What began as the producer of investment newsletters – a natural starting point given founder Andrew Griffiths’ background as a business journalist – is now an international publisher of specialist sports titles.
Griffiths, who played rugby and football as a schoolboy but makes no claims about his own sporting prowess, now oversees a stable of nearly a dozen sporting and fitness magazines and newsletters. He explains the shift in focus from investment newsletters in the early 2000s: “The obvious thing was to get out of investment because it’s so cyclical. We did really well in the dotcom era up to 2000, but in the crash afterwards, it became clear to me, I wanted to find something more stable and in many ways it was serendipity. A friend of mine was head of rugby at a private school; we were chatting and I said what I really wanted was to apply the model of subscription marketing to a more stable environment.
Move into sports coaching
“As a test, we said ‘why don’t we try one that’s in sports coaching?’. Initially we tried one aimed at teachers who had to teach sports they didn’t know anything about, covering a lot of sports, like rugby, hockey and cricket. That didn’t do very well, so we focused on rugby, which is what my colleague Dan knew about, and Rugby Coach was started in 2003. Once that had really proved itself, that was the cue to sell the investment newsletter and then move into the much bigger area of soccer.”
Soccer Coach Weekly launched in 2007, the Footy4kids website was acquired in 2009, and Elite Soccer launched a year later, in partnership with the League Managers Association. Since then, expansion has continued, with Basketball Coach Weekly launching in 2011. Griffiths says the appetite for coaching help for amateurs – usually parents who volunteer to help with their own children’s teams - is huge. “It’s still a very new area that not many people have addressed. You need teaching skills and sport-specific skills as well. Most of these dads, if they’ve played, they don’t really have any experience of coaching, and dads around the world are looking for this stuff.”
Green Star’s business model is based on paid subscriptions, driven by traffic generated by free products. About 70 per cent of revenue comes from paid subscriptions, with the remainder from ancillary products, such as book-style manuals and DVDs. The US accounts for 25 per cent of sales, and the company is also big in other English-speaking, sports focused nations, such as New Zealand. “That’s the beauty of being able to sell in the way that we do, which is by email,” Griffiths says. “The model is to give free content by email and then, by definition, you’ve got the ability to be able to communicate with people regularly and up-sell to a subscription product. With pay-per-click, we’re able to get someone in the US or South Africa or 80 different countries that have coaches interested in our products; it’s the same marketing cost to reach them as the guy up the road in Surrey.”
The ability to reach overseas readers via the internet is what makes the business work commercially; in the days before online, Griffiths says, it just wouldn’t have added up. The UK market for each sport isn’t big enough to sustain the cost of producing editorial, and the marketing costs pre-email would have been prohibitive. At the same time, though, digital media does give consumers the opportunity to draw on a plethora of free, competing resources. “There is lots that’s free,” Griffiths concedes. “But what we do is convenient - we send you a weekly email and tell you your stuff’s ready.” Green Star, he says, also filters and curates the best information, and is reliable. Having coached his own son in rugby, he knows the limitations of free resources. “It’s quite a challenge to find something new every week from YouTube, whereas what we do is say ‘it’s all here for you’.” To add value, Green Star is also looking at producing more videos and running webinars in which expertise is delivered live to subscribers.
The fact that the business is UK-based is seen as a plus for overseas readers, Griffiths says. “We’re regarded as the home of these sports, soccer in particular, and coaches in the US like the idea of learning soccer coaching expertise from UK-based sources.” Elite Soccer, produced under a license agreement with the League Managers Association and providing monthly training plans of some of the English league’s top managers, is especially strong in the US.
Even New Zealand rugby enthusiasts are willing to learn from Brits. “You’d be surprised; the sort of people who are our typical subscribers are open-minded and they’re always looking for new ideas. They may have a teaching role and be supplying other people with ideas, and our material’s quite handy for that. Generally, we’re not really aiming at professional coaches, we’re not going to teach them very much, but some of the amateur ones and some of the teaching fraternity are keen on using it as a tool.” There is no British legacy in basketball, however, and Basketball Coach Weekly has an American editor.
While geographical hurdles are easily jumped, language barriers are a far more complex challenge, Griffiths says. One of the company’s best-selling rugby coaching books has been released in French, but pitching other products in French, Spanish or Portuguese – which would open up huge new markets – is difficult, he says. Green Star would not only need to translate its content but also the persuasive email marketing on which the business model relies to drive conversion from free to premium products, and this would add significantly to costs. Licensing agreements would probably make more sense Griffiths says, though none is yet in place.
Green Star has also found social media a challenge; the company’s brands have online communities and use Facebook and Google Plus, but these are used by only a small proportion of consumers and bring in very little revenue. At the same time, publication on Apple’s Newsstand, which began two years ago, is “washing its face”, but not much more. “I’m still a believer in it,” says Griffiths, “but we’re not really making any money from it – we’re just about covering our costs and the initial growth, which was very exciting in 2013, just plateaued. I think a lot of publishers found the same thing; it’s not the revenue stream we’d hoped it would be given the reach it’s supposed to have.”
Expansion plans are, for now, focused on launching and acquiring new products that either attract new subscribers or drive traffic to existing ones. “We have a model where we convert people to subscribers. If we persuade 100 people to take free stuff and we can communicate with them, 5 per cent convert. In terms of the traffic, if you keep your conversion rate the same and increase the traffic, that’s where the growth is,” Griffiths says.
In June 2014, Green Star bought Peak Performance, a research newsletter into endurance, and Sports Injury Bulletin, both from Electric Word, which said they were no longer a core part of their business. Content from the new products can be cross-sold across existing titles, and traffic used to drive subscriptions across the range.
“We don’t have any advertising revenue,” says Griffiths. “That’s been our strategy from the very beginning. I’m not saying we haven’t tried to sell advertising – it comes in now and again, but it’s not part of our strategy. I’m not religiously opposed to it but I find in a small business, if you rely on it, it’s more than likely not going to be there next year. Particularly these days, there are so many opportunities for advertisers to spend their money on something other than the printed page or the digital page. I’m much more comfortable with our current revenue model, where I know I’m going to get 70 per cent of this year’s subscription revenue next year, virtually guaranteed.”
In May 2014, venture capital trust Chrysalis VCT took a stake in the company and provided loan finance to fund expansion. The plan is to make further acquisitions and switch special-interest consumer titles to a subscription-oriented business model that can attract readers internationally.
“We think we’ve got a model we can apply not just to sport and sports performance but potentially to other special interest groups – people who are interested in how-to information on their main hobby and might want to buy other things.” The subject matter could be as varied as model railways, keeping koi carp or running a smallholding. “We’re looking at small-ish magazines. Our strength is being able to do better on subscriptions in the UK and internationally, and not basing the model on advertising.”
The business is growing; turnover was up 13 per cent last year, and Griffiths is confident that acquisitions fuelled by the injection of funds from Chrysalis will drive significant expansion and “quite aggressive growth” over the coming five years. “We’ll be significantly bigger than we are.”
Company launched in 1995
Managing director: Andrew Griffiths
Chairman: Trevor Goul-Wheeker
Publications include: Footy4kids, Soccer Coach Weekly, Peak Performance and Sports Injury Bulletin
Newest product: EasiCoach Rugby Curriculum, launched in September 2014
Number of staff: 14 full time and a roster of about 20 freelancers
Turnover in 2013: £1.7 million