was a turning point also. We uncovered a whole creative sub culture around surfing and these guys have grown up with us.

Q. From the outside, it seems you have been able to strike the balance between print and digital..are they working well side by side?

It’s simple. Use digital revenue to recoup print costs. Display advertising will continue to decline across the board. We’ve been lucky to come up with events, short films and different ways to help our partners reach their goals (and put some cash in the till).

More than print v digital argument, I think we’re approaching a place whereby the user will need to pay for quality media because the advertising model in media is getting more difficult. And, I’m talking well beyond our surf bubble.

Perhaps a small price-per-read that exists like Apple music or Netflix model that allows you to buy individual article reads. Your details are logged and it’s like buying a track on iTunes, without ever having to plug in your CC details. Rather than needing subscriptions to five different media outlets, you pay as you go. Because of their monumental success, the best tech companies (Apple, Google, FB) outbid the best engineering talent leaving industries like media without the best minds. The best digital media solution we’ve got currently is the monthly subscriptions model and it’s not great. A change in the revenue model for media is needed fast otherwise there’ll be a lot more tombstones.

Q. How do you respond to the statement that ‘Print is Dead’?

It has a heart rate the sits at the same beats-per-minute as vinyl records, film photography and taxis. They’re a nice to have but they don’t solve problems like they once did.

Feb 17 Print Cover

Q. So then, in this digital age, can a stand alone print magazine still be profitable? 

In an inspired form but very rarely. They are a beautiful, expensive and cumbersome way to deliver words and photos.

Q. It’s generally known that print adspend from brands have declined dramatically over the last few years.  How has STAB managed this declining stream of revenue?

More coffee table book than periodical, basically. Revenue from sales at a higher retail.

Q. Can you give us any insights into the digital world of engagement?  How does a business, brand or individual get meaningful reach and engagement these days?

By solving a problem. By standing for something. By being remarkable. A simple principle for most business really.

In surfing terms, perhaps best likened to surf photography. That is a homogenised occupation and many surf photographers struggle to make good incomes as the scarcity of good photogs decreases. But, there are noteworthy guys who buck this trend. Their strategy is incredibly narrow and they are successful for it. These are the not the best photographers in the world but they stand for something. Clark Little, Eugene Tan and Ryan Miller. Clark only shoots shorebreaks and his signature boardshort sales for Hurley outclass John John’s. Eugene shoots mostly Bondi but it also happens to be the world’s most famous beach. And, Ryan Miller is a production line of speed, quality and consistency with the best surfers in the world. These guys are living proof of owning a niche.

Q. You and Derek Rielly started the mag and Derek peeled out prior to the acquisition. What were the circumstances around the split up?

Derek has always been a lifestyle guy and hated the stress of business, the anxiety of cash washing in and out with the tide. He’s more risk averse than myself, felt trapped, and wanted a figure to get out. I couldn’t convince him to stay, so I paid him the $200k cash he wanted. That was 2007, three years after we launched the first issue. He stayed on the next few years exclusively as print editor while working part time on a variety of start-ups.

I went hard at digital, building a new site and a platform called Little Weeds. The timing of his departure was perfect. The control over digital and social were also good ways to mend the commercial relationships that were falling apart because of the way we were treating people. Which also meant I had less fires to put out and there is nothing more important in our business than relationships.

Eight years after Derek had sold his equity in the business, Stab was acquired by SurfStitch.

The vocal post-acquisition “I-sold-out-before-the-riches blues” are very much ill-informed, as are – while we’re setting the record straight – Derek’s involvement in our concept shoots. He’s tagged along to craft words for a couple of shoots but for 14 years, I’ve been trying to convince surfers and sponsors that these ideas can work and I’ve made it my mission to do exactly that.

Q. Are you and him still mates? Theres often a few digs at STAB via Beachgrit but is it all fair in love and war?

I approached Derek when these stories started appearing and told him I thought it was more damaging to him than me. But the stories continued. So I called him. I said: “We talked about this. You know it’s a shitty look in business talking about your ex, yeah?”

We always had a rule not to trash talk competitors on Stab and it served us so well.” And we made a deal. I said you will never read a negative word about you or your business ever on Stab – you have my word. It’s far classier for us both.” And I’ve stood by that.

The stories about Stab whirred back to life almost immediately, however, and it hasn’t really stopped since. So it’d be strange if I were close to someone whose biz was publishing so many stories about my business so, no, we’re definitely not friends. It’s pathetic, it really is.

This is a gifted writer, brilliant even, 50 years old, getting giddy with his little biz partner mate, poking holes in the business he used to own on a public forum. This is part of the foundation for his last big swing in business! And validation doesn’t come in commercial success but when other veteran surf writers like Nick Carroll roll in to throw punches! Think about that objectively for a second: a 30-year career writing about surfing and you’re fixated not on the world tour, or commerce, or the environment or John John but the business you sold a decade ago!

Q. STAB has an office in the USA? Tell us a bit about the positioning and plans for that market?

We are happy with the size of our audience so we’re not looking for growth. It’s more about deepening the connection. Our strategy is now what we’re currently doing: round-the-clock reporting, concept shoots like The Dock, Culture Shifters, and Stab in the Dark. And, more real life events where we’re connecting with our audience. We had 2500 people to our Stab in the Dark premiere with Dane Reynolds in NYC last year and planning something bigger this year.

Then we offset it with little intimate shows like the one we did with Jake from Vice recently. We will also give our readers the chance to ride all of the Stab in the Dark boards this year as well. We have an incredibly loyal reader so we want to do more money-can’t-buy experiences with them. Why can’t a reader come along for Stab in the Dark? Or even shape an entry? Or ride the dock alongside the Volcom team? We want to change the way we think, the ol’ 100 delighted customers rule.

Dane – Stab in the dark.

Q. Are you still the eternal grommet chasing swells around the world?

I’m lucky to still get good waves. Namibia last year was a highlight for me and I do love getting to Fiji for a quick hitout. I just had four days of really good surf in Salina Cruz and am currently en route to the Ments to shoot Stab in the Dark. My surf partner for a long time has always been Mark Mathews, so with him being injured I haven’t had as many last minute call-ups. Which has been nice to surf some less dramatic waves.

Sam rides the Donkey. Image by Alan van Gysen

Shipsterns. Photo: Chiz

Q.  In a perfect world, where would STAB be in the next 3 – 5 years?

I would like to see all of us lose our reliance on Facebook and Google but think it will be unlikely. These businesses are changing quickly so we’re not rigid in where we think the business can take. I want to improve personalisation. We have thousands upon thousands of stories that would appeal to our reader that are deep in the ether. For example, we had our biggest ever days of traffic with The Dock recently, how can serve other concept shoots without saying “You Might Also like”? Creating daily content is like having a newborn but there are smarter ways to do it and I want to work with our team to develop those.

We will also continue to create white-labelled creative work for partners in the coastal lifestyle space using the Stab team but devoid of branding. We want to continue on doing our Stab concept shoots and doing things that surprise people. Features like Remember Ricardo, Stab in the Dark, About Town, Thank you Andy and The Dock more often. Vice’s model is inspiring, the way they opened up new distribution channels while remaining true to what they stand for. We already have our films on Air NZ flights (plus working on some more airlines) and also on a new AT&T’s Spectrum channel in the US as well. These deals will allow us to invest more in stories we want to tell.

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*The Business of Surf loves telling stories. While it may not always agree with or endorse the views of of everyone it interviews, we are passionate about encouraging an open and transparent platform for them to tell their stories.