Paul Tan: From personal adversity to professional triumph
By A. Asohan October 8, 2012
- Personal adversity throws him into the working world earlier than usual
- Paultan.org retains its No 1 automotive site ranking through thick and thin
IN 2007, as the then ‘new media’ editor at The Star, Malaysia’s No 1 English daily, I was part of a team tasked with monetizing the newspaper’s various digital assets, especially its stable of portals beyond the main news site, The Star Online.
The motoring portal was one amongst many that we scratched our heads over. We were not only struggling against a mind-set that print was still the flagship and online merely an interesting ‘add-on,’ but also with – as one senior executive put it – “the Paul Tan situation.”
Apparently there was this one-man show, a blog called PaulTan.org, that was kicking the Star-Motoring portal’s butt in terms of buzz and readership. The newspaper tried many things over the next few months, but the Paul Tan blog is still Malaysia’s No 1 automotive site, and is still successfully seeing off the older competition, plus a number of new upstarts.
Paul was already a force unto himself, his name a brand by itself, so when The Star later in the year hosted a talk on how blogs were challenging the media landscape, we invited him as one of three panelists. The others were two young female ‘lifestyle bloggers,’ who went on about how they were making money from advertisers for putting up ‘sponsored posts’ that did not carry any disclosure that they were paid for.
Paul, on the stage with these two young pretty things, merely shook his head quietly. When somebody from the floor put a question to him on the ethics of blogging according to advertisers’ wishes, his answer was firm and uncompromising: Advertorials should be clearly marked, and trying to pass one off as a ‘pure’ blog post was nothing short of betrayal.
It was the kind of stand that you would like more journalists and media organizations to make. The two young lifestyle bloggers above have since disappeared from the scene, while PaulTan.org remains the No 1 automotive site in the country.
And yes, at least one other site has advertisements all over the place claiming to be No 1, but that claim doesn’t bear out with any third-party numbers (click chart to enlarge), and according to Alexa rankings, paultan.org is the 100th most popular website in Malaysia.
Note: Alexa does not have historical data on Star’s motoring site because it is not ranked high enough globally, and thus could not be projected on this chart.
I was now part of Digital News Asia (DNA) when I caught up with the recently-married Paul, 28, and two members of his team recently – one of whom was also employed at The Star at the time, and who distinctly remembered Paul’s answer. And like me, was impressed by it.
Paul does not remember this incident. “I spoke at The Star? Really?” he says. “I don’t remember, but yeah, that’s what I believed then and still do.”
When speaking to Paul, the letter ‘P’ seems to predominate. Forgive me this brief plunge into cutesy-ness, but his is a tale personal adversity finally leading to professional triumph, driven (no pun intended) by his passion and principles.
His father contracted cancer when Paul was still in secondary school. “It takes a lot of focus to take care of a sick person, so I started doing things on my own; even taking on some jobs to earn extra money for the family,” he says.
While his father was still alive, the company employing him still paid the medical bills and dispensed his salary, but he passed away when Paul was 19 and still in college. With a housewife of a mother and a brother four years younger than him, Paul found himself having to support his family. He began doing web development work.
“My mother was fine with me going off into business on my own – we needed money, it did not matter how it came, as long as we could support the family. I continued studying for a while, burning up even more money, but there was no way we could pay the bills and for my brother’s education,” he says.
So Paul decided to drop out of college and go into the working world full-time. While he was working, he also set up his personal blog at paultan.org in 2004 – choosing his own name because he already established the domain for email, and not because he was prophetic enough to have foreseen the rise of personal brand-names as a force in the online world.
“It’s just an accident that personal branding is the ‘in’ thing now,” he admits. “I didn’t expect it to come this far, but people had already become used to the name, so why change it?”
The “this far” started slowly, but picked up pace. He started blogging more and more about cars. Within six months of starting what was essentially like most other blogs at the time – a personal blog – Paul turned it into an automotive blog.
“I was using Google AdSense within the first year, and it was starting to make me some decent money, even more I was making with my web development agency, so I started to focus more on the site,” he says. “By the second year onwards, AdSense was getting me RM5,000-6,000 a month, but I was still running the blog by myself, and hadn’t hired any writers yet.”
But he was ready, whether he knew it then or not, to take the business to the next level.
TV fame and the ‘real world’ beckon
His readers did, though. In the comments section, a lot of them were asking him why he didn’t do a show like BBC’s popular Top Gear.
Paul started exploring the idea seriously, but knew that his one-man show would not be able to handle it. So he decided to enlist the aid of a school-chum and fellow ‘autophile,’ Harvinder Singh Sidhu.
