From student site to leading Asian tech publication – e27’s rise to the top

As South East Asia's tech ecosystem starts to become prominent on the world stage, Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson caught up with Mohan Belani and Thaddeus Koh – the founders media and events company e27

What originally began as a project by students Mohan Belani and Thaddeus Koh, e27.co has now become one of South East Asia’s biggest media platforms and a thriving events company in the technology start-up space.

Originally founded in 2007 as a community site for National University of Singapore students, the platform grew into a fully-fledged organisation following seed funding from Nic Lim, of 8capita. Today, e27 now has bases in Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, India and hosts a number of conferences, investor meet-ups and hackathons that are attended by thousands from across the region.

Here’s what Belani and Koh had to say about their journey when Mumbrella Asia met them.

From left: Thaddeus Koh and Mohan Belani

What was the main driver for founding e27? Was there a significant gap in the market for tech publications at the time?

Mohan Belani: “We were crazy enough to think that South East Asia’s internet industry had some future. It was really nothing in 2007: we were bullish in that we knew something would exist, but we did not know when the tipping point would be. So we were very ahead of the curve in that sense. There were only a few start-ups and no real ecosystem, so it was about reaching out to them and we mainly did events first, and then the content part came later. We started with hackathons and corporate events; some of our first clients were Facebook, Intel and PayPal.

“It was only in 2009 and 2010 that we saw the government really start to invest in the start-up ecosystem. At the time, Thaddeus had a corporate job and I was doing consulting. But around 2012, when people really started coming to our website, we decided to do this full time.”

And now, how does the dynamic play out between the events side of the business and the content? Does one take precedence?

Thaddeus Koh: “To me we are using the media and the events to create connections among the tech scene in this region. Both are very easy to execute. It’s not about which is more important, but which is more effective for a certain situation.”

Mohan: “From a business model standpoint, the event help monetise the content, but in terms of the deals and the matchmaking, you cannot do that online. No matter how well you design your platform, you still need the face-to-face contact and the pitching. The offline aspect offers a certain legitimacy to what we do – it can really change the perception from an online article.

Some have complained that media relations between start-ups and journalists aren’t always en par with elsewhere in the world. How have you created your editorial strategy with that in mind? 

Mohan: “We make it clear to our editorial team is to give as fairer coverage of the scene as possible. We are a very limited team so we have to be careful about what we don’t do as much about what we do. It’s easy to get distracted by a lot of issues.

“We try to have a focus on thought leadership content for readers to use as a resource or takeaway. We try not to focus as much on news or fundraising content. As the ecosystem grows, you want to give out ideas and not just tell people what is going on. We want to make it deeper than people just telling us about their companies. We have a lot of people ask us to write about them just to get their funding campaigns going. But we understand that a lot of start-up founders are not media trained, so we try to educate them about these things.

“We wrote about Grab’s Anthony Tan before the company was a big thing. We wrote about him and his life, which I think is more valuable than just writing about how much money he raised.”

Is chasing traffic a focus for you given there are several competitor titles in Asia now? And how does this influence your editorial strategy? 

Mohan: “We try and break traffic down into three components. When you break a story, you get masses of traffic, but low engagement and little longevity. Thought leadership does not get great immediate traffic, but it will still get picked up years later. It boils down to what kind of media company do you want to be: if traffic is all you care about then your strategy aligns to that. For us, we want users to take something away from us rather than page views. On the sales side, we do have to explain to our customers we are about more than just eyeballs. We try to encourage them to use content that engages with their consumers on social media.”

In the time since e27 was founded, have you seen much improvement in the way start-ups and their founders handle media relations?

Mohan: “Yes definitely. There used to be a time when they wouldn’t even send press releases; they would just call us and say can you cover our company. We had to do the difficult job and really say to them what’s interesting to cover. Now it’s fairly decent and there are some very good public relations companies handling start-ups.

“The challenge now is that a lot of the announcements are the same: everyone is raising money, everyone is looking into machine learning and everyone says they are trying to disrupt the market. What we want to get people to be drivers of their industry and not just talk about their companies. The difference between corporate leaders and start-up founders is that the former look back to their experiences and apply it forward, while the latter build towards the way a trend or an industry is shifting. That’s the opportunity they should be positioning themselves as: not their funding or their products. The future of media is through thought leadership.

On your website, you have quite the provocative mantra of ‘Don’t be an arsehole’? Was that inspired by some of your experiences in this industry? 

