Malcolm Ong, Co-Founder, Skillshare
Malcolm Ong has never shied away from change. In fact, his ability to adapt is what has given him a front-row seat to multiple business transformations—first as the co-founder of education platform Skillshare to now as the Head of Product at South China Morning Post.
After launching Skillshare in 2010, Ong led the business through a significant pivot—from being a completely offline, in-person model to one that’s now membership-based and 100% online. In the process, he also witnessed the massive growth of the online education industry, which has only been sped up by the Covid-19 pandemic.
After leaving Skillshare, Ong joined South China Morning Post, a global, English-language news media company owned by Alibaba. His job has been to transform this company from a traditional, local newspaper into a more modern, global media empire. A task that he has exceeded, as he’s grown their number of monthly active users from 4 million to over 50 million and significantly expanded the outlet’s readership beyond Asia.
In this conversation, Ong gives us a deeper dive into these milestones throughout his fascinating career and shares his best recommendations on how to transform a business. If there’s any other type of content you’d like to see that would be valuable to you during this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]
- Why Ong decided to tackle the education industry
- How Skillshare launched as a 100% offline education platform
- What contributed to Skillshare’s success
- The scalability issues that Skillshare faced, and how this led to the company transitioning online
- Ong’s advice when it comes to pivoting your business
- Why Ong eventually left Skillshare in 2016
- What intrigued Ong about the job offer from South China Morning Post (SCMP)
- Ong’s experience living in Hong Kong, and how it has given him the front seat to many historical events
- How Ong has helped SCMP transform from being a traditional media company to a cutting-edge product and customer-focused business
- Ong’s advice to entrepreneurs about trying on different hats
Full Transcript of Podcast with Malcom Ong
Nathan: The first question I ask everyone that comes on is, “How did you get your job?”
Malcolm: Yeah, maybe if I can start from the beginning, starting from the beginning, ever since I was young, I’ve always been interested in tech and passionate about tech. One of my very first companies was actually an eCommerce company that I started in high school. That was my first foray into starting a business, learning how to run a business, learning how to code. It was just a very good opportunity to not only work on something I was passionate about, but also learn along the way. And then from there, I went on to go to school and college at Carnegie Mellon, where I learned both Business and Computer Science. I actually ran that eCommerce company while I was doing school.
And then upon graduation, I went on to work at IBM doing tech consulting. Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked at big companies like IBM and Microsoft and Razorfish all the way down to the smaller companies, like OMGPOP, including starting my own company, Skillshare, an education space. Fast forward to today, I’m currently at South China Morning Post, a news media company based in Hong Kong, that’s got acquired by Alibaba about four years ago. Right here, right now, at the company, I’m leading all of product engineering design and also their digital transformation into a more modern company and being focused on Hong Kong to a global expansion.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. So, when did you start your first company? So, your second company after the eCommerce one, what was your second one after……?
Malcolm: Second one was Skillshare.
Nathan: Second one was Skillshare. Okay. How did that come about? Because Skillshare, it’s one of the top online educational platforms. I know it started as in-person. Yeah, tell us about that story. Were you always based in New York?
Malcolm: No, I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, moved to L.A. in Orange County when I was really young. And then went to school in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon. When I graduated, I moved to Austin, Texas, spent a couple years there. Then I moved to New York. I spent about seven years in New York. After New York, I moved to San Francisco. And then I came to Hong Kong.
Nathan: Got you.
Malcolm: Yes, I’ve been all over.
Nathan: Yeah, well, so how did you meet? Michael?
Malcolm: Yeah, he and I met through a mutual/slash coworker that I had in New York. At the time, he and I connected a little bit on Twitter. That was probably around mid-2010 or so when we first connected. He and I hit it off really, really well. We both learned that hey, we’re interested in the same things, we’re interested in both starting a company. Around that time, I was working at OMGPOP, it’s a small gaming startup. You might notice, we’re best known for the game Draw Something. That company eventually got acquired by Zynga.
So, I was working at OMGPOP. Mike was working at another startup as well. He and I just brainstormed some ideas of what we wanted to do. When we were thinking about Skillshare, I think, number one, we knew that we wanted to start something that was very mission driven, number one. So, we looked into education, we looked into healthcare and various other ideas. But I think also at the time, healthcare in particular was a little bit difficult with all the regulations in the US and just a little bit early, I felt. Whereas something like education really, really hit an emotional nerve for us in a way.
Number one, in the US in particular, education is very, very much a linear path, right? Certainly, both he and I did go to college. But we also knew lots of people that went to college, even though it wasn’t necessarily right for them or a fit for them, but they did it just because that was the thing to do. If you didn’t go to college, you were seen as “a failure”. So, in the US, it’s that linear path where you go from high school to college, from college maybe to grad school. That was what was expected of you. But especially for folks that are in the creative fields, for example, if you’re a designer, if you’re an artist, musician, this is not necessarily the path that may be right for you.
