TiA and the Subscription Paradox; Careem/Uber War Cresting

TiA and the Subscription Paradox

Jon Russel at TechCrunch wrote a pretty damning article about Tech in Asia. Which Willis Wee has refuted here. I will encourage you to read both of them. While Willis’ response sets the record straight on most things. It does not answer the underlying business model questions Jon’s article brought up. For past couple of years, Tech in Asia has been experimenting with a lot. Which is fine in itself unless you don’t hurt your core product. I am afraid Tech in Asia has done that in the process. I wrote about them back in Nov last year. They were aiming to be Toutiao for Asia back then. From the article:

I get the ambition i.e. being Toutiao for Asia. But I have always been skeptical in the assumption that what has worked in China will work in any other country. Mostly because China is such a different market. Toutiao, like WeChat, is riding on censorship. And it’s great. They saw an opportunity and seized it. But such an opportunity simply does not exist outside of China. People have their social and Techmeme requirements being fulfilled by Facebook, Twitter and well, Techmeme. What you need is a reason for people to visit your website every day.

Being Toutiao for Asia means that you are aiming for being a news aggregator. And that’s one way of bringing people to your website and possibly on daily basis. I was skeptical but at least it made sense in theory. As individual tech hubs inside Asia get bigger, it’s hard to cover all of them thoroughly. Aggregation allows you to be on the pulse of everything and retain your original “TiA” brand proposition. But only six months later i.e. Mar 2018 the company pivoted again. And this time the focus is on subscriptions and quality journalism. Which, in many respects is the exact opposite of being an aggregator. Willis while answering Jon’s comments of subscription being overly priced:

We believe we are priced fairly because we are a niche publication providing the most comprehensive coverage of the Asian tech ecosystem. We cover news ignored by the big publications that benefit our audience. Nonetheless, we will listen to our readers and make adjustments to provide the best value.

I for one completely back the pricing here. To cover tech scene in Asia in a way that people pay for will require an army of writers spanning in each country. And not just writers but really good ones. Furthermore, each individual story will cost more than usual since it’s meant to be deep. People are not going to pay you if you are writing what everyone else is writing. There is no way you can cover these costs by pricing aggressively. To answer Jon’s question, yes the journalistic operations are at the level of FT or Wall Street if not bigger. The question that remains, however, is can Willis and his team do this?

I am not questioning the talent or willingness of the team. But rather the product-market fit of what they are trying to do. The market is too big for a subscription model to work. Even country wide publications are going to suffer in the long run let alone an entire continent. The reason it’s working for NYT, FT etc is that they already had the people and operational scale in place because of their print media business. And most online publications, successful in subscriptions, have a narrow and targeted market. Being niche allows you to be focused and, perhaps more importantly, it significantly reduces the operational costs. In that regard, the once so apt brand name is Tech in Asia’s biggest Achilles heel.

Careem/Uber War Cresting

Both Careem and Uber have been in news for two different reasons. Careem acquired a bus shuttle service. And Uber hinted that it might be launching self-driving cars in Pakistan. I am clubbing them here because the underlying motivations are the same. Both want to own the transportation lifecycle of their customer. And perhaps, more importantly, both companies are eager to show a bigger crest for the rumored merger talks. Which what I believe are halted because of the indecision on who rolls out and who stays.

At an absolute level, I would like Uber to stay because Careem is increasingly becoming indistinguishable from deceit. At least the brand name part of it. More on that here. I do, however, think the merger won’t be a good news. For the most part, both companies are keeping each other at toes and it’s resulting in better overall service. The old school economics theory of “competition is good for customers” is playing out well here.

As for as, self-driving cars are concerned, I don’t think they are going to happen anytime soon. We don’t exactly know what technology looks like let alone a functioning product. I do tend to agree to Uber though, Pakistan is a good country to experiment in. For one transportation here is a mess. And I am not talking about Lahore or Karachi. If you go out of main cities you get to know what real transportation challenges more than 50% of the population is facing. The fallible road infrastructure makes it hard for most drivers to go out of the main cities without hurting their own vehicle. Flying cars can definitely do better. If nothing else our prime minister can use one.