It may come as a surprise that one of Indonesia’s biggest millennial sites started out a hobby project in Singapore.
Winston Utomo was working at Google in Singapore when he put IDN Times together. He traded sleep for a chance to address an opportunity he saw in connecting with millennials and Gen Z in Indonesia — one that the largest media companies were ignoring.
Today, three-year-old IDN is a fast-growing media startup with footholds in entertainment, influencers, moms and music festivals. It derives almost all of its revenue from online and offline advertising. It also recently completed a Series B funding round.
The company has 140 staff split equally between Jakarta and Surabaya. Jakarta houses the sales, news and events teams, while the engineers, video producers, and entertainment writers are in Surabaya.
I spoke with Winston on Skype about how he built the business with his brother William, and where they’re headed in 2018. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did your journey begin?
I was born and raised in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia after Jakarta. It’s far from Jakarta, where all the startups are based. I was in Surabaya until high school, and I got my undergrad degree from the University of Southern California.
I worked for a year in the real estate industry in San Francisco. I then took my master’s degree in Columbia. It’s was more like social studies; I studied negotiation and emotional intelligence.
After my master’s degree, I went back to Asia — but to Singapore. I worked for two years in Google in advertising.
It’s interesting that you got into the media business even though your background is not in media. How did that evolve?
I was exposed to the startup industry when I was in Google. I knew nothing about tech startups even though I lived in San Francisco. I thought of business in a conventional way.
I like consuming media. I saw that when it came to Indonesia, people were talking about its demographics as we have a very young audience of millennials and Gen Zs. These were the majority of internet users.
So when I looked at the top 10 media companies, it was clear that most had been around for a while. These were media conglomerates.
I thought, why aren’t there media companies for millennials and Gen Zs when these were the biggest audience demographic?
So this was 2014. And you also had competitors in this space like Kapanlagi or Detik. What made you feel like you had a different view, and that you could differentiate from them?
Back then, I didn’t think too far. I thought, I can write and I like to read. One evening, after work, I walked home. I thought, I can write so I should just start a blog. I got a domain — Indonesian Times. I wrote ten short articles under three categories. I did some Adwords and some SEO. I shared it with my friends on Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and everywhere else.
I think I finished at 7 am in the morning. I pulled an all-nighter. It was done and I went to work. I didn’t think about Kapanlagi and other companies. I just thought — I like writing, so why don’t I just write?
That evening, around 5 pm, I went home. I opened the analytics and it showed that hundreds of people were coming to the site. That was when I thought I should take this thing seriously.
But what made you realize that this could be a business? When did you say to yourself I’m going to leave Google because this could work?
Good question. I never thought about it early on. I didn’t think of it as a business. I just like building things. I just wanted to start something.
In June 2014, I hired two part-time writers. I was still writing content. After two months, I needed help so I called my brother William who was still in LA. I asked him to come back so we could build this. I couldn’t leave Google because I used that salary to run the site in the first year.
William wanted to be an investment banker. I told him there’s no money in building this, but it’s interesting and never been done.
After weeks of trying to convince him, he flew back. So, William and I started to build IDN Media together.
And every two weeks on Saturday or Friday night, I’d take China Airlines — it was the last flight from Singapore to Surabaya. I’d carry cash. I’d bring back like 40 percent of my salary to pay salaries and stuff. This was for 12 months. And when my salary and bonus were done, we ran out of money. And that’s when we started fundraising.
When did you actually leave Google?
One year after I started IDN Media. Yeah, right after we closed the seed round.
So you would work at Google during the day, and then at night, write stories for your site?
Yes, so basically four hours of sleep every day, except Friday to Saturday.
I still had to perform well at Google to get higher bonuses. I’d work until 6 or 7 at Google, and then continue on the site until 2 am. And then I’d start work again at 6. That was basically my first year.
Now that your company is about three years old, do you still feel it’s a startup?
It is. Maybe it’s my weakness, but I’m very hands-on. I just like working. It gives me satisfaction finishing the day having done so much.