And then on top of that, when we were doing more and more research about what was happening in education, we learned a crazy statistic that basically, there’s more in student loan debt in the US than there’s credit card debt. I think our current stats are $1 trillion in credit card debt, but 1.5 trillion in student loan debt, which is insane to think about. So, that was really the impetus of why we felt so strongly about Skillshare and doing something with an education, and then the whole idea of, “Well, if I wanted to learn something, why do I need to go to college? Why do I need to go to a four-year institution? Why can’t I simply just learn from the people that are already working in that job or the people that are already working in the fields that I’m interested in?” So, that’s what kick started the idea around Skillshare.
Nathan: Interesting. So, what did the first version of the product look like?
Malcolm: Yeah, when we first started, it was 100% offline. Every single class happened in person in your local community. We started first in New York, and then eventually started to expand to other cities. In the beginning, we just wanted to be able to prove… Because it’s an offline, two-sided marketplace, you have teachers on one side, students on the other hand. We wanted to be able to prove that number one, “Are people willing to teach?”, because the whole idea was democratising education, allowing people to teach, but also allowing people to learn from teachers that are in their community, right? You have to remember, this was back in 2010 when online education was very, very new. The whole idea of learning online was very, very new, right?
So, number one, we had to prove that people were willing to teach, especially people who have never really taught before or people that necessarily weren’t “teachers”. In the beginning, when we approached a lot of folks and wanted them to teach, their first response was always, “But I’m not a teacher, I’m a designer,” or “I’m a coder,” “I’m an engineer.” But we have to convince them like, “That’s fine. In fact, that’s why we want you because you’re working in this field. That’s exactly why people are interested in learning from you and hearing from you.” You’d actually be surprised, even though maybe you’ve never taught a class before, teaching I think just comes naturally to a lot of people, right? So, that was the one side.
And then the other side is just proving that people were willing to pay for this type of experience, this type of content, and this type of course. If you had an opportunity to learn, say, design from a designer at Facebook, would you want to do that versus going through a city college or university to do that?
So, in the very beginning, we just wanted to curate 10 classes a month for the first three months, see if we could do that, see if people were interested, and see if there was demand for that. We’re actually very successful in doing that. Almost 100% of our teachers have never taught before. We got 30 classes in our first three months. The classes pretty much sold out in terms of tickets. So, that was enough to convince us. Hey, we’re onto something here. There’s something here, let’s maybe quit our jobs, our full-time jobs and start this full time.
Nathan: I see. So, your idea of offline was your strategic version of like a minimum viable, low risk, easy test way just to test your hypothesis around the problem you were trying to solve.
Malcolm: Yeah, kind of, but I think the whole idea of offline was actually part of the original idea anyways, right? Online was actually maybe part of our future plans, but we did want to make sure that the experience of learning was still there. Because we also knew that if we just put content online, we didn’t necessarily want it to be a very solitary learning experience, right? When you put something online like a video online, especially again, back in 2010, when the quality wasn’t really that good and technology wasn’t there yet and super HD like video, because of that, that might be equivalent to you reading a book, right? So, it’s a very solitary learning experience.
Whereas what we wanted to create was something that was around community and something that was very project based. So, we wanted to be able to prove that out within the classroom environment or in-person environment, I should say, even though it’s not always in the classroom, right? Sometimes it’s in your office, sometimes it’s outside in the park, wherever it is. But we wanted to create that community where, “Hey, I’m getting together with people within my community and learning together.”
Nathan: Interesting. So, you said you filled out those classes, how did you fill them out? Because often times when people have an idea for a product or service or startup, it’s always interesting to hear how did you do that because that’s not often done.
Malcolm: Yeah. I mean, again, it’s a lot of things that don’t scale very well. It’s a lot of hustle. So, a lot of the teachers in the beginning that we knew were just from our network, people that we knew in the industry in the tech industry. So, we taught all sorts of different classes. We experimented with what classes might be interesting, what might work. So, things range from coding classes to design classes, all the way to some of the more quirky ones. So, how to play StarCraft was one of our first classes or poker, how to play poker, things like that.
And then we even approached some of the more entrepreneurs within the city, maybe they’re chefs or they’re restaurant owners. We basically said, “Hey, are you interested in teaching classes?” So, we would get a Michelin-rated chef to teach how to make chocolate truffles and things like that. So, that was it. It was just us going door to door, reaching out to our network, and then maybe two degrees away from that and just trying to convince people to teach. And then from there, any way that we can get people to be interested in the classes. So, initially, we actually ran a Kickstarter campaign that was around our mission.
So, our mission of being able to at least change or improve the current situation in education in the US. So, we started a Kickstarter campaign to spread the message that education was broken, education requires some fixing and the message that there’s so much more in student loan debt than credit card debt. That Kickstarter campaign was to fund this animated video that we created, and we spread. As part of that campaign, that was also our way of leading up to the Skillshare launch and getting people to sign on board. It’s like, “Okay, if you’re interested, if our mission resonates with you and if our mission aligns with you, sign up here, give us your email, and we’ll let you know when we launch.”
