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So What Do You Do, Michela O'Connor Abrams, President and Publisher of Dwell?

Championing the Dwell brand, this media entrepreneur fosters community in the design world

By Amanda Ernst - September 23, 2009
Michela O'Connor Abrams didn't mean to end up president and publisher of the successful design brand Dwell. After working for close to two decades in the magazine publishing industry, focusing mostly on high technology and business publications, she was first hired by Dwell founder Lara Hedberg Deam as a consultant. But once she became enamored by Hedberg Deam and her vision, O'Connor Abrams channeled her entrepreneurial spirit into crafting the brand and honing its focus on its community of design professionals and consumers. And she never looked back.

It's been more than seven years since she took on the role of president at San Francisco-based Dwell, and under her leadership, the company has grown from a magazine publisher into a multi-channel content provider, offering everything from home products to pre-fab houses to one the biggest design events in the U.S., Dwell on Design. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a new redesign of its Web site,, and joined forces with like-minded companies to form the Dwell Partner Network, which itself is a unique take on a traditional ad network. "Our creation of the Dwell Partner Network was not about developing an ad network," O'Connor Abrams said. "We wanted to promote a discussion about design and curate it."

O'Connor Abrams is quick to credit Hedberg Deam as the driving force behind the company and its ideals. But it's undoubtedly O'Connor Abrams' foresight and drive that has kept the company evolving and churning out new products, events and ideas, while using Hedburg Deam's original vision as the core value. "The stated mission on our original plan internally is, 'Bringing good design to everyone anywhere, anytime, any place and in any form,'" she said. "So it was our mission and our charter in 2002 to be successful on many different platforms."

Name: Michela O'Connor Abrams
Position: President and publisher of Dwell
Resume: Previously served as president of Imagine Media's Business Division and has held executive positions at IDG, Ziff-Davis and McGraw-Hill. Joined Dwell in January 2002 and was named president on Sept 4, 2002.
Birthdate: April 28
Hometown: San Francisco
Education: Degree in journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Marital status: Married 20 years on October 28
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "It changes every week. I usually start with the magazine first, but there are weeks I do business or the front page first."
Favorite TV show: House
Guilty pleasure: Wine
Last book read: Rules of Thumb by Alan Webber

How did you get involved with Dwell?
I was a consultant to Lara [Hedberg Deam, Dwell's founder] first, with really no intention of joining the company. I had just finished selling Imagine Media's flagship publication Business 2.0 to Time Warner, so the idea of doing another startup just sounded too painful. But I was completely taken by Lara the person and her down-to-earth integrity and her vision. Then she found out she was pregnant with twins in the summer of 2002. I agreed to join as president because she agreed that what we would build together would be a media company focused on a community of people, not a magazine with some ancillary products around it.

How did you build the Dwell community?
If I had learned anything from working at high-tech and business publications it was this: You serve a community, and you should endeavor to know everything about that community -- and I mean everything -- no matter what your topic is. Like what kind of running shoes they wear, and scotch they drink, and vacations they take, and where they take them, and what airline they like to fly, and cars they drive; the whole psychographic profile. And then and only then could you really understand how to attract a community and make the most of it on any number of platforms. So we literally drew the model into the business plan that had the Dwell community that we call design-seekers, who are professionals and consumers, in the middle.

"Especially in today's environment, every entrepreneur is doing a little of everything to make sure that his or her employees see that there is no standing on ceremony, no matter what your title is."

Besides Dwell magazine, what are some of the ways you provide content?
Well, we started with the magazine and until we could really take advantage of what the Internet allowed -- which was not re-purposing the magazine onto a Web site -- we used as a subscription engine. It delivered subscribers at full price at a pay-up that no other source of subscription drive ever delivered. Then two and a half years ago, we really launched, and then we introduced the full redesign that I'm most proud of earlier this year, along with the launch of the Dwell Partners Network. As we were working on the magazine and the Web site, we kept developing other platforms, like live events, products and television with the Fine Living channel. In 2005, we developed the Dwell on Design trade show. We wanted to realize the Dwell brand for this community of people on all those platforms. It was so important to me to do that because I had watched the consumer magazine model do so much the same thing. They would just lend their brand to an existing event to be a "media sponsor," which basically means you trade an ad for a booth or something.

