Kate Bezar rejected all the rules of business and made up her own rules about publishing to create the ‘mook’ — a magazine/book hybrid that’s as inspirational as its subject matter. By Kris Herbert
Photograph by Phillip Simpson
Former management consultant Kate Bezar abandoned all that she knew about bottom lines and profitability when she created the publication Dumbo feather, pass it on.
Instead of KPIs and cashflow forecasts, Bezar made every decision based on a list of personal values. And even after the stress and tears, Bezar still believes that if you do something really well, the money will follow.
Bezar chose the management consultant role, moved to Melbourne and made the most of the great salary and extensive travel. A few years later, and after relocating to Sydney, Bezar started questioning her future.
“I wanted to find that thing I was passionate about, that didn’t feel like work and was a true extension of who I was. Consulting only used a certain side of me, which was analytical and quite good with numbers, the side that was good at chemistry as well. But there was this whole other side that loved art. I volunteered at art galleries on the weekends to get my fix. I love design and I love reading great writing. That to me was all the fun stuff but I had this job that only used the side of me that was fairly boring.”
Bezar took six months unpaid leave to travel, and then another six. She did courses in architecture and art curation. She considered becoming a yacht designer. But nothing sang true so she returned to Sydney and freelance consulting.
“I was on this search to find my calling in life. I went into a newsagent one night because I wanted to read about people who had found what they were passionate about, how they had done that and how they had gone about making it work for them. But all the mags seemed to be about the output rather than the input. So it was about the house rather than the architect, about the clothes rather than the designer, or about the food rather than the chef. I wanted to know about the nitty-gritty, the highs and lows. I guess I wanted something to encourage me not to want more stuff but to want more out of life.
“I walked out empty-handed but knew what I wanted to do. I was going to create a magazine for people like me because I believed there must be other people out there who felt the same way.”
She went home and wrote down her vision. And then she made it happen.
“I knew that no business was rocket science. It came back to core principles, so the fact that I knew nothing about publishing wasn’t off-putting to me at all. I’m sure my naivety—as is often the case — helped. And I just went about learning what made it tick.”
Bezar registered a company and after a classic gestation period of nine months, put out the first issue. Dumbo feather, pass it on is unique in the publishing world. Bezar calls it a ‘mook’—half magazine, half book. Each issue features the stories of five inspiring people, told in their own words.
“In my journey, I realised that I wasn’t going to love anything that wasn’t perfectly aligned to my values as a person so I really laid out what my values were and what I wanted the values of the magazine to be. They were things like authenticity, respect, excellence, beauty. They drove every single decision I made, so, for example, respect was about respect for the environment and respect for readers. Respect for the environment meant it had to be printed on 100-percent recycled stock and printed in the most low-impact way possible. Respect for readers meant that I never wanted to dumb down content.
“Authenticity meant that I wanted to write the real story—not the PR version—and that’s why I ended up with the format I did. They are verbatim interviews without a journalist putting a spin on the story. It is just, in their own words, what really happened and how they’ve done what they’ve done.”
The authenticity value also led Bezar to use matt, uncoated stock, while the aim for intimacy drove the decision to make the format slightly smaller than A4, and backed up the verbatim style that makes readers feel like they’re sitting in on a conversation.
“The whole process was values-driven as much as anything else and I think that’s why the result ended up quite different to anything else that was out there at the time,” says Bezar.
There were, of course, naysayers. “Eventually I just stopped asking people who were in the industry. They didn’t understand where I was coming from at all and had no point of reference, so of course they couldn’t see that it might work.”
And it did work, despite the fact that ‘profitable’ did not feature in Bezar’s early list of requirements. “Making money was very low on my priority list; in fact, far too low. I think when I left consulting, I was so disillusioned with business and its pure bottom-line focus that I almost took everything I knew in a business sense and locked it in the cupboard and didn’t look at it for a very long time. It definitely didn’t come into how I designed the magazine. I truly believed that if I made a product that resonated with people on a very deep, fundamental level that the money side would just take care of itself, and I still believe that’s true.
“I don’t believe in making an average product and spending millions marketing it so that people buy it. I’d rather spend millions making a great product and then let it sell itself because it’s a great product.”
Dumbo feather gradually started making money, with cashflow buoyed by its high subscription rate (around 33 percent). But it didn’t come easy. “It’s been bloody hard. I talk about it gradually making money but I’ve been on fairly lengthy credit terms with my printers at times, and I’ve had awful meetings with financial controllers, begging to print another issue and promising that the money would come. I’ve lain in my bath with classical music and candles, crying and wondering how I was going to get through the next week. And it’s always been about money, you know, the hard times. There’s never been anything else that’s been hard.”
Building dreams in the landscape of commercial reality requires guts, perseverance and faith. “I think there’s a point where sometimes you have to go, look, this isn’t working, or, if you still truly believe that it will, you just have to keep going. I think in your heart of hearts you know whether what you’ve got has got legs. You just do. From the first issue I put out, I suddenly got streams of emails saying thank you and don’t ever give up. One guy threatened to come round and kill my pot plants if I ever stopped publishing. I just know that it resonates with people enough to be able to make money.
“You’ve got to get the word out. It’s got to be able to reach people and that’s often the challenge. Word of mouth is a fantastic way and it’s free. It’s a slow-burn way of doing it but it’s far more sustainable because it’s not reliant on a huge amount of marketing steam to keep stimulating the demand.”
For businesses like hers, Bezar says the curve to become successful is shallower and longer. “But then once it kicks, it does. I think getting through that shallow, long part of the curve is the toughest bit.”
In late 2009, Bezar and husband Mark moved back to New Zealand (“This was where we always saw our future”), motivated by the impending arrival of the couple’s first child, Lachlan, who was born soon after they set up house on Waiheke Island.
By the wonders of the internet, Bezar is able to run Dumbo feather as easily from Waiheke as she did from Sydney, but fitting a magazine around motherhood is a very different challenge. She managed four issues around sleeps, feeds and late evenings at the computer before friend and long-time Dumbo feather fan Berry Liberman of Melbourne-based social enterprise investment company Small Giants approached with an offer to help.
Small Giants is now Dumbo feather’s new publishing partner. Bezar sold it a chunk of the magazine and it will invest capital to further develop the publication, particularly in the online and app spaces. Patrick Pittman has been hired as editor but Bezar will hold a sort of caretaker role and be involved with much of the decision-making. “It’s a really lovely position to be in, to have got it to the point where someone is interested to want to come in and I think they are going to take it and make it even better.”
Does she feel a bit like she’s giving up her baby? “No, it’s like seeing your baby crawl for the first time. It’s exciting. For it to have a bit more independence can only be healthy, I think. It got to the point where I actually was stifling its growth. I didn’t have resources—physically, financially, emotionally, energetically—to take it further.”
It is often the case with small businesses, built on the passion of one individual who can’t trust their vision to anyone else.
“I have been so guilty of that in the past,” Bezar says. “I was a horrific delegator—a control freak— and you end up becoming a bottleneck for everything, which is frustrating for the people you’re trying to work with. For me, having a baby was the catalyst I needed and it really just brought everything to a head. Maybe something quite fundamental does have to happen for people to realise that.”
So Dumbo feather is growing up. The pot plants are safe. And Bezar couldn’t be happier. “It’s all happened so smoothly. It feels like synchronicity at work. It just feels so, so right and it’s so nice when it feels like that.”