The road ahead for TISG

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Good morning!

It’s exciting time for us and let me start this note by saying, tough times don’t last, but tough men do. And if I can add to this pomposity, TISG is one gravity defying startup! It is a well-known fact that ninety-nine percent of startups fail within the first five years of incorporation and like all the other startups, there was no specific reason for this to succeed.

In fact, MDA made an argument back in 2013 that most online publications fail and in their twisted minds felt it necessary to restrain us under the class license which thwarts us from raising funds, locally or otherwise. This was despite our shareholders’ agreement which forbade us from soliciting funds from foreign entities. In the words of PN Balji, our former editor, MDA’s actions were a “non-starter.” 2013 and 2014 was a struggle to survive.

We relaunched the website in December 2015 with Mr Ravi Philemon as the lead editor and since then, we have grown our audience steadily over the months.

Unknown to most people, the inspiration to relaunch didn’t come from any of my shareholders back then, it came after conducting a startup strategy workshop with a bunch of startup founders at JTC launchpad. It was obvious that there was a viable business model for The Independent and I identified a void in the online publication market.

But it wasn’t a walk in the park for us, as this government is paranoid of anyone who has an opinion to express and they summoned us (or more accurately, our asses) to Cantonment Police Station on numerous occasions.

Excessive policing on us wasn’t the toughest part of this business and jumping through the hoops by MDA (or IMDA) was not a big deal either. Hardest part, as I have come to understand, is finding the right product-market fit. Editors call it, the “tone of the paper” but I think setting the tone alone shouldn’t be the driving factor for an online publication as it is too narrow as a business strategy or mission.

The TISG Model

As I have said on many occasions to my colleagues at TISG, we’re an online publication and our business should not and must not be modelled after the main stream media. That would be a fatal error as I have learnt from my early days at TISG.

What the media industry needs today is greater democratisation – more players and more freedom for writers. Conversely, with the government breathing down our necks, it becomes impossible to convince editors and directors that writers need a certain level of freedom to express.

I see where my stakeholders are coming from, freedom to express comes at a great cost to them. I have been told by some of my shareholders, on numerous occasions, that I should be the only one clicking the “publish” button. But that is not a practical solution for a publication our size and I failed miserably when I attempted to control every story that was published. It was almost impossible to publish articles on time with just one person being the ultimate gatekeeper. It is where the road forked.

The solution was simple: my alternative was to build a team of trustworthy editors and my role is to sync with my writers and between them, it was a natural progression and the only way forward. Hence, we have kind of evolved to our current model of having a council of editors, where we discuss and share our views on current affairs so that all of us are on the same page. Regular editorial meetings have become a ritual at TISG.

In our current model, I advocate minimum editorial gatekeeping, or in other words, true to my values and ethos I believe that the process of democratising the media should start with us, at TISG. The key to success is to give control away in return for speed and efficiency.

So, who’s in my current editorial team?

Tan Bah Bah – Consulting Editor – 71yo Media Yoda, watching him mentor our interns is like a scene from Star Wars. Read his column every Sunday under Sense and Nonsense.

Jewel Philemon Stolarchuk – Assistant Editor – Ever youthful Energizer Bunny, keeps TISG running like a well-oiled machine.

Kazi Mahmood – Guest Editor – 57yo Apple Buff, a six-footer with nimble fingers. He files his stories from his iPhone in 15 minutes.

Suresh Nair – Sports Commentator – Ageless – The self-anointed sports vigilante and he has taken it upon himself to bell the big cats at FAS.

I would also like to make another announcement at this juncture that Mr Alfred Dodwell has stepped down as director of the company as of 1st of May but remains as a shareholder. We like to take this opportunity to thank him for his services and to wish him all the success in his careers.

Server Infrastructure

Now, onto equally important matters – the servers. Gone are the days when we ran TISG out of a single box with Exabytes. Our current infrastructure runs on multiple AWS servers across four continents. It is a bit of an overkill, I must say. But the spikes in traffic is unpredictable and our target is 99.9% uptime. We currently can serve up to 10,000 concurrent users, albeit, theoretically we can host an even higher number of visitors. Not to worry, there is plenty of headroom before we cross that threshold. We’ll be monitoring the servers and are prepared to invest further should demand increase.

When we build excess capacity, we are planning for our future. We plan to bring video reporting and to take The Independent franchise to other parts of Asia. We will also be covering more business-related news.

Soon, we plan to allow subscribers to use our backend dashboard so that they can upload articles to our publication, or have a discussion board. Some readers have requested for an event listings page.  We’ll be bringing these features on-board after doing a viability study.

Our Readers. Our Community

Back to my point about setting the tone, online media like ours is a two-way street. Our readers set the tone by actively commenting on our pages. They are often the first to spot the mistake and I have so many people sending me emails, FB messages and Whatsapps messages about new story ideas or about some odd spelling or grammatical error. But rarely about our headlines – only the politicians and activists have issues with that. Our readers, on the other hand, are our asset, our first love.

We get so many requests that we often end up dropping the ball on most of them. I am sure there is a better way of handling this and to grow our community both online and offline. I admit that I am the bottleneck and I hope to overcome this through our decentralisation process. We plan to run a few events over the next couple of months to gather feedback from you, perhaps over a cup of coffee. Do watch this space.

That $50k curveball

Now that we’ve overcome the funding crunch by generating sufficient cashflows. I am certain that IMDA can and will impose the $50k bond on us. It is one of their control levers. We need to prepare for this eventuality. So, I can’t simply put my feet up just yet.

Unlike the other alternate media outfits, we do not plan to do any form of crowdfunding or put up pay-walls. That is a self-defeating strategy.  We, at TISG on the other hand, want to enrich the community. Therefore, we are pledging some of our earnings to NGOs and this year some of our free cash-flow will go towards a worthy cause.

We also want to assure our readers that we will keep all our content out there for free. That’s our promise to you. So, I ask you a personal favour to keep coming back to our site so that we can continue to grow and support the community even more.

And finally, a big thank you!

We couldn’t have come this far without you. As a concluding remark, a big thank you for your support and you’re always welcomed to drop by my office for a chat and please feel free to drop me an email anytime.  Goodbye for now and have a great weekend!

Kumaran Pillai
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Kumaran@theindependent.sg