Things I learnt running Vulcan Post

So for those who know, I have been running Vulcan Post for quite some time now, since August 2013. Here’s what we have achieved so far:

  • Over 1,500,000 people around the world has read Vulcan Post.
  • On average, we have 200,000 unique readers per month.
  • We are averaging 5 – 6 articles consistently per day.
  • We have grown to almost 30 writers, mostly contributors. We are planning our expansion to Malaysia now, and exploring new product offerings for our readers.
  • We have shot 5 episodes of Vulcan TV so far, on track to hit our planned 10 episodes by end of the year.

Really excited to share that we have managed and built all of this organically, in just 9 months.

Here’s a couple of things I’ve learnt:

Consistency

Consistency is underrated. It’s similar to being disciplined in things you do. For Vulcan Post, since I started it, I told myself and the team that no matter what, every single day we must keep our article quantity consistent. We are now averaging 5 – 6 articles per day, published every hour from 10.30am. We want to hit the ideal number of 8-10 articles.

Consistency means that readers can expect new content every time they come in. For example: if a reader is having lunch at 1pm, he can expect to read 3 new articles on Vulcan Post that day (10.30am, 11.30am, 12.30pm). This is very important in instilling reader’s loyalty and building return traffic. For Vulcan Post, 1 out of 4 of our readers are returning readers.

So how do we build consistency in the team? We schedule them in advance. What this means is that for all our articles tomorrow, we have all of them scheduled tonight, one day in advance. This ensures that we have our articles and content ready for publishing the next day. So everyday, we have time to look for new topic and write new articles without fighting against time or worry if we haven’t hit our quota of the day.

Of course, this takes a lot of discipline.

Content Partnership & Brand Equity

For Vulcan Post, we are excited to be working alongside some great partners such as Yahoo Singapore, Coconuts Singapore, Evernote, Facebook, The Smart Local, Twenty First Tech and many more. We are also fortunate that companies open their door for us to feature their office space and speak to their executives for Vulcan TV, our official video channel.

These partnerships are important because they attract other brands to come work together with us. As we help build up their brand equity through our distribution channel, they also build up our brand equity.

80 – 20 Rule

The 80 – 20 Rule holds true for us as well: 80 per cent of our traffic comes of 20 per cent of our content. We generally follow the 80 – 20 rule:

  • 80% of our stories are news and opinion pieces, 20% of our stories are buzzfeed-ish articles
  • 80% of our content follows the editorial strategy we set out for Vulcan Post, 20% of our content are fresh new content we experiment with
  • 80% of our traffic are generated by 20% of our writers
  • 80% of our content are produced in house, 20% of our content are from content partners and guest posts

The question then is, how do we identify the 20% of the things that matter (which brings in 80% of the results)?

Experimentation

I am a big fan of experimentation, and all writers have full flexibility to explore the topics and content they love. Want to do a movie review? Go ahead. Tech round up? Done that. Things you didnt know about a country? Works well. If it doesnt work, we kill it. That’s the only way we know what content may stick and what may not.

This goes in line with the 80 – 20 rule. Constant experimentation ensures that the chances of you discovering the 20% of the things that matter (which brings in 80% of the results) are significantly higher.

The same goes for writers. We are also fortunate to have a lot of people who wants to contribute on Vulcan Post. Over the past 2 weeks, we have about 7-10 people emailing us to see if they could join our team. We are keen to take them in, because again, that is the only way we discover great talents. (Of course, this causes a new set of problem, which i might share in another article).

Hardest to manage: Human

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learnt and is learning is this: human is the hardest to manage. Different expectation, different opinions, group think.

Motivation

One of the most important about running Vulcan Network is to constantly motivate myself and be really disciplined. As i am the one setting the milestones and timeline for the whole company, everything can crumble if I am not disciplined enough to keep things running.

It has been quite a lonely journey so far, but there’s no turning back. I wont lie and say that there werent time that I doubt myself and what I am doing, or whether I am making the right decisions. There are definitely time where I wake up and wonder what am I doing. But of course, more importantly, I have to trust myself to be able to brush it off and just get back to work. :)

What’s next

Vulcan Network, started in September 2013, aspires to be a company managing a few business portfolios. Vulcan Post was never the end game. It’s not big enough.

Vulcan Post was started because I wanted to start a product company, but i didn’t know what it was yet. What i do know is this: for the company that I am trying to build, I would need a distribution channel for it. But that should not be an excuse for me to not do anything about it, hence Vulcan Post was started. Vulcan TV and a few other products came along after that.

