A string of top editing jobs that ended in redundancies inspired Louise Chunn to start a business in the very world that put paid to her journalism career.
Chunn’s tale weaves together a charmed Auckland childhood, a stellar 30-year career in glossy magazines in the UK and an unexpected pivot in her late fifties. Out of her own experience of therapy, and the rising demand for such help in an uncertain world, she’s now head of an internet start-up – while, as she says, looking “nothing like Mark Zuckerberg”.
“The media has been hugely disrupted by the internet. And in a way, what I’ve done is go to what has caused the disruption, which is working online.”
Chunn was the first female editor of University of Auckland student magazine Craccum, then landed a gig at the Auckland Star, which was probably the only time her name helped her career. “I partly got that job because my brother Mike was in Split Enz – that would be fair to say. But I kept it because I did a pretty decent job. I was writing about music, interviewing people like Tom Petty, the Ramones, Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick.”
In 1981, newly married, she left New Zealand for the US, and then London, where she built a career as a journalist and editor at the Guardian, InStyle, Vogue, Good Housekeeping and Psychologies. As it turned out, this was the heyday of magazine editors being stars in their own right. “When I look back at the bigging-up of the editors, our media profiles, the way we were all set up against each other, it now seems laughable.
“The peak of my career was as editor of Good Housekeeping, where you were treated like a queen because it was the publisher’s bestseller and consistently made multimillion-pound revenues. It was the jewel in the crown of the Hearst empire, with about 45 people working on it and its own test kitchen. They used to call it an ocean liner, and talk about how hard it was to turn it in a new direction. One person now edits not only that magazine, but also two others. And as far as I can tell, they are all formatted so strictly there’s very little chance for creativity.”
The main change is in the economic model, particularly for women’s magazines in the UK. A chart she saw recently showed historical advertising market shares for magazines and digital: in 2000, digital ad sales were worth a tenth of those of magazines, but by last year the tables had turned. “If you lose all the advertising, you have to charge quite a lot for the magazine, and people are used to content being free.
“In fact, young women get their information straight from celebrities’ Instagram posts. You are left with the ‘make-it-all-up’ magazines, and pictures of older soap stars looking grim, having committed the sin of staying alive.
“For newspapers and their supplements, health has become the sexy topic. In other words, ‘you’ are the topic – how are you going to stay alive, be the best person you can be, not get depressed.”
Even the economics of being made redundant have changed. Her first experience of redundancy was from ES, the magazine of the London Evening Standard. “In the olden days, redundancy was rather prized because you could get a big payout and it didn’t get to affect your reputation. My next experience was at Good Housekeeping, and that was less great. The last one was Psychologies, in 2012, and that was more like a modern-day one. I was paid very little money and the next person in the job was paid half of what I had been.”
Her business, welldoing.org, does just that, with a thousand therapists on the books and 40,000 unique visitors a month. The service has a premium option that supplements the therapist-finding algorithm with manual matching to help line up the best practitioner for a client’s first appointment.
The match matters because “the biggest factor in the success of therapy is what’s called the therapeutic alliance, which is the fit between the client and the therapist. And the biggest indicator is not the experience of the therapist or the type of therapy, but that relationship.”
This year, they are “doing that very tech thing”: seeking investment. “We are making money, we are paying ourselves, we are in growth. Up until now we’ve bootstrapped. It is much slower if you do things that way. That’s probably a generational thing. I didn’t want to get investment without knowing it could work. Lots of younger people – that isn’t the way they are aligned.”
Back in 2013, Chunn had never worked in tech. She’s gone from merely running apps on her smartphone to understanding how they tie in with the internet. “I had to learn, ‘How does it work on a website? How do you load things? Where can you see the traffic?’
“There were two young women I’d worked with, both the generation of my children. One of them took me on as her intern for a week on her website. The other, who was on Psychologies with me, had gone off to join another start-up. She told me about Google’s Founders over Fifty.”
