10 am, Monday 19th October 2020.
Fikayo, Head of Growth at Stears, is still anxious. We are ten days from 28th October, and it feels like Stears Business is facing an existential crisis.
For the first time ever, our quarterly-paying subscribers, who signed up on 28th July, are set to renew their subscriptions.
Fikayo is anxious.
Have they read enough articles? How about the daily emails? Do they even receive the emails? Will they stick around or cancel their subscriptions? Will the rebilling fail because of a bug?
These questions keep Fikayo anxious up until D-day.
If you are reading this and have no idea what I am talking about, let me explain something about a subscription business like Stears Business.
There is this thing called ‘churn’. Nobody likes it. You see, subscription businesses like Stears Business, Netflix, Spotify or DSTv are designed to keep people paying for a service for as long as possible. Hopefully, forever.
Churn happens when customers end—voluntarily or not—their subscriptions. Sometimes customers cancel subscriptions because they have too many; other times, they want to tighten their belts, or funds have not landed when it is time to renew. They also cancel because they no longer like the service or a competitor takes them from you. Whatever the reason, they stop paying you.
So, as the Head of Growth at a subscription company, you get worried about ‘D-Days’ (hint: today is another D-Day for Stears Business, and you can get a discounted subscription).
Buoyed by Fikayo’s energy, we sent emails, nudged, prayed, and let our subscribers do the rest.
Thankfully, those subscribers stuck around after D-Day. Most of them have stuck around till today.
It has been 365 days since we launched our paywall, and there has been no shortage of worry, anxiety and existential concern. We worry if we have to put a disclaimer correcting data in a published article. We worry if we make a grammatical error in a story. And we definitely worry if we have to resend our daily email with a correction.
Admittedly, when we launched, we knew very little about what it took to build a successful subscription business. We had no idea we would be fighting so many fires. All we knew was that we were newly minted with venture capital funding, and it was time to disrupt the media industry. I led the team with a simple formula inspired by Jason Njoku of IrokoTV: focus on content, acquisition, and retention.
Since then, we have learnt a few things. Even now, the more we learn, the more we know we must learn.
The 18 people working on Stears Premium today are very different from the 14 that launched it a year ago. They may look alike, talk alike, and walk alike, but the sheer scale of wins, failures and mind-blowing experiences we have shared has changed all of us—forever. Ours is the story of unknown unknowns that we could not see coming.
Part of the Stears team
As I reflect on the many things we have learnt, too many events run through my mind. To keep things simple, I will focus on two lessons we will never forget. First, content is king. Second, content alone is not enough.
Content is king
This will always be true for Stears Business. Always. Everybody in our team knows.
Fortunately, content, at least in written form, has never been Stears Business’ challenge. If there is anything clear about our mission, it is that the goal of providing original, analytical, well-written stories every weekday is sacrosanct.
Sacrosanct, at least to us.
I add this caveat because there has been no end to the conversations with persistent marketers who want to know ‘how much it takes to get published on Stears Business’. Thankfully, the answer never changes: We don’t do that.
One year later, I am particularly proud that we have stuck wholeheartedly to the mission of never publishing a sponsored story, PR story, or funding announcement. Why? We want to focus on exclusive information worth paying for.
No doubt, our first year would not have been possible without the support of paying subscribers and a direct reader revenue stream. Today, we are extremely privileged that thousands of subscribers and over 20 teams value our analysis enough to pay us a premium for access. All this despite Nigeria’s dismal economy.
But, everything we published, from our classics like Gov. Emefiele vs the Black Market, The CBN’s restrictions on cryptocurrencies and Transporting Crude oil to Dangote’s Oil refinery, to my favourite tech piece about How the CBN knocked Rubies digital bank offline, would not have been possible without an obsessive focus on writing stories that make Nigerians smarter and more informed.
Of course, we are in the business of quality, so we are far from where we want to be. In fact, if there is anything we have learnt in the last 12 months, it is that the real economy, where we have always been experts, is just one part of the future of Nigeria’s economy.
The new economy, the digital economy, the innovation economy is the next frontier. Africa is home to some of the world’s biggest challenges. But, these challenges represent entrepreneurial opportunities. First, COVID-19 has changed the learning experience of millions of students worldwide. And healthcare financing has been spurred by a covid-induced focus on well-being. There is also the way payment companies have moved offline businesses online (special shoutout to our payment partner Paystack). The continent is brimming with innovation.
