So you’ve got a startup. What’s your business model?

Figure out who you are, keep an open mind, and stay on your toes.

The business road ahead for media startups in Asia requires flexibility, innovation, and the willingness to test-run revenue ideas.    

When it comes to business models, China’s Caixin Media, The News Lens in Taiwan, South Korean startup incubator Mediati and Malaysiakini all have different experiences to share.

 

Building readership and other strategies

Step one: figure out who your core readers are so you can serve them. While advertising sales and sponsored content may work for larger and older companies, newly conceived startups don’t have the staff resources to support these methods long-term.

For the two-decades-old digital newspaper, Malaysiakini, efforts to generate regular readers in the early days paved the way to achieving sustainable funding. “If there’s hope, I think that’s the hope that if you build a really loyal audience then you can build on top of it,” founder and CEO Premesh Chandran tells the audience at Splice Beta.

In 2017, Caixin Media was the first news company in China to set up a paywall. They’d discovered a hunger among young Chinese readers for objective political news in a landscape where the media is heavily censored. Managing editor Ling Huawei says it was this consumer base that drove their subscription revenue.

But building readership isn’t the only strategy startups can come up with. In Taiwan, The News Lens has been acquiring smaller media competitors in its third year and is looking towards expanding internationally. According to co-founder and CEO Joey Chung, increasing their portion of the Taiwanese media market has allowed them to optimise data, attract advertising sales and centralise niche readership around their platform.

“There’s that natural limitation in terms of how you can grow. Instead of setting up a competitor, why don’t we start consolidating?” he says. “That’s how we’ve gained 14 million unique views, and that’s something we can sell to advertisers.”

 

Balancing journalism and business priorities

There is no one-size-fits-all business model for startups; each will have to find its own way depending on its own nature and goals. Mediati has chosen to keep newsroom costs lean, especially since they work with startups at a stage where they can only hire several reporters. Caixin, on the other hand, has chosen a different route by investing in experienced journalists to produce high-quality content that drives revenue. Satisfying investors who expect startups to grow and scale up is another factor to consider, especially for The News Lens and its expansion into Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

The process of finding that sweet spot to produce good journalism and turn a profit takes time, but is well worth the effort. One way to help things go more smoothly, the panellists say, is to keep their newsroom leaders informed and on the same page, so that everyone understands how the chosen business model is working to support efforts like investigative reporting.

Trial and error is, unsurprisingly, par for the course, regardless of the business model. Chung recommends that entrepreneurs avoid sticking too rigidly to a specific model, since market conditions and the needs of the startup will always be evolving. Rapid developments in technology will also make their mark on the media landscape, which is why Ling says Caixin Media is aiming to integrate a mindset for innovation.

And these challenges don’t go away, either. Whether your startup is in its second year or second decade, Premesh points out that change is never easy and “often happens during a crisis, but when you get it right, you will see it can work.”

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