In this episode, we explore and unpack the relationship between the tech ecosystem and the media. We’ll seek answers to questions such as – what roles do media publications play in the ecosystem? How does this differ between international and local publications? What are the key considerations for the media in doing this work, particularly from a talent and business model perspective? What about companies creating their own content – what is their motivation and what can be learned? And, why is there seemingly a contentious relationship between African tech and the media?
2:27 – We talk public relations utility and strategy, with Wimbart’s Jessica Hope.
6:47 – What role does international tech media play in the ecosystem? We hear from TechCrunch contributing writer Jake Bright.
12:05 – A discussion with Tomiwa Aladekomo, of Big Cabal Media, the parent company to TechCabal, on the publications’ objectives and challenges.
17:03 – We explore how one publication, Stears Business, is tackling information scarcity, talent, and business model challenges in Nigeria, with Preston Ideh.
23:05 – We speak with Paystack’s Emmanuel Quartey on the company’s editorial approach and hiring content to solve a problem.
28:23 – Is there a contentious relationship between African tech and the media? Are those in the ecosystem playing their part in sharing with requisite openness and transparency?
30:41 – A retrospective conversation between Sayo Folawiyo, Justin Norman, and this episode’s co-producer Osarumen Osamuyi, on the environmental challenges of building sustainable media businesses and meeting the expectations of the tech ecosystem.
Tomiwa: We’re following our curiosity, I’ll say is what we’re doing now. And that’s the instruction we give to the editorial team is follow your curiosity.
Justin: That’s Tomiwa Aladekomo, the CEO of Big Cabal Media, the parent company to TechCabal.
Tomiwa: What is it that’s interesting about technology? What are the things that are driving people? What are the things that drive people’s interests in technology? We’re reporting a lot more broadly.
Justin: While I don’t consider myself a journalist, as the Founder of The Flip, I do create a lot of content. I’m interested in what content is not only interesting but also useful to a narrowly defined audience focused on entrepreneurship, tech, and startups on the continent. By extension, we’re very interested in media and the relationship between startups and the media. I personally believe strongly in the importance of narrative, openness, and learning from the experience of others – it follows that the media, whether we like it or not, or whether we like them or not – play a crucial and valuable role in what we are trying to achieve as an ecosystem. So in this episode, let’s explore and unpack this topic and the relationship between tech and media.
VO: You’re listening to The Flip, the podcast exploring more contextually relevant stories from entrepreneurs around Africa.
Justin: Welcome back to The Flip, I’m your host Justin Norman. This episode was born out of an inquiry from friend of the pod and past interviewee Osarumen Osamuyi, the Founder and Author of The Subtext and the newly named Head of Venture Growth for DFS Lab. Osarumen reached out to ask if I would be interested in exploring this topic further and together we co-produced this episode.
Osarumen’s work at The Subtext provides an editorialized and insightful perspective on the African tech ecosystem. Similar to The Flip, it’s not a media publication like that which some of our interviewees in this episode work for, but more or less a one-man project and opportunity for Osarumen to explore his own curiosities and a platform to try to make sense of what’s happening on the ground. Osarumen and I both share the experience of trying to understand where our respective publications fit into all of this, and we know first-hand the challenges with creating good, useful content and building a viable business around it.
So to unpack the dynamics of media publications and their relationship with startups and founders, we talked to a diverse range of players in this space on this topic. To start, let’s talk strategy and utility, from a PR perspective.
Jessica: My name is Jessica Hope, and I am the Founder and Managing Director of a public relations company called Wimbart.
Justin: Jess and Wimbart work with many venture-backed and high-growth companies on the continent, and employ a variety of communications strategies to help their clients achieve their respective business objectives.
Jessica: We’ve worked with IROKO. We’ve worked with Andela. We’ve also worked with Kobo360. We do everything from fundraising announcements to storytelling, content creation, we help our clients with events, we help them with broader media strategy.
Justin: The strategies employed vary business to business.
Jessica: PR should wrap around your business strategy. PR doesn’t lead the company. It’s the company that leads and then we think, okay, what do you need? Are you trying to target a particular section of people? Are you trying to target investors? Are you trying to target a new business pipeline?
Justin: And in pitching and telling stories about a business, it’s a prerequisite to have good stories to tell.
Jessica: Me personally, my favorite founders are the ones that just see PR as a means to an end, who’re just really focused on building the business because then there’s a robust business to talk about, and they already have some interesting stories to talk about, and it’s not just about hype.
Justin: Though on the continent and in the tech ecosystem, in particular, media & PR is perhaps most prevalently associated with the fundraise press release.