"I thought, why aren’t there media companies for millennials and Gen Zs when these were the biggest audience demographic?" -- Winston Utomo, @idntimes
You’ve obviously learned a lot about how to build this. If you could go back and build it from scratch, how will you do it differently?
Interesting question. My principle in building a media company is that you should grow audience and business together.
I think many media companies are focusing on one thing, maybe it’s on editorial and the product, and they do not think about how to generate revenue. So they create a product that’s not for the market.
When we want to start a new vertical, we start from three perspectives: First, is there enough demand from the readers? Second, are there enough advertisers? What’s the total addressable market? Third is a competitive analysis: How many players are there in the market? If there are too many players, we may not start it, because if we start it, it has to be number one. It needs to have the potential to be number one.
That’s why we have to grow our traffic and business together. And as of Q4, we’re profitable, even though we hired 40 people in Q4.
You’ve had three rounds of funding, most recently a Series B. How much have you raised so far?
We keep that undisclosed. But it’s enough to run. Our funding is not for running the business, but for expansion.
What are some of the plans for 2018 in terms of new products?
We’re focusing on IDN Times because it’s a competitive market. We will grow it through user-generated content, where anyone can write content for us and we’ll pay them. An Uber for writers. We have 42,000 community writers. We receive about 5,000 articles a month. If we can grow that, we can be the biggest content producer and the most relevant. We want to grow our community across Indonesia.
We’re also getting into news. We’re big in entertainment. But we want to build news for millennials and Gen Z. So if you ask if we’re going to enter politics or law, yes we will.
Where do you see the biggest opportunity in terms of revenue? Is it still an advertising-based model? Where the opportunities for you?
We still generate our money through advertising. But are we going to find new ways of generating money.
Look at what’s happened in the States over the past two months. If you rely on advertising, it’s great, but you have to really understand the market. You can’t just do something because it’s cool. You have to see demand from both readers and revenue.
Yes, we can create value, but for me it’s back to the basics. What is the ad spend in that vertical? How can we grab it? That’s how we calculate opportunity.
Right, so when you look at the problems at Mashable, HuffPost and BuzzFeed, how do you think the model has changed?
This is my personal opinion and some people will disagree with me.
I still believe that as much as you’re raising money from VCs, a business is still a business. It has to be profitable at some point.
Every time we launch something, we want to know that our audience and our revenue can grow. If something happens in the market that hits our revenue, we can still sustain our business. That runway would still have more than 12 months to it. So if something happened, you can cut costs from your marketing budgets and not have to do layoffs. You can slow your growth.
"You can’t just do something because it’s cool. You have to see demand from both readers and revenue." -- Winston Utomo, @idntimes
What advice would you give media startups that are keen to talk to VCs about funding?
Build a sustainable business model. Not everyone is building Snapchat or Facebook. If you build Facebook or Go-Jek, it’s good. But you have to realize that if you’re profitable, it gives you leverage in talking to VCs.
There is no such thing as pivoting to video, to events, to agencies. You need to focus on the customer. At IDN, it’s the customers.
First, it’s your readers and community. How do you build community? You reply to their messages, listen to their feedback, and engage them. You need to care for them.
The second customer is your client and brands. Without them, you won’t be where you are right now. Have a relationship with them. A real one.
The third is the people inside the company. They are your customer as well. If they are taken care of, they will give their best to the company. You have to really care and be kind to your people and each other. They are the reasons why your company is where it is now. If you genuinely take care of them, they will take care of your readers and clients.
We want people to be whoever they are at IDN Media. They do not need to be someone else, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, their religion, whatever. You can be whoever you are in IDN Media and accepted for whoever you are. I think that is more important than anything else. We have a sign that says diversity is beautiful and we have zero tolerance for people who cannot support diversity.
This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.
We want to showcase both the ideas and the courage that goes behind breaking new ground on the business of media. If you know of someone who should be interviewed here (or yourself), please drop me an email — email@example.com