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Virtuous Loops

Always be experimenting. Never arrive

It took The Ken 9 quarters to cross 10,000 paying subscribers. But only 2 quarters to add another 5,000. We’re still an experiment


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In October 2016 when we launched, The Ken wasn’t much more than a belief in the minds of a few of us. By 2017, our belief was shared by a few thousand subscribers and a bunch of really experienced, successful & supportive angel investors. With our Series A funding a year later, in 2018, we felt confident enough to upgrade our belief to a vision.

But there was one thing we remained throughout – an experiment. It’s 2019 and we’re still an experiment. A significantly larger and more ambitious experiment, but one, nonetheless.

Being an experiment means you never stop learning. It means you never stop being curious. It means you never accept status quo. It means you never stop pushing yourself harder to become the best version of yourself.

In October 2016 none of us in our wildest dreams thought we’d cross a few hundred subscribers in our first few months. We crossed 1,000 that December. That validated our initial belief that subscribers would pay for high-quality business journalism. We celebrated a bit, then hunkered down and reset our experiment – would there be 10 times as many subscribers who would value and support us similarly?

It would then take us another two years to cross 10,000 active subscribers.

Last month, we crossed 15,000 active subscribers. Here’s what our active subscriber growth looks like today. (Remember, 100% of this growth is organic as we’ve never spent a single dollar on paid customer acquisition.)

The Ken's active subscribers over time

What does this mean? It simply means there’s a market for high-quality, long-form business journalism. We’re privileged that thousands of subscribers value our work enough to pay us a premium over any other comparable peer in the market, many of who churn out way more quantity than our one-story-a-day.

But it would be foolish for us – every single one at The Ken – to mistake this for success already. Instead, we asked ourselves, since our journalism was a subscription product, could we measure and model it using the same metrics SaaS companies did? Like, say, monthly recurring revenue (MRR)? Turns out we could.

The Ken's MRR over time

Being experiment-driven means you’re also hypothesis-driven. “Will this work?”, “Will this scale?”, “Should this continue?”, “Will this sustain?” are some of the questions that drive us daily.

For instance, sure retail subscribers liked our work, but would institutional and non-retail subscribers love and pay for our journalism too? They did.

Because in order to validate that hypothesis, our Product and Engineering team had put in a lot of effort to launch completely original implementations of corporate subscriptions, campus subscriptions and patron subscriptions.

The Ken's subscription mix over time

Being hypothesis-driven means you’re always looking to puncture your own metrics, growth assumptions and beliefs. Conversely, you’re constantly formulating new hypotheses to counterbalance against an unforeseen failure of earlier ones. Sort of like derivatives, but for organizational strategy.

The glue that connects it all for us is curiosity, a bedrock of our culture. That and learning, the output of each and every experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, whether it proves or disproves a hypothesis.

Curiosity –> Hypothesis –> Experiment –> Learning. It’s a simple yet virtuous loop that drives The Ken. It’s what brings us back to work each day. It’s what motivates us.

But it does not mean we’ve arrived, because we never will. Authors James Collins and Jerry Porras described it best as the “We’ve Arrived Syndrome”:

“Finally, in thinking about the envisioned future, beware of the We’ve Arrived Syndrome—a complacent lethargy that arises once an organization has achieved one BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and fails to replace it with another.  […] Startup companies frequently suffer from the We’ve Arrived Syndrome after going public or after reaching a stage in which survival no longer seems in question. An envisioned future helps an organization only as long as it hasn’t yet been achieved. In our work with companies, we frequently hear executives say, “It’s just not as exciting around here as it used to be; we seem to have lost our momentum.” Usually, that kind of remark signals that the organization has climbed one mountain and not yet picked a new one to climb.” – Building Your Company’s Vision, Harvard Business Review, September 1996

We love our subscribers for having brought us this far, and because we love them, we don’t ever intend to arrive. By keeping on experimenting.

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On journalism and why you should pay for it, if you haven’t already seen it, here’s a great explainer from John Oliver.

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