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Michelle Chan: Half-Million User Student Founder, Product Growth & SCMP Publisher Digitalization

· Podcast Episodes,Women,Female Founders,Founder,Publishing

Really good founders are people who are able to ask good questions, but you don't really know the answer. You can only use questions and hypothesis to test it out. And often times, people might go into different discussions that end up really long about, oh, should we do this, but this will happen. If we do that, then that will happen. But actually, the easiest way is to test it out. And oftentimes it's not as complicated as it seems. The data sometimes is just so out there. And it's so black and white that you can actually make a decision right after an experiment. - Michelle Chan

Michelle led the product growth team at South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong based news media company owned by Alibaba Group. Before that, she was the founder of Weava, an ed-tech productivity tool startup that allows users to highlight, organize, and create their own research documents all in one place.  

Before that, she did UX design at Amazon in Seattle, where she worked in the Core Design team focusing on Amazon’s core shopping experience on web and mobile. She was also a venture fellow at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm focused on early stage technology startups. 

This episode is produced by Kyle Ong.

Jeremy Au (00:00): 

Hey, Michelle, happy to have you on the show. 

Michelle Chan (00:03): Super honored to be here. 

Jeremy Au (00:04): 

Yeah. I'm just really excited to really be hearing about your journey, not just as a founder, but a founder who started from university and then exited, and then working in this thing called Growth in the field of publishing and digital media which is a hot topic these days in Asia, and obviously, talk a little bit more about what you've learned. So excited to have you in the show. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself for those who don't know you yet? 

Michelle Chan (00:33): 

Yeah, sure. So I'm Michelle, and I basically started out as a UX designer at Amazon in Seattle as an intern, and the then founded my own et tech productivity tool startup, WIVA, did Product Growth at south China morning post. So yeah, that's pretty much what I've been through. 

Jeremy Au (00:51):Yeah. So when did the startup bug first bite you? 

Michelle Chan (00:55): 

Yeah, so it was only until recently that I realized that my startup bug, and my fan for productivity in general started out in high school. So when I was in form one, so that's basically grade seven in Western education. And I basically sold stationary every year for six years, different types. Schedule books, A4 papers, pencils, USBs and different types to students of my school, hundreds, if not thousands. Because I felt that for students, oftentimes, they interact with the stationary a lot. And that's the joy that they're getting when they're doing their studies and everything. And I hope that when they're doing their work studying, they actually enjoy the process. And building tools and selling roles that they interact with in 10 hours a day was very interesting. And so, yeah, that's what I did for a while. 

And even when I was taking that public exam, Chinese public exam, I wrote in the essay that I wanted to be a stationary store owner. Yeah, so that was my love for productivity and stationaries and all that. So after that, I went to college in Hong Kong university, studying business and Japanese studies and back then I really wanted to do something related to creative arts. So I thought about doing wedding photography, I went to photographic society. I did a bunch of free graphic design work for a bunch of startups, a bunch of different societies, clubs and all that. And yeah, so that was how it started. And until I got lucky, so I got a full scholarship from Yale university that brought me to this one year exchange program where I can take any class that I could. And in my university, in Hong Kong, there were no art classes. 

And so I took all the graphic design, all the typography classes, all the documentary making classes and everything, and learned a lot more about graphic design as a practice. So it was only until basically a friend recommended me to an internship at True Ventures. And it's a fellowship in the summer where basically you spend five, four days a week at a portfolio company. So I was a UX design slash front end developer for an API testing company called Runscope. And for five days, they brought in different founders from their portfolio. So they are a venture capital firm that invested in Fitbit, Peloton, WebPress and all that. And it's like this mini conference with 10 interns and a table in some room in SF with founders talking. Four or five founders every week sharing with us their journey. And that was when I really enjoyed tech and startups and everything, and felt that UX design is a great transition to my career because that actually combines my interest in creativity and science. 

So after that, I was super excited. I flew back to Hong Kong as a senior year student, and I really wanted to be a UX designer. So back then, couple years ago, I think now it's a lot better for Hong Kong, but back then, UX design, I felt that it isn't that advanced. And so I really wanted to work in the states after I graduate. So in order to do that, however, because of government visa and other reasons, you need to take a degree that matches with the work that you're doing. And so I begged my professor saying, I really want to change my degree to computer science, even though it's my last year of college. Can I defer a year and basically take computer science as my second major? And I was so lucky that back then, it was still not the hype with computer science that I got fit into a spot. 

