Jeffrey A. Dickey and Durand W. (Randy) Achee learned one of their most valuable college lessons cracking open beer kegs rather than cracking open books.
In 1978, the two were publishing a fledging magazine insert for college newspapers when Universal Pictures hired them for $25,000 to throw 25 promotional "toga parties," the collegiate version of Roman debauchery popular that year due to the studio's hit movie "Animal House."
So successful were the parties that one at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus drew 10,000 students. People magazine pictured Dickey going through an airport security check dressed in his toga.
"When students get behind something," Achee said, "the momentum from word-of-mouth and peer influence spreads like wildfire."
The lesson they learned was simple: Big money was out there for anyone who could successfully tap the college student market. Today, as founders of privately held Alan Weston Communications, based in Burbank, Dickey and Achee have built a $6-million-a-year business as one of the country's largest campus magazine publishers.
Their magazines, including Ampersand's Entertainment Guide and College Musician, are published quarterly and emphasize entertainment and life style topics. Combined circulation is 2.3 million on 170 college campuses.
Dickey and Achee correctly surmised that advertisers are eager to develop brand loyalties among the nation's 12.4 million college students. Their magazines are populated with ads for Revlon perfumes, TDK tapes, Lowenbrau beer, Honda motor scooters, condoms and the Air Force.
But one lesson Dickey and Achee haven't quite yet mastered is how to make steady profits. Their company's history has been full of erratic swings in sales and profits. For the current fiscal year that ends this month, Alan Weston will only break even, in part because of start-up costs for new magazines.
Another problem is that since they published the first national magazine supplements for college newspapers in 1977, the number of campus magazines has swelled to 16. One rival is Newsweek, whose Newsweek on Campus has a circulation of 1.3 million on 170 campuses, published six times during the school year.
"It's tough for a small outfit like Alan Weston to compete quality-wise with Newsweek, which has a hell of a lot more resources," said Mayer Malone, general manager for the Daily Illini, the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
But last year Alan Weston did line up $2 million in capital from two savvy investors that could help the company turn the corner.
"There's an untapped market out there and it's a market a lot of advertisers want to reach. If they can get them at that age, they can get them down the road," said Karl Eller. He is chairman of the Phoenix-based Circle K chain of convenience stores and a noted media investor who plunked down $1 million to buy an 11% stake in Alan Weston.
Another backer is Hambrecht & Quist, a San Francisco venture capital firm, which also put up $1 million last year. Both investors hope to eventually make a sizable profit through a public offering of Alan Weston stock.
"I felt that Alan Weston had been through some tough times and had done some things wrong in the past and had learned from it," said Thomas W. Turney, a principal in Hambrecht & Quist's Los Angeles office.
Dickey, 34, and Achee, 35, had been friends since playing against each other in high school football in Orange County and went into business together in 1977. (Their company's name comes from their two middle names.)
Their idea was to create a publication similar to the Sunday newspaper insert Parade, but with a youthful editorial content similar to Rolling Stone magazine. Start-up capital wasn't a major problem. About $100,000 was supplied by family members, including Achee's uncle, radio disc jockey Bob Smith, better known as "Wolfman Jack."
"The idea was brilliant. It was definitely needed in the college market because it was something nobody was really doing," Smith said.
Record companies liked the idea too and became Alan Weston's chief advertiser. But in 1979, Alan Weston lost 75% of its $750,000 in advertising because of a record industry slump, triggered by high petroleum costs, a key ingredient in records.
To pick up the slack, Dickey and Achee sold new accounts and published supplements for individual advertisers, chiefly Universal Pictures and Kodak. Universal dished out more than $1 million a year, Kodak about $750,000.
Then, Universal shifted more advertising to television, while Kodak scaled back on the college market. As a result, in 1984-85 Alan Weston lost an additional 35% of its revenue.
"It was frustrating, but we never had any doubt we would have to do something different. It was like football where we had to come up with some new plays, and those new plays were new magazines," Achee said.