So, by the time we were already curating these 30 classes, we already had an email list of thousands of people that were at least interested, right? And then out of those, X number of people within New York that could actually attend some of our first classes. So, that was our way of leading up to, if you will, the cold start of a two-sided marketplace, right? So, it wasn’t from day one that we only had maybe three classes. We actually had the full catalogue of 30. And then we had a database, an email database of thousands of people that already were familiar with what we wanted to do and with our brand a little bit and wanted to see like, “Okay, what classes do you guys have coming up?”
Nathan: Got you. So, it would have been pretty early days, Kickstarter as well, when you probably use the platform. Yeah. I don’t know if they still are New York based, but they were.
Malcolm: Yeah, I think they are.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. Interesting. So, I’m curious when you guys chose classes, how did you know what topics and why did you choose a varied range versus I think over time, the platform is mainly more design community focused? You said you were doing poker, you said you’re doing StarCraft. I hope there was a Korean teaching at that one, because those guys are incredible at StarCraft. I’m curious around that with the platform play.
Malcolm: Yeah, I think part of it was based on our vision and strategy of wanting to do classes that number one, worked really, really well, particularly for in-person, right? So, things like poker worked really well, or cooking classes worked really well. Number two, things that are more hands-on and more project based and things that maybe are more about creating something, perhaps, right? So, those are your design classes, those are your how do I create a logo and things like that. So, that was the areas that we played in not knowing specifically then maybe which direction we wanted to go within that. But we also knew things that we did not want to do and that we considered off brand.
So, for example, we did not want to be a language learning course and company. We did not want to be a company that simply took, say, college content, university level content and put them online. So, we didn’t teach math. We didn’t teach physics courses, things like that. So, we knew already the things were off brand for us, but then things that we wanted. Certainly within the things that we wanted, there are certain things that are a little bit more PR worthy, a little bit more buzzworthy, but also things that really was just people within our community, the creatives within our community that you wanted to maybe learn from and that maybe previously you didn’t have a little bit of access to or previously there was no transparency into.
For example, the Michelin-rated chef, how to cook within the kitchen of a Michelin-rated chef. In fact, I took that class and one of the classes that the Michelin-rated chef did. It’s actually in the restaurant, in the kitchen of the restaurant, which was an incredible experience. So, there’s those types of classes. And then over time though, we’ve learned about what are the things that people are actually interested in, what really works with our community. We’ve gravitated towards this creator community, right?
So, within the creator community, that’s where you have all these design classes, coding classes and what have you. So, we started then partnering with companies like Adobe, partnering with companies like MailChimp doing marketing. So, that’s where we ended up gravitating towards.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. So, the plan was always to go online. Had that switch happened? Because I think there’s a much different experience online versus offline, it could be argued that in-person, there’s a much more magical transformation that takes place. What is your take there?
Malcolm: Yeah, the plan was always to incorporate online, but we didn’t know that we would pivot completely online, right? So, the plan was to try to figure out, “Can we use online to scale?” But in the beginning, we were really focused on the offline model. So, after New York, we spread to other cities like Boston, DC, San Francisco, LA. We eventually reached maybe about 15, 20 cities. Each of these cities were its own micro two-sided marketplace and its own community. So, we had community ambassadors, we had community managers within the team. We have basically, yeah, the ambassadors within each city. Locally, would be running these classes or helping teachers run these classes.
But I think because of that, we definitely started to hit some scalability issues, just being able to run these classes if they’re in-person. Although like you said that the format was great, because it’s in-person, it’s very interactive. You’re seeing people in person and live, which is great, but it means that it’s restricted to location, so venue. So, number one, we had to find venues, right? And then number two, it was restricted to time, because a certain time. Let’s say, I’m doing a course in the north part of New York or whatever. It’s that this date, this specific time. Even if a user in New York City was interested in that, but they couldn’t make that specific time or they couldn’t travel or commute 30 minutes to get there, that was a huge barrier. So, we started to see those type of scalability issues.
There was a certain point where we had to make a decision. All right, in order for us to really scale and in order for us to really scale this globally, because we had obviously big ambitions for the vision of the company, we really have to maybe rethink how we’re doing it. But again, moving online and trying to introduce online components, we wanted to do it very carefully, because we did not want to just simply put videos online and make it the end of the day.
So, when we started introducing those, we wanted to make sure that number one, everything was definitely project based. Number two, everything is centred around community, right? So, being able to not only work with and communicate with the teacher, but also students helping other students. So, that’s what we started to experiment with. Okay, can we start introducing the online component with this? Can we take some of the best offline classes that we did, put them online and see how that works out and see how that scales?
Nathan: What happened?
Malcolm: I mean, certainly, the online was the one that succeeded more and grew a lot faster, naturally, right? Just because again the physical limitations of the offline, right? So, offline, we probably had anywhere from 30 to 50 students at most per class in terms of capacity. And then the online classes would easily hit the hundreds instantly. And then especially when we changed the online a little bit to being a scheduled class to an evergreen class where there’s no start or end time, then that basically took off like crazy.
