On Wednesday 4th April, founder of SUITCASE Magazine, Serena Guen, joined us for a breakfast talk at Dishoom.
Serena is perhaps best known for women's travel magazine SUITCASE, which she founded while completing her final year at university. Today the magazine boasts a readership in over 35 countries in both digital and print format; its successful transition into a digital age is a testament to Serena's work ethic and business savvy that keeps her one step ahead of the curve.
In conversation with YCN's Ella Reynolds over breakfast at Dishoom's Carnaby Street eatery, Serena shared the challenges encountered while establishing herself in the competitive world of print, her inspirations, big breaks and setbacks, and plans for the future.
Here's what we learned.
Intrigued to know more about the origins of SUITCASE, we first heard about Serena’s inspiration as a student at NYU: her Global Liberal Studies course involved two years of study abroad in Paris and it was during an Experiential Learning project there that she first launched women’s travel magazine SUITCASE. She described her experiences of trying to navigate a new city with the limited, existing travel guides that took her “either to the Eiffel Tower or to touristy restaurants” and how she “hated Paris” based on this early “superficial experience.”
Serena soon began to befriend locals who provided in-the-know recommendations that she added to an increasingly comprehensive list – a list that she began distributing to friends and which became, according Serena, “a better guide to Paris than any of those that were on the market.” She told us how, thanks to frequent travelling and an international university experience, she began lists for various other locations, and became known amongst her friends and family for her travel-savvy guides.
Identifying a gap in the market, and seeing a change in “how people are travelling now”, Serena decided, with youthful naivety and entrepreneurialism, to create a carefully curated and designed travel guide, in hybrid book-magazine format, to be published quarterly, in keeping with themes like ‘design’, ‘rhythm’,’ islands’ and ‘art’.
"Print is dead"
Although aware that “everyone says print is dead”, Serena was convinced of the value of a physical product: “we did a survey and 98% said they would prefer print.” Meanwhile, suitcasemag.com has been built up from “just a landing page for the brand” to a sleek, user-friendly website that attracts over a million users, who spend up to 40% more time engaged on the site than on the average UK online publication, Serena points out. Her “anti-clickbait” approach is in keeping with the magazine’s “escape”, “coffee table” aesthetic: beautiful photography and clean, consistent typography accompany quality content that people might be prepared to pay for.
Serena acknowledged that it’s just not viable to “put up a paywall” but that the “super-engaged” nature of SUITCASE’s contributors and readership means membership is a direction in which the brand is headed. Not giving too much away, Serena hints at plans for a digital city guide tool, fitted with bespoke recommendations and plenty of potential for increased creativity and interactivity within the SUITCASE community.
Serena’s success seems somewhat seamless; how did a student with no publishing experience or connections pull off the successful launch of an independent magazine with an international audience? In Serena’s words, she made “plenty of mistakes.” There were technical issues – problems with a graphic designer who Serena discovered had been producing the layout on Powerpoint instead of InDesign, which required a complete overhaul five days before the launch – then there were the difficulties of working remotely, with Serena in Paris and her team in London.
Her “second biggest mistake”, Serena said, was “not trusting my instincts and hiring someone for their CV rather than their personality”, resulting in a “huge culture clash”: “I’ll never do that again.” She raises an interesting point about workplace culture and the importance of a harmonious team, where trust and honesty are key. A particularly brutal bout of food poisoning brought on in the Philippines (“Don’t let that put you off, it’s so beautiful! Just don’t drink the tap water.”) put Serena out of action for over six weeks, in which time she came to realise the value of her team, and that “you can’t do everything”. She says she sources her contributors by contacting writers and photographers whose work she admires, sifting through the many emails SUITCASE are sent by prospective freelance writers, or through chance encounters with fellow travellers, explorers and tourism board representatives.
Taking time off gave her a moment to reflect, and to look at the bigger picture: “it was so nice. At the beginning everything is about survival - you don’t have time to think about one, two, three years away. Making the subsequent transition to CEO allowed Serena to have “a more holistic perspective” on SUITCASE’s mission and values, although there are always drawbacks: “I don’t get to travel as much as I’d like.”
These days, much of Serena’s work revolves around fundraising – both finances for the magazine and from a philanthropic angle. Having worked with Unicef for a while, Serena told us how she had wanted to do something in response to the Syrian refugee crisis that was flooding the news to the extent that “people were becoming switched off to it”. Her vision to “connect people with Syrian culture” led to a Syrian cuisine-themed dinner party where her “extremely well-connected” friend and London’s top instagrammer food critic Clerkenwell Boy got the likes of Angela Hartnett, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi involved. The dinner party was such a phenomenal success, raising over £50k and giving birth to the #CookForSyria hashtag, that Serena saw an opportunity for the Cook for Syria Cookbook, a collection of Syrian inspired recipes from famous and award-winning chefs that topped the Amazon bestseller list. The cause has, so far, raised over half a million for Unicef, and a second book, Bake for Syria, is on its way.
So where does Serena Guen get her sense of ambition? A supportive family, she says, has been so important to her. She cites her brother, owner of his own production company, as an inspiration – “seeing him do so well spurs me on” – and her grandmother, who “worked in fashion all her life” until deciding to return to school (“aged 75!”) to “do a neuroscience pHD and become the world’s leading expert in Psychological Trauma”, proving that “it’s never too late to start a new career.”
In a Q&A session, Serena was asked about her biggest challenges, and the things she wishes she had known at the outset of SUITCASE. The answer always came down to “numbers”: “I wish I had had more of an idea of the finances. At the beginning of SUITCASE I was running the accounts guerrilla-style. [...] It probably would have been more profitable early on with more careful finances.” She added, part of “recognising my strengths and weaknesses” meant hiring a “numbers person... preferably a strict one”.
Serena then spoke about the importance of adapting to sudden growth and success, describing moments at which she has been forced to confront the scale of the project. Her surprise, for example, at the amount of press SUITCASE received after its first couple of issues, and her decision to pause for six months, despite the warnings of everyone around her, to reflect and ensure the product was of a high enough quality to warrant all the attention it was receiving: “you’re told you’ll lose momentum”.
The second realisation, she said, was when it came to hiring a salesperson. “I’m not a natural” she said, of selling advertising space. “I prefer to go with someone else and play good cop to their bad cop.” It comes as a surprise when Serena describes herself as “naturally quite shy”, and tells us that confidence is something she has had to learn as she goes. “Confidence in the product is key - you can’t sell to advertisers if you don’t believe in your own product.” The same applies to rejection. Serena described how she has learnt that “No” can be constructive: “you can learn from ‘no’, ask ‘why’ and get feedback.”
The Q&A session ended with members grilling Serena on her top tips and picks for travel. Favourite place? Impossible to choose, but Serena has returned to Rajasthan, India, four times since her first experience of Diwali there: “it’s so easy to make friends!”. Most remote location? “Definitely the North Pole.” Next destination? “The Philippines… inexpensive and beautiful. And Bergen, Norway, the rainiest place in the world and two hours from all the fjords. Awesome.”
All photography David Townhill.
See future panels, workshops and roundtables on this topic and more, in the Learning Programme here.