Why Forbes has put under-30s at the heart of its global growth strategy

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Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Amid a surge of nationalism and anti-globalism across Europe, the media brand Forbes is fighting back by hosting celebrations of cross-border business and entrepreneurialism on the continent.

The global business publisher tells The Drum that it will bring its famous Under 30 franchise to Berlin to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall later this year. It will convene the symbolic four-day gathering of 1,000 young leaders in business to highlight Europe’s entrepreneurial culture and the strength of the free market. “Every single person was born into a world without a Berlin Wall,” says Randall Lane, Forbes chief content officer.

Next week Forbes will pitch up in Bratislava, Slovakia, to host its first Under 30 Summit Global Retreat, at which 300 young entrepreneurs from around the world will hear from prime ministers and leaders in sport and technology. Bratislava is seeking to position itself as a startup hub for central Europe.

Such events have become crucial to the century-old media business that is now majority-owned by the Hong Kong investment firm Integrated Whale Media Investments and bucked the trend in publishing by declaring a 42% uplift in annual profits in 2018, its best performance for more than a decade. The company makes its money from a combination of the print magazine, website, app, podcasts, video and live events.

The gatherings in Bratislava and Berlin are part of a major strategic push into Europe by the American-headquartered organisation, which has invested substantially in its London editorial operation in the past 18 months. Forbes produces 19 local language editions across Europe, under licences with publishing partners.

Its Under 30 sub-brand has become highly valuable as it has emerged as a badge of honour for millennial generation business leaders. The Under 30 list associates Forbes with the rising stars of business and convinces a wider young audience of the relevance of an old media brand that was created in 1917 by financial columnist BC Forbes and published by his family for generations.

Each of Forbes’s 40 global editions produces its own Under 30 list and the pool of ‘alumni’ has grown to 7,500 since the franchise was created in 2011. It includes the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel, entertainer Rita Ora and Spotify creator Daniel Ek. “It’s emerged worldwide as the first great credential for entrepreneurs and young leaders,” says Lane. “Every day, hundreds of people in university are saying ‘Someday I’m going to be on the Forbes Under 30’. It positions Forbes as a young brand that is right at the centre of innovation and new ideas.”

In the narrative of many of the new cadre of populist politicians, global capitalism and business greed are undermining the culture and economies of nation states. But Lane is adamant that national borders are regarded differently by digital native generations who have grown up with the connectivity of the world wide web.

“Young entrepreneurs don’t see borders,” says Lane. “When you design a video game or a piece of enterprise software they are all playing globally. These [Under 30] events are celebrations of the idea that great ideas deserve to go global.”

The concept of the free market is “core” to the Forbes mission. “Frankly for all of us to continue the prosperity that we have enjoyed over the last 50 years we need to foster that. So these [live events] are celebrations of cross-border collaboration and networking without regard for where somebody is from but with respect for their talent and their ideas.”

Although Forbes nakedly celebrates wealth and has a vertical on its website dedicated to “Billionaires”, Lane acknowledges the importance of social entrepreneurialism to young leaders. “Social entrepreneurship is an entire category in the Under 30s because the idea of solving global problems is incredibly important. It can’t just be I’m going to write some code and design a video game – everything has to be purposeful.”

When the Under 30 franchise visited Israel the young leaders worked with Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs to divine ways to improve the co-existence of the communities. In Bratislava, a hackathon will take place so that delegates can attempt to address social problems identified by the city. “Purpose is very important for millennials and Generation Z,” Lane says. ‘We want to be an event that leaves our host city better than we found it.”

Cities from around the world vie to host Forbes Under 30s events because of the kudos they bring. Last year’s inaugural European summit was held in Amsterdam. This year’s global flagship event will be in Detroit, which is seeking to overcome the collapse of its traditional industrial base with a new focus on startup culture. “What’s very important to us is that we are doing these events at places that are authentic to entrepreneurial culture,” says Lane.

Forbes works with commercial partners on these events, but only those who “add value” to the occasion, he says. “The partnerships have to be smart – it can’t just be putting up a sign. It’s incredibly powerful to get to people who are going to run every single field in every country for the next 50 years, all in one place. We are very selective about who we bring in.”

Europe still lags behind the US when it comes to young entrepreneurs, he argues, but the gap is closing. “I don’t think anybody would have said 10 years ago that Europe was anywhere near the States when it came to entrepreneurial culture, tech culture and startup culture, and that is rapidly changing and that’s why we are investing heavily in Europe.”

As an editorial hub for Europe, London is key to the strategy. Forbes’s acquisition of UK digital brand The Memo in February 2018 has led to the development of a 250-strong team of outside contributors overseen by Europe Editor Alex Wood (former editor-in-chief of The Memo).

Contributors include security specialist Zak Doffman, automotive journalist Neil Winton and Andrew Busby, who writes about the pressures facing the British High Street. “We have a couple of hundred people who are experts in their field writing from Europe about Europe,” says Lane. “That gives us the kind of reach that very few media organisations in Europe can match.”

Wood can also command the services of 100 Europe-based journalists working for local language editions. The London team has been further enhanced by the hiring of Iain Martin from Storyful, Sam Shead from Business Insider, David Dawkins from Spear’s and Sofia Lotto Persio from Pink News.

According to Lane, the secret for Forbes’s recent growth is its early recognition of the need to diversify its revenue streams. “It’s not overnight success. Many years ago [we had] the idea of diversification and the idea that we need to play in as many platforms as we can and put out great products, each one individualised and customised for the platform.”

The Under 30 franchise has been a pivotal element of that approach, helping to maintain the brand’s relevance. It has also led to the acquisition by Forbes of some startups featured in its lists, and has informed the running of the media business. “This is a perpetual project – we have teams always looking for the next big thing. You hear about ideas and people shaking things up and by osmosis it affects your thinking. It keeps all of us young.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell