A Short History of BESIDE
Five years of doubts and joyous bonfires. Five years of passionate humans and projects that were a little (very) crazy. Five years of imperfect paths, which we wouldn't trade for the world.
Text—Eliane Cadieux & Jean-Daniel Petit
November 12, 2016 — 11:34 p.m.
We got stopped at the Montana border crossing, between Canada and the United States. Inside our red and white RV was a cache of undeclared goods.
Customs Officer: What’s the purpose of your trip, business or pleasure?
Customs Officer: Are you carrying drugs or illegal arms?
Driver: No, sir.
Customs Officer: Have you or any of the passengers been arrested before?
Driver: No, sir.
Customs Officer: Are you carrying illegal items?
Driver: . . .
Customs Officer: Fruits, vegetables, tobacco?
Sitting up straight in the driver’s seat, Jean-Daniel, co-founder of BESIDE, glances at Julien, the video director. Julien opens the fridge and pulls out the forbidden fruits: limes, avocados, tomatoes, and cilantro.
As he hands them to the customs officer, Julien asks, “Are you going to make guacamole, sir?”
After a long pause, the customs officer gives his blessing with a laugh: “Have a great trip, guys.”
In the fall of 2016—two months after having officially launched our company— we filled an RV with magazines and drove across North America, from east to west, to distribute them ourselves. Not for pleasure, but in order to survive.
That trip changed our lives.
Guillaume Leblanc and Jean-Daniel Petit grew up in the same village in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. They transitioned from childhood to adolescence together, from street hockey parties to evening skateboard sessions in the park. And then their careers took them to different parts of the country. Guillaume went off to study engineering and to work in the tar sands in western Canada. Jean-Daniel chose the world of design and advertising in Montréal.
Fifteen years passed. Guillaume reached the end of this chapter with the sense of having lost himself along the way. Jean-Daniel was feeling the urge to return to the lakes and forests of his native Abitibi. Guillaume had recently bought up canoe and kayak moulds from a manufacturer who’d gone bankrupt in New Liskeard, Ontario, and hoped to start up a business on the outskirts of Rouyn-Noranda—without quite knowing how he would go about it.
When Guillaume phoned with a proposal, Jean-Daniel might have let cold feet get the better of him. But instead, he recognized the chance to give both their lives greater meaning and to have a positive impact on their community. Within a matter of minutes, the project had a name: abitibi & co.
Eliane Cadieux grew up in an agricultural part of the Eastern Townships, which is surely where she got her taste for beauty, architecture, biking, and everything to do with herbalism. From there, she travelled to Sherbrooke, Montréal, and Italy to study graphic design.
During a design open house event in Montréal, her mother insisted that she pay a visit to Elliot, a new graphic design studio in the northern part of the city, co-founded by Jean-Daniel.
“I tried not to worry about the fact that it was located above La Poubelle du ski [a second-hand ski store]—a huge contrast with the agencies in the Old Port,” says Eliane, co-founder and creative director at BESIDE.
The meeting ended up charming her—and her mother as well—and so began 12 years of collaboration between Jean-Daniel and Eliane. Together they have worked on more than a hundred projects, including several in house. And of course, when Jean-Daniel and Guillaume co-founded abitibi & co. (seven years ago now) and needed someone to create the brand’s visual identity, they immediately thought of Eliane.
The founding trio of BESIDE was born.
– 2016 –
The birth of BESIDE
abitibi & co. was geared more toward lovers of nature than paddling experts—people eager to find themselves alone on a misty lake with their dog, to reach a climbing wall along waterways, or to spend a family weekend on an island.
Despite the company’s success, the trio quickly realized that it would be difficult to showcase their value system while making and distributing a few hundred boats a year.
So Jean-Daniel, Guillaume, and Eliane looked for an idea that would go beyond outdoor recreation and the environmentalist movement. Just when everything seemed uncertain, they met Hélène Philion—formerly the director general of the Groupe Chlorophylle (who is now an associate and head of strategic support at BESIDE).
This is when the idea to create a new, independent media platform began: a common thread that could bring together all their essential principles in one space, steeped in design, nature, and culture.
This space would first take the form of an object: a printed magazine.
Thank goodness for credit cards
“Doing print editions is a hobby, not a viable business.”
“The market is in decline—you could even say collapsing.”
“What great timing to launch a print magazine . . . not!”
