Mohan Belani is the co-founder and CEO of e27, a tech media platform that covers news from the tech and startup ecosystems in Asia. As part of the media scene, he has faced obstacles in the midst of the COVID pandemic this year, but continues to work with founders against the challenges of building great companies — specifically around the areas of talent, funding, and market access.
KrAsia (Kr): How has the media industry in Asia held up in 2020?
Mohan Belani (MB): As you know, media companies are heavily fueled by events, conferences, and other offline activities. The COVID pandemic basically destroyed plans, and created a huge impact on business.
The sad part is that many media companies did not move fast enough. They held onto hope that the COVID situation would somehow reverse in a short span of time, so they postponed as much as possible until they got forced to cancel events. That level of effect has been felt quite strongly in the industry.
On the other hand, there has been good news for businesses that realized how difficult the situation would be early on. They began to experiment with online activities and new business models, including subscription plans, membership packages, and community features — all of which they might not have been open to previously.
The COVID situation indeed forced everyone to take a bitter pill to evolve as quickly as they can, or face the unfortunate brink of death. But for those who have done it right, they have crossed that chasm of digitization to build a much more sustainable, scalable business.
Kr: How are events going to play out over the next few months?
MB: Our team is very used to doing events and offline activities. Traditionally, Echelon’s model has always been a regional show (APAC focused) that invites founders from various countries, culminating all of that in Singapore. We love the buzz of a marketplace, and we are proud to be the only company re-creating such a regional marketplace in Singapore.
But in 2020, the COVID situation completely disallowed us to do that. For the rest of the industry as well, I think most companies had to cancel their events because Singapore is small and we need a regional audience to boost the turnout.
In the next few months, we expect to continue with online events (where possible) with little chance of offline activities. Of course, I do feel that there are limitations. For instance, online events literally take away the barrier of organizing events, such that anybody can organize events — and that means the market is going to be over saturated. Media companies face tough competition and don’t receive exclusive revenue opportunities from being the event host.
Furthermore, online events tend to be lacking in terms of audience engagement. Where physical events are concerned, if a person was willing to travel to the event for the first part of the day, there’s a higher likelihood of him staying throughout. So you get that engagement. For online events, however, it’s easy for people to register but many do not show up, or leave halfway when they get bored.
In some sense, media companies are trying to combat this by re-creating the offline model in an online setting — you’ve got booth elements on the computer screen, you can simulate the experience of going to a table and meeting someone, you could even move your ‘character’ (representing each participant) on the screen to interact with others and start conversations.
Kr: e27 has been around since 2007, establishing a name in Singapore as well as the broader region of Southeast Asia. What were some of the challenges?
MB: One interesting thing to note is that we never planned to make this a company, or a full-fledged career option. My co-founder and I started e27 to create a community, simply with the intention of supporting entrepreneurs in the best ways possible. But in 2012, we began to consider supporting the entire ecosystem in a more sustainable manner, so we built a company around this vision.
The challenge has always been, how do we remain relevant? Should we focus on organizations that are in the prototype stage, the seed stage, the pre A stage, the B stage, or all? In each stage, what can we do to help? And how do we manage the balancing act — because you want to consistently provide value to the organizations that you’ve taken early on (rather than having them disengage from you), but at the same time, you don’t want to be focusing too much on late stage organizations and neglecting early stage startups that require more assistance. So it is a constant balancing act indeed.
Another challenge we face would be the startup space. Southeast Asia is extremely diverse, and the startup ecosystem varies from country to country. What you do in Singapore might be completely irrelevant to what is needed in the Philippines. For example, the fintech ecosystem in Singapore is probably ahead of many other markets in terms of regulation and access to capital. Ultimately, we have to operate based on the local environment.
Kr: What is your biggest takeaway from 2020?
MB: How we view 2020 is truly a matter of perception. I’d say 2020 was a very big blessing for us because we’ve learned a lot.
Culturally, our team is very good at doing offline activities. Last year, we enjoyed some strong revenue as well as profit figures. But this year, we experienced firsthand how the very same business model leading to prior success could result in future failures, as circumstances change.
We had to build a business more sustainable, regionally. Our first obstacle was convincing all stakeholders — from investors to employees — that our new business model would prove right. Our second obstacle was a high level of inertia. It’s very easy as an organization, to do the thing that you know has always worked well. It’s difficult to pour energy and resources into something you hope will work to bring the company forward over the next 10 years.
So for me, 2020 really gave us the opportunity to do all of that.
I say now’s the time to try out all the crazy ideas you have. And if it doesn’t work, you really have something to blame. People are sometimes afraid to take the risk and fail, but now let’s just blame it on COVID. At e27, we’ve failed a lot in the last nine months. A lot of things that we tried didn’t work, and didn’t go well with COVID. But there were many, many things that actually worked in other ways, and helped us pull through COVID.
Looking back, 2020 was a huge blessing in disguise. An experience I’m immensely grateful for.