“No one pays for news in India”

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Tomorrow it will have been an entire year since The Ken launched as a subscription-based offering with our first paywalled story, on payday lenders in India.

Our product and premise were counterintuitive in more ways than one. One story – and only one story – every weekday. Original, insightful, analytical, deeply-reported and well-narrated. Covering startups, technology, healthcare, science and business. For subscribers only.

In one year, we’ve been lucky to sign up thousands of paying subscribers and tens of thousands of free ones using a model that’s entirely organic.

Less is more – we only publish one story every weekday. They’re mostly all written by our own staff. Each story is around 1,500-2,000 words on average, but sometimes going up to 3,000, 5,000 or even 10,000 words.

Well-narrated – we do not assume people read business stories because their jobs depend on it. Instead, we believe great business stories will balance deep reporting, analytical insight and a clear narrative in a way that makes them easy to read and understand. Lessons from innovation, entrepreneurship, strategy and failure are universal, and there’s no reason they should be limited to readers who understand a particular domain.

20% stories are free – one of our stories each week is entirely free to read, requiring just a free sign up. Since we don’t offer trials, these stories allow potential subscribers to sample us before signing up. Additionally, it gives us the flexibility to make stories in wider public interest free-to-read. (Here’s our archive of free stories).

Our 8.05 am emails are habit-forming – we publish our stories at 8.00 a.m IST every weekday. 5 minutes later, our subscribers get a summary of the day’s story, written by one of us. The emails are written by a different person each day, mostly by one of the co-founders, and are something our subscribers look forward to with eagerness. (You can get these even as a free subscriber).

Like most entrepreneurs, we too had started out with a bunch of gingerly gut feelings held together with the string of conviction bordering on hope. What were those feelings? That a LOT of what passed for business journalism was either boring, meaningless, poorly written or worse, compromised. That mindless quantity had destroyed quality across the entire news value chain. That in spite of unprecedented disruption and innovation around us, business news was losing relevance among readers. That being dependent on advertising for survival was leading publishers to either sell their readers or their journalism out. And finally, that readers’ unwillingness to pay for news was more a statement on the quality of the product on offer, than on the customers.

Three of the four of The Ken’s co-founders—Seema, Ashish and I—have been business journalists. But together with the fourth, Sumanth, whose inner business journalist never broke out of his serial entrepreneur body, we shared a common desire—MBJRA. Make Business Journalism Relevant Again.

And the heart of that renaissance would need to be readers paying for news. All else remaining constant, a customer paying directly for a product is still the purest way to assess the value of a product.

So, we chose a Subscription Model. There are many reasons why Subscription Models are great for journalism, but three were particularly important for us:

  • To put our journalistic money where our mouths were—day after day. If our stories weren’t good enough, readers wouldn’t pay us. Simple.
  • To ensure that our unrelenting focus was delivering value for our customers (that is, subscribers), not advertisers.
  • To insulate ourselves from biases and pressures on the kinds of stories we would do, usually from advertisers.

To be clear, we did also raise $400,000 in angel funding from a bunch of high quality first-generation entrepreneurs. This allowed us to build a world-class editorial team without having to wait till subscription revenues caught up. Our investors have zero visibility or say in our editorial operations, and we aggressively disclose any potential conflicts of interest between their businesses and our stories (Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s name comes up most often, because of the number of businesses Paytm’s in).

In addition to individual subscribers, we also have numerous corporate subscribers who buy our subscriptions in bulk for their employees. We’ll also be shortly launching college subscriptions (this is distinct from the 50% discount we offer to students individually).

The 1st year is often hard to survive, but the 2nd year is instead hard to deliver upon. Because the sheer act of survival creates expectations from you that didn’t exist earlier.

We realize that. As we get into year two, we’ve got two key focus areas: building our community and expanding our reach through newer products.

The Ken survival in year one was made possible with the support of its subscribers and readers. I’m sure that its growth in year two will be for the same reasons too. Please email us your comments, ideas and suggestions on how we can do that. We’re all at firstname@the-ken.com

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