Chasing a regional profile, Rice Media’s Mark Tan plants his Singapore startup in Thailand.

“Thailand has a mature media market and a population exposed to a wide spectrum of content."

After two-and-a-half years of steadily building a loyal audience in Singapore, alternative news media startup Rice Media has expanded into Thailand. 

In Singapore, Rice Media has built its reputation on searingly intimate profile pieces, and at times incisive, provocative and delightfully whimsical commentaries on religion, life in public housing or local take-out food.

Founder and CEO, Mark Tan, believes now is the time to expand the brand regionally. 

“Thailand has a mature media market and a population exposed to a wide spectrum of content,” said Tan as we caught up during a midweek afternoon in December. 

“Rice Media is a product that works in a more mature media market. We’re not new media 1.0, where it’s still about viral news. We’re kind of the voice that comes after that,” the 35-year-old former lawyer-turned-media entrepreneur explained. 

“We also looked at how globally relevant Thai culture is to the world. To create internationally relevant content from Southeast Asia, expanding in Thailand had maximum impact for our brand. And finally, we went into Thailand because it has some of the best creative talent in the region.”

Staying true to its roots, the first two December launch pieces in Thailand were about people living on the fringes of society: an actor trying to make a comeback and an old-school gentleman gangster.

Tan says the plan is to build the audience over the six months but the eventual business model, similar to Singapore, will be editorially-driven branded content. 

“We want to demonstrate a regional audience, and to be able to run regional campaigns… but not at the expense of our brand. At the end of the day, we don’t drive the bus, our audience does. Any brand we partner needs to understand that, and if we make less money, so be it,” he added. 

Rice's founder Mark Tan is doing something unusual for a Singapore media startup: expanding overseas. Photo supplied by Rice.
Rice's founder Mark Tan is doing something unusual for a Singapore media startup: expanding overseas. Photo supplied by Rice.

Startup journey

Tan doesn’t do a lot of media interviews — just two prior ones I could find online — so I wasn’t sure what to expect in person. 

Dressed casually in dark blue flannel shirt, pants and sneakers, Tan turns out to be eloquent, warm and open throughout our interview at White Label Records at Ann Siang Road, a stone’s throw from Rice’s new shophouse office location. 

“Personally, I’m actually very curious about how things work,” said Tan, as we discussed Rice’s evolution from a passion project-turned-full-time gig in 2017. Today, the site racks up 1 million views every month, and a staff of 22 (17 in Singapore, 5 in Thailand). 

“That’s always the starting point for Rice Media. It’s not just to talk about what happened, but to understand why things are the way they are, and our reactions to it.” 

Tan, whose parents run a print magazine subscription business, grew up in a comfortable middle-class Chinese family background, spending 12 years at a local school before attending university in Australia. 

“I was always kind of a strange kid, maybe due to the fact that I have 12 fingers,” he said as he holds up his two extra thumbs.

“As a child, I was exposed to high-quality print content like Monocle, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast titles. Subconsciously or consciously, I knew I always wanted to publish something. That’s why for Rice, even though it’s digital, it has a very magazine feel to it and is a core part of our identity.” 

Tan reads widely — he’s into natural history and also follows U.S. sports media sites like The Ringer and The Undefeated — and joked that his first media venture actually started in primary school.

“I would photocopy encyclopedia pages on various topics, compile them and sell them to my classmates for 50 cents. This went on for 6 months until I got bored,” he laughed.

Passion project

Tan, who is married to an advertising executive, also revealed he has a passion project in the works, a cartoon/graphic novel publication involving the creator of the original Mr Kiasu comics, Johnny Lau. 

Whipping out his phone, Tan shows me advanced mock-ups of what it will look like. 

“At Rice, we write about cultural phenomena, say for example, lunchtime politics. We take that theme and draw a skit about an actual scene unfolding in the CBD, leveraging real-life situations.”

“Johnny is actually the one who pushed me to do this, he literally said ‘you should do this’,” said Tan, adding that Johnny and a panel of illustrators were in charge of artwork, and he would provide the scenarios and text.  

“We’re going to print quarterly, 40 pages, run some ads and make it available for subscription for about $19.90. It’s more like a passion project, good for branding, no idea if it’s going to make money,” he beamed excitedly. 

Where the magic happens: Rice Media’s new home is a shophouse office in Chinatown. Photo by Jeff Oon.
Where the magic happens: Rice Media’s new home is a shophouse office in Chinatown. Photo by Jeff Oon.

Building a sustainable business

As Rice enters its third year, I asked Tan about his biggest challenges.

“Keeping the integrity of the brand and living up to our brand promise, while commercializing the brand and delivering a high quality product while keeping everything going. Secondly, for our product, it’s about finding the next great writer or director,” he said. 

Tan adds that he’s been fortunate so far. Rice has received two rounds of funding, one  reportedly worth S$300,000 (roughly US$223,000) in 2017 and another undisclosed amount from a group of like-minded investors in 2018.

We’re currently doing okay but I don’t want to count my chickens yet because we’re going to be in growth mode again in the next 6 months. Besides revenue and audience growth, my main focus is how to turn this into a sustainable business,” he said. 

Media landscape in Singapore

In closing, I asked him if he had any advice for media start-up entrepreneurs, new or otherwise. 

“If you’re all about the money, there are other industries with better returns. The thing about the media industry is that, for sure, it helps to have a purpose or mission, that’s what keeps me going,” he said.  

Singling out The Woke Salaryman (“amazing stuff, really good”), Mothership (“great resource to find out what’s going on”), and Real Talk (“stuff I watch in the darkness of my room”), he said every independent media player in Singapore served a community, and was part of a bigger ecosystem.

“So figure out your audience and your unique approach to content. Never forget you’re serving an audience. This can be universally applied to other industries and is very easy to say but very hard to live up to”. 

Jeffrey is a Singapore-based journalist, whose 20-year career spans the intersection of media, communications and technology. Follow Jeffrey Oon on Twitter.

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