Innovation, Learning, And Hong Kong7 July, 2016 / Articles
Partway up the International Finance Center, Hong Kong’s second-tallest building with a view of the bustling ferry piers, is where we had chosen to meet. His spectacles, perfectly round and totally rimless, bore more than a slight resemblance to those of the late Steve Jobs, though his sneakers, a fresh pair of black Adidas Ultra Boosts, served as a stark reminder of the man before me. I had come to learn about HYPEBEAST, one of the world’s foremost authorities on streetwear and street culture, and before me stood its spry founder and CEO, Kevin Ma.
Ma’s story is a well-known one here in Hong Kong. A self-professed sneakerhead, he devoured everything to do with sneakers and streetwear while studying at the University of British Columbia in the early 2000s. As media shifted online, though, Ma’s search for a reliable online source for the same news came up short. Instead, he decided to create an outlet himself and call it HYPEBEAST, a slightly sarcastic play on the term for someone who gets caught up in a product’s hype in lieu of being a true fan.
That was eleven years ago, and things have changed a lot since the site launched in 2005. The proliferation of Web 2.0 has made high-frequency blogs like HYPEBEAST a natural method of content distribution, while the parallel rise of social media has allowed brands to reach audiences they never would’ve accessed before, both of which have benefited the perennially forward-looking HYPEBEAST greatly. Still, even after building up such a powerhouse brand that turns heads around the world, Ma and his team aren’t shy to step outside of what their loyal HYPEBEAST readers expect. “We’ve always been experimenting with different things, and if they fail, we just shut them down,” he says resolutely. With that experimental mindset in hand, HYPEBEAST often jumps at the chance to surprise its readers with something new.
That was certainly the case when the first issue of HYPEBEAST Magazine, the company’s inaugural leap into physical print, was released. Its cover, a single image paired with four small content headers along the top-left, displays a grayscale side profile of Kris Van Assche, the artistic director of Dior Homme. Van Assche’s high fashion aesthetic, though well-respected in his industry, is noticeably a few steps away from the streetwear feel that HYPEBEAST has become known for. When readers voiced their confusion about where the brand was headed, Ma listened intently but didn’t change his position. “HYPEBEAST represents whatever we feel looks cool, feels cool, and is interesting in the world,” he says, referencing his editorial team, adding, “And we try our best to push forward the ideas that we really believe in.”
Hidden within that statement may just be the ticket to HYPEBEAST’s success. Yes, the company has always had one ear to the ground to stay in touch with its readers’ interests, but it certainly hasn’t got to where it is today without breaking the rules. It’s HYPEBEAST’s constant experimentation, its uncompromising long-term vision, and a propensity to think outside-the-box that has brought the company from Ma’s bedroom to an IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange earlier this year. And when you sit down with the man behind it all – the astute Quora advocate who finds a way to work the phrase, “If you don’t innovate, you’re obsolete,” into casual conversation – the fact that the company has been profitable from the start is not surprising.
Being based in Hong Kong is no fluke, either. Much of the world’s streetwear culture has roots in Japan, so Ma touts HYPEBEAST’s relative proximity in Hong Kong as a critical component of keeping abreast with the newest trends. Yet perhaps more importantly is the city’s position as the gateway to China, a title only Hong Kong can lay claim to. Major international brands generally spend at least a bit of time in Hong Kong when visiting their Chinese factories, which makes opportunities like brand collaborations happen much more organically. Still, Ma is aware that being based in any individual city isn’t enough to capture trends developing across the entire globe, which is why HYPEBEAST works with in-the-know contributors scattered just about everywhere. “We want a global pulse on what’s happening in the world, and you can’t do that from one location.”
This global presence has certainly catalyzed HYPEBEAST’s ability to adapt quickly to prevailing international trends, which keeps it ahead of other less flexible media outlets. Yet with more than a decade’s worth of listening and learning under its belt, HYPEBEAST is also getting better at recognizing the times when taking a nontraditional path will be the right one; listen to your users, but don’t be afraid to follow your vision when you know something they don’t.
“We’ve always been focused on what we’re doing,” Ma remarks, “But at the end of the day, creating good content is the key.” When you see it that way, perhaps it’s more than just his taste in eyewear that Ma shares with Jobs, after all.