“We’ve known each other since Form 2 [when they were both about 14 years old], having gone to school together in Cheras,” says Harvinder, referring to a district in Kuala Lumpur. “Paul approached me when I had just completed my diploma at UCSI University in Cheras, with the idea of a TV show and forming a holding company to produce it.”
Most Malaysian parents take a strong interest in their children’s career, insisting they get degrees that would get them ‘proper’ jobs, but Harvinder says he had already “prepared” his parents for his unconventional choice.
“I had already got involved in the automotive world even while in school, and signaled to my parents that I was going to juggle between my studies and my passion for cars, and warned them that I was going to take longer than usual to complete my studies.
“I was supposed to pursue a degree, but just settled for a diploma. They were prepared – they knew Paul from school, so when I told them I was joining him, it was not an issue for them,” he says.
The two formed a company called Driven Media, later changed to Driven Communications. The company was incorporated in October, 2008 to take care of both the site and the proposed TV show.
“At that point, this whole thing became like a business … with only two people running it,” says Paul.
“And with no staff,” Harvinder chimes in.
They managed to find a company that they could outsource the production work to, and in 2009 started shooting the pilot episode, with which they finally managed to get a sponsor. The TV show Driven premiered in 2010, and ran for 13 episodes, a full season by Malaysian broadcast standards. It ran on Sunday nights, which was the only air-time they could afford, sponsor or no sponsor.
“The schedule was quite insane,” Paul recalls. “Even though the production was outsourced, we still had to provide the content and script it.”
According to Harvinder, who also hosted the show, getting the content and the right kind of people to interview was a massive undertaking. “We couldn’t leave this to the production crew – no matter how good they are, they’re not automotive enthusiasts. They would have done what other TV production crews would have done – researched the stuff on the Internet and come up with only general information.”
“We wanted to ensure that the TV show had the same honest, critical and in-depth information that our site carried. We didn’t want a show where every car is good and nice to drive,” he says.
In fact, by the time Driven made its TV debut, two other local automotive shows popped up, but the paultan.org guys believe that theirs still had the edge.
“They didn’t have any information that you couldn’t get off the brochure – it was like the video version of an automobile maker’s brochure,” says Harvinder.
Driven was actually renewed for another two seasons, the two partners claim, but the prohibitive cost – RM800,000 (US$262,000) for a full season, including airtime and production costs – saw their sponsor baulking and spending the money on more direct marketing efforts.
Not that the guys have any regrets. “We did this TV show for a few reasons, the first being that we believed that Malaysia deserved some local auto entertainment on TV, and at the time we started, there weren’t any,” says Paul.
“The second reason was that carmakers weren’t taking our blog seriously, or we automotive bloggers as professionals,” he adds. “Despite our site having all the numbers, they just saw us as a personal website; we would only get cars for review if the big guys in the mainstream media, for whom they reserved slots, cancelled in the last minute. Then they’ll think, ‘Oh well, we might as well just call in this joker’.”
It was that old bugbear -- image perception.
“Putting a show on TV helped open doors for us,” says Harvinder. “Having a blog with all the big numbers didn’t make a difference, but once we had a TV show, they said ‘Come in, come in.’ It was a big difference.”
These days, the team is no longer enamored of television, and if they ever do another TV series, it will be straight to the web, to join the rich portfolio of video clips paultan.org uploads to its YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/paultantk/feed.
The demands of the TV show and its punishing schedule saw Driven Communications transform in another way as well – that was when it started to hire others.
“Two years ago, there was just the two of us,” says Harvinder. “With the start of the show, we had five or six staff. Within eight months, we grew to the 24 staff we have today.”
The bulk of the employees, 11, are in content, including one photographer. The firm also has two designers, three programmers, three in social media, one sales person and another two dedicated sales staff for a new site it kicked off, the automotive classifieds site oto.my.
The company also has about four to five interns at any one time, mostly in data entry or development work – it only began internships about two months ago.
With more staff, Driven Communications expanded into other lines as well, acquiring shares in Malay entertainment and celebrity-gossip site OhBulan! and very recently kicking off even a consumer tech and electronics site called Tech Attack.
Why something so distantly related as an entertainment site? “We saw the potential in the site and decided to buy into it,” says Harvinder. “It was run by a guy pretty much like Paul, who started from personal interest. But after he graduated and was employed by Telekom Malaysia, he started neglecting the site. He couldn’t keep up.
“So we said we will come in and he will be able to continue maintaining the site full-time,” he adds.
As for the consumer technology and electronics site, although that online space is crowded with competitors, not just news portals but a horde of bloggers, Paul says it was a very simple decision.
