Her Campus: Three Harvard students do online fashion, with style

As journalists and business-minded folk scramble to solve the media crisis, three 21-year old women believe they have created a working model for online content--which makes sense, given that they come from the same school where Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook.

After winning Harvard's i3 Innovation Challenge last year, Stephanie Kaplan, Windsor Hanger and Annie Wang landed on Inc.'s 30 Under 30 for their entrepreneurial efforts. And it seems they aren't the only ones who believe they have hit on something big with their online fashion and lifestyle magazine, Her Campus.

"The future of media really is online," said Kaplan. "The benefit of being online is that you can do something many things online that you can't do with print: You can publish more frequently; you can react really quickly to what readers are interested in and what they aren't; you can individualize your content."

Kaplan, Hanger and Wang met as students while they were all working on Harvard's fashion and lifestyle magazine, Freeze, during the 2007-2008 school year. Kaplan was editor-in-chief, Hanger was executive editor and Wang was creative director. The women decided to transition the magazine from an annual print publication to an online operation.

"Once we published online, it was really well received," Kaplan told Money College. "We were getting readers from all over -- not just from Harvard, but students from all from different schools were reading this and saying, 'I wish there was something like this at my school. My school just has a newspaper.'"

Not only did they have an engaged student readership, but businesses were also receptive to working with them because of the advertising market they were reaching. "We started to recognize that there was a need here that was not being met that could be addressed on a more broader, national scale," said Kaplan.

The Harvard i3 Innovation Challenge gives awards of at least $10,000 for the winning commercial start-up so when the competition came around, the women decided to create a business plan for an online magazine. Kaplan says the competition forced them to flesh out ideas and consider every detail.

"We stressed in the business plan that what was unique about Her Campus is that you have national content supplemented by local content from branches all over the country so that you can target content to the reader and that the reader can get a personalized experience on the site," Kaplan said. "The business model from the back-end is to use online content as a marketing platform to connect advertisers to college students across the country."

Though Kaplan, Hanger and Wang have no formal business training, their idea struck a chord and earned them the top spot in the competition. The women spent the Summer of 2009 crammed into a small New York City apartment with no air conditioning. They juggled full-time internships with launching Her Campus -- all in close quarters. Kaplan calls the experience "a real balancing act."

Balancing starting a business with school, internships and work is no easy feat. After winning the competition though, they were given office space at Harvard. "Rather than trying to squeeze in our work during any free moment in our dorm room, we could schedule hours to go into the office," said Kaplan. "It was a way to separate it. In college, it's so easy to just sort of let everything flow into one."

These days, Kaplan and Hanger have graduated and are working on the site full-time. Wang will start her senior year in the fall. Her Campus will celebrate its one year anniversary in mid-September.

They have maintained their focus on national content supplemented with local personalized content. Although Kaplan says the numbers are always in flux, the site works with 40 writers on national content and 500 writers on 50 campus branches across the country.

Kaplan serves as editor-in-chief of the national site, but each campus branch has their own editor responsible for uploading and editing the local content. Though she says their approach to launching campus branches has been reactive rather than proactive, that will be changing. Kaplan aims to expand strategically into major sports schools and the Ivy League schools.

As Her Campus continues to grow, Kaplan has some advice for other young entrepreneurs. "You have to pick something that you are 100 percent completely passionate about," she said. "It's great to be your own boss, but its also means that no one is making you do anything."

A solid partnership can help in the motivation process. Kaplan says her partners recognize each others strengths and divide tasks accordingly.

Kaplan says the plan now is to look for partnerships with major's women's magazines and increase the number of campus branches. Students looking to get involved with Her Campus can look for calls for writers posted on Ed2010.

Clothes to Free, appearing Thursdays, is a weekly fashion-on-a-budget column by Money College blogger Alysse Dalessandro. Send Alysse column tips at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

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