Mohan: “We have now twisted it to say ‘Respect the ecosystem’ given that the industry has become more mature. But yes every industry has a negative streak, and in the tech industry, fame and fortune can spoil people. The ethos we have is that, as a media company, we play an important role in this industry. As we become more popular and more visible, we never want to treat a founder in a disrespectful manner. And that’s where ‘Don’t be an arsehole’ comes from’. It’s easy as media company to feel you have some kind of power, but I’ve always told the [editorial] team that we only exist in the ecosystem if there is an ecosystem. We would not be here without it, which is why we changed our mantra.”

How difficult is it to stand out as a tech media company in this day and age, especially when the market is both crowded and content platforms are so difficult to monetise?

Mohan: “The one thing that has not changed about content is that good quality content gets eyeballs. You can take the easy route and use clickbait titles and get high short-term spikes. But if you invest in the long haul and focus on good, high-quality articles, you can build a sustainable business.

“For us, the challenge is to sift through the industry and find out what is interesting versus what is not. It’s easy to get distracted by what is sent to you, but less so to go out and find out what is actually happening. That takes a level of curiosity and a thirst to understand what’s happening. We don’t tend to position our team as journalists; they are more content specialists. Content is not just articles; it could be listicles, videos, etc. Half of our content is user-generated, so we are as much curators as creators. That gives us a different lense.”

Moving on, what’s your current take on the tech industry in South East Asia? What kind of shape is it in and what can we expect over the next few years?

Thaddeus: “There has been a lot of consolidation to build a stronger business in South East Asia. Of course there are many who say ‘I’m just going to sell’. There are so many that are heavily invested in by the Chinese. At the same time, there are a lot of smaller guys and a lot who want to do bigger stuff around South East Asia. They’re looking at rivals and saying ‘let’s work together’, so there is more partnerships. We’ve seen a lot of mergers this year, but acquisitions only seems to be happening for the bigger companies, like Spacemob and those which Alibaba has taken over. Later we will see some proper exits, but this year will be mostly consolidation for the smaller guys.”

Mohan: “Grab and Go-Jek have also been big drivers of acquisitions. Grab bought payment service Kudo, which is big because they are really going into mobile payments. Grab has also been looking at companies that aren’t going anywhere and buying their teams. Go-Jek also made some talent acquisitions in India: so both tech and talent are driving this.”

Thaddeus: “I’m hoping we can build more Go-Jeks and Grabs and not all sell out to non-South East Asian companies. If not, this market will always be a proxy market for people like Alibaba and Amazon. We have to position ourselves as our own ASEAN market, but unfortunately the politics has not really allowed this. We have to come together.”

What words are you tired of hearing this year? Have you become tired of hearing the words ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ over again? Have the words become redundant?

Mohan: “There is always room for disruption in many industries. But it’s going to be a lot harder because the industries remaining are so tied up in regulations. Like health: that’s extremely difficult to disrupt because of the FDA-type regulations – because you are playing with people’s lives at the end of the day. FinTech and banking is going to be heavily disrupted because of things like BitCoin. And even governments could be disrupted because of BlockChain. But the disruption will take much longer.

“The challenge is today is that people spend too much time talking about the tech and not enough about the problem being solved. Google has been using artificial intelligence to improve search, but you don’t see them always talking about it. On the front end, things just get better for the users. I hope a lot more will solve bigger issues rather than just saying ‘We have this new machine learning thing’. It’s the difference between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

What are your main predictions for the market next year?

Mohan: “There will be a lot of online-to-offline activities, like what Amazon is doing creating retail spaces. Everyone is saying retail is dead, but I believe there will be a big fight to save it. And next year there will be a lot of consolidation. There will be a lot happening in that sense. A lot of this will be driven by the venture capitalists. They need an exit.”

Thaddeus: “For me as well I believe there will be more exits. Based on the trends this year and the market is maturing. But the liquidity is not there yet, so I think the majority will be pushed to next year.”

Mohan: “It’s a system after all. The LPs invest in the funds, the VCs fund companies and companies have to find an exit so they can return their debt back to the top and the cycle continues. It has to happen somehow and the investors have to drive this. In the US this is happening a lot, but the pressure is not there yet. The funds only started in 2010 and 2011, so they are only just coming to the end of their cycle. This year and next year will have the pressure points. It’s going to be very interesting and we’re very excited to be playing a part in watching it develop.”


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