DNA has tweaked and pivoted many times from the time when it was just a crazy idea
But even as its business model has changed, its mission and vision remain the same
AT the risk of sounding trite and clichéd, it was pure serendipity.
I had just made the personal decision to quit Microsoft Malaysia. At the time, the only other people who knew about it were my immediate boss Danny Ong and our country manager, Ananth Lazarus.
It was, like I said, a personal decision – it had nothing to do with the company, but everything to do with me. More than 20 years of journalism with The Star, juxtaposed against 20 months of public relations with Microsoft, and I knew where my passion lay.
So there I was, at a joint Microsoft-HDS press event which I helped organised, and who should walk in but my former colleague at The Star, Edwin Yapp, who was then a freelance journalist working primarily with The Edge’s [email protected] technology pullout, as well as international tech portal ZDNet.
During a lull in the proceedings, I told him of my decision to quit, adding that I had no immediate plans – truth to tell, I had no idea of what I was going to do next beyond the fact that it would involve writing of some sort. After all, the only real talent I have is the ability to string a bunch of words together that most people can comprehend.
His immediate response was “Wow! Whoa! We need to talk. Can we meet after the press conference?”
I am paraphrasing, of course. It was that long ago. Anyway, we had lunch, where he told me not to take up any job offers until I had heard his proposal. All he could tell me then was that it involved technology journalism, but he wanted to speak to his partners first to set up a meeting. He couldn’t name these partners until he had their permission.
That weekend, I walked into Edwin’s office and got the surprise of my life – one of his partners was none other than the iconic Karamjit Singh, then still editor of [email protected] and an industry institution unto himself.
“Oi,” they said, and laughed at the expression on my face.
Now, here’s the funny thing: While we had spent years simultaneously covering the technology industry – me for The Star’s now-defunct technology pullout In.Tech until 2005, he for [email protected] – Karam and I had rarely met in person. All we had then was a professional regard for each other, and dare I say it, respect.
There was another person who was part of the team in those early days, who in the end could not come on board when we launched because of personal commitments – although he still helps us out when he can.
In any case, Edwin and Karam proceeded to tell me their idea. They had had me at “Oi!” but I listened anyway.
The core was this: There was something sorely lacking in Malaysia’s technology media scene, at one time the envy of the region.
The last is not a self-serving observation – ask anyone in the industry or within the user community. There was In.Tech, the New Straits Times’ Computimes and theSun had Info Age. Even many of the vernacular papers had technology pullouts. All the regional magazines had operations or correspondents in Malaysia at one time or the other. There had been a Golden Age.
These guys wanted to bring this back, but needed someone to lead the editorial effort – and they had been scratching their heads over this when I had told Edwin my plans to leave Microsoft. Serendipity.
Times have changed, of course. There is less advertising money to be had for specialised technology publications, while online portals and bloggers have carved out a large and well-deserved niche for themselves covering the consumer side.
But at the time we met, there was very little coverage of the enterprise technology scene, the business aspects of IT, the national policy facets of technology, or more critically, the Malaysian ecosystem itself. The business press would cover these areas on an ad hoc basis, but they didn’t have the resources – and I’m not just talking numbers here – to go in-depth. There was no platform for serious and in-depth conversations about technology and technology-related issues.
We all felt strongly about it. We all wanted to bring that back. Or as Karam wrote yesterday, we all had a passion for it. Over the next few weeks, we formulated a vision and our mission.
To be honest, that passion, vision and mission are the only aspects that have remained consistent. Everything else has changed. We pivoted many times before we even launched.
This technology news website where you’re reading this? Originally, it was just going to be an adjunct, an afterthought to what our main vehicle was going to be. We struggled with business models; we created and dropped them, tweaked them, and murdered quite a few. We even changed our name from I-am-not-going-to-tell-you-what to Digital News Asia (DNA).
We got valuable feedback from helpful industry sources. We learned that great advice, good intentions and well wishes did not pay the bills. And we were quite adamant that while we needed industry support, we would not put ourselves in a position where we would be beholden to advertisers.
Figuring out just how to do so took up much of our time. We were all in a position where we were sacrificing steady and perhaps even lucrative paycheques, on the basis of a belief. It was especially anxious for me as a single parent, but our first few meetings had already reignited my passion for technology journalism.
But while we were trying to put the pieces together, we got a leg-up from some media colleagues. The Malaysian Insider gave us a regular column (thanks Jahabar Sadiq and Joan Lau) and BFM Radio gave us a slot on its Tech Talk show (still running every Thursday at noon; thanks Malek Ali, Jeff Sandhu and Freda Liu).
We managed to launch, a month later than we had originally targeted. By then, we had learned much of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. (For one thing, and I had forewarned my partners, don’t expect me to do what I describe as, in technical terms, ‘businessy stuff.’ Actually, I use a four-letter ‘s’ word there, but you know what I mean.)
A few months after we launched, we dropped our original idea of having a subscriber paywall. We had our biggest triumph when we managed to convince The Star’s star technology reporter, Gabey Goh – who had impressed me back when I had just started out at Microsoft and she was covering technology for The Malay Mail – to join the team.
We continue to tweak, and are open to further pivots. But our quixotic vision remains the same: To provide insightful and analytical coverage of the ICT ecosystem, and to act as the Fourth Estate – first in Malaysia, and then in other South-East Asian countries.
We don’t intend to be regional in the usual sense, but aim to be a multiple-market publication that provides in-depth coverage of the respective ICT ecosystems in the countries we reach out to, and in the process, also providing the South-East Asian perspective as a whole.
Yes, I call it the ‘DNA Replication’ plan.
Despite some harrowing challenges, many changes, some pivots and a whole lotta tweaks, we’re still here after one year, on track (give or take a month or two) and having the ride of our lives.
To find out even more of our journey, we’re putting our founder and CEO Karam on the stand for our special first-anniversary Disrupt session, which will discuss ‘Are you your startup’s worse enemy?’
Karam will be joined by Mark Chang, founder and CEO of JobStreet.com; Roshan Thiran, founder and CEO of Leaderonomics; and Goh Ai Ching, co-founder and CEO of Piktochart. The session will be moderated by Malek Ali, himself the founder and CEO of the BFM Media group.
We are capping the audience at 200, so please get your seat early with the RSVP. The venue is the Securities Commission Malaysia, Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, from 5:30pm-7:30pm, May 15. Join us, and go ahead and ask Karam all the tough questions you like.
DNA celebrates first anniversary with special Disrupt
When I stepped over the edge
Boldly going where few tech publications have gone before
Three old men, a girl and a tech portal
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