Jeff Yang: Off a Cliff, But Not Looking Down

The misunderstanding is hardly surprising, but Jeff Yang would like to make this absolutely clear: It's J-e-f-f, not Jerry.

Confusing him with Yahoo's billionaire golden boy may rankle less now that this Yang, 30-year-old publisher and founding editor of the Asian-American "A.Magazine" and CEO of A.Media, makes his own foray into online business.

"The occasional mix-ups used to be irritating," says Jeff (hereafter referred to as Yang), whose company will be launching the Asian-American Internet portal A-Space this May (with a preview launch in February). "But now I just find them extremely funny. When Yahoo IPO'd, my mom got about a dozen calls from people congratulating her on how successful her son was. It turned out that this Chinese-language newspaper had accidentally used a file photo of me alongside their story."

The case of mistaken identity no doubt pained Yang's parents. Both Taiwanese immigrants, they desperately wanted their son to become a doctor like Yang's father, grandfather, and great grandfather. "Asian kids are expected to be like treasury bonds," says Yang. "Low risk and established continual returns - not like Internet growth stocks." But Yang, American-born and Brooklyn-bred, spurned tradition and opted for a far riskier career in the media.

After a decade of hand-wringing, Yang's parents are boasting about their son, the rising Internet media mogul. (So far, Yang has raised $1.5 million, a relatively small sum by Internet standards.) "For years, they were afraid to mention me to their friends," says Yang. "These days, I can't stop them from talking about me - which is a mixed blessing, I guess." Whether or not his parental endorsement will be echoed by the Internet community remains to be seen.

Though A-Space was founded six months ago, its origins date to the year Yang was born. As well as being a year of great social unrest, 1968 marked the genesis of a new generation of Asian Americans. This was the year, says Yang, that the very term "Asian American" was coined. While his parents' generation identified themselves by their place of origin, Yang's peers - most born in America and weaned on MTV and CNN - saw themselves as a diverse but aligned community. Yang grew up in a Staten Island suburb - a "rice bowl in a forest of bread" - and says that, as a person of color in America, and an Asian American in particular, he forever felt a sense of distance, one he imagined was shared by millions. "We were one generation removed from immigration," says Yang, but "we had no real voice, no real forum." A publication that spoke to this new generation of Asian Americans might well provide such a forum.

As a student at Harvard University, Yang founded his first publication, "East Wind," with three friends. In 1989, he graduated with a degree in psychology and headed for Manhattan. A year later, with a few "East Wind" alums, he founded "A.Magazine," the first publication for Asian Americans printed in English. "When we first launched 'A.Magazine,'" says Yang, "we were thinking not so much about doing well as doing good, doing something according to our ideals."

But lofty ideals hardly guarantee you a spot on the Fortune 500 list. While the small community quarterly eventually went international and became the largest circulation Asian publication in the U.S., for a long while it was, as Yang says, "a scrappy startup" that sputtered along. In the early years, Yang moonlighted at "A.Magazine," meanwhile earning his livelihood with a string of jobs: an assistant editor at William Morrow, a publicity director at a community nonprofit, and later a research reporter at the "Village Voice," where he quickly rose through the ranks to become a feature writer and columnist - in fact, the "Voice"'s first Asian-American columnist ever.

Yang also managed to put out two books. One was "Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture," which he co-authored with "A.Magazine" staff members. The other, "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action," was the film star's official biography. Yang's accomplishments made for an impressive resume, but a paltry bank account. "I may not have done 'A.Magazine' if I'd know how hard, how long the struggle would be," admits Yang. "A little naivete is critical for an entrepreneur. Call it the Wile E. Coyote formula for success: You can walk blissfully off a cliff onto thin air - as long as you don't look down."

It remains to be seen whether Yang was looking in the right direction when, less than a year ago, he turned his gaze toward the Internet. His friend Steven Novick, who is now A.Media's CFO, encouraged Yang to, yes, expand the brand and turn his just-squeaking-by publication (down $140,000 in 1999) into something better and brawnier online. Why reach only tens or hundreds of thousands when you can reach, and potentially make, millions?

The millions - be they readers or dollars - remain speculative as A-Space hasn't even launched yet. Other traditional media types have tried what Yang's attempting and have failed. Yang himself admits "the halls of commerce are littered with corpses of traditional media Internet startups." But, he adds, "people have to get over the perception that if you're anchored first in traditional media, you don't have the quickness of reflex or broadness of ambition or willingness to sacrifice for a nimble Internet startup."

Yang has plenty of competitors - most notably Click2Asia and AsianAvenue - who've already established an online presence. "Personally, I think very highly of Jeff," says Benjamin Sun, CEO of Community Connect, parent company of AsianAvenue, which has been up and running for two years. "Jeff's a smart guy.

I admire what he's done with 'A.Magazine' and how he's built up the business, working from his apartment to build the first Asian-American media brand.

They've built a good media company, for a magazine." But, adds Sun, a print magazine and a Web portal are two very different beasts which demand different skills and know-how. "Jeff's going to experience that it's not as easy as throwing up a Web page," says Sun. "We've encountered so many traditional media companies that think it's easy. They may own their audience, but when you go to the Web, it's a whole new ballgame." What's more, there's no firm evidence that a site reaching out toward an Asian-American community will, ultimately, be embraced and thrive.

If nothing else, with years as a professional public speaker and writer, Yang talks a good game. If A-Space succeeds, in years to come, there may be no more confusion over that Yang and this Yang. But if Yang (that would be Jeff) proves all talk and no walk, he'll be remembered only as yet another hopeful yahoo.

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