The response was unanimous and not very encouraging.
And the skeptics had a point. Magazines are traditionally supported by advertising revenue, which requires the creation of a large-circulation product that ends up being more for the advertisers than for the readership. Rare are the publications that manage to survive.
Our aim with BESIDE was to create a relevant and attractive magazine for an intelligent, informed, and curious community across North America—without traditional ads.
Our trio knew that in order to do this, we would have to invent a new financing and distribution model. Because launching into the production of a magazine is equivalent to being abandoned by financial institutions. Creating a quality publication is a long, onerous process, and may not be at all profitable in the short term.
“No one believed we could do it, but we were convinced there was merit in doing things differently, reinventing a broken model. We joined forces—and credit cards—to finance the production of the first issue,” says Jean-Daniel.
More than a name: a brand
The word “beside” means both side B—the B-side—and the margin. The term “B-Side” comes from the music industry. It used to be the case that the most popular tracks were found on side A of vinyl and tapes, while side B held the finest treasures, the lesser-known songs, the acquired tastes. “All Apologies” by Nirvana, for example, was found on side B of the album In Utero.
With BESIDE, we wanted to become the side B of traditional media. The side B of our industry. The song you come to late, the one that helps you understand the album differently.
To be beside is also to exist in the margins, on the fringes of instant information, polarizing discourses, and the habits of thought that lead straight to dead ends. It is to explore alternatives and ways to take the time to think and see the world from a different point of view.
These margins are an integral part of our DNA, our visual identity, our editorial approach, and the way we manage our company.
A gem of an editor
“I wanted to work with the best. The content is central to our mission, and I wanted it to match the quality of the brand and the design,” says Jean-Daniel.
Until then, he and Eliane were the only ones working on the project, devoting their evenings and weekends. Hiring Atelier 10 to kick-start the magazine gave it credibility and depth. With a stack of tasks already piling up, the company hired an editor-in-chief who would work exclusively on this new project. Catherine Métayer had just spent a decade working in wine bars in Brooklyn and at the UN in New York; she also had a master’s in publishing from University of the Arts London and had briefly worked abroad in Asia. The creation of a bilingual publication at the crossroads of nature and culture provided a perfect reason for this editor—now a BESIDE Associate—to return to her hometown of Montréal.
Making a beautiful magazine is one thing; doing it with a strong, compelling editorial line is quite another.
The following eight months were spent building a talented team of collaborators and brainstorming ideas to find the right approach. Eight months of playing with a Rubik’s cube in countless Montréal cafés, with a soft spot for the light and the sandwiches at Pista on rue Beaubien.
Reinventing the model
All the while, the credit cards remained in the red. Jean-Daniel was still looking for an alternative to traditional advertising. He finally settled on approaching a partner with similar values to BESIDE, with whom they might create honest and relevant content for readers.
This is how, instead of reserving 50 per cent of the magazine for 20-odd advertisers, BESIDE signed a single partnership contract for its first issue—with Sépaq, who is still a collaborator five years later.
But since this business model wasn’t enough to cover all production costs, our hopes depended on the support of readers. We had to make sure we were delivering a product that lived up to our vision. The printing quality had to reflect the content. This was certainly not an area where we would try to cut costs.
Since the very first issue, BESIDE has been printed at L’Empreinte, on 100 per cent post-consumer paper from Rolland. The printer always believed in our young team, small though we were.
“I remember my first call with Luc Janson, an associate at L’Empreinte. I told him that if he agreed to help us with the first issue, I would swear our loyalty for the next five,” says Jean-Daniel.
Five years and 10 issues later, here we are, with the same printer and the same partnership model.
Distribution, distribution, distribution
« You clearly don’t understand how this industry works… We don’t care about you or your magazine, I’ll let you go, little bugger. »
This is how the first phone conversation with a large distribution company ended, and the first attempt at a contract failed.
Their promise was to distribute BESIDE in several thousand points of sale throughout North America. They planned to dispose of about 30 per cent of inventory, to take 50 per cent of the revenue, and to send unsold magazines to recycling, with no right of return. A fair deal, in their eyes!
Most magazines still agree to work with large distributors. But you don’t have to be an accountant to calculate that with this model—and no advertising revenue—the collapse of BESIDE would be imminent.
It was after this call, in August 2016, that we decided to take a different route.
