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Jan. 31, 2020, 10:06 a.m.

Seeing a gap in Southeast Asia, India’s The Ken plots a regional expansion with local reporters

“There was a lot of convincing each other and bursting each other’s bubbles. You don’t want people to be too drunk on Kool-Aid or too cynical, as journalists tend to be.”

Editor’s note: We are happy to publish this story from our friends at Splice, the self-proclaimed “Nieman Lab of Asia.” (Personally, I like to think of us as the “Nieman Lab of Everywhere,” but there’s room for all!)

But we also want to send our best wishes to Splice’s Alan Soon and Rishad Patel. The biggest event of their year, the Splice Beta conference, was scheduled to be held February 18 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. But because of the coronavirus outbreak and the WHO’s declaration of a global health emergency yesterday, they’ve had to postpone the sold-out conference.

They’re planning to reschedule for the second half of 2020. But a conference of this size (62 speakers from 35 countries, 53 percent of them women! attendees from more than 150 organizations!) is a huge and expensive undertaking, especially for a small two-person startup like Splice. Having to postpone has no doubt put a lot of financial pressure on them.

So if you’re at all interested in the media startup scene in Asia, I hope you’ll support them in some way — subscribe to their four newsletters, attend Splice Beta when it’s rescheduled, hire them for consulting work, whatever. The media innovation world is better with a strong Splice in it.

When the team at Bangalore-based The Ken — a one-story-a-day, subscriber-only publication covering technology, business, and healthcare — felt that the company had found product-market fit in India, they began to think of next steps for expansion.

“We looked at various dimensions,” remembered co-founder Rohin Dharmakumar. “Should we be looking at new sectors? Products? Geographies?”

They landed on geographies — specifically, Southeast Asia. “It was the strongest of these cases,” Dharmakumar said. “We’ve been reading the stories that come out of Southeast Asia and haven’t found a similar consistent source of analysis. We were also increasingly seeing Indian startups going into Southeast Asia and vice versa.”

In a way, Dharmakumar explained, the region looked a lot like the India in which The Ken started back in 2016: “The growth rates, aspiration, and competitive drive in Southeast Asia were closer to what we see in India than what it would be in the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “Additionally, many of these markets had significant numbers of people who are comfortable with English.”

Their first hire — Bangkok-based Jon Russell, who was covering Asia for TechCrunch at the time — helped them figure out a path. “We spent a lot of time talking about what a product for Southeast Asia would look like,” Dharmakumar said. “There was a lot of convincing each other and bursting each other’s bubbles. You don’t want people to be too drunk on Kool-Aid or too cynical, as journalists tend to be.”

Russell started work in July. Over the next six months, he helped build out their team, which now totals five journalists in Thailand (Russell), Malaysia (Ka Kay Lum), Singapore (Benjamin Cher), Indonesia (Nadine Freischlad), and the Philippines (Jum Balea). “It was important for us to have journalists on board to get the local connections and have the pulse of the region,” Dharmakumar said. “We’re a reporting-driven organization, and we don’t believe it’s easy to do quality stories remotely.”

The Ken’s full team during an onsite meetup in Bangalore earlier this month.

Since July, Southeast Asia stories have been hosted on The Ken’s main India-focused site. This week, it announced that it would unbundle its Southeast Asia offering from its India product. Customers who wish to read Southeast Asia coverage will have to subscribe to the new publication, which will come with an independent newsletter. There’s a waitlist for the Southeast Asia product, but subscribers who already pay for The Ken’s India coverage get early access.

Pricing for the Southeast Asia product hasn’t been announced, but the Indian offering is priced at $108 annually and $50 quarterly. (The Ken has more than 15,000 subscribers and has set a goal of “100,000 and beyond.”) The Ken will also continue its strategy of building out content by segmenting its audiences into cohorts, not by demographics.

“People who read us are venture capitalists, investors, founders, professionals, business school students, policy makers, people who work in the tech and product space, entrepreneurs,” Dharmakumar said. “There’s a lot of action taking place in these fundamentals in the markets we’re expanding into.”

There are several challenges. An obvious one is the need to convince readers to subscribe: “The shift toward subscriptions is sometimes a belief-driven plunge, and we may fail, but it requires belief. Nobody thought it could work in India, but it did.”

Dharmakumar says The Ken’s time in India has convinced them that emerging startup hubs have plenty of readers who will pay to have someone else read the tea leaves for them. “Consumers today are much more aware and attuned to the need for a quality product,” he said. “We try to prepare our readers for what might happen next. I don’t see a reason why someone in Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand wouldn’t be interested in that.”

As The Ken builds out an increasingly international team, Dharmakumar also brings up the challenge of working remotely. “The culture issue is one of the most important things for us,” he said. “Until now, we’ve been in India, working in distributed bureaus. What does it mean to create a truly remote workplace?”

There’s also competition. Although Dharmakumar describes The Ken as distinct in its analysis and unique among news brands, there are many other publications that focus on Southeast Asia. Deep-pocketed international publications, including Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, employ local reporters across the region, and a whole spate of media startups are offering tech news for free.

But The Ken is betting it can stand out from that crowd. “It’s easy to conflate gaps and opportunities,” Dharmakumar said. “We like to think that this is an opportunity.”

Meghna Rao is the managing editor of The Juggernaut. A version of this story ran at Splice.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2020, 10:06 a.m.
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