Jessica: Often the press release the fundraising announcement is just the beginning. And it’s a way to kind of grab journalists’ attention. That’s A because that’s kind of what the media likes and B, that’s what the company’s like, and also C that’s what the investors like. A lot of the time actually, I wouldn’t say pressure, but you know, investors want to make these fundraisers announcements, as well, because they’re looking to increase their profile, in terms of attracting deal flow and showing off their portfolio companies. Another reason is because they’re looking to attract talent as well.
Justin: This raises a lot of questions – about what is newsworthy, about what journalists care about, what readers care about, and how this differs by publication, including local publications versus international publications.
Jessica: It’s just a case of thinking about reach and scale, and that’s the same with any business. So yes, for a lot of companies product launch or thought leadership or interviews, there’s really strong platforms on the continent that will get certain levels of reach, but they don’t get the same reach as TechCrunch in terms of Silicon Valley investors. It’s thinking about who’s reading it and how they’re consuming it and how influential that person is, as well.
Justin: Here is where international media matters – and we’ve talked a lot in the past about the prevalence of African tech companies fundraising overseas… in many cases, international media is an important means to that end.
Jessica: For the companies, it’s if you manage to get on TechCrunch or a big international outlet, it’s the validation and it’s the kudos that comes from that. It opens doors for other opportunities, as well. I’ll give you an example of one of the earliest really big pieces of PR that led to a fundraising announcement is, I guess, the famous story now of when TechCrunch first came to Lagos and they featured Jason Njoku, and his investors came to him. He wasn’t doing the kind of VC route, he wasn’t hawking loads of pitch decks. Tiger Global came to him and then led on a Series A, $3 million.
Justin: So then the question becomes, how do you get the international media, in particular, to care about what’s happening in tech in Africa.
Jessica: You can’t just say, oh well it’s bad that international journalists just don’t care about African tech. You have to give them a reason to care about it as well. And I’ll use the example again of Jason and IROKO. When Jason first started doing the Silicon Valley trips and he would try and get a meeting with someone, he found it quite difficult. So that’s why we did this massive PR push. And importantly, again, not just fundraise stuff, but the storytelling about what is Nollywood. It’s this massive African content phenomenon. So people could then easily put two and two together.
Justin: And while the international media strategy was tied to fundraising, there are other international credentialing and profile-increasing avenues to take beyond the fundraising piece.
Jessica: Let’s also be really specific about different types of media as well. So say for example, BBC Business or BBC Africa Business, they don’t do fundraise announcements. They’re more likely to talk about first-person stories, the CEO of the business, their backstory, or the use case for a company. They might follow someone who uses a particular platform and products and what it means to them. And then they might interview the CEO and as a sort of secondary or tertiary angle, they might then talk about the fact that the company has raised X amount of money. So you need to be very clear and very specific about what the outlet is thinking of and what their focus is.
Justin: So let’s dive a bit deeper into the purview of the international tech media.
Jake: I’m Jake Bright. I’m a writer, author, advisor, and I’m also a contributor at TechCrunch, with a focus on Africa.
Justin: Jake’s work in Africa spans many years now – he co-wrote a book back in 2015 called The Next Africa – and it was in part his experience with the tech ecosystem in writing this book that ultimately led him to transition into covering African tech for TechCruch.
Jake: In the early days of covering African tech, it really wasn’t taken seriously by a lot of folks. But in any case, the conclusion I had after coming off the book with that this is a real tech sector, both, it’s going to have impact within Africa and also within the global tech community, and there needs to be a publication, a mainstream business publication, that focuses, creates dedicated coverage on this tech sector. So I went out and started trying to pitch that to publications and I started actually bringing stories to them.
Justin: Jake’s eye turned towards TechCrunch, after a writer at the publication, Jon Shieber, wrote a piece on African tech that Jake himself was wanting to write.
Jake: I reached out to him cold and started talking to him about doing more coverage, which eventually led to me contributing at TechCrunch.
Justin: TechCrunch’s reciprocal interest in dedicating coverage towards Africa was then a function, in part, of their broader business and strategy.
Jake: It was one of the first media organizations that really caught on to the VC-backed startup thesis and started covering it pretty strongly. It has a strong branded events presence, you have the Disrupt series and the Startup Battlefield series. And it also has a database function where it’s connected to Crunchbase. So, contributing to that conversation with John Shieber and contributing occasionally on African tech led to was, hey, TechCrunch should turn on all the switches. It should be the publication, the mainstream business publication, that turns on everything around tech reporting, events, and data, to turn those switches on to Africa.
Justin: And TechCrunch was interested in turning on those switches for the African ecosystem.
Jake: So for the last several years, that’s what I’ve done. So we spearheaded consistent coverage of African tech on the content side. And we started covering a lot of exclusives, breaking a lot of the big stories before any other publication. The second thing that was on the list was we did the first two Startup Battlefield Africa’s, first in 2017 in Nairobi, and then the second in 2018 in Lagos. And then the last thing we did is on the database component, we worked on a project to basically update and create a stronger feed between data coming from Africa’s tech ecosystem and Crunchbase.