“On an impulse, we searched for a way to print the exact number of projected sales, to reduce our environmental impact and to avoid the waste generated by traditional distribution,” Jean-Daniel explains.
In no time, the team had launched a Kickstarter campaign, the video for which was recorded in Catherine’s closet in the middle of a heat wave.
The first goal was to reach $5,000. After only a month, we had earned more than $21,849 in pre-sales, and 586 people had signed up to support the project.
These were the 586 most energizing pats on the back anyone could imagine. We were no longer on our own.
Receiving a truckload of magazines at home
The truck had just dropped the pallets of magazines in front of Jean-Daniel’s door in Hochelaga.
He, Eliane, Catherine, and the new intern, Maxime (who hardly knew what he was getting into), carried the boxes to the basement one by one. And then they set themselves up on the floor and prepared the 586 envelopes for the Kickstarter campaign.
We stuffed 586 magazines in 586 envelopes, with 586 handwritten thank-you notes.
We were brimming with excitement, and up to our eyeballs.
The first launch
For 10 months, the trio had been working in a two-bedroom apartment transformed into a publishing house. It was high time to launch the magazine in style, to meet the 586 faces who believed in us, and to finally celebrate.
October 20, 2016, on a small street in Mile End. We had forgotten the burners for the s’mores; the adhesive putty was worthless and the posters were falling off the walls. Very quickly the stress of the empty room was replaced by the stress of not enough space or alcohol. And by the incredible joy of seeing our friends, families, and hundreds of strangers chatting like they were at a kitchen party.
That evening, someone named Nicolas became the impromptu bartender, a title he took very seriously, diligently making sure to test his own product. We couldn’t have imagined then that he would become our financial director a few months later; behind his blurred gaze was the sharp mind of a bookkeeper from the sticks.
To conclude the evening, we announced the next adventure for BESIDE:
“In order to overcome the challenges linked to distribution, we’ve rented a van, and we’re going to drive across North America—from Nova Scotia to California. We’ll go meet the retailers ourselves.”
And insane stress.
The road trip
Or the art of spending 30 days in 150 square feet with four strangers
BESIDE IS SEEKING:
A director-ninja for a coast-to-coast road trip. Experience in the field of guacamole an asset. Length of trip: 30 days. Send me a PM!
The Facebook post was tossed out like a message in a bottle, in the hopes that the algorithm would do its work.
The idea for the road trip had come a few weeks earlier, over coffee with Bernard Côté, former marketing director at MEC: an espresso-fuelled light bulb was lit.
The truth was plain: without the sale of 5,000 copies minimum, this incredible project could crash just as quickly as it had taken off. The road trip was our life preserver in the high seas.
We may not have had a viable distribution partner or a marketing budget, but we had a great deal of determination in our back pocket.
In the end, the road trip team was made up of five people:
Ninja 1: Julien Robert, director
Ninja 2: Elise Danielle, producer
Ninja 3: Catherine Bernier, writer and photographer
Ninja 4: Eliane Cadieux, GPS and coffee attendant
Ninja 5: Jean-Daniel Petit, mojo officer
The end of autumn brought its share of challenges: campgrounds closed, fancy parking lots where you think you might get some sleep but are instead brutally woken by police in the middle of the night; frost, lack of water and gas, snowstorms, and the tricky management of batteries, among other things.
In spite of everything, the weather for us was anything but grey. Our trip was punctuated by extraordinary encounters which gave meaning to our mission.
While our prospectors (ninjas 1 through 5) went out to meet our community-to-be, Catherine and Maxime called every bookseller in the phone book, including the owners of neighbourhood shops and cafés, in the hopes of finding new places to distribute our magazine. After 30 days on the road and what must’ve been a thousand phone calls, we had managed to confirm more than 150 independent retailers to sell our 8,000 copies.
BESIDE was alive. It now had the legitimacy it needed to exist.
– 2017 –
We took the holidays to regroup and see our families, and then we decided it was time to push BESIDE further: to transform the magazine into a cross-platform ecosystem.
We also swapped the apartment in Hochelaga for a small, 500 square-foot room in the same neighbourhood, since the team had quietly grown bigger. Nine wonderful humans—Vincent (director of partnerships) and Geneviève (events director) had recently jumped on board—and three dogs now roomed with the magazines, outdoor equipment, and a motorcycle, all stored in the kitchen.