Here’s the different business units under Vulcan Network:

  1. Vulcan Post: Our main distribution channel. This is where people discover us. We report on Internet Lifestyle news, and we are writing for the mass public, people who are curious about technology.
  2. Vulcan TV: Our video channel. This is where we highlight the great companies and culture behind popular Internet websites. So far we have featured Viddsee, TripAdvisor, Zalora, Facebook and Groupon. There are three segments: Interview with an executive about company and vision, Interview with an employee about office culture, and then an office tour. I am very bullish about Vulcan TV and video being a better medium for story telling, and definitely excited to push this further.
  3. Vulcan DigestOur official weekly newsletter. We have almost 2000 subscribers now using Vulcan Digest to keep updated with our news on Vulcan Post and Vulcan TV.
  4. Vulcan PrintOur e book division. It was a side project I did last year. We will be converting some of our best stories on Vulcan Post to e-books too from time to time.
  5. Vulcan ConsultancyOur consulting arm, which we are working alongside some great clients on website development, mobile app development, digital marketing and PR consultancy.
  6. Vulcan: The content recommendation engine we are working on. The Outbrain of Southeast Asia. This is what’s gonna determine where we will be at in the next 5 years. This is our trump card.

Cant wait to:

  • Increase our daily article numbers to 8 per day on Vulcan Post!
  • Finish shooting 10 – 12 videos for Vulcan TV this year!
  • Start working on our second ebook for Vulcan Print!
  • Reveal our key clients for Vulcan Consultancy!
  • Launch Vulcan and grow it!
  • Cant wait for our growth the next 9 months!

Is it too much? Some might argue so.

To me, it is very manageable: all 6 items are necessary, and they are interconnected with one another. They power each other. In fact, we are thinking of possibly including another Vulcan brand, but that might stretch our resources too thin. If you were to break down each item to its individual time resources needed, you would quickly realize that it is very manageable.

And I still have time to write this blog post too. :)

 

The only person you can rely on is yourself

Had the opportunity to work with some great people over the past few years. When I’ve decided to take the plunge to run my own things, had a coffee with Huy and he asked me, what was the biggest thing you’ve learnt over the past 6 months?

We haven’t caught up in months.

I told him, “the only person that I can trust and rely on is myself”.

That was 4 weeks back. 4 weeks later today, I have the exact same sentiments again.

At the end of the day, nobody would care as much as you do.

I think im a very fair person. I would let the person determine his or her deadline. And i’d adjust my plans accordingly. If he or she never meet it once, it is be understandable. Something might have popped up, I always tell myself.

But if it is for 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 times, sorry sir, you’ve lost the trust I have for you.

Why I’m bullish about the content industry in Asia

There are quite a handful of people who told me that the market cap for media industry is fixed and it is too small a market to fit more than 2 or 3 tech media outlets.

“Your time is better spent tackling problems in bigger market”.

Apart from the fact that I have little experience in other verticals and I dont have a real problem worth solving which I can relate to, I’m super passionate about telling stories and putting things together into thoughtful pieces.

I think there’s a very real opportunity here in the content space, and I’m getting more and more excited every, single day.

Here’s why:

1) More people coming online

As I wrote in my previous article, Internet penetration as a whole is going up everyday, and we are consuming more content than ever before, thanks to access to mobile. More people are getting access to Internet, what this means too is that the absolute online traffic will only continue to grow, especially in Asia, where internet penetration is relatively low but they are growing faster than anywhere around the world.

All of these new traffic source (demand) is looking for reliable news site to consume content (supply). Also, online traffic is not a zero sum game: news site with the most interesting and consistent content (in terms of quality and quantity) will win the loyalty of the readers.

In the next few years, there are hundred millions of internet users coming onboard from Asia looking for content to consume.

This is a big deal.

Increasingly, conversations between media outlet and readers will be more important than ever before. Media outlets in this part of the world is still very much engaged in a one way conversation with readers.

Also read: Blogs are no longer just blogs

2) Traditional news site shifting online

Print is dead. Magazines are shutting down. Cable tv, Radios and old medias are looking for new ways to engage their audience, and all of these ways point to one direction: online, where all the users are congregating.

The segregation of these traffic will diffuse to other new media outlet which often can move fast enough than old clumsy traditional news site (though of course they usually have greater financial backing).

Look at it this way: traditionally, we can only cross from one country to another country by ship (before the invention of aeroplane). With Aeroplane, all of the sudden, a person can buy a budget airline ticket, a first class ticket, or he can take multiple pit stops, and he can choose whichever airlines he is pleased with.

Similarly, we used to rely on traditional media outlet for information. We can only gain access to information through the nation’s newspaper or the national television. With Internet, all of the sudden, we can consume all the content we want, in whichever ways we want.