Justin: Now, let’s explore the interest in the African tech ecosystem from an international media and audience perspective.
Jake: When you start to see tech events and investment events that start to become similar to things of other ecosystems that you take seriously, it does some of the work for you. There was reception to covering things, but it was also often still taking it like it’s a novelty, right? There was a lot of one-off coverage, even some of the early stuff I did, overly simplistic, you know, Africa Rising narrative. So that was phase two. And that’s basically why I went to TechCrunch because phase three is covering it from a high level, the way you’d cover any serious tech ecosystem. And that’s where I hope and I think the coverage that we’ve done at TechCrunch has gone.
Justin: Though for Jake, it’s a delicate balance to walk in writing for a global publication and a global audience, while also not writing from an overly simplistic view for those on the continent who are reading his work.
Jake: I would say generally that it’s shifted and it’s become more important to have that nuance that you’re talking about. In the early days when we first started doing coverage, the audience was largely the African tech ecosystem. With all the developments in African tech and the elevated interest that’s come and the increased investment that started to come from other sources, I would say the audience I’ve been writing for the last year is a combination of global tech that started to engage or that’s interested in African tech, and then it’s actors in African tech and the ecosystems. So you’re writing for two very different audiences.
Justin: It’s about finding an appropriate balance.
Jake: So finding that balance of getting to what people really want to hear and need to hear in a story, making sure that it’s not just totally distant in that the actors and the people driving it, bring forward their names, bring forward who they are, bring forward their perspective, and then writing a bit parenthetically to put what’s going on in African tech in context on the continent and in context in global tech, is really the key.
Justin: Though the role in this work is perhaps similarly shared by the ecosystem itself, in identifying and selling the newsworthiness of their news.
Jake: Especially in Africa’s tech ecosystem, these startups and founders have to sell their value proposition a lot harder. What’s underlying the news to make it newsworthy? So it’s investment news, but it’s also what is it that got you through that investment round and got you to get this venture capitalist to see the value in your firm and what you’re doing and what’s impactful, and how you’ve already scaled or how you might scale, how you might generate serious revenue or impact in a sector.
Justin: And this becomes even more acute as the amount of tech news – both from the ecosystem and globally – continues to grow.
Jake: There’s so much tech news in general. The amount of African tech news has just grown exponentially over just even the last five years. In particular, at TechCrunch, the amount of inbound that you get is just absolutely overwhelming. I can’t write about everything that’s news relevant now.
Justin: Now, if there is more news that is newsworthy, and similarly if there is more depth that is required for certain stories from the continent, it means then that there is a gap left by international media and particular responsibility for local media. Here’s Tomiwa again, who we heard from in the opener.
Tomiwa: Very explicitly we want to be a catalyst for development within the ecosystem. Very explicitly we want to keep the ecosystem honest. Very explicitly we want to be a cheerleader for the ecosystem, showcasing the best things that are happening in the ecosystem.
Justin: Ultimately, the goal for TechCabal is to provide functional utility for the ecosystem.
Tomiwa: Our goal with TechCabal is to provide the best insight into what’s happening in technology on the continent. And we kind of parse that as the business of technology, the impact of technology, and the people and the products that make technology on the continent. We think of our role as very functional in that way, where we really should help the ecosystem make better decisions.
Justin: To achieve these goals, TechCabal has various properties that cover certain topics or themes.
Tomiwa: We have a couple of segments that kind of dive deep into products, you know, piece by piece. The Backend is kind of a product design thing. We have Fact Sheets, which basically deep dives into various different segments of the tech industry and the way they work. We have a couple of series where we profile people, key players. My Life in Tech profiles key players in tech across the continent. We have Digital Nomads, which talks about people who are living in different countries working in technology. We have a unit called TC Insights, which does the data reporting and we bring out regular reports about various segments of the market. In terms of editorial versus press releases and the like, we have something called the press room, where if you have a press release, we will post your press release for a fee.
Justin: And this breadth of content also includes distribution and content types.
Tomiwa: Both our publications have websites, they have social platforms, they have newsletters. We do events, we do TC Live, which is our video interview series, and TC has just launched the podcast as well. So that’s quite a range for us to cover.
Justin: Here is where revenue considerations come into play. In servicing their audience with content they seek, and in monetizing via an ad-driven model, Tomiwa and TechCabal are focused on creating content that will also generate revenue.
