The Tyee | Lululemon

No. 9: The Tyee

No. 9: The Tyee

You could trace David Beers’s decision to start The Tyee website – B.C.’s groundbreaking online news magazine – back to October 15, 2001. That’s the day he was fired from his column-writing gig at the Vancouver Sun. Or you could, alternatively, go back another five years – to 1996, when Beers interviewed the Sun’s then-editor-in-chief, John Cruickshank, for a Vancouver Magazine Q&A and asked him rather provocatively, “Why have Vancouver’s newspapers been so lousy for so long?”

Within two years of that interview, Cruickshank had Beers working at the newspaper – first as a part-time editor, then as launch editor of the paper’s now-defunct Mix arts section and finally as chief features editor. In 2000 Cruickshank left for Chicago and Beers was moved to the opinion pages by Cruickshank’s replacement, Neil Reynolds (the man who would ultimately fire him for being too outspoken). But the question remained: why are our papers so lousy? Rather than try to find an answer, Beers set out, shortly after getting the axe, to develop an alternative business model. “My idea was simple: get rid of the trucks, the printing press, the heavy reliance on advertising and focus on giving writers the space to do good work,” says the Silicon Valley native five-plus years after launching The Tyee ( While the “alternative press” was among the first media to go online, Beers was committed to hiring professional, traditional journalists for his new site – and to pay them. “And that,” he says pointedly of his $100,000-plus freelance editorial budget, “is not alternative.”

With its tight regional focus and growing B.C. readership (up 77 per cent in the past two years to about 175,000 unique visitors a month), The Tyee has quickly become an influential media voice. There are currently 6,000 ISP addresses associated with the provincial government on the site’s visitor log, Beers notes, while The Tyee has been nominated for a Jack Webster (the province’s top journalism award) and seen its stories picked up by mainstream media across the country. The University of Pennsylvania’s respected Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a 2006 report on the challenges facing traditional journalism, cited The Tyee as an innovative model for the future.

But The Tyee’s biggest innovation, according to Mary Lynn Young, director of UBC’s School of Journalism, is the diversity of its donor rolls. In the U.S., she observes, there are several philanthropy-funded news organizations that have started up in recent years, including the site from former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. But in Canada, Beers has been ahead of the curve. The Tyee, which launched in November 2003 with $190,000 from the B.C. Federation of Labour and the labour-affiliated Working Enterprises Group, has broadened its funding base to include a variety of non-labour angel investors (such as medical software developer Eric Peterson), foundations and readers (who raised $50,000 in two separate journalism fellowship drives), as well as a modest amount of advertising revenue (now 20 per cent of The Tyee’s $600,000 annual budget).

“In Canada The Tyee is at the cutting edge,” says Young. “As the mainstream media changes and has less money for quality journalism, people like Dave and The Tyee can really fill a niche and solve a problem. They’ll only have the opportunity to grow.”

No. 10: Lululemon Athletica

Some of us would rather it had never left the studio. But there’s no denying that Chip Wilson’s yogawear-as-fashion concept is one of the biggest retailing innovations ever to come out of B.C. Launched with one Kitsilano store in November 2000, Lululemon now counts more than 100 stores around the world, with the Lululemon-clad rump ubiquitous on city streets from Vancouver to Houston, Texas, to Perth, Australia. “They brought the West Coast lifestyle concept – outdoorsy, spiritual, comfortable – to the world,” says one of our expert panellists.

The original innovation was a technical one. Back when Wilson founded Lululemon in 1998, yoga clothing was dominated by heavy-duty cotton and polyester blends. Not ideal for the rigours of yoga, Wilson thought – and so he set about investigating various materials that could improve both functionality and fit. Today the company’s proprietary fabrics make their way into a variety of athletic and casual gear, with brittle boomers replacing bendy yoga fiends as the brand’s big buyers. Apparel makers Phillips-Van Heusen, Roots, Nike and La Senza have since jumped on the yogawear bandwagon, while knock-off brands, with omega-like logos, abound on the black market.

For many observers, what continues to be innovative about Lululemon is its grassroots approach to marketing. The company partners with local “ambassadors” – yogis, marathoners, cyclists and dancers – to test products and solicit design feedback. And before entering a market, the company sends employees out to meet with yoga instructors and take classes at their studios – helping to build a relationship with these key influencers, while at the same time showing off Lululemon’s goods. “Lululemon stores become the go-to place in the community,” notes Credit Suisse analyst Paul Lejuez in a 2008 investor report. “If women want to learn about yoga, where they can take classes, what they should be doing to stay fit – Lululemon really becomes the go-to place for that.”