Lessons from building an Asian media powerhouse and the road to acquisition: A chat with Tech in Asia COO, Maria Li

Written by
Aaron Oh
Last Modified on
January 4, 2024

Once a pioneering tech news platform founded in 2010, Tech in Asia has emerged as a hub for innovation for tech companies and VCs across Asia. Their renowned Tech in Asia Conference brings together more than 5,000 participants, 100+ speakers, and the best sponsors across the region each year to share valuable insights into Asia’s tech and startup community. Learn from Maria Li, COO of Tech in Asia, as she unravels the inner workings behind crafting flagship events to help brands resonate with their community. In this illuminating discussion, Maria details how startups can emulate Tech in Asia’s spirit and drive through culture, hiring, and leadership and why they’re integral to Tech in Asia’s remarkable success.

Aspire: For startups that scale quickly or merge with larger companies, what advice would you give executives and founders to help ensure that they retain their startup spirit and agility? 

Maria Li: Culture and hiring are both extremely important as well as being able to instill company cultures into your people. Especially as you grow, founders and management have less time to be involved in every decision. In some ways, that's a good thing and in others, it can be a bad thing. On most critical decisions, it's still important to have a grasp on what's happening and how it's happening, because that's where corporate culture might begin to break down as people start to execute in a way that they think you want them to execute, as opposed to the way you actually want them to execute. 

Even in Tech in Asia, where we’re relatively lean and flat, sometimes people will think that our CEO Willis or I want a certain thing, and when we look in, we're like, ‘Wait, that's, this isn't how we do things.’ It's continuously reminding and showing the team how things are done in a very scrappy and nimble way. And making sure that cascades down to at least your minus one, minus two, and minus three levels. And ensuring this goes downwards, because I think people in general are very well-intentioned, but in the absence of knowing exactly what and how you want certain things to be done, they'll do the best they can. 

They'll try to protect you from certain decisions and this is where you get too many processes, too many hoops to jump through, etc. It's inevitable because they think that's how they can protect the brand or company But leaders need to be able to step in and be vocal about what they’re looking for. To stay nimble, you have to continuously demonstrate your appetite for that sort of risk-taking, and guide the team as such. This helps provide more clarity.

Tech in Asia is not that big of a company, we have less than 100 people. But we have no pure managers. When we were about to roll out our year-end performance review, I was personally setting it up and not having my HR person set up the review process. At events, I personally get involved in inviting speakers. Every single person needs to stay in the action to have a sense of whether processes are working. Because when you have people who only manage, something that might look good on paper is a complete nightmare to execute in reality, and you won’t know that if you're not the one executing.

Aspire: Growing from a small startup to becoming a media powerhouse in the tech scene, could you share examples of the challenges TIA faced with financial operations for a hypergrowth business, and how you overcame them?

Maria Li: One thing that's unique about Tech in Asia is we have people in six or seven different countries, but we only have offices in Singapore and Indonesia. So, our finance teams have had to adapt to support that. We were constantly working in different currencies, tax codes, and things of that nature. In the earlier days, we did a lot of things manually like how every startup does. 

Over the past two to three years, our finance director Latha has focused on automation and adaptability across the different markets. We’ve turned a lot of things that were done manually before into more automated processes.  This creates a clearer process in terms of country by country, how we manage tax, currency, and other things that business executives and owners typically care about. 

We also streamlined the financial services providers and tools that we were using. Being Aspire customers, we recognise that there is a certain level of adaptability that has to come with managing your finances as the business grows. For example, Willis used to get every OTP for transactions above a certain amount on our corporate credit card as our spending is high on events and travel. At some point, we had to put into place the right controls to allow decentralized buying power but do so without jeopardising our financial health. Like every organisation, we matured as our business scope grew and chose the right tools and services to help enable that transition.

Aspire: Introducing a subscription-based plan on top of your existing freemium model can be challenging. What were the pivotal factors that led Tech in Asia to implement this change, and what were the most significant lessons learned during this transition?