The Google campus is a five-storey co-working space near Old Street, in the City of London, and part of Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley. For Chunn, with her background in fashion and journalism, it was “the most uncomfortable place I’ve ever worked in. Gone were the high heels and pashminas. It was a puffer jacket, T-shirt, pair of jeans, some trainers. Barely any lipstick or anything that might make me look like I’d taken the wrong door.”
But there was an unexpected link with Sarah Drinkwater, who ran Google’s Campus. “She had been a journalist and she knew all about me. She said, ‘Why don’t you try and go on an accelerator course?’”
At first, the opportunity looked impossible. “I thought my family would never put up with it. Why would they? This was something that was just going to cost us money.” But it became clear that Google was offering to pay for airfares and accommodation for two weeks on site in California. The family reaction became, “How amazing, to have their mother go off to Palo Alto.”
Chunn was the only UK person chosen to join a group of 20, and one of only three women. “Everyone else was a real gun-slinging, speed-talking entrepreneur.”
The course turned out to be not so much about how to build a business, but how to pitch for investment. “That’s a great thing to know about because you have to really refine your message. The biggest thing I learnt was you can’t do it alone, which I was pretty much trying to do. So I got a co-founder when I came back, and things grew from there.”
Her brother Mike has just written a book, A Sharp Left Turn, about his history in music, and the charity he runs. “It’s been very interesting to read it because he’s had mental-health struggles. I knew about some of the issues, but I didn’t know about everything. I consider I know my brothers pretty well, but maybe we never really know our families. That’s me spending too much time with the therapists!” She’s been surprised to find homesickness more of a struggle recently. “I wouldn’t have predicted that. I would have thought I’ve lived longer here than I have in New Zealand, and my children are here. Deep inside I don’t feel like a British person, but I do feel like a Londoner. When I’m in New Zealand, I can see that I’m different, but not massively. I’m proud of being a New Zealander. I even find myself, as a long-standing rugby ignorer, feeling proud of the All Blacks.”
Two years ago, she briefly re-entered the world of magazines, with the launch of Planet Mindful. “Now, it’s changed ownership and I’m a contributing editor. I’m running a start-up and you can’t do that part-time.”
“When the Brexit result was announced, it was like people being told, ‘We don’t want you here.’ The therapists were hearing it all the time. Many of the therapists themselves are not British. Especially in London.
“There’s so much uncertainty. Will Scotland stay? What will happen to Ireland? Will we end up being a much smaller country? And then we watch the British newspapers explode over the royal family. We’ve had many years of peace, but this takes us back to the Diana years, Charles and Camilla, Fergie. The scandal about phone hacking was a real blood-letting – but, as [former Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger has pointed out, many of the newspapers attacking Harry and Meghan are still involved in court cases over phone hacking.”
She sees the Duke of Sussex as “more like a normal person than most of them, but he has had struggles with his mental health for a lot of reasons, not just the death of his mother. My feeling is that he has long been somebody who has bridled at his position as a member of that family. He may love them, but it places a lot of constraints on a character like him who is more adventurous.
“Plus, he’s a millennial, and there are many problems that millennials share, a lot of, ‘What’s it all about?’, loneliness and insecurity. Then he marries someone who’s from the celebrity world. In the royal family, it’s about duty. It’s not about looking beautiful and wearing new clothes. They don’t buy the Instagram thing. If the royals enter the celebrity world, one imagines the whole thing could fall apart. What was that quote about letting light in on the magic?
“Now we are in the position where everyone thinks Meghan has been hounded out by British racists. I don’t think that’s the whole truth. It’s not irrelevant that Meghan is not white, but the very fact that she isn’t British, that’s a major deal. We are certainly looking at racism much more now in the light of this and other issues around race and immigration, and this is a good thing. But the publicity will always go to the darkest corners.”
The Louise Chunn who left New Zealand in 1981 had little experience of those dark corners. “You know, not to be too mean to myself, but I thought I was pretty great. I felt like ‘I’m lucky’. In fact, my mother called me Lucky, that was my name from the time I was little.”
But with a career trajectory forged by disruption, she’s come to believe “life is all about how you deal with things not going so well. That’s the truth.”
This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.