More than anyone else’s, it is our job to make sure you deeply understand what this means for the Nigeria you know. From the techies in Lagos and investors in San Francisco to the government officials at the CBN (yes, we know you are subscribers too), you deserve Stears Business’ trademark critical, data-driven rigour. There is room for deep, insightful commentary that matches the depth of rigour we take to Emefiele’s CBN. So, we will deliver on this.
This ambition has changed the kind of people we hire in our newsroom and the kind of intense training our team is going through. We continue to look for and hire those of you who think you can bring and match that rigour in our newsroom.
At the end of the day, there is no Stears Business without content that rises above the market and sets the gold standard. Whether it is a podcast, newsletter, or video, we remain committed to the quality of our analysis.
That did not change in our first year. And we intend on raising the quality bar in our second year.
But, while we have always known that content is central to your experience of Stears Business, our first year taught us another important lesson about building amazing consumer products. A lesson on product-market fit, distribution, and scale.
A lesson about what I call ‘Subscriber Experiences’.
Subscriber Experiences and a Pivot
Here is a deep truth we have come to understand: Our subscriber experiences will shape Stears Business’ ambition to become the daily reading habit of all Nigerians.
Everything from cleverly marketed subscription discounts and constantly upgraded user interfaces to friction-free payments experiences and a mobile app is captured in our ambition to create best-in-class subscriber experiences for you.
This is the theme of our second year in business.
We know that we need to constantly innovate to attract, acquire, engage, and retain subscribers. While it did not seem obvious at first, these peripheral experiences are core to how satisfied you are when you read Stears Business. Now, we understand why it is important we obsess over all of it.
A classic example of this subscriber experience is what to do when users are due for a renewal but have an expired card on their accounts. Do we stop them from reading immediately, or do we give them some time? If we give them time to renew, how much time? Do we send them an email asking them to change their cards? Or nudge them to make a bank transfer? Maybe we wait for them to log in, and then we prompt them. The list of subscriber experiences is endless.
However, these kinds of subscriber experiences that we once considered secondary to our product have become front and centre. Our teams are reorganising in new ways to give you the experience that you deserve. The publication is changing to make all of us more subscriber-obsessed than ever.
This new obsession is why I am very excited to announce something we started working on internally and have now decided to build out as a product at Stears formally.
But first, let me provide more background.
At the core of any paid media subscription is the ability to collect recurring revenue. So, for a monthly subscriber, we need to tell a gateway like Paystack to bill you once every month until you ask us to stop.
To make it more complicated, publishers even bill people when they do not have paywalls. For instance, The Guardian UK has readers who contribute to its site simply because they value the Guardian’s journalism. In Nigeria, Zikoko recently launched a contributor program on its site to support its brand of journalism.
For these publishers, the goal is to focus on producing the content, leaving the subscription and billing to third party platforms.
However, we have also noticed the imperfect infrastructure options for many African media publishers to collect recurring revenue from their readers conveniently.
This infrastructure hurdle can make or break publishers. It might seem negligible when you have only a few subscribers. But at scale, it can become a nightmare.
It gets even more complex when African publishers want to be creative with their reader experiences. For instance, how do you efficiently nudge readers to go from a free trial to a premium plan like the Economist does it? How do you reset your discounted offer from $1 to $20 a month at the end of a promo period the way Bloomberg does? Behind the scenes (and you can ask my team if you do not believe me), it requires engineering power that most media businesses do not have.
Fortunately, as a tech company building a media product, we have faced it ourselves, and we have learnt a lot about what is needed to survive.
That is why we are very excited to announce that the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge selected us to receive a grant to build a subscription management service. This service solves these problems for other African publishers (PS: We are hiring to build this product).
This is the kind of pivot that many companies read about but never experience. So, we consider ourselves privileged for the opportunity to build out a service that other publishers can leverage.
As you can see, without planning it, our second year is already filled with some interesting challenges.
I recently read that the first year is often hard to survive, but the second year is hard to deliver.
This summarises the challenge ahead of us. It is another year for us where we have to deliver on our editorial promises. High-quality content remains at the centre of our existence and will stay that way.
It is a year where we have to push the boundaries of African media. It is another year to go deeper, be more analytical, write more beautiful stories, and delight our readers.
It is another year where we ask ourselves what the gold standard for media on the continent should look like. And then, we go out and build it.
For you, our subscribers.
PS: To celebrate our first anniversary, we have heavily discounted our subscriptions for new users over the next 24hrs. Get a discounted subscription here.