Earlier this month, media startup Tech In Asia surprised its readers when it announced plans to implement an $18 per month paywall. More expensive than packages for the Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, the subscription went live this week. It’s designed to make the business self-sustaining after a tricky period of business in which the company contemplated an ICO and was forced to make cutbacks to its team.
The Singapore-based company — which operates a popular blog and events business in Southeast Asia — laid off as many as one-third of its staff after it went back on a plan to raise money from an ICO, according to documents reviewed by TechCrunch and multiple people familiar with the situation.
In July, as the company scrapped its ICO plans, Tech In Asia fired 18 of its 60 employees in Singapore; one-third of its smaller employee base in Indonesia and restructured other business units after scrapping the plan to develop its own cryptocurrency. Most of the layoffs were in non-editorial business lines — like the company’s jobs division, which works with companies to pitch the Tech In Asia website as a recruitment platform. That division laid off half of its team, according to a source, while a number of reporters elected to leave the company too, as E27 reported in August.
Tech In Asia founder and CEO Willis Wee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While the fundraising target for the ICO wasn’t disclosed, the plan was to bring in enough new investment to extend the company’s eroding runway.
The ICO was part of ‘Project Tribe,’ a strategy to develop a decentralized platform that would allow any organization to develop online communities using a blockchain-based framework built by Tech In Asia, according to documents viewed by TechCrunch.
“Our goal is to give Tech In Asia back into the hands of the community and harness community forces to bring us closer to our mission of building and serving Asia’s tech communities,” the company wrote in one section of the whitepaper, which was never released but had been widely-circulated beyond Tech In Asia staff.
The most successful ICOs have developed decentralized systems that are often initially beneficial to the company behind the token sale, but that can, in theory, be extended to cover other businesses.
Project Tribe used that angle. Bearing some basic similarities to the Civil journalism platform, the plan was initially to host Tech In Asia’s news and community website over the next three years, before opening up to third parties by 2021.
Company-wide Slack messages seen by TechCrunch show that it was discarded after the management team balked at the risk behind the move. They told staff their concern that token economics, pleasing retail investors and legal uncertainties would all distract from the core business. That reversal was taken despite “significant” investment resources and dozens of staff being allocated to develop the concept and whitepaper over a number of months.
From funding to cutbacks
It wasn’t so long ago that Tech In Asia was the toast of Asia’s media community.
The startup — which launched in 2010 — brought in $6.6 million in fresh funding last November in a round led by Korean investor Hanwha.
In the ensuing six months, after watching annual revenue drop thanks in part to a dramatic decline in its events business, the Tech In Asia leadership caught crypto fever and decided to venture into the new world of ICOs.
There were signs of trouble earlier in 2017 for the company. Tech in Asia laid off most of its India-based team in early 2017 and ended its events business in that country. Those decisions impacted its event business, which a source said saw total revenue drop by more than 50 percent.
A shift to community content, with fewer ‘original’ reporting and journalism pieces also cut into company performance. Internal data seen by TechCrunch shows that monthly active users on the site were down 31 percent year-on-year in Q2 2018 — reaching 1.84 million — while total pageviews slipped by one-third, too.
Tech In Asia’s management team told all staff in June that its runway, which was thought to be shored up by the November deal, had gone from a solid-looking 81 months to just 14 months. Management claimed that a change in financial calculations caused the difference and employees were reassured that their jobs were safe.
One month later, however, the company began shedding staff in an effort to cut costs, reversing a hiring spree it launched in January, according to sources.
Two sources told TechCrunch that morale of the remaining staff was crushed when members of the management ‘flaunted’ the fruits of their wealth on social media just days after firing large portions of the team. Some social media updates posted to the internet that upset departing staff members included a photo of Rolex, the view of a villa on a weekend trip to Bali, and an expensive sushi dinner bill.
With the company facing a straitened financial situation, if Tech In Asia tries to raise money again it’ll have some explaining to do to potential investors.
The business grossed SG$3.37 million (US$2.47 million) for the first six months of the year. Annualized, that would represent a 15 percent drop on 2017’s revenue, and Tech In Asia is still losing money. It recorded a net loss of SG$1.43 million (US$1.05 million) for the first half of 2018, according to internal data. That’s an average monthly burn rate of SG$0.23 million, or US$0.17 million.
Nonetheless, Wee — the Tech In Asia CEO — is hopeful that the subscription model pivot can make Tech In Asia sustainable in the long run.
“As you probably know, our business model has been built around events and advertising. While these have kept our business going, we are still working towards becoming profitable. Why is achieving this important? Because the only way we can be better at serving Asia’s tech ecosystem is if we have more resources and a consistent income stream,” he wrote when announcing the subscription package.
Full disclosure: I bought an annual subscription to Tech In Asia at the early bird discount rate being offered right now. That doesn’t impact my coverage of this story — I support a number of media businesses via subscription packages.