So, by then, it was a very easy decision in terms of, “All right, if we truly want to scale this company globally, then it looks like we’re going to have to pivot the business away from offline and into online.” But again, that was not an easy decision to make, because it went against the first idea of us wanting to create an offline experience because of us wanting to get few people to feel like, “Hey, this is a very hands-on, interactive, project based, community supported experience and learning experience.” We weren’t fully sure if we could recreate that online.
Nathan: I see, and I suppose one part about it as well as probably the business model would have stacked up a unit economics-wise much most efficiently online, right?
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, when we first started, it was a la carte model, right? We bought tickets to classes one by one, classes might be $30, $40, $50, right? When we moved online, number one, it made that a little bit more efficient in terms of customer acquisition, because now a teacher from New York can teach to anyone, not just limited to their geo. So, it helped us in terms of being able to improve and make acquisition for the teacher supply side more efficient. It also helped us really hone in on quality for the classes, right? Whereas before, we had to have people pretty much in every city and work with all these teachers and repeat that process every single time we launched into a new city. Whereas it made it much more efficient online.
And then, as you say, so as things scaled, then the unit economics just made more sense for online. And then we eventually moved to a subscription model, which is what the model we use today. Simply because when you’re online and you don’t maybe have that physical like attachment to “Okay, I’m going to this physical thing.” The always on mode I think it landed itself a little bit better to a subscription membership model. It tied itself back to one of our original values of this is a community of teachers and learners. This is not you’re just downloading content online.
Nathan: So, it’s almost like a membership in many ways.
Malcolm: Exactly, exactly.
Nathan: Yeah, I actually wrote that down, subscription versus a la carte, as you were describing it. When did you guys raise VC?
Malcolm: We raised our first round pretty much at launch. So, within three months of starting it. So, we started middle of 2010. We launched the first version, I would say November of 2010. We had closed the first round that January, February.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. Okay.
Malcolm: Yeah, I would say early on.
Nathan: You guys series D or…
Nathan: Yeah. Okay. So, it’s been a journey. Subscription versus a la carte, was that very early on when you moved online or was it later on? Why? I know, you said it reaches them. It aligns with your values. But I’m curious, because basically all platforms, online education platforms are subscription.
Malcolm: Udemy is still a la carte, right?
Nathan: Yes, correct. Udemy is, but they do B2B.
Malcolm: Yeah, on the B2B side of things. Yeah.
Nathan: Yeah. Same with CreativeLive. I think creative live now, even they have subscription or they’re pushing or they’re moving towards that model now too. So, a lot, basically, majority of masterclass. Usually, that seems to be the path, right? Launch, a la carte, build up catalogue, big enough catalogue, turn on recurring.
Malcolm: Yeah, I mean, especially as today, right? I think more and more people are used to paying for subscriptions online. Maybe that it was the Netflix’s and Spotify’s of the world that set that path for people. But we talked about, for example, the media industry and the news industry, tonnes and tonnes of news companies are also moving towards subscription. Whereas before, that wasn’t certainly not the case. People were actually hesitant to see if people are willing to pay for subscription for news, right? But yeah, I think for Skillshare, it just made sense, because of the way that people interacted or experienced the class because it wasn’t physical, I’m physically going to something. So, that was number one.
But I think just number two was from a business model perspective as well, what we noticed that there’s just a lot of barriers when it’s a la carte. Because not only do you have to find the class, and then when you find something that’s interesting, you have to make a decision of like, “Okay, do I want to spend $30 to $50 on this one class? Is it going to be worth it?” and things like that. So, it was partly a business decision where we noticed that based on the number of classes people were purchasing a la carte every year, they would actually get maybe, number one, a lot more access obviously to unlimited when they move to subscription. But then for us too, in terms of the LTV for each user would actually increase when we move to subscription as well, right?
Nathan: So, your saw LTV significantly increased?
Malcolm: Yeah, for sure.
Nathan: So, I suppose, yeah, there’s that predictability, sustainability. You can predictably be higher. You don’t start at zero.
Malcolm: Right, right. Yeah, that predictability is also key, right? It’s definitely valuable. It’s being able to get the cash flow every single month that’s very stable cash flow.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah. No, no. Okay, that makes sense. So, you’ve now moved on. You’re still on the board?
Malcolm: I’m not on the board. Just advising, but I’m not on the board.
Nathan: Okay. So, you’ve decided to move on. Are you able to share what happened or why you decided to move on? Is that okay to-
Malcolm: Yeah. I mean, when the company made a decision to pivot, that was when I decided I want to maybe take a step back. The original idea of starting Skillshare, very, very different than the original idea. I particularly had a passion for that two-sided offline to online mechanism, if you will. It’s part of the reason why I was interested in eCommerce in the very beginning. It’s also part of the reason why I eventually went to Lyft, which is also this offline to online, two-sided marketplace. So, although our move from offline to online, and from a la carte to subscription was for sure by far the right decision for the business. Just more from a personal standpoint, I think it wasn’t necessarily aligned with my original idea of what I wanted to do.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, the two-sided marketplaces are very difficult to build.
