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“Information wants to be free.” – Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, 1984.

No five words have had more of an impact on the evolution and impact of the Internet. (Even though the actual quote snippet used a much less sexier “almost free”.)

But as computer scientist, author, philosopher and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier says in one his best books, “Information doesn’t deserve to be free.”

To that I’d like to add, “Ditto, journalism.”

It’s been just over two years since The Ken launched, unapologetically behind a subscription paywall since day 1. In a massive, underpenetrated market where newspaper readership is still growing but readers have been conditioned to paying next to nothing for it.

It took us those two years to achieve what software startups call “product-market fit”—acceptance of a new product in a large potential market by a sufficiently large number of customers.

Back in October 2016, we were India’s largest subscriptions-only media company when we launched, simply because we were the only ones truly focusing on it. In 2019, we’re still number one because we crossed 10,000 paying and active subscribers over the past year.

We’ve never revealed our subscription numbers before this, but now feel confident enough to do so because of the tail wind advantage provided by our passionate subscribers.

Seeing our early success, many of India’s largest media companies have launched their own subscription products. To my knowledge, none of our competitors come close to our subscriber numbers despite pricing discounts, heavy advertising and significantly larger budgets.

But that doesn’t faze us, because we’re only at the cusp of a structural shift in business journalism. One that places subscribers as both the consumers and customers of high-quality journalism, unlike the advertising-funded model where subscribers may be consumers, but the real customers are advertisers.

We see the next two years as an opportunity to remake business journalism from the ground up, around subscribers and first principles.

What product-market fit looks like

One of the most significant markers of product-market fit is organic growth. And The Ken hasn’t spent a single rupee on paid acquisition since launch. Our growth has thus been entirely powered through our subscribers sharing our stories with their colleagues, friends and family, prompting some of them to subscribe as well.

3 months ago, we formally launched The Ken on Weekends, our signature long-form features tailored for weekends. The early stats are promising.

Interestingly, all of our growth has happened without us ever having to discount our pricing or throw in freebies. Because we take pride in our product, but don’t offer free trials or refunds. On the contrary, we’ve increased our pricing behind the scenes.

This is important because pricing power is the single most important decision in evaluating a business. I don’t say this, Warren Buffett does. This is because the price that customers are willing to pay for your product conveys a lot about the value they derive from it. Thanks to our subscribers we’ve held on to our pricing power even as rival products have offered discounts, 15-day trials and one-rupee-subscriptions.

The reason we’ve been able to establish and hold on to our pricing power is because our philosophy has been “subscribers-first” right from day 1.

From philosophy to business model

The Ken was founded with a firm belief in the philosophy of subscriptions. Because we believed that was the best alignment of interest between readers and ourselves.

Since then, we have invested a significant amount of effort in creating a diversified business model around subscriptions too.

While the heart of subscription journalism is the paywall, it’s important to find newer subscribers, each of whom has the potential to lower the paywall for larger sets of readers. Thus, from just retail subscriptions at launch, we’ve gradually expanded to corporate subscriptions, college subscriptions and patron subscriptions.

 Today, over 50 organisations have bought our subscriptions for their employees, as have some of the world’s most prestigious b-schools. Meanwhile, our patron subscribers have helped us take our journalism to readers who perhaps may not have been able to afford a subscription themselves.

That’s not all. Our free journalism is also partly funded by the IPS Media Foundation, a non-profit foundation that aids independent media organizations.

Thus, when we decided to raise venture capital earlier this year in a Series A round led by Omidyar Network, we weren’t doing it as a Hail Mary for survival. Instead, our Series A was meant to give us additional capital to invest in talent, products and growth, ahead of revenues.

“Subscribers-first” cannot be an afterthought

In many ways, subscriptions are the highest, purest form of a business’ relationship with its customers. Because customers trust and value the product enough to pay for it in advance, and because the business must then do a good job of delivering on that promise so that customers will renew their subscriptions.

The foundation for this relationship is value. Without value, a subscription product will not sell adequately. Without value, existing subscribers will not renew.

In the context of business journalism, delivering value first and foremost to subscribers helped us find our true north and evolve our culture. For example:

  • We insist that everyone who’s part of our editorial team, regardless of role or seniority, report and write stories. This is the equivalent of early stage tech startups where coding is something everyone does, by choice.
  • We go to great lengths to ensure our reportage, stories, opinions and points of view are original.
  • We place great emphasis on the authorship of our stories. In our opinion, great journalism is produced by great journalists and should not be an anonymous product.
  • We value our ethics beyond all else. If there’s a potential conflict of interest in our stories, or a correction that was made, we will disclose it. You will be hard pressed to find an ethics or disclosure policy for some of our competitors.
  • In a world awash with repackaged content and ill-informed opinions, we always prioritise reportage.

We also say “No” to a lot of strategies and tactics that are commonplace in established publications.

  • We don’t syndicate our stories on third-party platforms or newspapers, even though we’ve gotten numerous requests for it. Because we want our subscribers to know that when they pay us money for our stories, we will not quietly make it available elsewhere for free or at cheaper prices.
  • We don’t offer free trials because it encourages opportunistic consumption with no risk. Instead, we pick one of our weekly stories and make it available as a sample of our body of work. Added up over the last two years, that’s over 150 stories. In our opinion, restricted sampling is better than unrestricted trials.
  • We don’t profile our subscribers or collect unnecessary data about them. Because we value their privacy as much as we value ours. And because we will never sell or expose subscriber data to third parties.
  • Our paywall isn’t “leaky”, meaning there is no backdoor to articles (via Google search, for instance) unless you’re a subscriber.

This isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re a legacy media organisation trying to add on subscriptions as another revenue head.

The Future is Exciting

The subscription shift is only just starting. We’ve spent the last 2 years carefully assembling the building blocks of the post-advertising digital journalism organisation—one with subscribers at its heart. These blocks include:

  • Reportage-driven, original journalism
  • Narrative-based, explanatory storytelling
  • Product and tech chops that are second to none
  • Passionate and engaged subscriber community
  • A world-class team bound together by a strong culture

The opportunity, both within and outside India, is immense.  Expect The Ken to do many more things in 2019.


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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