WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Deb Wyatt Fellows – Never tell her ‘it can’t be done’

“One woman has enthusiasm for 30 minutes, another for 30 days, but it is the woman who has it for 30 years who makes a success of her life.” — Edward B. Butler (adapted)

TRAVERSE CITY- After 20 years as founder and editor-in-chief of TRAVERSE, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, Deb Wyatt Fellows still resonates with the enthusiasm she had when she was 21 and fresh out of Albion College.

At that time, Fellows worked in Chicago for engineering trade magazines dealing with water and sewage works. She put her talent to work and learned the publishing process, but her heart wasn’t in Chicago. In 1980, magazines were published in New York and surviving in Los Angeles, but neither tugged at her heartstrings like the Leelanau County area where she had spent her growing-up summers.

Together with her friend Deb Haines Hawkins, she reasoned, “The Traverse City area absolutely deserves a beautiful presentation of all that it is and offers.”

Their business plan called for $75,000 to start up a regional magazine. (The naysayers would insist they needed $500,000.) So, the two young English majors set out to meet with potential investors. Rather than a pledge to support their dream, all they got was a handful of free lunches.

Never tell this woman it can’t be done. Though her dad preached about failure rates in publishing, the huge risk she was taking, the slim chance for success, he knew his daughter. He and Deb’s mother pledged $20,000. Off went the two partners again to gather the remaining $55,000. By mid-February, 1981, there were still no takers, and Fellows and Hawkins wanted to have their first issue out by June. So with $20,000, TRAVERSE was born.

Stretching $20,000 into $75,000 was no easy task! Short of begging, they convinced vendors to allow them to make small payments. The entrepreneurs also realized they could only afford eight four-color pages. But Fellows believed so strongly in her product that she was able to convince lenders and vendors to see it her way and soon eight pages gave way to her vision of a full four-color glossy magazine.

When marriage and children came along, she learned to appreciate the sacrifices working women make. Her husband, Neal, spent the first four years of their marriage in Grand Rapids for his medical residency. Their son, Ben, was born during that time and Fellows was seven months pregnant with their second son, Peter, when Neal completed his residency.

As a single parent, from Monday to Friday, Fellows says, “My hat is off to single parents who want to give their all at work and at home.” With an active toddler and a baby she nursed during phone interviews, she speaks from first-hand knowledge.

Fellows is quick to give credit to Carol Cameron, her child care provider, for making the best of both worlds possible for her. “I ran an ad for help. Carol Cameron answered and is still with us today. She is an incredible blessing. I couldn’t have had Austin (their third son) and Olivia (their adopted Russian daughter) without her. That partnership is more important than any in business.”

Until recently, Fellows never hired anyone who had worked on a magazine. She looks for an entrepreneurial spirit. She looks for honest people who recognize the capricious temperament of the publishing business.

“A small business is very demanding. It lacks the formality and structure of a large corporation, but when it’s right, it works.” To this end, Fellows looks for independent people whom she can empower to make decisions.

Fellows attributes two things to the success of TRAVERSE.

“I chose to produce a magazine about Northern Michigan and everyone said NO–I knew what they didn’t know–people care enormously. Northern Michigan is the Key.” Secondly, “All of the amazing people–staff, suppliers, subscribers, advertisers–that have put their faith in it. Without their effort, the greatest ideas in the world can fail.”

For the future, Fellows envisions a stronger focus on readership–their needs, numbers and knowledge.

She’d like to see TRAVERSE and its partner, Northern Home, experience steady growth.

“I’d also like to grow our custom publishing services and use our skills and staff to bring new marketing choices to clients.”

Even with the tremendous potential for the 20-year-old product, its mission remains unchanged from the beginning: to tell about the natural beauty, natural resources and small towns; to give people reasons to celebrate what we have; and to keep it pure. BIZNEWS