Dwell on Design has become a big deal in the design community. What do you think of its success?
We started first in San Francisco, always with idea that we would eventually move it to the convention center in downtown L.A., I mean really take a risk and do it big. Of course, we couldn't predict the financial crisis, but we were determined not to be cowed by it in any way. We finished Dwell on Design 2009 in LA on June 27 with 15,200 people, making it the biggest design event in the West. We just don't have any international design event in this country like what Germany has in Cologne with the Imm furniture fair, or the French have with Maison & Objet, or the Italians have with Salone. So my intent is to have the global community that so reveres those events outside of the U.S., where fabulous new ideas and design happen, come to Dwell on Design in the U.S. If you do it right, you can move from Cologne in January, to Maison & Objet, then Salone and then come east. You can do ICFF, and then you continue to move west to Dwell on Design, which is more like visiting an incredible exhibition than it is going to a traditional trade show.

Over the years, Dwell has become a very unique brand. Do you think there is any category that it can fit into?
I think that there's a cultural category of magazines. I would put Wired and The New Yorker and maybe Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and The Economist in one category. While each of them has a different focus, each looks at culture through the lens of that focus. Dwell looks at culture through the lens of design. Our view is that design is decidedly not style; it's really a philosophy and a way of living. I really believe we have a sense of humor and we don't take ourselves too seriously, so there's not this iconoclast feeling in any way. Those magazines that I mentioned are still challenged in this economy, but I think that there's a solid future for them because of their points of view.

"I personally regard Condé Nast as probably one of the most envied and revered editorial houses in New York. I don't know how you get a business model so wrong. Closing Domino was not a good decision."

What does the job of president of Dwell Media entail?
There are 43 employees at Dwell that execute a magazine, the Web site, the Dwell Partner Network, Dwell on Design and the Dwell Homes collection of prefab [houses]. As president of the company, it is my job to make sure we are going in the right direction, and make sure that I have a plan about what the next three to five years will look like. It's also my job to be the external ambassador for the brand with our clients, our agencies, and even our readers. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at industry events, including the annual conferences of the Society of Interior Designers in various states and women's leadership conferences. I love doing that, so I'm doing it more and more. But to truly list everything that I do would take forever. I do a little of everything. I think, especially in today's environment, every entrepreneur is doing a little of everything to make sure that his or her employees see that there is no standing on ceremony, no matter what your title is. We all dig in and do whatever it takes to move forward.

While Dwell is launching all these new projects, other shelter and design magazines are really suffering in this economy. Earlier this year, for example, we saw Domino fold. How is Dwell surviving?
Since you brought up the name, let's talk about Domino. I just thought that was tragic. There was an amazing brand with vitality, with all of the kinds of assets and the ability to be on many different platforms like Dwell. It clearly had a rabid base. But what's so interesting to me is that between the folding of Domino and this summer's announcement by Condé Nast that they've hired McKinsey to come in and help advise and restructure the corporation, it is mystifying and troubling all at the same time. I personally regard Condé Nast as probably one of the most envied and revered editorial houses in New York. I don't know how you get a business model so wrong. Closing Domino was not a good decision.

Do you think magazines, especially those in Dwell's category, can survive the recession?
I do, but only if they are charging the right fee to the reader. I'm oversimplifying the problem in the industry, but honestly, I find it crazy that at the root of the problem is the fact that the industry banked so heavily on advertising dollars. Then, magazines had to drive their circulations to unnatural levels -- way beyond what a natural circ would be for their core communities -- in order to please an advertiser. In 2002, believe me, everybody in New York, all the agencies and clients, said to me, "Call me when your circulation is at a quarter million and call me again when you're at 500,000, and we'll work with you then." That has changed dramatically. I didn't give in to that, because I knew it was the wrong thing to do for our model. But the larger media companies did do that. And in order to maintain those circ levels, they did things like charge 50 cents an issue and $3.50 on the newsstand, so when advertising came down, there was nothing to rely on. We've actually been increasing our newsstand price so that we're now $5.99 on the newsstand. We have the luxury of not having to pump our circulation up past 325,000. The reason I believe that print will be here a long time is that we do have a lot of intelligent people in this industry who now realize the folly in chasing an ad base, and they're now cutting rate bases, as you see.

Amanda Ernst is editor of FishbowlNY.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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