Mustafa Kassim never intended to start an international media company. But while studying economics in California, something kept bugging him: the only websites he could find to keep up on the latest back in Sri Lanka were full of basic news items and gossip. “Nothing that can give you a glimpse of what was really happening in Sri Lanka,” he says.
When he returned home to Colombo, Kassim joined the family business but soon grew restless with the corporate lifestyle. That’s when he decided to launch Roar Media in early 2014 as a side project covering current affairs, business, lifestyle and culture.
For the first 18 months, he relied on a patchy network of freelancers so it never took off. That’s when he realized he would have to go all-in to make it a success.
“I wanted to dive in deeper and see if I started spending my full-time effort and actually putting some money behind the company, where it could go. So we took that risk,” the 25-year-old says.
He set about hiring a team of full-time employees who were tasked with creating informative and entertaining content, and the business soon began growing, he tells Splice.
“When it was time to expand we were thinking we had two options: either we could target Sri Lankans living abroad in English or go vernacular and target Sinhala and the Tamil readers. So we opted for the latter and started a Sinhala content site,” he said. “Even though there was a lot of content in the Sinhala sphere, there wasn’t anything like this that provided really informative and entertaining content that wasn’t just news and gossip.” The Tamil-language site soon followed, bringing with it “very encouraging signs,” Kassim says.
Launched just four years ago, Sri Lanka's @RoarLK is already reaching readers across five languages in three countries. By @hollyrobertson
“Based on this, what we realized is Sri Lanka is only 20 million users — if you want to be a powerhouse, you’ve got to own South Asia. India is a little too competitive, so we decided to try our hand in Bangladesh.”
The Bangladesh launch came in August 2016, and by early 2017 Kassim was feeling confident enough to expand to India. Roar Bangla had performed so well it soon established itself as the company’s top site. With 4.8 million monthly pageviews, Kassim claims Roar is now “in the position of calling ourselves the number one new media platform” in Bangladesh.
In India, Roar Hindi has taken more time to catch on — there’s many similar products seeking to capture readers and advertisers — but Kassim believes it’s beginning to find its niche. “It took some time, because we weren’t the only ones doing it,” he says. The site focuses on history, culture and travel, much as the Tamil version does in Sri Lanka (though the English and Sinhala sites each take a different tack again).
But though the content is tailored to each market, one thing holds true across languages and cultures: an avoidance of the widely-copied early BuzzFeed model and “lowbrow content” that Kassim abhors. “We identified that in the long run, it’s not a sustainable model,” he adds. “In long run more, it will be a lot more prosperous creating credible content.”
Kassim now reports 8.5 million total monthly pageviews across the five sites, with 2.3 million unique visitors. Roar Media now has 55 full-time staff and 200 freelance contributors across South Asia, and is bringing in about $50,000 in revenue each month. And it’s the first Sri Lankan media startup to expand overseas.
“In Sri Lanka we’re profitable. In Bangladesh and India there’s still a long way to go in terms of monetization, but the potential is huge,” says Kassim. “We think that India is just waking up, so that’s where we want to focus.”
The plan is to launch into several other languages in the country that Kassim says are “virtually untapped,” such as Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada.
Social media — mostly Facebook — delivers 70% of overall site traffic. But Kassim is relying a strategy that he believes will prepare the sites for any future algorithm changes from a unpredictable platform.
“We were quite late into the Facebook party,” he says. “Since we started late, we adopted a model of paying for reach — we didn’t pay for Facebook likes, but we invested in distributing content so a lot more people can see it.”