Tomiwa: There’s a couple of reasons we’re doing that breadth. Some of it is from a revenue strategy perspective. We got into this with the premise that a single revenue line business was insane. And so our initial mix was advertising, it was revenue from working with brands through our brand studio, our events are a revenue stream, and some of the work that we do through our TC Insights unit, creating and selling reports, and doing some consulting strategy work.
Justin: But this is a tough endeavor from an operational perspective – and here we must explore the realities from the ground from a business model and market size perspective.
Tomiwa: I think the main challenge that we’ve seen with that is it’s trying to do a lot. If you look at the biggest companies globally, they tend to have one revenue stream that kind of really dominates and that really outstretches. And I mean, last year we had three different revenue streams each contributing somewhere between 25 and 30%. I think that is the work that any media company today has to do, and the truth of the matter is that any media model unless it’s been established and is showing remarkable growth even now already, is experimental.
Justin: As TechCabal continues to experiment around business model and content mix, the challenge becomes building a sustainable business, in particular, to generate enough revenue to hire the caliber of talent required to accomplish the publication’s lofty objectives.
Tomiwa: I have to say of all the problems I did not anticipate, and that truly blindsided me, the difficulty of building a high-quality editorial team is number one. I knew monetization and revenue were going to be difficult. I knew figuring out the right business model was going to be difficult. I did not anticipate just how challenging it would be to build a great editorial team. Particularly on the Tech Cabal side, it requires such a depth of knowledge and insight into the industry that the people who have that depth of insight and knowledge are frequently practicing.
Justin: For TechCabal specifically, several of their former writers – including this episode’s co-producer Osarumen – went on to work in the industry after TechCabal. And what made these writers great writers in the first place is that their skillset and depth of domain expertise is what made them attractive to other startups in the industry, as well.
Tomiwa: I would say that if you develop the depth of knowledge and insight and understanding that’s required to be a really fantastic journalist in this space, then yes, you do have some skills that may be transferable into the industry. People will leave for better opportunities and so you better be developing people faster than they can leave, and you better be getting the strongest output from people even before they reach the peak of their capacities. And so your processes should drive great content out, even if the people are still developing themselves.
Justin: One media organization going deep on quality of talent is Stears Business.
Preston: My name is Preston Ideh. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Stears. Stears is a digital information company based out of Lagos.
Justin: Stears is helping to overcome the information deficit in Nigeria.
Preston: Over time I had grown accustomed to a certain standard of information when I wanted to understand the business world. So when I started looking to invest in the Nigerian market, data or information deficit, that gap was very severe. Looking for information on companies, looking for information on performance, even just industry-wide analysis, a lot of it was missing.
Justin: And solving this problem requires the right business model.
Preston: To make that happen, we had to find successful models that we thought reflected what it is we wanted to do. And two of those models were the Bloomberg and Reuters models, which we like to think of as them information services models. In both cases, at their core, they have both data and editorial or news businesses. And both of them essentially do the same thing, it’s still making information, high-quality information available.
Justin: This informs the company’s initial revenue mix.
Preston: We did start off with the media business as early as 2017, still looking at this north star of our Bloomberg equivalent, that data platform. So for most of that time, we weren’t expecting to monetize Stears Business in the way we’re doing today. We expected that it would be subsidized by the data business.
Justin: So Stears built out their data business which then subsidized their media business. And to be sure, building this kind of diversified business requires high-quality talent.
Preston: We had this and we still have this vision that comes from looking at really great international publications. I remember reading about one of the editors of The Economist who had actually moved from the Bank of England to become an editor at The Economist. And I said to myself, that is it, that is the model. You want to attract this same kind of talent that could be on the operator side to the media information side because if you don’t do that, you’re going to always have some sort of asymmetry. We wanted a situation where the people who are writing for Stears are capable of also being the interviewees, they’re capable of sitting on the panels and actually contributing to the conversation as if they were the operators. At the top of our newsroom, for instance, the former Editor-in-Chief, he’s a Co-founder, he was working at the Chief Economist at an investment bank in Nigeria. And so that gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge.
Justin: This has implications for how Stears identifies, solicits, and develops talent.
Preston: We primarily focused on people who had some sort of domain expertise in the field you wanted to cover, and then taught them how to write. You’re going to write content for CEOs, for entrepreneurs, people who are deep in their industries, and if they get a sense that they’re reading content written by someone who doesn’t understand the topic, they are not going to respect the content. And so that just shapes the way we train people.
Justin: This then becomes the core of Stears’ recruitment pitch. Stears, much like TechCabal, is heavily focused on developing its writers.
Preston: It’s amazing how much people really want to improve their writing skills and how hard it is to find environments that are dedicated to solely making you a good writer. And so we offered that to our writers and said, this is a platform where intellectual rigor is the bedrock, is the foundation, and we want you to be part of this. And in return, we’re going to make you a better thinker, we’re going to make you a better writer, but we’re also going to allow you to associate yourself with a brand that we believe is going to really shape out the future of information in Africa. And people got on board.
