In the nearly six years that The Ken has been around, we’ve grown and changed in countless ways. We have also stubbornly refused to change in a few areas, notably:

(a) Our annual subscription still costs the same as it did in October 2016

(b) Our journalism and products are guided by, and created for, only our subscribers

(c) Our products do not feature any advertising

Today, we’re running an experiment that counters point (c) directly—we’re running an advertisement in The Nutgraf, our Saturday newsletter that synthesises multiple Indian business stories from the week gone by.

Over the next few weeks, we plan to work with a very limited and select list of brands and product makers to run a few exclusive advertisements in some of our products. We will take great care to ensure that the products being advertised are relevant and valuable for a large percentage of our subscribers. Our goal will be to keep these advertisements as minimal (both in design and number), unobtrusive, and well demarcated as possible. Full editorial control for the copy and images in these advertisements will rest with us, and as a result, full responsibility too. 

If you’d like to partner us on some of these experiments, tell us a bit about yourself.

We’re still calling it a set of experiments because, honestly, we’re not sure where these will lead. But our subscribers, past and present, still deserve an answer to the question: “What changed our minds?” Let’s start with that.

What is changing

As both an independent newsroom and product startup, our overarching goal is to become financially sustainable. Because without financial sustainability, there is no real independence. The news space is littered with examples of promising disruptors that died out because they could not become financially independent enough to control their own destiny.

The growth of our subscription revenue year after year has allowed us to do many things we didn’t think possible back in 2016. We have grown to nearly 50 people. We built and manage our entire tech stack. We expanded into Southeast Asia, where we have five full-time colleagues today. We have talented, in-house product and design teams. We work on the latest Macbooks and subscribe to some of the best productivity, collaboration, and creation tools globally. Most importantly, our journalism has expanded from just a single story a day to multiple stories and newsletters on any given day.

And our backlog of future products—whether new storytelling formats and mediums or digital experiences—runs into years.

Why am I telling you this? Because we are bullish on the future of subscriptions and want to increase our ability to invest in the future. If revenue from advertisements can accelerate our ability to do that, it is a path we must explore. 

Besides, we’ve always believed in continuously diversifying our revenue mix by trying new things. This is how we went from a product designed primarily for individual subscribers to one bought by hundreds of companies for their employees and by dozens of colleges for their students and staff.

For the last six years, we have proven that subscriptions can be a sustainable and meaningful business model. This has helped create a solid base to give us the leeway to experiment with additional revenue streams. Advertisements is one of those experiments.

If you feel like we’re trying to have our subscription cake and eat our advertisement cake too, I’d understand. Because, at least in India and Southeast Asia, our collective distrust of advertisements in news is grounded in the lived reality of seeing how media organisations that are largely dependent on them behave.

But that is not a given.

I have been a paid subscriber to The New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal for many years. All of them run ads, even for subscribers. Do we think the act of running ads biases their journalism?

I see no reason why The Ken cannot aim for the same. For nearly six years, we have steadfastly built our editorial brand on the basis of original, reported, and unbiased business journalism. We’ve done this while aggressively disclosing our investor conflicts every time we write a story that even remotely connects to them.

I assure you, we aren’t about to let a few advertisements affect our editorial independence or brand.

What isn’t changing

We’ve always believed in minimising the data we collect on our subscribers because we value their privacy as much as we value ours. That isn’t changing.

We’ve said we won’t sell, share, or expose any individual or identifiable subscriber data to any third parties. That isn’t changing. 

We benchmark our editorial independence, ethics, and disclosure policies to the best journalism organisations in the world. That isn’t changing. 

Keeping all of these unchanged is our way of ensuring that we continue to remain 100% focused on subscribers. For nearly six years, we have woken up every day and asked ourselves, “Is the work we’re putting out today going to make a subscription worth it for a new subscriber? Is it going to be worth enough for an existing subscriber to stay subscribed?”

That isn’t changing.

AUTHOR

Rohin Dharmakumar

Rohin is co-founder and CEO at The Ken. He holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and an engineering degree in Computer Sciences from the R.V.C.E., Bangalore.

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