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah.
Nathan: Incredible once they get going though, right?
Malcolm: Yeah, for sure. Once you get it going, then you have enough liquidity. The network effects of the marketplace, it’s very been hard to compete against, right?
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. Look, I don’t have that personal experience. But speaking to other founders, yeah, they’re incredible. It’s an incredible model. You moved on to Lyft. You were VP of Growth, right?
Malcolm: At Lyft?
Malcolm: No, I was a product manager working on several different teams. One of them was a growth team.
Nathan: Yup, got you. Okay. And then now, you have moved. You’re in Hong Kong. Is everything okay over there for you?
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. With the protests that was happening and now with the COVID situation, I mean, things are okay, relatively speaking. It’s relatively fine. In terms of COVID, we just got hit by a third way. But considering how many people live here, I think we have seven, eight million, probably even more than that that live here. We’ve only had maybe a few hundred cases. I say only, obviously, it’s a bad thing. But relatively speaking, I think it’s a relatively low number compared to the number of populations that we have. But yeah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things going on in Hong Kong. But in a way, actually, it’s interesting to be here to see and be in the front lines of it.
That’s actually one of the reasons why I decided to come here in the first place is to learn more about what’s happening in Asia, learn more about tech in Asia, tech in China, what’s happening there. So, being in Hong Kong has been a very interesting opportunity to see… Especially working in news, it’s like being in the front seat of the US-China trade war, the front seat of the Hong Kong protests and what’s happening between China and Hong Kong, so, all of that. And then even with COVID, first coming out of China and then spreading across Asia before going globally, just being able to have front seats and to see that unfold, it’s been very, very interesting.
Nathan: Yeah, that is interesting. So, it’s crazy what’s happening right now in the world. Yeah. So, I’m glad you’re doing okay. So, before we move to everything you’re doing in the media landscape, I’d love to just round out the online education piece because of COVID, typically, this industry has seen a big boom, right?
Nathan: Not just for online educational platforms, but for the creators too. I’m seeing a big, big, big movement more than ever, where individual creators are now using platforms like Teachable. Teachable is recently acquired. But yeah, platforms like Teachable, where individual creators are being empowered to go out there and teach or they’re using platforms like Skillshare to share their expertise and knowledge as well. What is your take there? Because I think this is a very hot space right now, do you think it will continue to grow? I think it’s been very accelerated because of COVID now.
Malcolm: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s always been on this path. Because of COVID, it’s accelerated, right? So, that timeline has shortened. So, yes, I definitely think it’ll continue post-COVID for this to continue to grow. More and more people now are more willing to learn online, right? Even you think about K through 12, which traditionally, you never would have thought that 100% are learning online for K through 12, but that’s definitely happening today too. So, it’s just an interesting time for us that people, number one, are willing to try it. When they try it, they say, “Oh, maybe this can work. Maybe this wasn’t so bad as maybe we thought it was.”
But then you couple that also just because of technology’s better today compared to 10 years ago when Skillshare first launched or even before that, right? Online video is good now compared to 10 years ago. The internet’s a lot faster. Everyone has amazing phones everywhere. And then just also maybe the hardware that people use to be able to record these and produce these. So, the barrier to entry is also a lot lower to creating content online.
And then I think just the ability for people to take control over their own careers and be micro-entrepreneurs themselves within this creator community, if you will, and this creator generation of everyone building their own brand and putting it out there, right? So, you have tonnes of folks especially like on YouTube, on Instagram, on TikTok creating their own careers and brands and the name from themselves. So, I think that then, of course, bleeds into content creations, bleeds into areas like education and what have you.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s been really interesting to see and awesome for us. I found it to be a part of and to really continue to try to democratise entrepreneur education. So, I’m curious as well, one thing I have noticed is this trend around individual creators much more concerned with the amount of money they make from just selling a course versus student success or quality of course or maybe they shouldn’t be teaching. What is your take there? You know what I’m talking about, right?
Nathan: Yeah, what is your take there? Because you’re being [inaudible 00:37:35] or just everything with your background?
Malcolm: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s always going to be the case in terms of you’re always going to have a range and breadth of quality that’s out there, right? Not everyone’s going to create amazing content and be the best teacher per se. But also the flip side and that’s part of the reason why Skillshare, we pay a lot of attention to the learning experience and the community aspect of that, because again, just us producing a video, slapping it online and then not even interacting with, say, the student and getting feedback, that’s not what we really intend to do. So, for us, certainly the learning experience matters a lot. But yeah, you’re always going to get folks to be creating content, putting it up on YouTube, and then just using it as a selling content effectively.