3) Marc Andreessen

Mr Marc Andreessen, a popular Venture Capitalist engaged in a Twitter conversation just a few days after I wrote my previous post, saying that he is (and I quote) “more optimistic/bullish about future of news industry over next 20 years than almost anyone I know. Will grow 10x-100x.

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 12.28.23 am

Exactly my point #1.

He also argued that:

  • Distribution going from locked down to completely open, anyone can create & distribute, no $ premium for control of distribution. 
  • Formerly separate industries colliding on Internet. Newspaper vs magazine vs broadcast TV vs cable TV vs wire service, now all compete.
  • Market size dramatically expanding–many more people consume news now vs 10-20 yrs ago, many more still in 10-20 yrs. Big, big deal.

This is a great assurance to the content industy. If you need more signs, Jon Russell of The Next Web recently painted a great picture on the growth potential of the content industry:

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 8.05.45 pm

4) Access of information

Another reason why I’m bullish about the content industry is this, the person with the access of information wins. Everyday, media outlets get pitched hundreds of stories, and it is easy to spot who’s the new popular startup, and the next big thing.

Of course, news media outlet needs to then see how can they leverage on these information, at the same time maintain its integrity. These informations are usually leveraged and manifested in the form of conferences. More on this later.

5) Asia is the new growth engine

Finally, we’ve heard this over and over again. Asia is the new growth engine.

This chart I included in my previous post says it all, where in the next few years, over 400+ M people from SEA are potentially coming online:

southeast-asia-internet-penetration-infographic

Things to note:

Though there are great potential in Asia’s online content industry, there are a couple of things that media outlets need to bear in mind, based on a few observations I made:

1) Breadth vs depth

Marc mentioned that you either go wide or go deep to win. I think there has to be a balance. Logically, depth is better than breadth: as there are more noise online, there’s a premium for quality content which are in depth. However, there’s a risk of reporting news for the sake of reporting it, without proper understanding of the ecosystem or the topic in mind. I think in Asia, there is a lack of in depth content or proper journalism. Which is fine, because everything takes time. Then the strategy should be to go breadth, cover as many topics as you can, with a particular theme connecting all the topics.

In content, quantity is also king, as much as quality is king. There’s a big debate on this, but I’m a firm believer that quantity is king. It’s simple really: every article has the potential to harness different traffic from the Internet. You will never know which reader you attract will end up being a loyal reader. And of course, pageviews correlate directly with ad revenue, the core business model for news site, although it sucks as one.

Still not convinced?

  1. News site A produces 10 articles a day generating an average of 1000 pageviews per article.
  2. News site B produces 5 articles a day generating an average of 1200 pageviews per article.

In the long run, who will win? :)

But if there are too much content being produced, then the media outlet will be seen as a content farm, which might be detrimental to the brand. Which brings back to my point: there has to be a balance. I think the 80 – 20 rule applies here too: 80% general content + 20% in depth content.

There are other companies focusing on content marketing, in which their content strategy is 100% quality in depth content. That’s another topics to discuss on: companies focusing on building thought leadership through content marketing (such as Buffer and First Round Capital)

2) “Buzzfeed”-ish and “Upworthy”-ish articles

I’m sure all of us came across the above-mentioned two websites which rose to fame thanks to heart touching headlines such as these:

“A Funny Video That Makes You Never Want To Fall For This Natural Lie Again”

“5 Reasons Why My Girlfriend Thinks She’s Not Beautiful Enough, No Matter What Anyone Tells Her”

“He Was About To Take His Own Life — Until A Man Stopped Him. Here He Meets Him Face To Face Again.”

I remembered a fellow journalist telling me that she doesnt subscribe to these kind of content, and that she despise it.

I’ve seen what this kind of content can do to news media outlet (to the extent that it broke our server), and as Jon Evans put it, this is the future, whether it lives or dies. We think it is necessary to be included as part of media company’s content strategy.

We subscribe to this too, and we understand that all online news follows a power law. The scaling exponents may vary, but the fundamental distribution remains the same. A small number of viral articles get most of the attention, a long tail gets little to none, and the decay from the former to the latter is described by a surprisingly smooth curve.

tc-dist

Like it or not, this is the trend now, and why fight the trend when you can ride on it? That is why over at Vulcan Post, ~5% of our content are “Buzzfeed”-ish and “Upworthy”-ish articles, which brings in fresh new traffic. Although majority of them never come back, even if 5% of them stayed on, that is a significant conversion for us.

A majority of the traffic also “sprinkle over” to other articles, through carefully placed “recommended articles” section. These other articles which, hopefully, are “in depth” and “quality” enough to convert the non valuable traffic from the “Upworthy”-ish articles into valuable traffic. More on this in another post.