Justin: The stringent talent requirements are a function not only of the work itself but of the Stears business model. In addition to the aforementioned data services revenue streams, Stears has also recently launched a subscription model.
Preston: We started focusing a lot more on building out a sustainable business. If we wanted to keep it going and make it sustainable, we have to explore a different business model. Very similar to any other Nigeria startup or venture-backed company, you’re looking for sustainability for your business. And at that point we said to ourselves, it wouldn’t make as much sense to go into a venture-backed model with the expectation that one side of the business would subsidize the whole thing. Now you’re asking yourself, how do you build a media business that funds a data business? You know, it’s a very big and difficult question. And so all roads just pointed toward paid subscription.
Justin: The subscription model is also a function of the response from their readers and now fundamentally changes the relationship between Stears and its readers.
Preston: I think the editorial staff has to be very closely aligned to the business model. If you think about the classic business model of any newspaper or media house, it’s two-sided, so you have the readers on one side who you’re attracting with some content, and then the advertisers on the other side. Now what happens when you go into a subscription model is that there is only one product, and now you’re asking one side of that two-sided market to pay directly for it. So they are no longer being subsidized. And because you have to live up to that expectation, you have to live up to that standard, your editorial position has to change. When you’re in a subscription model, you’re essentially creating content that is valuable enough for people to pay for it. Is this thing worth paying for? And the answer to that has to be yes.
Justin: While I don’t mean to say that an ad-driven model lacks alignment between publisher and reader, the requisite alignment for a subscription model is even more acute because the readers are paying directly.
Preston: The newsroom is not just read obsessed, they’re customer-obsessed, and they’re asking themselves every day, what do my customers want? So I think that just shaped the entire editorial approach.
Justin: When content is the product, it requires those shaping the editorial strategy to take a product-led approach. And much like Stears, so too is another Nigerian company taking a product-led approach to content.
Emmanuel: My name is Emmanuel Quartey, I’m Head of Growth at Paystack.
Justin: Paystack is a product-led organization, and that ethos permeates through everything they do, including content creation.
Emmanuel: We hire content to solve a problem. That product-minded approach, it runs through the entire company; it’s a fundamental lens through which we see everything. And we definitely approach every single property like a mini product. We talk about if a listener or a reader is accessing this property, what are the benefits that they’re looking to gain from it?
Justin: This then informs how Paystack approaches content development.
Emmanuel: Please allow me to get that slightly philosophical. So the animating question behind the company, in general, is what are the impediments to our merchants’ growth? This powerful all-consuming animating question – what are the biggest impediments to our merchant growth?
Justin: The answers to this question include things like financing and software tools, but crucially, they include many intangibles, as well.
Emmanuel: The easy answers include funding and also tooling. And of course, what we do day in and day out at Paystack is to help answer that tooling need. But the more you sit with that question and the more we spoke to our merchants, we found that there are some equally as important and less obvious answers to that question.
Justin: Less obvious, and more intangible.
Emmanuel: We find that one of the single biggest impediments to our merchants scaling and operating at the scale that they want is talent. I don’t think collectively as a community and as an ecosystem, we realize the extent to which that talent question holds us back collectively. We also find that access to information, access to networks, there’s a surprising amount of folks having to reinvent the wheel. There is not enough knowledge sharing happening. And then above all, and this might be surprising, but I find that the single biggest impediment to growth is a failure of courage.
Justin: And so much of what Paystack does, from a content perspective, is to help overcome these and particularly the last impediment to growth.
Emmanuel: The mission of marketing at Paystack is to give our merchants permission to be brave. And I know that sounds a little vague, but genuinely where we are right now, we are teaching a continent to transact business online. To do that work of education on a significant scale requires storytelling. Generally, we find that the difference between someone starting and not is the deep-seated belief that good things will happen if I learn how to do business online. It’s not just a matter of listing feature sets. This is giving them something to aspire to. It’s giving them something to dream towards. And we do that by telling stories that lift spirits, that connects merchants to people, to the ideas and the resources that they need to build incredible businesses.
Justin: Let’s explore an example – Paystack’s Decode Fintech podcast and newsletter.
Emmanuel: So Decode Fintech is very powerfully providing for that community. So what happened was our key accounts team, beyond just doing relationship management, they are also charged to be some of the smartest people inside the company when it comes to understanding what is happening within tech across the continent. So this was already happening and we realized that we could actually turn this to the benefits of our merchants.
Justin: And back to hiring content to solve a problem, Decode Fintech is doing exactly that.
Emmanuel: We figure that we have a large community of fintechs who rely on us already on a tooling level, but if we believe that one of the impediments to the growth of fintechs is this blindness to these moves, let’s help solve that. And so that’s the job that we are hiring the Decode Fintech property to do.