“We believe content draws people in. We started the car site with nothing but content,” he says. “If you look at the other consumer tech sites, they only post snippets and if you look at their numbers, it is a pittance.
“It’s all in the forums, which is great for consumer-to-consumer conversations, but there are no proper reviews -- and you can’t depend on foreign reviews,” he adds. “For instance, cellphone batteries drain faster in Malaysia because of how far apart the base stations are, and devices have to work harder to maintain a signal – that’s why local context is very important.”
The other businesses are important because, although advertising revenue was good, it just wasn’t high enough, the two say.
“We have contracts with Ford, BMW, Mitsubishi, Castrol, Shell and others,” says Harvinder. “Thanks to the talent we have, we can give companies 360-degree solutions for their campaigns, from newsletters to launches and sustained social media campaigns.”
But it is very important that editorial independence be maintained, which is why Paul claims there are “firewalls” between the teams. “Our social media team knows far more of automotive companies’ roadmaps than I do.”
“Advertising revenue is just not enough, so we have to get into these other businesses, but it’s very important that we maintain our independence and objectivity, and most importantly, our credibility,” he adds.
It is this editorial stance that Paul believes will stave off the competition as well. “Our edge is in our editorial content. Our stories come out faster, and in more detail. We also work very hard for exclusives.
“For example, nobody bothers covering regional motor shows. We actually spend our own money to go there,” he adds. “Last year, in Indonesia, we even scooped the local sites there on the Daihatsu Concept car – which looks like something that Perodua could introduce in the future. Just a few weeks ago, we spent our own money to attend the Thai launch of a Nissan car that may be introduced to the Malaysian market.
“Basically nobody else here does it – they will only write about cars when they’re brought in, or when the company provides all the support for journalists to go and cover it. We go for these shows because we are trying to play on a South-East Asian level,” he says.
That editorial independence and credibility that the Paul Tan of a few years ago argued for at the discussion hosted by The Star still informs the site.
“Advertisers are trying to put pressure on us all the time, but for us editorial integrity has to come first. All eyes are on us. Our comments section keeps us on an even keel,” he says.
Harvinder adds, “We’re always under tremendous scrutiny. Anytime our readers think we’re giving too much support to any company, anytime they think our content or coverage is questionable, they will let us know. Our readers keep us on our toes – which is a good thing.”
“Which is why, although our advertising revenue is okay, it probably could be better – but not at a cost we’re willing to pay,” says Paul. “We’d rather make RM2 million a year from the people who still advertise with us, than to make RM4 million a year and lose our readers. It’s just common sense in the long run.
“Common sense,” which isn’t that common after all, also describes Paul’s business philosophy.
“My idea of business is very traditional,” he says. “Spend less than what you earn, and you will get money. Don’t spend millions every year, where you burn your shareholder’s money and then have to go for a second round of funding – and on and on.
“In fact, this is what I sometimes find funny with the start-up scene now – it’s full of endless pitches and rounds of funding; it’s like they have their own language for all this, like ‘pivot’.”
“All this time is better spent building your business,” he adds.
That philosophy seems to have worked, winning over one-time competitors too. Paultan.org has on its payroll two former employees of The Star, including a journalist who used to compete with Paul and his team directly, coming as he did from the paper’s motoring portal.
Anthony Lim, web editor at paultan.org, left after more than 16 years at the media powerhouse. “I had already decided to leave The Star, and didn’t want to go back to the print world, from which I had an offer.”
“I like the dynamics of working in the web space, and paultan.org was the automatic choice,” he told DNA by email. “It was already the No 1 site, but there was definitely potential to explore and expand, and you need bodies and resources for that. I thought we could achieve much more … and we have.”
One of Driven Communications’ most recent hires is in fact the son of a retired senior executive and former board member of The Star as well, one of those who expressed concern at the “Paul Tan situation” all those years ago.
“He is probably the only qualified motoring journalist in Malaysia – he has a degree in automotive engineering and a master’s in automotive journalism. And he’s only about 22,” says Harvinder.
Personal adversity, passion and principles have all made Paul Tan the man and success he is today. Not just professionally, but even personally – his younger brother, the one for whose education he dropped out of college for, is now a final-year medical student at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“He’s a good boy, unlike me … he’s finishing his education,” says Paul.
As for his trials and tribulations, he looks at the silver lining. “I suppose all this made me more confident of my abilities.”
“But there is also one thing I learned: When I was young, I was very bitter about people from privileged backgrounds. They seemed to have it easier.
“I have realized since then that you can start your own business with very little capital – all you need is drive [no pun intended] and passion.”