Maria Li: We were one of the first companies in the region to launch a digital media subscription, and we caught a lot of flack for it. It was a significant reorientation of understanding who our users, readers, and audience were. And if people don't pay for something, they don't value it. 

The Y-Combinator mantra is to build a product that people want and something that they're willing to pay for. A lot of earlier-stage startups are scared of monetisation, because they put their heart and soul into building a product, but nobody's willing to pay for it. That's very painful feedback from the market. But it's really important to hear because it means that you haven't built something that people want. To stay in a completely free model — where you're trying to monetise by just pure advertising dollars and media space — is not that sustainable, especially if you care about the quality of your content. 

To get more advertising dollars, we needed more eyeballs, clicks, and traffic. We were on this constant treadmill of producing more stories. As a result, we had less time to devote to each story. The quality of our content wasn't necessarily what we believed we were capable of. But we also didn't have time, because the business model didn't support higher-quality journalism. Of course, there are great stories here and there. But as a general rule, we were stuck in that hamster wheel. 

The decision with the subscription model was to take a stand for quality content and say, ‘We're going to invest time into investigative journalism and premium content. We're going to bite the bullet and see if you're willing to pay for that content.’ We had to rebuild our image as a digital media platform and show that we were capable of providing, developing, and publishing content that was worth paying for. 

But it did put us into a virtuous cycle. The more people paid, the more we understood what they liked and didn't like, the topics they cared about, and the more we could invest in our newsroom. That brought more subscribers at the end of the day. My recommendation is you should monetise earlier rather than later. It is better to have a small group of paying customers than a very large group of free ones because they just don't care. And the moment something newer and shinier comes up, they will flee. People do vote with their wallets, and you need to know that information to build a better product.

Aspire: Tech in Asia Conference is a significant annual event. What insights have you gained from organising such events, and how can startup owners leverage events as a platform for building and growing their brand?

Maria Li: Events are a mainstay of Tech in Asia, we just hosted our 12th version of our annual Tech in Asia Conference. They're one of our two main pillars — media and events. Events are not as easy as they look. People think that they can just grab a venue and speakers and it will draw crowds. The secret sauce for a long-standing event such as ours — that draws 4000 to 5000 people a year — is the intentionality and the relationship that you have with your community. 

On the media side, Tech in Asia’s voice tends to be more one-directional as we’re writing and publishing stories, but events allow deeper engagement with the community. So what you see in two days in Jakarta or Singapore, is actually the result of a year-long ongoing dialogue with our community. And we draw on a lot of goodwill. When we invite founders or investors to speak, they're doing it because of our relationship with them and our community. 

Events are a microcosm of your standing within the community, and that's very precious. It's like brand and reputation, you have to take incredible care of it and make sure that people feel like they're being heard. And what they want to see is being reflected in the event and the type of value that they're looking for in the event is coming out of it as well. 

We're very clear that our core audience are founders. When we design an event, every segment — the startup exhibition area, stage content, pitch battles, etc. — has different activations, but every single one is designed so that we are servicing founders from a very early stage till post-IPO and well past a unicorn founder. We are very clear about who we're developing the event for, and how we're building that relationship with our core audience and our core target segment. And we are very intentional about opening up communication with the community. 

That's kind of the secret sauce for our events — the authenticity and intentionality. I think we can always be better. One of my favorite stories is when I reached out to speakers, they said ‘I would love to support, I got my first investment at the Tech In Asia Conference in 2016.’ Or another would reply ‘Here's a photo of my startup factory booth, which was only 100 dollars in 2018.’ And they’re now a soonicorn in Indonesia. You have to create the space to do your content development, community curation, and relationship management well. You can bring in the right people to create those serendipitous moments, which is how we view our events. 

Aspire: With TIA's strong focus on Southeast Asia, India, and North America, what were some of the considerations to decide between further expansion or strengthening your foothold in existing markets?