Justin: Much like taking a product-centric approach is a core part of Paystack’s being, so too is investing in content and sharing.
Emmanuel: You can’t commit random acts of content. You just can’t. It needs to solve multiple problems at the same time simultaneously to justify the investments. If we are doing our jobs right, all the energy that we’re plowing into our various editorial properties should be providing as much value as any of our products.
Justin: And this belief in the value of investing in content comes straight from the top.
Emmanuel: I worry that saying that implies that if there isn’t a bright line between the investments and the outputs it’s not worth doing because that’s not the case. The only reason why we’re able to do the things we do is because on a very senior level, on the highest level of the company, it’s just a deep-set belief that good things happen when we share. We have like almost obsessive impulse towards sharing because we believe that if all of us get smarter, all of us will do better.
Justin: This then informs how Paystack invests in these activities and in how they measure their success.
Emmanuel: I worry sometimes that people will go to the opposite extreme and it’s like, it’s so coldly mechanical where, unless I can justify the dollar value of this hour spent on this bit of content it’s not worth doing. Yes, while each product needs to be useful as a Paystack feature, it would be incorrect to say that we are so slavish about needing to see a very obvious ROI. That’s not the case at all.
Justin: If we are to agree that Paystack is the gold standard for startup originated content, perhaps it should follow that we will increasingly see startups with a bias towards sharing. And likewise, if we are to agree that to help the ecosystem make better decisions, that the openness and the sharing and lessons may not all positive, it underscores the role that the startups must play in their relationship with the media, in working together for the benefit of the ecosystem. However, that hasn’t always been the case. Here’s Tomiwa again.
Tomiwa: Our engagement with the ecosystem can be quite contentious sometimes. I find that people really like the celebration aspect of our mission. People are much less comfortable with being asked hard questions about their business models. They’re a lot less comfortable with stories that look at misbehavior. You know, if a leader leaves a business and we say, why is this leader leaving this business at this time, sometimes it puts people’s backs against the wall.
Justin: Tomiwa attributes this to the stage of the ecosystem.
Tomiwa: I find that there is an undue amount of caution around speaking to the media. And it’s one of those things I ascribe to an immaturity in the ecosystem, I ascribe to perhaps the fragility of some of the businesses that we cover. And so people tend to be a bit secretive about information.
Justin: Though Tomiwa hopes, as do we, to see more openness in our ecosystem – because it’s for the benefit of the ecosystem.
Tomiwa: I think definitely there is more openness that’s required. There’s more engagement that’s required. I think more people need to tell their stories. And talking about your business model in a place where the business models are so immature is unlikely to ruin your business or have your competitor jump on you. I think it’s more likely to open insights that actually open your eyes as a leader of your own business and to what it is you could be doing better, and sort of engender critical feedback and useful feedback.
Justin: And if Osarumen and I, in co-producing this episode have an agenda or an outcome that we wish to create from this episode, it’s to compel more openness, and to demonstrate to those in the ecosystem – and who may feel that the media leaves things to be desired – to show the shared opportunities, and likewise the challenges that the media face, particularly from a talent and business model perspective, in meeting the expectations of the ecosystem. So it is that, and much more that my Executive Producer, Sayo Folawiyo, this episode’s co-producer, Osarumen Osamuyi, and I sat down to discuss in reflection of this topic.
Sayo: I have a lot of questions. So I’m actually going to just interview you guys. So what is important to know about what’s going on in this ecosystem? It seems like fundraising is, you know, 90% of the what’s going on that’s interesting. Is it? And what else is newsworthy?
Osarumen: I think people have an intuitive sense of what is newsworthy, but I think that media companies have to produce newsworthy material on a schedule as their primary business, there’s a couple of very strange incentives at play here. In terms of editorial resources, there’s typically just not, one, enough reporters, but more importantly to me, reporters who have been around long enough to become peers to the people they are covering. What I mean is, the reason why Kara Swisher can call Mark Zuckerberg an idiot and still retain credibility in the Silicon Valley ecosystem is that she could very well work as an executive in his company. But because this ecosystem is really small and the size of the media covering the industry is linked to and capped by the size of the industry itself, you find that media companies have the challenge of retaining the best quality talent that comes up through their ranks. As a general pattern, I’ve just seen a move away from the media industry into the industry itself, and so that creates a very strange system where while the business’s editorially standing on its feet, it has to start training new writers again. And that tends to show in the quality of editorial being put out or what counts as news. Those who are effectively covering the industry at any point in time are outsiders. Because the people covering the industry, and actually I would put myself in this bucket back when I used to cover the industry, were outsiders, there’s a distance from which they could speak. And so when you have that environment you end up making relatively safe statements or covering relatively safe subjects, where the facts are clear and it’s impossible to mess things up.