And basically I crammed CS degree in a year and a half, and I got lucky, got an internship at Amazon in Seattle, where I worked as a front end UX designer and the then 30 person core design team where they were focusing on the core user experience with the shopping cart, the mobile app, the whole pricing page and all that stuff. Until I stumbled upon this idea called, that was right before that internship. So in the summer, right before exams and everything, I was with my founders in the library one day chasing after SA and report deadlines, and we figured out we had a common problem. So whenever you're doing research, you need to highlight and organize a lot of different things, open a bunch of Chrome tabs, find what you want, copy and paste the relevant information, author, date, and title into citations and research outlines and everything. 

And so I basically recorded ourselves doing research and figured out that for every 10 hours, like three to four hours is spent on this type of front work. And I felt that as a student, most of our time and energy should be focused on the idea and the thought process itself. So then we basically built this thing at a hackathon, which was a simple Chrome extension highlighter. It's a very simple product back then. We expanded it to web and mobile afterwards, but that was what we started out. And then we got lucky, we won some kind of hackathon, and then we were like, oh, that's super interesting. Why don't we continue that when we are having our summer internships. And so I flew to Seattle, my other co- founders were doing other tech jobs in Hong Kong. And so I got off work at like six and then went back home and then skyped my other, back then it was Skype, skyped, my other co-founders and basically continued building the product. 

So after a while I felt that my heart is in this startup. And so I flew back towards the end of summer internship, got this return offer saying like, Hey, I'm going to give up this return offer at Amazon in Seattle. Let's actually just work on this together full time after we graduate, and yeah, let's do this. And so my other co-founder saw this and they also rejected their return offers at other places. And we just basically worked off of the idea itself. So, yeah, so that's how we started. And in the beginning, we got lucky because after our launch of the first thing that we put on the Chrome app store, Google featured us within the first week and that brought us the first steady group of users. And then afterwards, we did open with improving the SEO and the little bit that there's constant group of users signing up for us. 

And so that's how it began. And in the beginning we wanted to focus on individual students and users like ourselves until there are days that there are hundreds of students from the same school, you can see it from the email domain and other things, signing up for us and we're like, oh, that's super interesting. And we Skyped, talked to the teachers and talked to the students, and learned that it was used in classrooms for anything ranging from digital literacy to evidence based writing. So I remember that there was one week where there were 11 schools in Alabama using us and I was like, oh, that's super interesting. And then I called the teacher in Hong Kong and then this spark just suddenly was in me. And then I was like, Hey, it was like for fun, Hey, I think I want to pass my three weeks later, do you want to bring me a round? 

And then the teacher said, yes. And then I just booked this ticket to the U.S. And it was a time when we haven't raised anything, and so I was literally, and I had not really that much money. And so I basically called my users up in different cities and slept in different dorm rooms in LA, Boston, all the other places as well. And basically went on this road trip, visiting different schools, learning about their education systems that I knew nothing about and how to sell to different classes and teachers, what they care about and all that. And so it was an interesting journey. After that, basically we grew it to over a half a million users and one of our impact investors really liked our product and offered to buy us. And we were really grateful that that happened. 

And after that I led the Product Growth team at South China Morning Post. So back then, a few years ago, South China Morning Post was acquired by Alibaba, and there was a series of tech transformations over there. And I went there because there is this person who wrote articles for Reforge, that was the former head of growth there. And I really felt that I can learn a lot from him. And so basically I was like, oh, that's super interesting. I really admired the company and some people in the leadership, and so I joined the company. And basically, unfortunately, he left, the head of growth left three months after I joined, and so I basically was tasked to lead the entire team for a while. Yeah. And so back then, there were no AB testing in terms of the product side back then. And so I basically set up all the AB testing infrastructure, improving conversion rates and all that, and also other types of initiatives as well. Yeah. So, that's probably what I did. 

Jeremy Au (10:42): 

Wow. That's a long, long thing and dive into it, but let's focus on your journey to be a founder, right? So incredible stories of you being a founder right out of college. So I guess the question was, did you call yourself a founder back then? Or did you even know that you're foundering something or was it a series of hackathons that you started selling? Was there ever a moment where you're like, whoa, this is the moment I'm going to make this my job. 

Michelle Chan (11:05):Yeah. It was definitely when I was interning in Seattle that I felt that I wanted to do this full time. So that was the time when I wanted to do it. 

Jeremy Au (11:15):Because you were a Weaver and it was growing fast enough, and you were like, okay, we want to make this full time, or when did you decide to go full time into it? 

