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Litchfield woman's hobby turns into to media conglomerate

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 04. 2013 3:31AM
Michele Pesula Keugler, CEO/Editor-in-Chief, PeKu Publications, works at her desk at abi in Manchester on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - From part-time blogger to mini-media mogul, Michele Pesula Kuegler turned what started as a creative outlet into a burgeoning business.

Pesula Kuegler is CEO and editor-in-chief of PeKu Publications, an online network of 23 sites, each focused on a different topic.

"We're the information that you want to kind of round out your life," said Pesula Kuegler, who grew up in Litchfield and still lives there with her husband and four children. "What flowers should you put in your garden? How do you fix a leaking faucet?"

Picture a conglomerate that publishes 23 print magazines, all with an established readership that looks forward each week or month to browse the latest edition. PeKu is based on the same principle without the overhead of running a magazine.

PeKu's niche sites can be updated daily with original content. Pesula Kuegler said she had no desire to add to the glut of news sites already online that combine some original material and links to other news feeds. It would be impossible to compete financially in that market, and she felt the network could set itself apart from other news sources by not relying on them.

"Anything that we publish is original," she said. "My goal was to deliver high-quality original content."

Pesula Kuegler's early duties included editing all copy, a heavy workload with two dozen or more stories coming in daily. That quickly led her to seek experienced writers rather than novice bloggers while building a staff of regular contributors.

Pets, health care, brides and wedding planning are among the other topics covered by PeKu's writers, who are spread throughout the world and file copy to Pesula Kuegler or one of the two editors she added to her staff as the company grew. Pesula Kuegler runs the operation from a rented space on Elm Street that is shared by other entrepreneurs and start-up ventures.

PeKu's readership has grown to about 1.5 million monthly. That's a tiny fraction when it comes to tallying Internet hits, but a significant total considering how far the company has come without much deviation from the original plan.

"I think it's a great reflection on one of our core beliefs. Start incrementally and build," said Chris Yeh of Wasabi Ventures, the venture capital firm that helped Pesula Kuegler rise from a teacher who blogged in her spare time to a full-time publisher.

Readers can access the various sites through PeKu's main website or individually. Whatever the route, enough have found their way to PeKu's varied content and encouraged others to give it a look. Revenue comes from advertising.

PeKu really began in a Litchfield kitchen where Michele Pesula - as she was known at the time - baked, cooked, as she had for years, and added writing to the mix. "Think Tasty" quietly entered the wide world of blogs. She was an elementary schoolteacher who found combining her love of cooking and writing a wonderfully refreshing way to unwind in the evening.

"Think Tasty" slowly picked up readers and got Pesula thinking about a new endeavor outside the classroom.

"I just realized I didn't have the passion for teaching that I used to, and I think students need teachers who are passionate and excited about their work," she said.

Pesula resigned from her teaching post in June 2008, then shifted focus from thinking tasty to thinking big. She was engaged to Tom Kuegler, a partner in a venture capital firm and author of the book "Web Advertising and Marketing," now in its third edition.

Kuegler and Chris Yeh, his partner in Wasabi Ventures, had tossed around the idea of a network of news blogs as one of many endeavors under consideration. They like the early popularity of "Think Tasty" and encouraged Pesula to expand.

Wasabi had the finances, experience and IT experts needed to make it work, leading to the creation of the Wasabi Media Group, which immediately incorporated "Think Tasty" into the lineup and built it up from there.

"We used to live in this world where publishing was an incredible gatekeeper of information," Yeh said. "The volume today is just so much larger that there is more good stuff than in the past. You just have to look a little harder because there's so much more you have to wade through."

The initial response was expected - slow.

"I like to joke and say my parents were my two best readers at that time," Pesula Kuegler said.

Pesula and Kuegler married later that summer. The marriage technically made WMG a family venture, but Pesula Kuegler has strived from the beginning to avoid that kind of label. While Wasabi set up the technical infrastructure needed for an online business and had advisers available for the young start-up, content decisions have always been Pesula Kuegler's.

"It's still been a hang-up for me since the beginning that people will think 'Oh, he just gave his wife a pet project,'" she said.

Wasabi still runs the technical side, and Kuegler sells advertising. Most everything else falls under Pesula Kuegler's jurisdiction.

The results from WMG's opening year were marginal, as expected. Readership increased and word spread enough for a 145 percent increase in growth for 2009, then WMG shot from fledgling to rising with a 639 percent growth.

One thing Pesula Kuegler noticed along the way was confusion created by the name. She said many people thought of Wasabi Media Group as Wasabi Ventures' public relations division and decided last year to rebrand.

WMG became PeKu Publications (www.pekupublications), a name Pesula Kuegler came up with after some consideration before deciding she deserved enough credit to rename the business by combining first letters of her family names.

"It felt a little vain, but I thought 'I founded this company,'" she said. "It was a very successful rebranding."

The company's rising success allowed Pesula Kuegler to set up a PeKu-sponsored $500 scholarship for a graduating senior at Litchfield's Campbell High School. It was an affirmation of PeKu's success as well as away for Pesula to encourage and assist in her former field.

"It's just $500. But I figure if it covers book for a semester, it's something to give," she said. "It feels pretty good to do that."

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