Top 40 Under 40 alumn Mike Zouhri is no media baron, but compared to other publishers in Canada, he’s up there with the Aspers and Lord Black – at least as far as readership numbers go.
Through separate content-sharing deals with MSN’s international enclaves, Shavemagazine.com – ranked No. 3 when you Google “online men’s magazine” – potentially reaches between 60 and 75 million readers.
And it all started from Zouhri’s bedroom on an acreage located 30 minutes outside of Edmonton.
After his fourth year of university, the biology major and his friend, Abe Sabbagh, a computer engineering graduate, did what most 21-year-olds do in the summer: They got bored.
“We just started talking about the idea of having this magazine, just for fun,” Zouhri says.
They didn’t think it was a problem that neither had ever created a website. Zouhri accosted his friends to write, under pen names, pieces that related to their respective university studies – health stories for pharmacology students, and so on – and filled ShaveMagazine.com with unauthorized ads for luxury cars. They even showcased fake magazine covers on the site, advertising articles that only existed online.
In addition to lifestyle and entertainment news, most of the articles use scientific studies to sell tips to men. “That’s where I’ve directed it,” Zouhri says. “You have to grind out the studies so that anyone with a high-school diploma can understand it.”
One article called “Reading Her Body Language” says that when a woman is attracted to someone, her chest will flush and eyes will dilate – “I mean, that’s huge!” says Zouhri, who follows evolutionary psychology studies and “search engine optimization” trends with equal intensity.
Within a year, fake ads were replaced with real ones, and he could stop harassing friends to report, as amateur writers from around the world were begging for assignments to gain experience. But ever since Shave’s reach went from an already-impressive 30,000 per month to nearly the population of Egypt, these writers, though still unpaid, get to interview celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Death Cab for Cutie.
And that turning point was within a click of the trash bin.
“We get hundreds of spam emails a day,” he says. “We got this one that was like, ‘Hey I’m from MSN [Arabia], I’m the business development manager and, by the way none of my email or stuff lines up to Microsoft, but don’t worry it’s totally legit’ … Like no F’in way.”
The manager said he wanted to feature Shave’s content on MSN Arabia‘s news stream for a share of revenue, a deal it already had with BBC Arabic and Forbes. “My partner [Abe] forwarded the email to me only – only – so I can have a laugh at it.”
Zouhri did laugh, but then he did some research. The offer checked out and, 14 months later, he’s made similar deals with MSN India and MSN South Africa, while hashing out an agreement with dating sites Match.com and Chemistry.com.
The revenue he gets from content sharing and from increased direct traffic to Shave now justifies the near full-time hours Zouhri (who was honoured by Avenue Top 40 Under 40 for founding Action ALS, an organization for Lou Gehrig’s disease assistance) has spent on the site.
He’s since bought out Sabbagh. And, even though he has a working formula for online publishing, he still uses those fake covers, currently with supplied art of Hugh Jackman – to plug an interview that does exist, he’s quick to point out.
“It differentiates our online magazine from a blog,” he says. “We’ve tested it without the cover and it turns out it buys us more page views.”