So, I don’t know. I mean, I think eventually, maybe some of those will eventually weed out, but also there’s going to be opportunities for new companies to come in and maybe really focus on the pedagogy side of the learning experience and maybe changing the way people think about learning in general. Especially, I think, as more and more universities start changing that, more and more K through 12 start changing that. So, maybe we’ll eventually see this hybrid of online and offline again, where you try to marry the two together. That might be really, really interesting to think.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, no, there is something very special about offline versus online around that transformation and just that in-person experience. Yeah, it’s really interesting. So, you’ve moved now into the media space, and you’re working at South China Media. Tell me more about that around were you approached, or you are actively… Because you do like advisory, angels. You do angel stuff too, right?
Malcolm: I haven’t done any angel investment yet. I usually, invest my time as an advisor, but yeah, that’s definitely something I’m looking to do next.
Nathan: Yup. Got you. So, were you approached? It’s interesting career decision to move over. …… in Southeast Asia. Yeah.
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I started at SCMP back in August 2017. So, that’s about almost three years ago. At the time, I was at Lyft in San Francisco doing product and growth. I was approached by Gary Liu, the current CEO of SCMP. He and I are old acquaintances from the New York tech scene. And then he was visiting me in San Francisco. We were catching up. He was telling me about how, “Hey, I’m thinking about moving to Hong Kong for this news media company that got acquired by Alibaba in 2016.” He’s telling me the story. It put an idea seeded in my head a little bit, a little bit of inception. But it’s been interesting, because Asia has always been in the back of my mind, being born in Jakarta, Indonesia, seeing the growth of countries like China and India and Indonesia being on the next stage.
I realised sitting in San Francisco that even though I’m in the heart of Silicon Valley, the heart of tech, there’s just so much other opportunities elsewhere that I didn’t know much about, right? I had no idea what was going on in China, no idea what’s going on in Indonesia and other parts of Asia when it came to tech. So, just being able to have an opportunity to try Asia and try to experience living in Asia was one of my goals anyways. So, I think that was number one.
I think, number two as well is just because SCMP is in the news media industry, that industry is also going through a lot of change and almost forced disruption, because of its business model. The business models of news media companies are being forced to change. I like being in those intersections and those times when industries are just going through a lot of change.
So, me being at SCMP also gives me that opportunity to not only be a part of that recreation, but also help in that recreation and help in that transformation. So, I think for those two reasons, it was really compelling, even though I was super happy with my experience at Lyft. Lyft was a growing company. I was happy there, I was stable there. But this window of being able to work at SCMP was just a rare window, and I just had to take it. So, part of my role of coming over here was not only to help build the product engineering, design teams, which by the way didn’t really exist before I started, right? Before, it’s a 115-year-old newspaper of record of Hong Kong, very traditional type company.
But part of the reason why both, Gary, the CEO, and myself and a few others came on board is to help transform the company into a more, for lack of better term, Silicon Valley style company. In other words, being more data driven, investing more in tech, investing more in product, being more user centric, and investing more in our people towards that. So, it’s helping in that digital transformation, but it’s also helping create a brand that expands outside of Hong Kong to become global. We’ve done that, right?
So, it’s been about three years now since that transition. So, we went from being a Hong Kong-focused paper with about 4 million users, 4 million monthly actives, MAUs. Today, we have over 50 million MAUs. So, we’ve 12X that in the last three years or so. And then now, Hong Kong represents about 8% of our audience.
Malcolm: Where the US represents 35% of our audience, which is the largest market for us. So, it goes to know that that whole shift into Hong Kong into something global, that was part of the reason why we came on board.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. This is really impressive. So, you’re really building out a large-scale global media entity now.
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah.
Nathan: Not so much a local publication, traditional model. You guys still do print?
Malcolm: We do still do print. Yeah, but definitely digital and online is our focus. Print is just because we’re still the newspaper of record here in Hong Kong. I think fortunately, that, that business, although it hasn’t really been growing that much, it also hasn’t really been shrinking as much as print has in other parts of the world. So, we’re lucky that we still have a loyal following here in Hong Kong for that. But yeah, for sure, online and digital is the majority of where we are today and the majority of our growth. Over 90% of our users now are outside of Hong Kong. So, yeah, it’s been an interesting journey.
Nathan: Yeah, I find it interesting as well that shift in nuance where you say 50 million monthly active users versus readers or uniques. It’s like yeah. So, tell me what did you do to really shake things up there around getting that growth for anyone who would find this interesting to build a site and its content? Did you amp up content production? What was it then to now? What happened? Did you build hardcore SEO teams like? What does it look like, I’m curious?
Malcolm: It’s pretty much all the above. I think when we first started early 2017, it was, number one, repositioning, redefining who we are. So, we set new mission, new vision, redefined exactly our goals. So, it’s almost like a startup. Some of the things that we did to transform ourselves is exactly what I did at Skillshare. It’s exactly what I would do when I started a new company. It’s figuring out and redefining, “Okay, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?” So, our mission is to lead the global conversation about China, because we really believe that China as a story is one of the biggest stories in our lifetimes. China as a story and as a country is affecting people’s lives all over the world. We want to be able to tell that story.
