Three years ago, on 3 October 2016, The Ken formally came into existence with our first subscriber-paywalled story. As we embark on our fourth year—a journey that promises to be more adventurous and perilous than any before—Sumanth, Rohin and I want to thank you deeply for your support.
We started The Ken with a modest aim—make sense of the new economy businesses around us. As private companies grow in power and size, they are also turning opaque on essential business facts and financials. To write about that complexity with fairness, accuracy and independence—tenets of great journalism—requires resources.
Ironically, that is the struggle of our times. Journalism everywhere is squeezed between regimes—both political and business—that’d rather curb freedom of expression than fuel it, and revenue generation. At the biennial Global Investigative Journalism Conference that concluded this Sunday in Hamburg, Germany, it was awe-inspiring to see how journalists from different countries are risking their lives to (un)cover massive bank scams, organised crime in the government and enterprises, even unearthing mass graves in places like Mexico. It was equally troubling to see that funding such journalism, sustainably, was the common theme running across hundreds of sessions for the 1,500+ journalists who had gathered from 130 countries.
What is the best model? To go niche and small? To go back to the roots and reclaim the trust and loyalty of core audiences? To ask them to pay for quality journalism?
At The Ken, we are thankful to our readers for giving us that beachhead. It’s our business model—subscription-driven revenue—more than anything else that has allowed us to do what we are doing. Without much distraction. Because the label of “fake news” or “paid media” that many governments and businesses slap on independent writing can be quite distracting. In the same manner that Toni Morrison, the writer and Nobel laureate, called racism a distraction. “Racism keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.”
We just have to keep doing good stories. That’s one thing we’ve learnt in three years. Drawing inspiration from Sam Walton of Walmart, we learnt to “think small” and focus on our readers.
For an organisation that reports on the trials and tribulations of young startups almost every other day, it is still hard for us to turn the lens on ourselves. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re a startup too, and one that faces as many challenges and chases as many opportunities as others do.
Sumanth, my co-founder, is quite uniquely placed among us due to his long experience as a serial entrepreneur in India’s tech startup ecosystem. So, I asked him, why did we choose a subscription model back in 2016, much before it was fashionable to do so?
This was the most common question we were asked when we launched The Ken.
In turn, the question that we asked ourselves, though, was whether there was any other sustainable business model for a company like ours?
Depending on internet advertisements was a zero-sum game of diminishing returns against overlords like Google and Facebook. Besides being forced to surveil our readers and build richer and richer behavioural profiles on them.
Being reliant on events for most of our revenue would’ve been an orthogonal play, but with several perverse incentives.
Soliciting donations or charging companies to “promote” them were avenues that we wouldn’t even consider.
But while subscriptions seemed a natural choice, we had no idea whether readers would pay for our journalism—and would there be a large enough audience for this? Even in the West, there were very few successful stand-alone subscription media businesses.
A thousand subscribers is all we were hoping for when we started. We figured that if we could get 1,000 subscribers in one year, we could build a small but meaningful business that could sustain a small pool of writers.
We blew past that figure in just over a month. From that point, the pace never slowed.
It was immediately clear to us that there is a real market for informed journalism and insightful analysis. We realised that our best bet to build this business was to treat our stories as a product—”Stories as a Service” (our version of SaaS, if you will). Bringing Praveen Gopal Krishnan on board as Head of Product to drive this initiative not only gave us a clear separation of church and state, but also forced us to adopt a disciplined way of assessing every business aspect, from pricing to marketing.
I daresay that we are one of the few subscription plays globally which has a product and engineering team that is almost as large as our pool of writers—this team has helped us have a clear idea on unit economics and sustainable growth, something that’s an afterthought for most other media companies.
Our ambitions are now far bigger. To 100,000 and beyond. Something that’s increasingly keeping my co-founder Rohin up.
Turning three is a good time for us to talk about our ambitions. For the first time since we started out, the scale of our planning horizons is moving from months to years. It will be a testing transition for us.
Like for most startups, for The Ken, too, the “horizon” for the first few years was a cliff, of survival. Don’t reach its edge, don’t fall off it, don’t die.
We didn’t. Thanks to you and thousands of others like you. And dozens of organisations and college campuses. As well as supportive institutions like the IPS Media Foundation. And, of course, our investors.
Which means the cliff is now a rainbow on the horizon, of opportunity.
Turning three has given us first-hand insight into the immense opportunity in fixing journalism by simultaneously fixing its business model, too, via subscriptions.
How can The Ken grow beyond its hitherto single-minded promise of just one story a day from a very sharply defined set of sectors? How can we bring in a much larger set of subscribers, without alienating those who like us as we already are? How can we expand into newer areas— sectors, geographies, formats—while staying as focused as we are today on the value we deliver each day? How can we balance usage of the newer products we offer with the fixed amount of time subscribers have in their days?
Here’s to many more anniversaries together. This will be a testing transition for us. Perhaps our rainbow might still turn back into a cliff, but it’s a risk worth taking.
All I can say is that our next 3 years are going to look very different from our last 3. Do stick around for the ride, and help course-correct us should we ever veer off course.