Originally published in Business Digest, June 1998

Market-Driven
Magazine

by Craig C. Bailey

Mobilia coverIn the world of collectibles, there are certainly stranger objects of desire than toy cars and models. Yet to flip through the pages of Middlebury's Mobilia magazine is to realize that any hobby taken to an extreme can seem a little bizarre to an outsider -- and that there truly is a magazine for every interest.

For nearly five years, publisher Eric H. Killorin, 43, has been serving a readership hungry for news about the hobby it loves, while providing advertisers a highly targeted conduit to a marketplace of readers looking to buy, sell and trade car collectibles or automobilia. Along the way he's fine-tuned his mission to better serve both, and in doing so has developed a publication that has fittingly become collectible itself.

Killorin was born into a "car nut family" in Andover, Mass. His late father, Karl, worked for Duesenberg and in that auto manufacturer's Indianapolis pit crew from 1929 to 1930 before becoming a real estate developer. His mother, Geneva, still resides in Andover. Over the years the elder Killorin owned several collector cars, including a 1923 Model A Duesenberg, which his son now owns and considers his favorite. "I was sort of born with a wrench in my mouth," he says.

Cars were an early passion, but they didn't became the younger Killorin's career until after a 16- year stint in the computer industry. He began working for International Data Corp., a computer market research firm in Framingham, Mass., after earning a master's degree in business administration from Merrimack College of North Andover in 1977. Three years later, he became a competitive analyst at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in Tewksbury, Mass., where he began publishing a monthly in-house newsletter devoted to data communications.

"As I was doing that I really got the itch to have my own business," he says. "I saw opportunities in publishing in the personal computer market, which was just forming." The result was PC Newswatch, a monthly, 48-page newsletter mailed to 1,200 business executives for $200 a year. With a new crop of magazines covering a flurry of activity in the burgeoning PC marketplace, Killorin's newsletter met the demand of busy executives by abstracting articles previously published elsewhere.

Started as a home-based moonlighting operation while Killorin worked at Digital -- "I was single at the time and had no life," he jokes -- he eventually hired an employee to handle circulation. "She'd go there and work in my apartment during the day, and I'd go to DEC," he says, "and I'd come home and work at night.

"Eventually by '84 I had to make a decision. I couldn't keep up both jobs, so I left DEC. And it was pretty scary."

Hyatt Research Corp., Killorin's corporate nomenclature derived from his middle name, had grown out of his home to rented space and a staff of three. PC Newswatch had become "extraordinarily successful" and the company started a second newsletter in late 1984. Devoted to local area networks and computer connectivity, Netline operated on the same model as PC Newswatch: It served a highly targeted readership of business people with advertising-free pages that could demand the premium of a high subscription price to remain profitable. Netline was available to subscribers for $400 a year.

Huge change in the computer industry was just around the corner.

"The personal computer market experienced a tremendous shakeout," in Killorin's words. The number of companies competing in the marketplace plummeted from upward of 150 to just a dozen. "There was a tremendous amount of news, but not enough to create the need for a reader's service to gather all that news," he says. "Thankfully we sort of saw that coming."

In 1985 Killorin, a striking figure at 6 feet, 4 inches, sold PC Newswatch to a California company, and three years later sold Netline to a Virginia firm. His reason was simple: "I just didn't want to be in the computer industry the rest of my life."

In September 1988, he married Elizabeth Boynton, a music teacher at an elementary school in Andover. They moved to a 12-acre property in Middlebury in May 1989 -- it reminded Killorin of Andover when he was growing up -- and had their first child, Andrew, the following year. They now have two more children: Abigail, 5, and Samuel, 2, who arrived home from the hospital in the 1950 Riley 2 1/2-litre saloon Killorin did in 1954.

"We had the financial freedom through the sale of the business to take some time off," Killorin says. He spent time his first years in Vermont buying and selling vintage cars before the notion of a publication devoted to car collectibles struck him in '91.

"The defining moment for Mobilia came when I went to the annual Hershey old car show," he says. That event held in Hershey, Pa., and sponsored by the Antique Automobile Club of America has become a mecca for car fans like Killorin. "I was amazed by the amount of collectibles," he says -- so much so that he began searching for automobilia news in car magazines to satisfy his own curiosity. When his quest turned up next to nothing, his entrepreneurial engine started to fire.

Mobilia debuted in July 1993, published and edited by Killorin out of his Middlebury home and mailed to fewer than 100 subscribers. Editor Tom Funk, 33, joined the staff within a year, originally as a free-lance editor/designer. With a bachelor of arts in English earned from Middlebury College in 1987, he had spent three years in New York City as production manager at The Overlook Press, a distributed line of Penguin Putnam Inc., before returning to Middlebury as managing director of Atrium Society, a children's publisher. Immediately before joining Killorin, he had toured Europe by bicycle with his future wife, Elizabeth Maher, a special educator at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro. "I was kind of out of step with the timbre of the magazine," he jokes of his nine-month pedal-powered trip.

Killorin, whose model collection numbers more than a hundred, originally envisioned Mobilia as fitting the same mold as his previous publications -- a highly targeted newsletter format sold at a premium with little or no advertising. Printed in black and white on ivory stock, the debut issue matched that vision in appearance: It had a dry, almost academic air. Killorin vastly underestimated the role ads would play in his new venture. "Our first issue had very strong advertising content," he says, "so the newsletter concept wasn't really valid."