And then part of the reason why Alibaba acquired the company is because they also felt that they want more and more people around the globe to know more about China, but of course, they know that no one’s really going to listen to media coming out of China, because it’s obviously censored. But then they also felt that media coming from the Western world, for example The New York Times, might also have a certain Western bias. So, us being in Hong Kong, we have the liberty of having one foot in the Western world and one foot in the Chinese world and telling that that story through truth and fairness. So, step one was redefining our mission, redefining what we’re trying to do.
Step two was the cultural transformation. So, it’s getting people within our company to change their way of thinking from again just being, “We’re a newspaper in Hong Kong,” to, “Hey, we’re actually going after this global ambition.” We really want to change the way we operate. We want to be more data driven. We want to pay attention to product. We want to be more user centric and talk to our users more, all that jazz. So, it was really the transformation of internal culture and internal process, right? So, redefining company values. It’s like everything that you would basically do when you first start a startup or first start a company. We just so happened that we had existing employees, but we redefined all of that.
I think fortunate for us, a lot of the folks within our company were very open to that and open to change. They had an open mind going into it. I was actually pleasantly surprised how well and how quickly we were able to shift and how well and quickly we’re able to transform ourselves internally, because you would almost assume that any large company is so steeped in its old ways of doing things that they would be hard to change. But I think we’re just lucky that people recognise that the news media industry is in trouble. Unless we change, then we could not have succeeded if we’re not open minded to that change. So, step two was that cultural internal process and transformation within our culture.
And then step three was focusing on then the products, right? It’s effectively going from a being “just a content publisher” into a product and platform focused company, right? So, it’s recognising that yes, we are journalists. Obviously, the core of our business is creating content. But then thinking about how is that content packaged? How is that content distributed and delivered? So, back in the days of prints, if you write an article, that article is going to show up exactly the same way, the same format on the print. Everyone’s going to read the same exact medium. But today, obviously, that’s not true. When you write an article, well, number one, it’s in real time. I don’t have to wait up until midnight for the print to actually be published. So, everything goes out in real time.
Number two, users and readers are consuming it in their own contexts with their own devices and mediums. Someone’s reading it off their phone while on the train. Someone else’s maybe prefers audio and prefers the listening experience. Someone else might actually prefer watching a video. Sometimes those videos are long form YouTube style videos. Other times it’s short form Instagram stories, right? So, it’s shifting then the way we actually create content from this one article format to suddenly, “Okay, if I want to tell a story, I have all these tools in front of me of how to tell that story, then how do I actually tell that story using all those different tools?” Right?
So, how would you tell the story of the Hong Kong protests via a podcast. That’s very different than if you tell that story through 15-second vertical video clips. So, it’s basically changing the way then we completely look at how we create content into then thinking about the product, which is how it’s packaged, and then therefore, how it’s delivered. By the way, when I talked about delivery, it’s also how people are consuming because not everyone is coming to scmp.com all the time anymore, right? Not everyone is downloading our app anymore. Lots of people are getting the news just from Twitter or just from Facebook or just from Google News and Apple news. So, we also have to embrace that. We have to learn then how to create content, how to create products for those specific experiences as well.
Nathan: Yeah, well, that’s really interesting. So, can you tell me around size of the team three years ago when you came into transformation? What scale are we talking?
Malcolm: Yeah. When I first joined, the team that was formed around me was around 20 people or so. Majority of those being engineers. Today, we have around 65, tripled in size. Overall, the company is that about excluding a JV that we have with Hearst, our magazines business, we have about 700 employees in total. The majority of those, 300 of those are editorial.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. Okay. That’s crazy. So, what’s exciting for you at the moment in the next couple of years that you’re focused on?
Malcolm: I mean, I think it’s just continuing on our path of transformation, right? We’re not done yet. It’s only been three years in. I think this is definitely at least a 10-year journey, in a sense, but it’s continuing that transformation and continuing to figure out, “How do we adapt or continue to adapt to changing user behaviour and reader behaviour,” right? Whether it’s newer mediums, such as TikTok… Right? TikTok wasn’t really a thing three years ago. … to podcast, suddenly becoming popular again, to just other ways of storytelling. So, that’s number one in terms of changing user behaviour.
Number two, from a business perspective, it’s changing our business models, right? So, historically and even until today, we’re still very much advertising revenue dependent, but as you know, advertising revenues have gone down considerably over the years. Other lines of business haven’t really worked either, for example, like classifieds business, the entire classifieds business. In the US, for example, classifieds was a huge thing for companies like New York Times, but when companies like Craigslist or whatnot came on board, then that basically took away that business from them. So, we have to think about revenue diversification. So, what are the ways beyond just advertising can we make money?
So, certainly subscription and membership might be one of those. eCommerce is another, right? Wirecutter, for example, the New York Times company startup that New York Times acquired is an interesting model around doing product reviews and doing affiliate commerce. Even white labelled or branded commerce, you have companies like Complex doing YouTube video series, Hot Ones. I don’t know if you’ve seen those.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah.
