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Oct. 26, 2016, 9:45 a.m.
Business Models

The Information’s Jessica Lessin on how she’s scaling an already-expensive subscription product

Going both upmarket to investors ($10,000 a year) and downmarket to students ($234 a year).

The subscription-only technology site The Information is a niche product, at $399 a year. But now it’s expanding both up and down. Founder and CEO Jessica Lessin announced at the company’s Subscriber Summit last week that The Information is launching two new products: a student edition for $19.50 per month, and an extra-premium product called “The Information for Investors,” which is $10,000 a year.

“We want to have the largest tech reporting team in the Bay Area by next year,” Lessin said in her keynote, saying it’s currently No. 3 after Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal. The Information now has 19 people on its staff, including 12 Bay Area–based reporters covering tech.

“We’re profitable,” Lessin said in her keynote. The Information says it has “many thousands” of subscribers but doesn’t provide an exact number.

I spoke with Lessin about the new subscription products, the other ways The Information plans to grow its subscription base, and what she’s learned about hiring. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: Why are you launching the new subscription options?

Jessica Lessin: We’ve more than doubled the number of subscribers to our core offering over the past year. But we were also hearing a lot from different groups of people about ways we could tie price to value for people who don’t fall in the sweet spot of our core product.

The first is students, which I think is so important to the tech industry because so many of the best ideas in tech come from young people, and we have been hearing a lot of demand from students who are interested in subscribing but are just at a different point in their career, where $400 a year doesn’t make sense. We’re offering them that discount of 50 percent. We have been testing it and have already signed up students from 30 different schools, like Wharton, Harvard, and Stanford. We want to bring that community into the fold to comment on articles and participate in our community.

The Information for Investors was also hatched out of demand from existing investors of all different kinds, from hedge funds to VCs to private equity investors. They deeply value information and reporting about tech companies, and they can literally directly profit off some of our scoops and exclusives. But they also told us that they would appreciate more color about what our reporters are hearing. There may be news or analysis our reporters have that isn’t broadly valuable to our many thousands of subscribers, but would be valuable to people who are looking at it to make investment decisions.

We’ll be offering special, unique monthly conference calls for these subscribers, where we’ll share some of the flow of what we’re hearing and reporting. We’re looking for other ways to brief them on news that’s valuable to them, in addition to those calls.

Owen: You mentioned that the investor plan “starts at” $10,000. Will the price go higher than that in some cases?

Lessin: Not at this time. I say “starts at” because this is something that we’ll be evolving, but right now it’s just the $10,000 plan.

I should note that we’re also adding a ton of new features to our core offering, the $400 level. We do lots of conference calls for all our subscribers.

Owen: Do these premium subscribers get individual conference calls, or is there just one call for all of them? What are some of your other plans for that level?

Lessin: It would be one call [for all of them]. We’re also intending to limit the total number of subscribers to [the premium product]. We don’t have a specific number in mind right now, and it probably won’t be relevant in the short term, because we’re just getting it going, but our goal is to have something that is somewhat limited so there is a clear benefit to being part of it.

We’re starting with just the conference call and other types of briefings. We’ve gotten a lot of demand for in-person briefings if they’re in town.

Owen: Does this kind of offering require new training for your editorial staff?

Lessin: The beauty of it is that it requires no additional work, no change to how we operate our newsroom today at all. That’s because our reporters, in order to do the kinds of stories they do, are just constantly in the flow of so much valuable information. It’s information that we are sharing as a team and talking about all the time, so turning the relevant parts of it into briefings actually flows very naturally out of our current reporting process.

Our reporters will still be incredibly focused on their stories, and I think a lot of the product will be something where I try and assemble some of the reporting that we’re hearing as a team and that we think would be valuable into a package.

Owen: So back to the core offering: What are those subscribers getting and what new features have you rolled out?

Lessin: The main bucket is obviously the content: about two stories a day, exclusive stories that people aren’t going to be able to get elsewhere, delivered into people’s inboxes as well as posted online. That’s obviously the most important part.

Second to that is the community. That includes the online community on TheInformation.com, where we have an active group of contributors who add comments to articles. We’re doing more to promote those comments. We’re testing a homepage design that features comments from subscribers: The benefit there is sharing ideas with other leaders in business and tech, but also having visibility for your own ideas, which I think is a huge benefit.