Killorin and Funk spent the next few years tweaking the magazine as a result of market surveys and feedback from readers and advertisers. Within a year color appeared on the pages and within two years, Mobilia had evolved into a classic, glossy magazine.

The company moved out of Killorin's home and into 800 square feet of rented space in the Marbleworks Complex two years ago, just a stone's throw from Vermont Magazine's offices. Funk points out that "Middlebury enjoys a surprisingly large publishing community for a place its size." The town is also home to Soundview Executive Book Summary and Atrium Society.

Mobilia's latest incarnation was implemented in April. On the production end, the periodical moved away from the more elegant glossy "A" format and adopted a tabloid size printed on newspaper stock. It was a calculated response to the company's research that indicated readers wanted less of what Killorin and Funk call an "armchair read" worthy of careful contemplation and archival space on the bookshelf, and more of a buyer's guide that invited readers to scribble and tear, fold and highlight.

Editorially, the publication has started to focus on toys and models -- the segment that scored the highest among all automobilia in Mobilia market tests -- with a strong emphasis on buying, selling and trading. According to Funk, the magazine's initial market research estimated the automobilia market at $700 million a year in North America, a figure he estimates to be in excess of $1 billion in 1998.

Feature articles and the like have been reduced in favor of voluminous sections dense with data: The model buyer's guide, a yellow pages section compiled by model editor Justin Perdue, lists more than 18,000 models from Alfa Romero to Volkswagen and more than 200 suppliers; the auction and event price guide lists prices paid for automobilia at recent auctions; the classified ad section takes the magazine's "toy and model supermarket" subtitle literally.

"We didn't devote enough editorial to the main component of the readership, which was really the toy and model collector," Killorin explains. "It was like if Sports Illustrated treated underwater basket weaving at the same level as major league baseball. It would be a disaster.

"We recognized that for our magazine to be successful we had to change according to what we perceived the readership to want," he adds. "Sometimes it's more risky to stay the same."

Terry Allen, a Ferrisburgh entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor in Mobilia, lauds Killorin for having the vision and determination to make the change. "He's a sharp guy -- hard working," Allen offers. The former owner of County Data Corp. in Winooski was introduced to the publication when it was being run out of Killorin's home. "I was just amazed," Allen says, that a staff of two could publish such a quality magazine, so he invested even though he's not a collector of automobilia. "I guess it's a little strange not to be a car nut and to have invested in the company," he laughs.

A small pool of investors have anted up, with more money rolling from Killorin's garage: He sold his 1959 Aston Martin DB4 and his 1966 Jaguar XK-E Roadster to help fund Mobilia."

I'm definitely a fan of the publication," Allen says. "I think the new format's going to be a real winner."

The format change allowed Killorin to reduce the subscription price from $29 to $19.97 a year. More significant, it allowed him to reduce ad rates by 30 percent to a level more competitive with other newsletter style publications that offer lower production value at lower prices. "We were competing against newsletters with a beautiful color magazine, but we were trying to get beautiful color magazine ad rates," explains Funk with his effortless rolling tone that would seem at home on late-night FM radio. "It was a sticking point."

"We were getting tremendous resistance trying to sell ads even though we had a better product," confirms Killorin. "We bucked that trend for two years."

With the new rate, Killorin expects ad volume to triple by Christmas. The magazine recently hired a second sales person, and Killorin might hire a third by autumn.

He sees the increased ad volume as furthering the magazine's new mission of becoming the buyer's bible for automobilia. Funk goes a step further: "I almost wish we had introduced it as an advertising-only publication," he says. "In theory, but not in practice, I would love to obsolete myself."

Unlike Killorin, Funk came to the magazine without a car background. "We try a great deal to talk about car history," Funk offers, "so it tends to be a pretty fascinating subject even for the person who hasn't any exposure to it." He credits Mobilia's stock of writers -- which includes Dennis Adler of Automobile and Playboy fame, and Brock Yates of Car & Driver -- for bringing him up to speed. Mobilia boasts some celebrity subscribers as well: "The Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and "Raging Bull" inspiration Jake LaMotta, to name two.

Though the masthead lists more than two dozen contributors, all are free-lance writers. Mobilia's full-time staff numbers five. "Most magazines with this type of volume of information have a staff twice the size," stresses Killorin.

Numbers on the subscriber side are at 12,000. Taking the magazine's pass-along readership into consideration, Killorin says he's confident readership is more than 50,000. Furthermore, the number of subscribers who have elected to pay considerably more to receive the magazine via first class mail recently quadrupled within a month to approximately 300. Killorin believes it's proof of the immediacy of the new format's pricing data.

Mobilia has put the Internet, perhaps the most immediate medium next to broadcasting, to work for three years. Developed and maintained in-house by Funk, the Mobilia website (www.mobilia.com) consists mostly of classified ads and a list of model suppliers. Providing users a way to follow up their research by making a purchase is the next logical step. Killorin hopes by the end of the year the site will provide visitors a way to purchase toys and models online. "We're still working on the concept," he says.