F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company has had several owners since David Nussbaum joined the company as CEO in 2008, but he said that Tinicum LP, which purchased a majority stake F+W in May, is the first owner to see the company as a strategic investment. Tinicum has stakes in other media companies and, according to Nussbaum, is prepared to supply F+W with resources to upgrade its infrastructure and make more acquisitions.
Not that other owners didn’t support Nussbaum’s efforts to grow F+W. In the six years he has been at the helm, the number of F+W employees has increased from 500 to nearly 1,000, due to a combination of organic growth and acquisitions. Among the bigger purchases made under Nussbaum were those of the Martha Pullen Company, Aspire Media, and New Track Media. In addition to growing the company through acquisitions, the CEO shifted F+W’s focus away from being what used to be referred to as an “enthusiast publisher” of books and magazines toward building communities around niche categories such as crafts, art, writing, design, and the outdoors.
Of all changes Nussbaum has made in his tenure, the decision to invest in the e-commerce space and grow F+W’s online stores is the most important. “That investment was critical,” he said. “It enabled us to utilize our databases to build our business.” (This change was one of the factors that led F+W to rename the company F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company earlier this spring. The name “is somewhat aspirational,” Nussbaum said, acknowledging that most people still refer to the firm simply as F+W.)
The company’s 31 e-commerce shops generated about $60 million in 2013 and drew 20 million visitors. While F+W executives use “lots of metrics” to help run the online stores, Nussbaum said the data primarily helps them to “better understand our customers needs.” For instance, he explained, the data revealed that the number of shoppers crossing over between verticals was less than F+W expected—a development that convinced the company that it needed to move deeper into its communities and build up the quality and quantity of the items it offers customers, rather than expanding aggressively into new areas. One attempt to add content to its communities involved selling books from other publishers in its e-commerce stores, but that experiment didn’t work out as planned, and now the company focuses on selling its own materials. “Our books are best for our customers,” Nussbaum said, noting that F+W can make more money selling its own content than it can selling content from outside companies. The attempt to sell other companies’ books was part of the CEO’s commitment to business experimentation. “‘We’ll take some risks and fail forward if that’s what happens,” he said.
Crafts is F+W’s largest community and accounts for about 55% of the company’s total revenue, Nussbaum said, followed by art. Measured by channel, e-commerce and events have been F+W’s fastest-growing areas: the online stores now account for about 27% of total revenue, and the company hosts about 100 conferences annually. “The more the world becomes tied together by technology, the more people feel the need to meet and network in person,” the CEO said. In the book industry, F+W is best known for hosting Digital Book World, which is its second largest conference, topped only by the How Design Live event.
While F+W delivers content in lots of different formats, books remain critical to its business. The company publishes about 600 frontlist titles annually and has a total backlist of about 5,000 titles. Nussbaum said that when signing authors, F+W editors point to the company’s ability to deliver targeted audiences for their books, place the authors at different events, and help them create ancillary products. Whatever form the content takes, Nussbaum said, the primary objective of F+W is “to deliver information that will help people better themselves.”