The other online component of the community is the Slack backchannel, a Slack team where subscribers [and reporters] can chat in real time about a whole range of topics, from “Are you buying the new Pixel phone or the iPhone” to what people think about AT&T buying Time Warner. [It’s a way to] meet other subscribers, which I think people outside of hubs like Silicon Valley particularly appreciate.

Then there are our events, the offline community. Unlike other media companies, we don’t charge thousands of dollars for our events. We consider them part of the benefit of being an Information subscriber. For that same $400/year, you’re getting the opportunity to go to events like the summit we just had, or smaller networking parties throughout the year.

The final thing is that our conference calls are really a huge draw of the subscription. Articles are very effective at communicating some types of information, but there’s a lot more that you have in your notebook as a reporter, for all of our subscribers we have a monthly conference call where they can not only hear some talking points and themes that they’re interested, but directly ask our reporters questions. They can do that on Slack as well.

We have a podcast that’s really growing in popularity and we want to do more with it. [The podcast is free to all.]

Owen: You did a subscriber trip to China, right?

Lessin: I went to China for a month. Subscribers were invited to attend various events, and many did, often coinciding with existing business trips to China. They planned and paid for their own trips. That was a huge hit. We’ll definitely do more of that, especially now that we have an Asia bureau chief, Shai Oster, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter we hired from Bloomberg.

Owen: How do you grow your subscriber count?

Lessin: The most important way we draw new subscribers is just by writing must-read stories that people can’t read elsewhere. That happens naturally through word of mouth, and our stories being followed by other big news organizations remains a really important engine of growth.

On top of that, we’ve got some smart minds thinking about growth and marketing. Some of those efforts are focused on product. Our share links allow subscribers to share, with anyone they want, a link that will let any person read that story [in exchange for an email address]. Those are valuable and I think we can continue to improve them.

Email marketing remains a very exciting area. We get a lot of emails from people who want to learn more about The Information, so we’re focusing on how we can educate those people to get them to give us a try. So I would say the primary growth focus is constant improvements in editorial and the product, and we want to continue to do experiments like the share links.

Owen: You said in your keynote that you now have the “third largest reporting team covering technology in the Bay Area,” after Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, and that you increased your editorial team by 50 percent in the last 12 months. How many people is it now?

Lessin: On editorial, we have 12 Bay Area people covering tech. The reason we focused on that stat is that we were trying to reflect the number of people we have going out there and digging up news stories. We are 19 people overall.

Owen: What are some things that you’ve learned — things you changed or used to do differently, features that didn’t work?

Lessin: The main thing is continuing to hone the type of reporter who is a really awesome Information reporter. What we’re doing is pretty unique: We’re asking reporters to spend their days writing stories no one else is writing. That’s very different from how other reporters spend their days, which is reacting to news. [As with] any startup, in the beginning it took some time to figure out where I could find those reporters — where we’re really aligned and they don’t just theoretically like the idea of doing these stories, but can actually deliver them and are very passionate about delivering them. In terms of things I’ve learned, there’s been a shift in how I approach hiring reporters. It’s more of an evolution than anything dramatic, but it’s something I think a lot about because it’s so core to what we’re doing.

Owen: What are you looking for in these people?

Lessin: The first thing is that they have to have a track record of doing really tough, important stories. A lot of reporters romanticize doing deep investigative pieces or breaking big news or writing truly original analysis, but I’ve found that if they don’t have a track record of doing those stories, they’re not as good a fit.

The track record of those stories is more important than the subject matter. We’ve hired fabulous reporters who, prior to joining us, hadn’t covered tech — they’d covered real estate or something else, but their stories really stood out. That was more important than hiring reporters who had just been on the tech beat for a really long time.

Also, I think all good reporters have to be pretty tenacious and not give up. There’s a lot of pushback these days from companies and sources and all sorts of people who really mislead reporters constantly, particularly with stories that are tough about their business. It’s really important to stand firm. You have to have a really thick skin for the kinds of stories we do.

Photo by Julie Mikos, used with permission.

POSTED     Oct. 26, 2016, 9:45 a.m.
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