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March 5, 2020, 10:28 a.m.

After a decade of testing business models, Tech In Asia is finally on a path to profitability

“After what we’ve gone through in the last 18 months, I have the perspective that change is the only constant…If Tech in Asia can be a 100-year-old company, I’d be super proud.”

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 from it itself.

Battling in search of viability for over a decade, the Singapore-based media outlet recently announced that 2019 was its first profitable year since CEO Willis Wee cofounded it as the 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 its freelance contributors — including me — and its Vietnam team in 2016, as well as most of its India bureau in 2017.

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 percent of its workforce, especially in video, engineering, and data science, from a 150-person peak in May 2018.

While previous layoffs were of remote editorial teams, that cut hit close to home, gutting the Singapore headquarters. It shattered morale in a way the other layoffs hadn’t, and a number of burned-out staffers left of 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.”

Wee, who declined an interview (he says he doesn’t like giving them), entered “war mode,” striving to reach profitability as soon as possible through its core editorial work, he said in a recent podcast.

On the events front, the company shut down its Tokyo and Singapore conferences to execute a more concerted big-tent flagship conference in Indonesia. In September 2018, TIA launched a subscription model to 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 SYNC, a series of small closed-door summits with high-profile speakers for thought leaders across Asia’s tech industry, in order to prove a viable avenue for sponsorship and engagement. When the first 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.”

Things 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 put it 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 staffers — 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 including 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 staffers now work for TIA, across Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, and Hong Kong. The site, which publishes in English and Indonesian, sees 1.4 million monthly views, according to SimilarWeb.

Since it launched paid subscriptions 15 months ago, the company has gained over 3,500 subscribers. (It also has 160,000 newsletter subscribers.) Paid subscriptions generate 20 percent of overall revenue, with events and branded studio content contributing about 40 percent each, Li said.

The editorial team plans to expand 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 experience 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.”

Elaine Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in South Korea. A version of this story ran at Splice, which covers media startups in Asia.

POSTED     March 5, 2020, 10:28 a.m.
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