Maria Li: As digital media, the good thing is we don't have to worry about where our audiences are coming from. The US is our third largest market but we don't cater to the US and we don't run ads there. If they're googling Southeast Asia tech startup stories, they end up inevitably coming across us. What we have to worry about is picking the right stories that we want to cover. We realized that especially in the larger countries like China or India, there are very deeply entrenched local players. We're not necessarily bringing anything new to the market if we were to go super deep into a large country. 

But one of our key USPs is cross-border collaborations and coverage. We’re really good at covering companies that are starting to expand from one country to another, talking about different business models, or comparing two different countries and regions. We focus on making sure that as companies are expanding, their startup founders and C-level team, as well as the investors supporting them, get the regional perspective to understand where they're landing to.

To date, the startup scene has largely been a story about Singaporean and Indonesian startups. But that’s starting to diversify. So next year, you'll see us moving much more aggressively into our Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine coverage while making sure that we provide the best coverage when it comes to a regional perspective. Anything that's happening at an early stage in those countries, we're shouting it out to the rest of the region, so that investors have an eye on where the hotspots are and founders who are looking to expand get the right Intel they need and have the right sense of upcoming trends. 

Aspire: What are the valuable takeaways and key insights on fundraising and investment you have gained from SPH's acquisition of Tech in Asia?

Maria Li: Tech in Asia raised funds from VCs before I joined. Since I’ve come aboard, we've been profitable and basically running on our own money. Besides talking about the acquisition from a general industry perspective, one thing that people have always said which I have found to be incredibly true is ‘Money is not just money.’ Money comes with different shareholders who have different perspectives. Fundraising in this climate, where there aren't that many funds being raised, founders will just take whatever money is out there. And if it's a lifeline for your company, you have to do it. 

Now that we've gone through the acquisition process, I can tell you that some shareholders are much more strategic, helpful, and supportive. It’s the difference between making a lot of beautiful promises and holding them to it. What we saw at the end is that some shareholders became much more concerned about us as a company and for us as individuals, and it was just nice to have those folks in your corner. 

Other investors were more concerned about their financials, which I 100% respect because it's their business and their job, so they managed to keep an eye out for our best (and their) own financial interest. While finally other shareholders just provided capital from beginning to end, but stayed out of anything strategic. So, not all money is the same. And if you can raise funds from like-minded people, it will hopefully make your exit or acquisition process a lot smoother as well.

Aspire: What is the single most important factor that has contributed to TechinAsia's success?

Maria Li: Definitely people and mission, because they're self-reinforcing. You need to have a great and clear mission to guide a lot of the decisions for your company. That will attract great people, and then the right people will always stay dedicated to your mission. It's really tough to do one without the other. You may have the world's best mission but if nobody else believes it, it doesn't matter and you're not going to get very far. Same if you had some of the best people, but no clear direction of driving them. 

Again, digital media has been and is still in flux for almost the last decade now. There have been a lot of different business models. Many digital media companies have raised huge amounts of money but then declared bankruptcy. The main thing, especially to guide yourself, your people, and your company through a lot of the hard decisions, is ‘What is your ultimate mission?’

For us, it's always been ‘We want to build the tech and startup community.’ We've seen other digital media companies do lots of other things — they've spun out products, built e-commerce or service organisations, or gotten into investing. I think that's fine based on what their mission is. But our mission has always been very clear. It's always been on the media and events side because that's where we have objective value. We can create a platform to build and support the startup community. 

The moment that we start picking sides or if we get too much into a particular product or service, then we're no longer neutral, which means that we can’t serve our original mission. This has helped us stay very focused throughout the years, bring in great people, and not get distracted.

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About the author
Aaron Oh
is a seasoned content writer specialising in finance, insurance and tech industries. With a writing history at S&P Global, EdgeProp, Indeed, Prudential, and others, Aaron leverages finance knowledge and business insights to help businesses improve productivity and performance.
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