Tell us how you came to set up International Business Times…
Etienne: I started the business straight after college having studied geography and economics at LSE in London. I had studied a lot about new-world economics, the changing world and how technology is changing our world, and that really opened my eyes to an opportunity to create a global business that is truly digital, offering news in truly global way.
When I was at school, the required reading was the Financial Times, the New York Times and other very London and New York-centric publications. So I saw an opportunity to do something that was, firstly, digitally native, and secondly, truly global by its nature. Essentially, that means having local editions in local countries, with their own local journalists competing locally for the local audience – reporting through the global network.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds, because neither of you were from journalistic backgrounds…
Etienne: I didn’t have any journalism, publishing or advertising background, but that was something that really appealed to me. It was a gamble. But looking at the global trends that were emerging, the internet and globalization, those were two trends we wanted to capitalize on and saw International Business Times as the way to do it.
Johnathan: I was an electrical engineer and so it certainly wasn’t a natural career progression for me. But I grew up in Silicon Valley and was probably from the last generation of electrical engineers, who had laid the foundation for this software revolution. I saw that happening around me and I saw so much activity on the web that I got excited about it. From there I hooked up with Etienne. He had just graduated and he had this vision of building some type of data or information source – which later became a journalistic exercise – and to do that through the web. I thought that was really exciting and it also allowed me to make that jump into the software side of things.
Do you see yourselves fundamentally as a tech business or a media business?
Etienne: I would say that we see our roots as being in the media, but I would agree that we also see technology as being a very important and necessary tool in delivering that. To really leverage and deliver and editorial and our content in a global way, quickly and effective, we definitely rely a lot on technology. So I think we are probably at the intersection between media and technology.
Johnathan: For me, we kind of evolved from one to the other. Initially I put some work in on our servers and platforms and this was very much an engineering enterprise for me. But it morphed into a situation where we were saying, “Now we have a platform, who is going to write the content?” I did a bit of writing and some sales calls, and things grew step by step. A lot of the content early on was around what was happening in the tech world, so of course that was quite low-hanging fruit for us. But it also really helped us get a foothold in the market.
How has the business evolved since you launched and what drives decision-making?
Etienne: From when Johnathan and I started in 2006 up until around 2010, the growth was minimal. By 2010, we still had only around 20 people working for us. But at the start of 2010, having talent willing to play within the digital rules – taking editorial in the traditional sense and tweaking it and playing around with it – really started to pay off by attracting audiences. We had spent the first four or five years trying to understand how audiences would respond to the content we produced – we had early measurement tools and we had real-time counters built into the CMS way before Chartbeat came about. That enabled us to take the traditional editor-in-chief’s agenda and pair it with data, to understand which partnerships and real-time outlets would allow us to grow and expand our audience. The equation was really ad rates and audience. Johnathan was really pushing audience growth through smart hiring and I was really focusing on ad rates.
Johnathan: I think the business is really starting to blossom now. We had a vision in the beginning to create a globally facing media publication – to really do leading journalism in every market in the world, and I think that’s still a unique perspective. When I look back at the last few years I can see how this is taking shape and I think that stems from the background we have. It started out as a technical endeavor to create a digital news environment, and the mechanisms and the operational bit of how to create a newsroom was something we had to figure out. So the first epoch of our company was an operational and technical iteration. Now, we are moving into more of a journalistic enterprise. We have laid a foundation and a culture of a newsroom that can operate in a digital environment and now we are starting to tap into some of the traditional elements of what makes a newsroom tick. We have our roots in the digital era and with that foundation we are bringing on better and better journalists who bring the storytelling and reporting you would expect from a leading organization.
How valuable was it to be among the early adopters of data?
Etienne: Data is one of the crucial things that has helped us get to where we are today. And it’s continuing to help us as we have launched new properties. In 2012 we felt like we were quite successful with International Business Times, growing a large audience. But our offering was quite broad in the sense that we were focused on business but covering sports, society, politics, business, and even entertainment. We identified that there was an appetite for narrower properties. That was when we launched iDigital Times – focused on gadgets, design, tech culture etc – Medical Daily for the health audience, and Latin Times. Those moves have allowed us to tap into advertising dollars we weren’t previously able to access and to capture a bigger slice of the market pie. Of course, it also allows us to spread our risk.
Johnathan: We use data a lot on the content side. The company is also starting to use it more broadly and I think this was part of the challenge we faced in the beginning. There was an assertion of what we thought it meant to be a media company and what good content was, but there was also a real need for us to pay the bills. Because of that, we were able to do a deep dive into the data to see what was working and what wasn’t working. This was part of the cultural challenge we had in building a newsroom in the beginning – to come in with a kind of ‘ivory tower, gut feeling’ approach for what works versus what people are really interested in and why are they arriving at our website. Us being really connected to market forces allowed us to galvanize that data-driven culture really early on. You’re right that we were early adopters. We built into our proprietary CRM system real-time data. It meant that although there might have been be a traditional way that you wanted to tackle a story, our analytics could tell us exactly how to do it in a way that would draw audiences. It helped solidify a culture that was data-centric and that stays with us today – even as we bring on new brands that are revered and respected and as we start new brands. It’s part of our culture.
Where does the business go from here?
Etienne: It’s a very good time for us to look at that. Next March, we will have been going for 10 years and it has been very organic to date. We have worked with third-party ad networks and with programmatic partners to purchase the advertising inventory. That has been very good for us and there are big market opportunities. Moving forward, we are looking to get closer to the marketers, sharpening our audience focus and our product focus to really nail it and to be able to offer a clear audience package for the marketers that want to work with us. That is really brand definition and brand sharpening to cement our positioning in the market place, and secondly, working with marketers to create large-scale brand programmes that work really well brand to brand – tech, video, print and a real 360° package. Of course, alongside that we are looking at growing our subscriptions, as well as exploring licensing and other e-commerce models etc.
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