Justin: And then the byproduct of all of that is the only type of news that we get is funding announcements.
Osarumen: Exactly, even though everybody wants more, everybody expects more. It’s just really difficult.
Sayo: And, I have two questions. The first one is, if you’re looking at Stears, for instance, so the thrust you seem to be taking Justin is really around the product development of media and how you might get the kind of talent that you were mentioning, and how you might put a model around that. I’m interested to hear you guys’ thoughts on that. On the media as a product in this ecosystem and whether it’s possible, so it’s kind of flipping what you just spoke about Osarumen and saying, okay, what might it look like in a world where it works.
Justin: In taking a product-centric approach, it’s what is the monetization strategy, or what is the product? And I’m very wary of The Flip taking a default path, meaning going straight to subscription because that’s what media companies do. And are there other products that can be launched or other things that can be monetized and may that be more sustainable and beneficial to the content and the community that we’re trying to create, because frankly, I don’t know how sustainable the subscription model is, right, especially for the caliber of content that we’re creating. I think it’s good, but probably not good enough. I would go so far as to say that Paystack is one of the best, if not the best, media companies on the continent. And maybe that’s the answer is broadening it to say media ought to be monetized through a whole host of different products, and conversely, people who have non-media products ought to invest a lot more in media.
Osarumen: I think, actually, I am very aligned in that we should be more creative when it comes to thinking about ways to monetize. In terms of the team structure, I think it is really, really difficult to make a large newsroom work. I started The Subtext with the explicit intention of making it a subscription publication, and there’s a very simple reason why I haven’t launched that subscription publication. In my very subjective opinion, I don’t think that I can produce the quality of content that I would want to pay the amount that I would need to charge for this to make financial sense for me. I don’t think I can produce that content on a consistent basis at the moment. If I attempted to do that, to get to that volume by adding an additional person, or two more people, I would skew the economics such that the subscription business now needs to charge a lot more. And so I think we end up solving this problem one, you know, with the existing media companies finding a way to solve the editorial problem, but also with many more individuals like myself, like Justin, who have specific points of view and find ways to expose those points of view either explicitly in my case or implicitly in Justin’s case.
Justin: And then do you and I just have to be accepting of the fact that the business model is just not gonna work out and you and I cannot build a Stratechery equivalent in this context?
Osarumen: So I think that beyond Ben Thompson’s fantastic analysis and incredible discipline, one of the biggest assets that Stratechery has is high-quality sources of information. I would love to wake up every morning, scan through the news headlines, and write 1,800 words of commentary about what’s happened. But I just can’t do that today because lots of the information that I need to inform my analysis I have to gather originally. Like to write a 3000-word article, I’m probably doing a couple interviews, and probably reading papers, and I’m probably reading in some cases like a book or two just to get to the amount of information density that I can begin to sift through and do some analysis. And so that’s why it’s really, really difficult to make this work at scale because you’re both doing the job of the journalist and the analyst.
Justin: That’s super interesting, the information density that is a prerequisite to these second-tier media companies.
Sayo: Yeah, and the piece on just better media generally – do you guys have thoughts and feelings about how the ecosystem can affect the larger, wider media landscape and how it should be, in fact? I’m interested in the fact that you put Stears in this episode because it’s not really an ecosystem business. And so, in fact, the first question is why did you put them there?
Justin: So interestingly, I wanted to put them there first and foremost, just because they are a subscription business. I think that they have relevance for the ecosystem and especially if we want to raise the bar, then we ought to talk to the people who are finding, especially from a talent perspective really, and back to Osarumen’s point about talent being a big challenge in the tech media ecosystem that we’re talking about, Stears has figured out how to hire economists and consultants from McKinsey or whatever to write for them. To be journalists. And so I think that the lessons there can be applied to, to your point, the broader media landscape and to the tech ecosystem, in particular. Now we’ll have to see, retention may be a separate conversation altogether. Maybe the thing for Stears in particular though is that they’re well-positioned to survive longer and to mitigate the retention considerations because, in particular, they are not as narrow as tech in their business, and they have a wider addressable market and a wider purview and that’s what’s their critical enabler.
Osarumen: That’s interesting. I also think the industries that they cover are just so much more mature than the tech industry and just so much larger, and I think you probably have a better chance of building a subscription publication in finance, for example, than in tech today because, again, the information sources are relatively high quality and verifiable. In tech, specifically with startups, if you notice Ben Thompson mostly analyzes big tech companies and not startups. Here, because it’s mostly private companies, mostly really small, I think it’s just really difficult to get, one, get the kind of editorial, but also, you know, who’s going to pay for it? Is it a seed startup that’s just $1 million and is trying to find product-market fit? And if you say it’s the executives and the investors, how many of them are there? It’s just a fundamentally different market.
