Rafat Ali shares his advice on building a vertical media business from scratch

Few entrepreneurs are more qualified to speak about building a multi-faceted vertical media business from scratch than Rafat Ali. Not only is he the founder and CEO of successful global travel industry information business Skift, but his previous enterprise, media news website Paidcontent, was sold to the Guardian in 2008 for a fee thought to be in excess of £10m after it began life as a blog.

Sitting down with FIPP for the World Media Congress, Ali pointed out that, despite all the changes in the publishing landscape, the fundamentals of building a successful business have remained the same.

“The general broad model of pick a sector, pick a topic, be the best specialist you can be – whether that’s consumer or B2B – and either sell an audience or sell to an audience, that hasn’t changed and that won’t change,” he said. “I think sometimes we forget how simple the media business is. I am a fan of not overcomplicating things.

“I’m also a fan of not buying into the doom and gloom of media, that all the jobs are over and that there are layoffs and that Vice and Buzzfeed are going through all these troubles. These are all abstract things in the sense that if you are not involved in this business, it doesn’t really matter to you. I continue to have an optimistic view on building businesses in media, especially in the age of disinformation. Expertise matter. Having a point of view matters, being global matters, being deeply connected to local matters.

“I hope people that are either starting companies or existing global companies don’t forget that it’s the best time to be in media and that the tools to create media has either become the cheapest or free.”

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Digging deep and searching for white space

Ali sums up his remarkable career as “digging deep into business-to-business media while having a consumer mentality.”

He launched his latest venture, Skift, in 2012 at a time when the travel industry was being hugely disrupted and managed to set his new company apart from vertical titles that had been around for decades.

“I was travelling for two years after I sold my previous company and for me the Web 1.0 and the Web 2.0 boom that had hit the industries that I came from – media, tech and finance – had not hit the travel industry,” Ali said.

“Publications that were pre web sort of semi stumbled into the digital world, so I saw an opportunity. Nobody was talking about the travel industry in terms of – globalisation has happened, consumers are in control because of digital tools and they don’t care about the industry silos. So, it was a case of, let’s create a Bloomberg of travel.”

Handing out advice to media entrepreneurs, Ali pointed out that “there is always a white space” in the industry.

“People think sectors are crowded, but I’m a big believer that, with media, there is white space because it’s a very point-of-view driven business. If your lens on the world is different than everyone else, then you’ll make your own white space.

“And media brands coexist, so by being the most influential company now, we have not killed anyone else. That’s a very media thing. To be able to create a white space you have to have an original thesis going into it.”

Being patient and staying in your lane

Ali also cautioned that building a multi-faceted vertical media business requires a lot of patience.

“I takes times. It takes losing your hair and having a totally white beard. It takes a long time – 10, 15 years. Success is not in two years like, say, software start-ups.

“I have not been a big believer in taking too much venture capital. I did take venture for my first company and second but, in the scheme of things, very small amounts. For me the value is to pick a sector and go deep into it.”

Another lesson Ali has learnt is that moving into sectors that are related to travel might seem like an obvious choice but can be fraught with danger.

“One of the things we tried with Skift was to go beyond travel into business of restaurants and the business of wellness, which you would assume are related sectors. I thought of it as the business of leisure – travel, FnB and wellness.

“But in the restaurant world, economics of how restaurants work are very different and the dollar amounts are very, very different than they are in travel. The big picture thought leadership that works in travel does not work in restaurants. They’re fighting for pennies on the dollar.

“So, it did not work. It was 18 months, we failed at it, so we shut it down. Wellness we just started so we decided to not go into it. As much as you should know when to launch, you should also know when to shut down. The advice I give to myself all the time is when to say no.”

Ali also highlighted the importance of creating your own distribution channel and owning it when it comes to the future of media verticals.

“People will have an even harder time telling your content apart from everyone else’s so you need your own distribution channel. The importance of a media brand becomes even more important,” he said. “You are the authority and the specialist and the convenor of the sector you are focused on. People come to you even though incredible tools like ChatGPT exists. So never be dependent on distribution channels because some day guaranteed they will pull the rug from under you.”


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