On a good day, phone calls and meetings were happening simultaneously in the bathroom and the open room, on the doorstep, and the sidewalks surrounding the office.
Documentaries, articles, podcasts, events, workshops, partnerships: we were incredibly agile and dedicated. Creation was free, untethered from external influences. We were in search of our DNA; we also wanted to find a business model that could bring us collectively closer to nature, while remaining independent and consistent in each of our projects.
The bills kept coming
Reality is difficult for all media. Quality content requires time, talent, and expertise, and without a critical subscriber threshold, advertising sales, or alternative revenue, it’s extremely challenging to be profitable.
It was unthinkable for us to choose an intrusive model. We had to do everything to protect the quality of our content, our independence, and our community.
This is why, in the first three years of BESIDE, we reached into our former lives and created a strategic agency and content creation service. We wanted to offer our expertise to clients whose ideas we believed in and who shared our value system.
Side A, the commercial side, gave us the incubation time we needed. We were stepping up our hours in pursuit of a new model and the construction of our foundations.
That year, we were able to forge a solid core of resilience and experience.
Two new issues were launched, as well as our digital platform, beside.media. And we received our first honours: a Grafika prize and a nomination for the National Magazine Awards.
– 2018 –
Two years in, BESIDE’s vision and playing field were growing clearer.
The bridge between human beings and nature, we realized, is culture in all its many forms. The many concrete and intangible interconnections built by art, architecture, culinary culture, science, and entrepreneurship.
We decided we needed to travel widely to feed our creativity and put our ideas to the test.
A first trip to Colorado allowed Jean-Daniel and Vincent to meet industry players at the Outdoor Retailer Show. Instead of a traditional hotel room, they shared a little Airstream within walking distance of the convention centre and several pubs.
Catherine and Eliane travelled to Switzerland, Germany, and Spain, the meccas of the magazine; they wanted to find inspiration to rethink the branding and editorial line at BESIDE. They came back with a new collaborator, coffee-table book publisher par excellence gestalten.
Finally, Eliane and Jean-Daniel went ever further north, to Finland. Their trip allowed them to prepare a dossier for the magazine, to witness how Finnish people experience their nordicity, and to notice how architecture has an impact on their way of life.
Meanwhile, new star players were joining the team one by one: Olivier (director of digital products), Camille (director of strategy & content), Caroline and Mark (associate editors-in-chief). And even though we were tight-knit, the tin of sardines was expanding by the day.
A hole in the wall later, and our office grew by 2,000 square feet. The team took up paintbrushes and hammers to transform this new space into a workplace, while also finishing edits on our first book: Green Screen.
– 2019 –
The litmus test
“Sergioooooo!!! Come quick, there’s water dripping from the ceiling, water coming through everywhere!” Eliane shouted one morning, arms full of pots, to our new director of partnerships.
The collegial feeling was strong enough to make us forget the leaking roof and the fact that we had to dress our electronic equipment in waterproof tents. Our team was expanding, projects were piling up, BESIDE was taking root, but our reality was still that of a startup, still scraping by.
A BESIDE Festival on the side
In 2019 the team had the idea to breathe life into the magazine with a festival that would include music, workshops, outdoor activities, and food trucks. Over a long weekend in June—with a disconcerting mix of rain, sun, and clouds—we welcomed 6,000 people to the Boucherville Islands.
We transformed into:
- Tent assemblers
- Signpost installers
- Artists’ agents
- Wilderness panelists
- Mud shovellers
- Hay spreaders
This adventure gave us the opportunity to work with a few true gems: Laurie, Audrée, Justine, Marie Charles (content producer and new mojo officer, taking over from Jean-Daniel), and several others.
It was a beautiful folly that deserves its own chapter in the grand history of BESIDE.
Reinventing the model (again)
“You should make mugs with the BESIDE logo.”
This idea was tossed out by a friend of Jean-Daniel’s in a bar in Hochelaga. And because the co-founder of BESIDE had his doubts that our cupboards and Instagram feeds needed another mug, he answered, without missing a beat:
“If BESIDE ever makes merch, it will be a cabin in the woods.”
The words came out of his mouth as though he’d been mulling it over for years. The idea must have been lying dormant somewhere inside him, somewhere between his desire for a life in the wild and his fear of entrepreneurial failure.