Michelle Chan (11:24):I had to decide on whether I should take the return offer at Amazon. And basically that was a period where I had to make the decision. 

Jeremy Au (11:34): 

How did you make a decision? So what did you have at that point of time? S you get your bud in hand, return off of Amazon, which is pretty obvious, you know what a company is, et cetera. And at that point of time, what was Weaver then? So how many users roughly? Use zero revenue, I presume. So yeah, so you were making a decision, but what was it that, the A versus B, right? What was the B choice that was at that point of time? 

Michelle Chan (12:01): 

Honestly, the B choice, it was, it was a pretty dichotomous choice, whether it's okay. One, I follow my original passion and dream of being a UX designer in the U.S. And two, is that if that's not the case, then I'm going to found the startup. Back then there were no users, we haven't even launched it. We launched it only after I came back to Hong Kong and we were working on it. And so it was literally just a product that pre-launch, and it was literally just the gut and the heart, and also the synergy and energy that you get from your co-founders as well. You can feel it. You can feel that they care and you can feel that they're constantly working on it. And we all just vibe. 

Jeremy Au (12:47): 

Wow. So you had no indication that it was going to be a successful, you made a decision to give up on the easy dream, which was going to America for your job. At the time, did your parents have a point of view on that or your friends and family? Did they have a point of view in that decision? 

Michelle Chan (13:06): 

Yeah, so they actually were glad that I didn't go to the U.S because I guess they like traditional Asian parents who want me to be close to where they are and all that. And so they were actually just happy that I'm like, I don't care where you go, I don't care if you're working at whatever, wherever. So that was what I got. 

Jeremy Au (13:29): 

That is so funny. I was expecting like, oh, Asian parents, Hong Kong, you got to follow that career trajectory. And I was like, oh wait, you're right. The one thing they fear more than you becoming a entrepreneur, is you leaving them. Okay. So there you are, you're building this thing, do you remember what was it like to get featured by the store? I mean, not by many people get to get featured, right? So do you remember that feeling? Where were you? What were you doing when you found out? 

Michelle Chan (14:01): 

So I launched it, we used Firebase back then, and I was talking to some founders and then there was one day I remember I was mentoring at startup weekend at Hong Kong U, and then there were some pretty well known startup founders who were guests as well. And then I just looked, and I think I was also one of the guests who was looking at their final presentation and everything. And then I saw Firebase, just the number of users going up and I'm like, Hey, what's wrong? And then I shared it with another founder. And then he said, I think you got featured on Chrome app store, that's my gut. And then I was like, oh, okay, and then realized that that was the case. 

Jeremy Au (14:40):So you're happy that you got featured in app store. You use this going up and then there's this tricky part where you decide to travel, right? What was that like? 

Michelle Chan (14:50): 

It was so unplanned. I was thinking about it, myself, that okay, the teacher actually said, yes, why not try go for it? And I literally, because we've been calling our users every day, and so we have accumulated over a hundred contacts of users from different places. And majority of our users back then was from the U.S. So I called up most of the users from the U.S that I felt like we connect with, and basically asked if they could bring me around. And I basically didn't plan. I remember I just booked a two ticket and then I didn't book a return ticket back then and I just scheduled meetings on the way to different cities. There were a few like one week or two that I didn't even know where I should be going to. 

Jeremy Au (15:42):What did you learn in general? 

Michelle Chan (15:44): 

I learned a lot because I think I don't know that much about the education system in the U.S, and just seeing high schools that are as huge as Hong Kong university. And then this Chromebook, I remember seeing carts of Chromebooks that teachers bring around down the hallway, with every student having a Chromebook, that was pre-COVID, and using that for math, other classes, English and everything. It was very interesting, and also learning about how teachers work in the U.S, and how the growth and all these other elements in it, was super new to me. So yeah, I was going to different schools and basically asking, they're playing this student founder course, I say Hey, I'm a student founder or I brought a user in and said, oh, Hey librarian, I have this friend who is a student founder and she really wants to talk to you. And so that was how, yeah, it went. 

Jeremy Au (16:44): 

So there you are and obviously you're starting to build and you've got a user base. And obviously for any such tool where it's very much about social, about some virality and retention, there's a dynamic around monetization, right? That's kind of tricky, right? And there's also a dynamic around retention, right? So there you are, you have this growth curve going up. So how did you think about the balance at a time between focusing on retention versus monetization? 

