Combining his passion for motorcycles with his desire for an independent lifestyle, Rob Harris took the Canada Moto Guide from a limited-run print magazine, starting in 1994 as the Toronto Motorcycle Guide, to one of the leading online motorcycle publications in Canada.
Soon after launch, Mr. Harris found a strategic partner in the form of an insurance broker, Clarkson Insurance, which wanted to provide a value-added service to its clients by way of free copies of the guide. The sponsorship worked well until the owner sold the business in 1998, and the new owners discontinued the deal.
A few months earlier, Mr. Harris had been approached by Patrick Shelston, a young and enthusiastic reader, motorcyclist and IT specialist, with the idea of taking the magazine online. Once the sponsorship deal ended, and with the offer of free help, Mr. Harris decided to cease printing in April, 1998, and went online only. He realized significant savings in printing and distribution costs, but changing to a new medium posed a challenge in terms of selling advertising.
Mr. Harris soon realized the motorcycle industry, which does not like change, was not in tune with the new medium. He faced an uphill battle to figure out how to convince major players to support CMG. With his future on the line, Mr. Harris had to devise a strategy to make his business sustainable.
As a young man growing up in Britain, Mr. Harris struggled to find his calling. One thing he knew was that he had a passionate for motorcycles, which led him, in 1988, to register in a one-year motorcycle mechanics program in London.
Mr. Harris graduated with top honours and he started working at a motorcycle shop. After few months, he realized the environment was not challenging enough and he was not using his skills to the fullest by replacing brake pads and doing tune-ups.
To advance, he enrolled in a four-year co-op automotive engineering program at Coventry University in Britain in 1990. As part of the move he joined a kit-car manufacturer for a nine-month co-op. Unfortunately, soon after he joined, the company went bankrupt.
With no placement in hand, Mr. Harris decided to check out overseas options, he landed in Canada with a one-year work permit in 1991, and he found employment at a motorcycle shop in Toronto. A year later, he went back to Britain to complete the automotive engineering degree and, soon after, returned to Toronto to rejoin his placement company.
Despite his qualifications and passion for motorcycles, he found that being a mechanic was not challenging enough. He then came up with the idea to start a motorcycle magazine, which would marry his technical skills with his British comedic side and his passion for riding.
Britain was saturated with motorcycle magazines, so he found Canada to be a market full of opportunity and promise. The first issue of the magazine was printed with a pink cover to make it stand out.
After the move online, Mr. Harris relocated to Montreal in 2002, and then to Sackville, N.B., in 2010. All he needed was an Internet connection. He moved to Sackville to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle, take advantage of cheaper real estate and provide a better environment for raising his children. A print magazine would have required his presence in a big urban centre.
Mr. Harris realized he would have to educate customers about the online space, and present advertisers with a solid business case. But first, he had to educate himself.
This task was made more difficult by the conservative nature of the motorcycle industry. Mr. Harris decided that, instead of the standard Internet approach of selling ads based on number of impressions, it would be better to duplicate the print format of selling an ad by size and frequency to help bridge the medium gap.
Ads were sold as quarter, half and full pagers, and by the month. The more ads sold, the fewer impressions each of them received, but the approach worked by providing the advertisers with a concept they could grasp. After a few years, advertiser became more web savvy, Mr. Harris moved to the cost-per-thousand-impressions metric (CPM) model. A few advertisers were unsure what it meant, but Mr. Harris took the time and effort to educate and bring them on board.
The online model has been successful, partly because costs were significantly reduced. And Mr. Harris’s trail-blazing evangelism to educate the motorcycle industry on the benefits of online advertising and convince them to accept it as a marketing medium paid off.
Ad revenue started to trickle in, allowing him to grow enough to support him and several part-time staff. Major motorcycle companies such as Honda and Harley Davidson signed on to provide much-needed financial support. Mr. Harris still finds it difficult to attract motorcycle shops and allied businesses, despite the fact his online ads can be geo-targeted to a specific province or region of the country to save costs.
The online magazine has more than 40,000 unique users per month. It has one full-time employee, one part-time employee and a stable of writers.
It has recently developed a French-language version . Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr. Harris is also in the process of developing an app, which is being produced with commerce and computer science students at Mount Allison University, as well as introducing a new buyer’s guide and a touring section, which will allow riders to share their favourite rides across the country.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Nauman Farooqi is a professor and head of the department of commerce in the Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies of Mount Allison University .
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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