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Tips for journalism startups with Splice
We spoke to Alan Soon and Rishad Patel about their experience supporting startups across Asia.
Alan Soon and Rishad Patel have made it their mission to help out media startups in Asia. They are the co-founders of Splice, and they host courses, meet-ups and a growing community space on Slack called Planet Splice, where over 200 journalists and media professionals share ideas and opportunities. Their audio course on building a viable media business is called School of Splice.
We were able to catch Alan and Rishad as they came out of their session on media entrepreneurs in Asia at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. We were excited to interview them because the work they do resonates with us. And because the media entrepreneur route can be very lonely, and Alan and Rishad have done a really great job of creating a space for people who are embarking on something that is trying to be different than some of the traditional media structures that some of us may have come up in.
If you’d prefer to listen to the interview, click here.
In Old News: How did you get started?
Alan: So Splice has been around for seven years. It's been a long journey. We first started out as a consultancy, and then over time, kind of realized where some of the big changes were needed. So we actually believe that where media is going right now requires the entry of many, many, many media startups and that's what we're most excited about when we meet creators who are doing amazing work. We want to find ways to get behind them. It's also our secret way of trying to stay relevant as old men. So this is something that we love, we care a lot about. We want to make sure that we help raise a new generation of media startups and find ways to support them.
Rishad: One of the things we don't talk about a lot, but I think… we've made a living, Alan and I, being fanboys of the media creators that we support and work with. We love their passion, their work and their bravery. And I think we've built a little business model around supporting them. With the infrastructure and the funding and the training that they need.
In Old News: You both speak about being good friends. How do you work with your friend and get through some of the more difficult moments?
Alan: It's like any other marriage, right? It's about figuring out what makes the other person happy and finding ways to do that together.
Rishad: And, yeah, I mean, Alan loves your tech. I love food. It works. You know, as long as I'm fed every 2 hours. And Alan sees a new mic every other minute.
Alan: That's right. And yeah, if I see some interesting equipment, I'll be like, Oh, that's great. And, you know, for him, it's food. But it is really like a marriage. You know, there's some things that will work really well for you, some things that will really annoy you. But that's just the way it is. The next day is a whole different conversation. But the one thing that really gets us excited is really the work that we do. I think, if there's ever a way that we need to realign where we are in our heads, we just talk about work and that just makes it all perfect.
Rishad: Work is mostly what we talk about when we're done with work. Which is kind of bizzare.
Alan: It's like parents talking about kids all day.
Rishad: Yeah. I have to say, you know, one of the reasons I keep being reminded of why working with Splice is so important, why being Splice is so important… we were on stage just minutes ago in a panel minutes ago with two creators, Anu and Tanmoy, and hearing them talk about their work and being privileged enough to be up there presenting it with them makes you feel like proud parents. So that's another level to the marriage. We now have many, many kids.
In Old News: You did in-person events during the pandemic, then you pivoted to creating an online community and now you’re back in person again. Are there any things you missed, or what has been most striking to you about that journey?
Alan: I think the nice thing about the pandemic was that it taught us that you can reach people anywhere in the world. You know, you could get anyone on the phone, on a Zoom rather, you know, and get a conversation going. So I think what was really unique for us was just a number of people that we met, just like that it allowed us to run a whole bunch of programs from Mongolia to Papua New Guinea. There were ways for us to do these things that we could not otherwise have done if we were only thinking about how to get on a plane and booking a room so we can run a workshop. All of those things which just fell out of the picture and it just made things in many ways a lot simpler. But now that we've come back and this past week has been really ridiculously awesome, you know, we're reminded again about how wonderful it is to see people again.
Rishad: And as a product designer, I'm reminded of the parallels between the real world and that digital world that we create. And everything in the spectrum between is that you go in with intent. So being online and doing online meetings like all of us have been doing for the past two years and a bit, there's a lot of intent involved. You go in there with a specific intent. But coming to something like Perugia, you know, the intent is involved in setting up meetings and going to sessions. But then there's the beautiful thing called discovery where you're walking down the street and you meet old friends from who knows where and you meet new friends. And it's just beautiful.
In Old News: You’ve also managed to set up a sense of community, especially for people who are going at entrepreneurship solo. Was that a part of the plan? Or is that something that happened serendipitously?
Rishad: It's the reason we exist. Community is our DNA. We tend not to be excited about talking about ourselves as a company, primarily because there's not very much to talk about, really. We’re two guys, this is about 100% of the company.
Alan: It's pretty boring.
Rishad: Yeah, it really is. And I think we're only as good as what we do for media creators and media startups. And I think that we help work with the media ecosystem to enable these folks and to remind them of the heroes that they actually are already. We're just conveners. And so we are fortunate enough to be able to be in the middle of this community, whenever they will have us, and to be able to strengthen them as they grow.