Malcolm: But effectively then selling their hot sauce, selling the hot sauce that’s in those videos. So, it’s like the marriage of content and commerce, right? It’s like what are the ways we can take that to video? So, New York Times and Vox doing these shows on Netflix, right? So, that’s also a relatively new-ish model for us too. So, there’s all these basically different revenue channels, events. We have an in-house agency effectively that does content marketing for clients.
Nathan: Wow. That’s quite common.
Malcolm: Yeah, we have a huge events team. We have a syndication team, not too dissimilar from the Getty’s of the world, right? Doing basically syndicating photos and videos to clients and things like that. So, we have tonnes and tonnes of different revenue channels that we’re experimenting with right now. So, I think that’s the second part of us transforming ourselves and reinventing ourselves into figuring out, “What does the new business model look like, right?” Where advertising is just going from maybe 80 to 90% of our revenue mix into down to 20% of our revenue mix.
So, I think for those two things, those are the things that are going to be in our near future that we’re going to have to focus on and figure out and continuously work on. And then of course, it’s just continuing with our growth, continuing with our global expansion, reaching more and more people that may be interested in the story around China. It’s learning about how to reach those people and how to create products and how to distribute content to those people.
Nathan: Yeah, well, that’s really cool and exciting, man, because we’re working that out along the way as well. Yeah, I think it’s really interesting. It’s been brewing for a long time like Australia’s quite a few big magazine publications have gone into administration. Yeah, it will continue to happen. Any media or publishing company that is fully reliant on advertising, it’s just not a good business model from my experience. Even the work required to obtain those advertising or sponsorship agreements, it’s just a long lead cycle, man.
Malcolm: Yeah, it’s tough.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah. Also, well, look, I will work towards wrapping up, but just wanted to just ask you one last question. This has been incredible interview, just any parting words of wisdom that you’d like to share or any things that you live by as a founder, because you have a breadth of experience that is really confrere and just really cool to hear your story?
Malcolm: Yeah, I don’t know. In terms of parting words, I think if I were to tie everything together based on my experience, maybe one word to summarise all that it’s adaptability in a way, right? So, as you mentioned, I’ve been involved with different types of companies through different industries, been in different cities, right? I’ve experienced what running in company and growing companies like in New York and San Francisco to Austin to now, Hong Kong. So, when I work with a lot of founders and entrepreneurs and helping them, it’s thinking about how to adapt, particularly for example with what we’re going through with COVID, right?
No one expected the world to be hit with that. So, people have been forced to adapt quickly and react quickly. The businesses that couldn’t, they’re going to suffer, right? So, I think that’s the one thing that maybe I’ve learned a lot in my experience and living in many cities and going through many different companies, is learning how to adapt in those situations. So, I think adaptability is maybe the one thing that people don’t really focus a lot on in trying to hone in as a skill and being able to learn, but I think it’s very, very valuable and certainly helped me a lot in my career, so.
Nathan: One follow up, sorry, any advice on how to foster on adaptability, scaling up on that? How can you do that?
Malcolm: I think, based on just experience, so being open to trying new things, being open to wearing many hats. I mean, maybe I naturally am curious, but just having that curiosity of learning. So, whether it’s if you’re a marketing guy, you want to learn how to code, then you should definitely do that. If you’re a coder, just because you’re a coder doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about the business, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about revenues.
So, when you’re working with those folks in the other departments, spend a little bit more time and effort to learn about what they’re doing, learn about what some of their priorities or what they care about, right? Especially if you’re in a situation where you’ve maybe never started a company before, but you want to someday, you’re going to have to learn more than just your current skills, right? You’re going to have to learn how to do many things. So, being able to be curious and to want to learn those other aspects.
And then vice versa. If you’re a startup founder and you’re starting a company right now, yes, maybe you’re a two-person team and you’re basically doing everything already. But what you’re doing today in a two-person team is going to be very different than when you’re a 20-person team versus a 200-person team. So, actually, one of the reasons why I went to a company like Lyft is because I didn’t necessarily have that experience of at a company that was 500, 1,000 employees that had already been Series D, Series E and that was growing wildly. So, I wanted to see what it was like, the inner workings of a company at that size.
So, I think that has helped make me who I am today where if I want to be able to help any founder and any entrepreneur, I think I’m able to at least be confident enough to learn quickly about their business or learn quickly about their situation or even draw from the various experiences that I’ve had to be able to help them in that capacity.
So, I think that’s the way I would approach it. It’s just like have a curious mind, constantly learn on what other people are maybe… Learning on their job, and learning about what they’re doing, and just having that mindset. If you were the CEO of a company, would you know enough to earn the respect of that other person who’s an expert at X, Y, Z, right? If you don’t yet have that, then what can you learn to gain that?
Nathan: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Thank you so much, man. Well, look, this is a fascinating interview. Thank you so much for your time.