And yet, when he spoke those two syllables— ca-bin—it was as though all the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. Jean-Daniel could see us there already, next to a fire, the whole BESIDE community in harmony with the surrounding nature.
Several months earlier, Jean-Daniel had gone to visit his former employer—an entrepreneur and accomplished manager—Jean-François Bouchard. The aim was to find a mentor who could help us gain a bird’s-eye view.
The first meeting opened the way for bi-monthly work sessions dedicated to hammering out the BESIDE business model. With the diversification of activities—media, events, e-commerce, production agency—all scenarios were leading to a dead end. A dead end for our values, for the mission, or for profitability.
In the end, the only business model that stuck involved relying on the strength and independence of BESIDE Media and diversifying, using property to protect the land. This idea was just crazy enough for us to consider it, and just improbable enough for us to be the first media brand to adopt it.
The months that followed were dedicated to transforming this wild idea tossed out from the end of the bar into a realistic plan. And, little by little, this plan became a to-do list.
The first course
“I can’t see the drone anymore . . . bring it back . . .” “Brrrrrrrrr#$%?!&!”
This marked the end of the second drone in the history of BESIDE. Nicolas (our bartender-cum-financial director) and Jean-Daniel were in the Lanaudière area, where they were looking for a place to build the first BESIDE Habitat. But in spite of the sacrifice of the drone, this was not the promised land. A few days later, scrolling religiously through land-for-sale sites, the team found a video of Jacques Côté, proud owner of a parcel of land in Lanaudière, which he had cherished for over 25 years.
Nicolas and Jean-Daniel expressed their interest immediately.
The very next day they paid their first visit to the future BESIDE terrain, dusted with the first snow of the year in the middle of November.
Even stuck in dirt paths on their mountain bikes, Jean-Daniel and Nicolas were awestruck by the beauty of the land.
It was THE place.
What followed was a series of challenges over the next two years: planning, solicitation, regulation, financing, allotments, municipal council, architectural plans, fine-tuning.
Meanwhile, the team was still working in the seaside office with pots beside the computers to catch the constant raindrops falling from the ceiling. It was time to find ourselves a new home!
New home, second wind
“In front of a park, with big windows, a patio, closed offices, and open spaces, in Villeray or Rosemont.”
These were the team’s wishes.
Aim for the moon, as they say.
And by a miraculous aligning of the stars: a beautiful office designed by the architectural firm Nature Humaine, with a large patio overlooking Parc Molson, on rue Beaubien. After signing the lease, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
This new space—baptized Le Soufflet, or The Bellows—brought us a feeling of confirmation. It was as though we could feel that BESIDE was well-anchored now, that we had taken root for good, and that we would get through the challenges to come.
It was here, in this new space, that we created our magazine issues 08 and 09.
It was also here that we put together our second book, The New Traditional, imagined a year earlier with gestalten in Berlin, between an Aperol spritz and a bike ride. It has now been distributed in more than 80 countries.
– 2020 –
The world comes to a halt
We had barely been set up in our new space for four months when the pandemic hit and the global bike chain derailed.
Of course, the early days were full of worry, even panic.
Are our families, friends, and colleagues safe?
What will happen with our lives and our projects?
How long will we have to remain in lockdown?
The manual for sailing through the waves of a pandemic wasn’t available in bookstores.
We quickly got the team together to make a contingency plan and prepare for the worst.
This is exactly when BESIDE’s mission, perpetually future-focused, was snapped back into the present. We knew we needed to prioritize getting back to basics, to nature, to our communities, to local food: the importance of rethinking our ways of life and living environments, our relationship to time, to others, and to our environment.
We felt a wind of solidarity: a large dose of confidence and love that allowed us to send thousands of magazines across North America, to give a voice to our collaborators and our community through quarantine letters, to launch a building project in spite of the crisis. And, over the course of the past year, we reached a grand number of 100,000 copies sold.
The first 12 months of the pandemic also marked the arrival of 14 new faces at BESIDE: Stéphane, Nicholas, Elisabeth, Charles, Alix, Josée, Andréa, Corinne, Gabrielle, Jo-Annie, Marie-Ève, Félix, as well as two Catherines.
We are among the privileged ones.
Our thanks to you, dear readers, for letting us be a part of your lives.
Our first five years were an extraordinary adventure.And we have the sense that this is only the beginning.
These imperfect paths: they are infinitely worth it.
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