3) Revenue Model

Another big debate for online media outlet is this: revenue model. There’s a huge debate on whether paywall works or not.

Marc said that he doesn’t think paywalls are going to work for many media companies, because they “penalize most loyal customers” and are therefore very tricky.

I think it might work; but it has to be manifested in other forms: online exclusives, or online magazine. This is something that The Information (online exclusives) and The Next Web (magazine) is doing. Would be super interesting if TNW can share their numbers and growth for the magazine.

The way I see it, tech media publication is a distribution channel for all the other money making verticals that you have to venture into, as a media company. For examples: Conferences, Magazines, E Commerce, Consulting etc. That’s why you see companies like Techcrunch going for events and The Next Web going for magazines, products etc.

4) Mobile growth

One last thing to note about the content industry is this: Mobile. An astounding 70% of Vulcan Post’s traffic comes from mobile. I think there’s a lot of opportunities there, but it is not fully understood yet.

News site are currently still designed and optimized for readers reading from desktop. This is a different context from optimizing your site for mobile and enabling a mobile view. I’m talking more about ad placement opportunities, recommended reading sections, or even text based optimization. I know for myself that a 4 paragraph article on desktop might be readable, but the similar content is too long to consume on my mobile.

Really really excited for this space and for all the innovations that will be coming!

Also read: Here’s what’s happening in the content industry now

Blogs are no longer just blogs

Jon Russell of The Next Web nailed it:

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 8.05.45 pmRecode and The Information is launched by ex writers and editors of established news site. Recode: Ex AllThingsD, The Information: Ex Wall Street Journal.

Mashable just raised a 13.3M funding. Medium just raised a 25M funding.

All happened within a span of 6 months.

Who says there are no future for tech blogs?

Internet penetration up, we are consuming more content thanks to access to mobile, and more people are getting access to Internet = absolute traffic will only continue to grow, especially in Asia, where internet penetration is relatively low but they are growing faster.

southeast-asia-internet-penetration-infographicThe graph from Tech in Asia shows that there are at least 400M new internet users coming onboard in the next few years from Southeast Asia, looking to consume online content. This is assuming there are no population growth.

Huge potential and opportunities.

Svbtle opens up to all. Bad move.

If there’s one platform that I’ve always wanted to be part of, as a writer, it would be Svbtle.

For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a blogging platform that promises to be the easiest platform for blogging.

Its description read:

“We’re a network of great people mixed with an extremely simple platform for collecting and developing ideas, sharing them with the world, and reading them. We’ve focused all of our energy into building the simplest interface for accomplishing these goals. Svbtle is blogging with everything else taken away.”

Before today, you have to approved by the team in order to be part of Svbtle. Because of the highly specific curation process, there were a lot of high quality articles and authors on the platform. Being in Svbtle is like being in a cool club. It is exclusive. It is authoritative. It is an identity, an endorsement. Everyone wants to be on it.

But that changed today. Svbtle now opens its access to the public, taking away all the sexy appeal of Svbtle. Anyone can just sign up to be part of the blogging platform.

Personally, I think that was a bad move (but who am I to critic anyways).

You see, there are a lot of blogging platforms nowadays: Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Medium, Quora, and now, Svbtle. Guaranteeing a “slightly better user interface” might not that appealing to compete with other blogging platforms.

I’ve always wanted to be part of the network, and despite several requests, was never granted the invitation. Now that it is no longer exclusive to be part of the network, I’m not sure if I’d spend time on that network. WordPress works fine for me. I have a Medium account, and a Quora account (with a premium domain name!) which I hardly have enough time to generate different content to grow and harness the different traffic from all these platforms.

Opening up to the public also means that Svbtle is letting the mass market determine its voice. WordPress is meant for company blogs & businesses, Tumblr is meant for teenagers, Medium is meant for creatives/authors, which segment will Svbtle be targetting? Entrepreneurs? Startup founders? Maybe. I’m just hoping that they have a critical mass of this audience segment pool to attract the other mass market founders whom have time to write. Then maybe the identity can be preserved.

But of course, Svbtle had to open up to attract more growth because it raised an undisclosed round from investors last year.

Let see if there are any major news coming from the platform in the next 3-6 months in terms of growth.

Anyone ever wonder what happens to old contents?

As there are more and more content produced everyday, old content which are non time sensitive which still provides a lot of relevance are “pushed back” and replaced by the newer ones. There should be a tool where you can rediscover these old gems.

If the relevance is still there, not only can you reshare them and get more page views, you can also reduce your dependency on the need to produce fresh content everyday.

In a way, you are helping your new audience rediscover these old but “still relevant” content, because overtime your audience should technically grow, but overtime, your old content only get buried away by all the digital noise.

Something worth looking into.