Alan: The one lesson that we're always mindful of is that if you do a good enough job, the community will do the talking for you. You don't have to talk about yourself. You don't have to talk about Splice. It gets done if you are doing a great job.
In Old News: As an organisation that works in the start-up space, what are some needs that you’re seeing that are not being met for people who are just getting started?
Alan: What we've noticed is that all small businesses have the same problems, whether you're a media entrepreneur or whether you're running a small little shop selling coffee. Your needs as a small entrepreneur are pretty much the same. You want to be discovered, you want people to find their way to you. You want them to enjoy the products that you have. You want them to keep coming back. You want to make sure that you have all these things right. You know, a lot of media companies need to get to zero and then they can really start building. Right? And for us, getting to zero is where you need to, first of all, learn how to run a small business. If you know what kind of business do you need to set up? What kind of legal frameworks do you need? What kind of bookkeeping would you like? Very basic things. And then comes the question of content. What kind of content will you create? What platforms will these be on? All media entrepreneurs kind of go through the same journey. They all have the same needs on their front. Right? Learning about your audiences, how do you serve them better? What are the products that they need? What are the things that you've done every single day? All of these things are important and we want to keep building products along those lines. So something new is going to be coming up soon.
Rishad: I also wanted to add that, you know, one of the most transformational, pivotal, penny drop moments that we've seen on the faces of our media startup and media creator community has been when they talk to their audiences and ask their audiences what they need. In the product creation process, we often assume that the product comes first. It doesn't really. Right? The appetite or the need for it comes first because you're solving an audience problem or a community problem. And we help media companies talk to their audiences and figure out what it is they want and then translate those into solutions and products. Those are great moments, and I think a lot of media startups need them. Need those conservations. Need those tools.
In Old News: One challenge that many start-ups face is finding the balance between rapidly scaling and building value for the community they’re trying to reach. What is your advice for people struggling with this?
Rishad: We've said this so often that I have it right here. So scale is mostly not something we worry about too much for ourselves or for our communities. What we do think about is that nothing can start if you're not relevant. So we say be useful. And we say be relevant. But more than anything, you build something that's valuable enough to pay for. We want our creators to continue doing what they're doing. We want them to start listening to the audiences. That's where products come from. That's where value comes from. I think utility and relevance are where you begin.
Alan: Yeah, we really hate the word scale because we come up against it so often. It's easy for people to say to us, "Hey, why don't you hire five more people? And then you can do 50 more things." We don't want to do that. We don't want to. We don't want to be bigger, and we don't necessarily need to do more. We think that by spending more time with the community, listening to what they want... I mean, this is the stuff that really brings us joy. You know, neither of us will wake up in the morning thinking we want to run a 50-person company. It would be horrible. You know, we like what we do. We like being small because it gives us the agility that you know, we love. As a media startup that's the only thing you have that's really within your control. How quickly you respond to something. How quickly you spot a trend. How quickly you test against that.
Rishad: How quickly you fail. That's so important.
Alan: The best way to save money is to fail quickly.
In Old News: Do you see a lot of people resonating with that approach?
Alan: Yeah. So I think one place to start is to ask yourself, how much money do you need to make every month? And what kind of lifestyle do you want that money to support? And if you are honest with yourself, then that's fine. You know, not everybody needs to be an Elon Musk right?
Rishad: We also ask a lot of questions around, "do you really need to be publishing 236 pieces of content a month?"
Alan: Or what does it do for your business?
Rishad: What does it do for your audiences? Is there a reason that you're doing this? Who are you serving? Isn't perhaps journalism a service industry? Aren't the readers and communities, the audiences and communities you want to serve? And if you find that you are serving and solving problems, you've created that magical state of product-market fit. What could be better than that?
In Old News: Is that the approach you took towards building your own community?
Alan: It's always a bit of both, but the thing is, that's what we want to be. We don't want to be anonymous. We don't want to be a company that no one cares about. And we were just talking about brand. Right? What does brand mean to us? When people come up to us and they say, "you guys have such a strong brand." What do they actually mean? They probably mean that we have a way of working, we have a way of speaking with our community. And we have a product that people recognize. And maybe that's all we need to succeed. Right? That's the stuff that makes us happy.
Rishad: Everything we do at Splice is ultimately a big experiment. But we also have a very specific point of view about media. Perhaps because we've been there and done that and we're several decades old. And I think that that point of view tends to be very user-centric. It tends to be a product mindset, tends to be about relevance, about niche audiences, about actually having conversations for your audience, about having respect. If we can teach that and you can see that work, we're happy. And if that changes at some point, we will be the first to let people know.