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With a decade of covering Asia’s tech ecosystem, Tech In Asia is no stranger to the volatility of startup life — nor is it immune.
Battling through its own trenches in search of viability for over a decade, the Singapore-based media outlet recently announced 2019 as its first profitable year since CEO Willis Wee co-founded it as tech blog Penn Olson in 2009, thanks to a revenue mix of events, branded content and recently launched paid subscriptions.
TIA’s 10-year journey was marked by sharp periods of growth, contraction and experiments. I joined TIA in 2015 as a freelance correspondent for South Korea. Backed by a fresh $4 million investment, TIA’s headcount at that time topped 100 with full-time staff covering startup news across China, Pakistan, India and Southeast Asia.
But as financial realities set in, TIA let go of all freelance contributors — including me — and its Vietnam team in 2016, as well as most of its India bureau in 2017. Several former employees declined to comment for this story.
A 2017 investment by South Korean conglomerate Hanwha kept the company afloat to work on projects, including a recruitment segment with a pay-to-list jobs marketplace and a people database. But those fell short of expectations, says Terence Lee, then TIA’s editor-in-chief (now its chief correspondent).
Lee said by then the financial runway had shortened to less than a year, and the company had to decide whether to go for the next moonshot. With the buzz around cryptocurrency at the time, the company built plans for an initial coin offering to fundraise for Tribe, a blockchain-powered, community-driven content system that would allow guest contributors to be paid for their content.
But Tribe was an expensive experiment that added to further problems. “Internally, there were concerns about how it would disrupt the current business… and cause us to lose focus,” Lee said. Pulling the plug on it, the company cut 30% of its workforce, especially in video, engineering and data science, from a 150-person peak in May 2018.
While the previous layoffs were of remote editorial teams, the latest cut hit close to home, gutting the Singapore headquarters. It shattered morale in a way the other layoffs hadn’t, and burned out veteran staff filed out on their own accord.
Lee said the India and Vietnam layoffs were a “rationalization” — cutting away units that didn’t make money — but “2018 was really for our survival.” He compared it to “chopping off an arm versus striking at the heart.”
“You could feel the atmosphere. You start to feel tables emptying, and huge empty spaces,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t a pleasant time.”
CEO Willis Wee, who declined an interview (says he doesn’t like giving them), entered “war mode,” striving to reach company profitability as soon as possible through its core editorial competency, he said in a recent podcast.
On the events front, the company shuttered its Tokyo and Singapore conferences to execute a more concerted big-tent flagship conference in Indonesia. In September 2018, TIA launched a subscription model despite some public skepticism.
Wee said he tried to be more logical than emotional in trying to save the company. “A lot of people have been working at Tech in Asia for a long time, so it’s always going to be very painful,” he said in the podcast, describing having to lay off a close friend and longtime employee and breaking down in tears. “Thinking about that still makes me sad.”
Maria Li, a former Apple regional manager, joined as COO in February 2019 to improve business operations. Only then did she realize the internal chaos she inherited — but she saw it as a “golden opportunity” for a turnaround based on an existing solid foundation. “The team, despite themselves and despite everyone being stressed and the morale being really low, that they can still put out really great products and services means that if we can just clean up… the sky’s the limit in terms of potential.”
She revived project SYNC, a series of small closed-door summits with high-profile speakers for thought leaders across Asia’s tech industry, from the backburner to prove a viable avenue for sponsorship and engagement. When the 100-person event was quickly oversubscribed, the confidence helped the team straighten its course.
“For me, I always thought we could do it, but for the rest of the team, it was transformational,” said Li, who had been a loyal TIA reader and event attendee before joining the company. “People started believing in themselves again.”
Conditions were finally looking up. The singular big-tent conference in Indonesia and the subscription model launch were both considered successes, and an internal reorganization of existing staff to create a better customer experience for branded studio clients helped to streamline operations, increase revenue “significantly” and lock in larger partnership deals, Li said.
Now that conditions are less dire, the company has re-entered “peace mode,” as Wee described in the podcast. Finances are in more control, with decisions for specific events and content outputs tied closely to costs and ROI, Li said. They’re focusing more on rebuilding company culture, and teaching employees why profitability matters and how employees benefit.
Bringing on fresh blood to replace those who quit has people excited again, and the company is focusing on hiring senior members — a sign that “we finally know what we’re doing,” Li added.
The new TIA is accompanied by a vision for deeper editorial work, backed by high-ranking hires which include Jonathan Burgos (formerly of Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg and Forbes Asia) as editor-in-chief, and former Reuters, CNBC and Wall Street Journal reporter Kenan Machado as senior correspondent.
Around 70 staff make up TIA across Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and Hong Kong. The site, with coverage in English and Indonesian, sees 1.4 million monthly views, according to SimilarWeb data.
Since it launched paid subscriptions 15 months ago, the company claims 160,000 newsletter subscribers and over 3,500 paid subscribers, which itself covers costs. Subscriptions make up 20% of the revenue mix, with events and branded studio content contributing 40% each, Li said.
The editorial team plans to grow its coverage, especially in China, India and Vietnam, as rivals encroach. The Ken, a subscription outlet covering India, recently launched a Southeast Asian arm. But TIA has age on its side with its decade-old trove of data to produce more insights, visualizations and new content formats, Lee said.
“After what we’ve gone through in the last 18 months, I have the perspective that change is the only constant… it’s very difficult to embrace it,” Wee said on the podcast. “If Tech in Asia can be a 100-year-old company, I’d be super proud.”
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