Justin: The public-private company thing is really interesting, back to sourcing. Like Apple or Spotify or Netflix or whoever releasing their public earnings, their quarterly earnings is a news story in and of itself, and there’s so much additional content and analysis that can be built on top of that. I guess I’ve never really had a complete understanding until right now of the depth of the information scarcity that we’re dealing with. And maybe when we talk about the quality of tech journalism that needs to be a prelude. When we talk about access and information is like even if private companies and entrepreneurs and founders were extremely forthcoming and sharing and open, which they’re not, but even if they were, we’d still be dealing with a lot less information, because these are private companies.
Osarumen: Yup. So actually, I wonder now thinking about this, if there’s an editorial product to be built around analyzing fundraising announcements, just like diving into the implications of what a fundraise might mean, both from a market or industry-level perspective, but also a financial perspective. My go to example is Andela, which started out being pitched as a talent accelerator, quote-unquote. By Series D, I remember seeing the New York Times article pitching them as the future of work. They didn’t say anything about pivots until many months later. But I remember tweeting then that huh, this probably means that they’ve ditched the training component. And by tweeting that I invited a bunch of people who actually knew what was going on internally to send me DMs, tell me things about the utilization rates, about some of the challenges that they’re experiencing with the business as they run it in the direction that the business originally took. And, you know, with enough time, with enough experience, you can probably intuit what might be going on there. I’m not sure it’s a product you can monetize in any easy way, but it may be interesting or at least possible.
Justin: Yeah. In my opinion, perhaps the main value is the learnings of the journey, right, and being able to sort of codify, or aggregate these lessons, then supplemented by firsthand, or to compel the people with the firsthand knowledge to share, because you’ve sort of cracked the code to what’s been going on behind the iron curtain. But I would also say to some extent, and maybe this is just the benefit as time goes on, but until now, how many companies have raised a Series C? So there’s only, you know, so much historical data to go off of. And maybe that’s the crux of this conversation is that things are seemingly irreconcilable and therefore whoever can just figure out how to have diversified revenue or whatever else, like that’s all it will take until such a time as the ecosystem matures and maybe there’s public companies or the addressable market widens or whatever else it is. And, that’s just the nature of the beast that we’re dealing with. I don’t want to necessarily end on a cynical, pessimistic point of view, but I spend a lot of time doing this podcast and now we’re just all talking about how, you know, media businesses are not viable here.
Osarumen: I think they could be. I think some skepticism or I guess some cautious optimism, is probably the right take.
Justin: And maybe it’s our role – and I say “our” in terms of all those who have participated in this podcast episode – to demonstrate, especially to those who have something to say about the quality of the media industry, that there is much more to it than they believe. And if anything, maybe that’s the core of the argument that we want to make is like, look, people are trying, but there’s a lot of existential reasons why local media cannot be what you want it to be.
Osarumen: I absolutely agree with that. I think when evaluating company performance, we are often very understanding of the fact that it’s an early ecosystem and there’s many structural market reasons why certain things can happen. But I think when people tend to evaluate the media they consume, some of those considerations just disappear.
Justin: Yeah, the media doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. And so maybe then we do an interesting project where we go to everyone who raised money and we say, we want to create actually useful content based on what you think is actually useful, but we’re going to need you to tell us this, we’re going to need you to tell us your valuation. We’re going to need you to tell us all of your investors, how much money you raised, blah, blah, blah. And let’s see how many people are willing to share.
Osarumen: I would bet very few.
Justin: We can use this as a jump-off point to launch something and see as a project see who’s actually willing. And if they’re not willing to share, then they’re not allowed to complain.
Osarumen: I’m on board with that.
VO: That’s it for this episode of The Flip. Next week is our last episode of season two, and we take a deep dive into a topic that we touched on a bit in this episode – talent and recruiting. So please do hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app, or join the conversation with us on social media @theflipafrica. We also publish a weekly essay on Sundays, which you can get by subscribing to our newsletter on our website theflip.africa.
Thanks as always for listening, and we’ll see you next week.
Tomiwa Aladekomo – CEO, Big Cabal Media
Jessica Hope – Founder & Managing Director, Wimbart
Jake Bright – Contributing Writer, TechCrunch
Preston Ideh – Co-founder & CEO, Stears
Emmanuel Quartey – Head of Growth, Paystack
Osarumen Osamuyi – Founder & Author, The Subtext
Sayo Folawiyo – Co-founder & CEO, Kandua
Justin Norman – Founder & Host, The Flip
Audio Production by ZVUK Studio
Episode Artwork by Chileshe Tembo – The Zig