Michelle Chan (17:14): 

Yeah. It's definitely a tough challenge, especially for tools for students. And half of our students are from high schools, and half of them are from universities. And so we tested out different monetization strategies where that basically you need to pay... In the beginning, we tested out different things. So one is that, okay, you can't use it if you don't pay for it after five highlights. Two, as broad as, oh, if you want to share, then you can get a free one year. And so we tried out different things and basically thought the balance at a point where there is still users signing up, there's still users retaining, but then it's not hurting their entire experience, but then there are people paying for it. And on top of that, we also have classrooms and school pricing plans, so that if they want to collaborate, then they can work on it together and pay for it. 

So one of the things that was, one of the deciding factors between the monetization strategy was originally, I mean there were ideas about, okay, all these social collaboration, research collaboration online, annotation tools out there that basically bet on virality and everything. But then because of the nature of our product, we basically tested out having sharing and all of that. But then research usually occurs in groups of certain specific settings. And so we felt that paid collaboration actually worked better than having it free for viral. A lot of the students actually hear from us from word of mouth and teachers hear from us from other teachers. 

Jeremy Au (18:50): 

Cool. So, you're thinking about retention, you're thinking about word of mouth, which is the virality component, and you're also talking about monetization. So it sounds like you ended up on a premium product that allowed people to trial and then to monetize for premium slash pro users, right? How do you get that balance, right? Because people sometimes over index on free, sometimes over index on just paid, and it's hard to find that sweet spot. So how did you find a sweet spot? 

Michelle Chan (19:23): 

Yeah, that's a good question. Actually for us, after experimenting the data was super obvious. Basically, there was not really much of a small difference. And then, okay, there's just a little bit of change. Basically, after five highlights, if they had to pay, because of the nature of the product, students usually find other alternatives. And so you can clearly see the retention difference and all that with the entire journey. And also there are different groups that actually don't fight against each other. So students, they can pay if they want to have more features with adding more citations, adding nested folders, adding more colors and everything, and it doesn't hurt them. And then there are teachers who are willing to pay for classes. And so those two groups co-exists in our current model. 

Jeremy Au (20:15):Interesting. And when you think about that, what are some myths and misconceptions that people have 

about finding that sweet spot between virality, retention and monetization? 

Michelle Chan (20:30): 

Yeah. I think oftentimes many people, as founders, you never... Really good founders are people who are able to ask good questions, but you don't really know the answer. You can only use questions and hypothesis to test it out. And oftentimes, people might go into different discussions that end up really long about, oh, should we do this, but this will happen. If we do that, then that will happen. But actually, the easiest way is to test it out. And oftentimes it's not as complicated as it seems. The data sometimes is just so out there. And it's so black and white that you can actually make a decision right after an experiment. 

Jeremy Au (21:07):But what if the team disagrees? 

Michelle Chan (21:09): 

There were times when we have been discussing about, oh, should we do A and should we do B? And it's getting that balance with the time and you have, and all the things that you plan in the sprint. And oftentimes founders over prioritize especially for productivity in life. That you basically over prioritize on like, oh, should I do this experiment first or that experiment first within the same month. But the difference is actually just their order within the same month versus the whole long term game plan with what actually you should focus on. And so oftentimes, it's not actually a big deal to test this first versus testing the other thing within the short time frame. 

Jeremy Au (21:53): 

That's a tough one, right? Because for our founder, there's not much time, right? So it's really about prioritization. From your recollection, how did you prioritize your time? Were there any yard stakes or heuristics you did? 

Michelle Chan (22:06): 

Yeah, for sure. So back then in the beginning only for the acquisition and activation part, because it's an highlighting tool that is similar to medium.com, but then there are still things here and there that you actually don't know how to use it. And so in the beginning after people signed up for it, actually the whole installing a Chrome extension to signing up and making an account to making the first highlight, it was very obvious back then that the conversion rate is very low, that we just need to push that up and that's above everything else with engagement and retention. We basically set up priorities per month. So this month activation is the thing that we need to do, brainstorm the experiments that actually work on that. 

And so we tested a bunch of different things from creating anonymous accounts that you actually don't need to sign up with an email and then testing tutorials that teach you how to highlight, to creating a medium article that is already in your document when you sign up for it and doing a bunch of these different things and basically optimize the entire funnel and actually pushed it up like 2X. 

And so after doing that, it's obvious that engagement and retention is another thing that we can work on after they make their first highlight. And so we basically look into our Chrome extension and look into our user requests and all that and realize that a lot of people are leaving because they felt that the Chrome extension is slowing the browser down. Oftentimes people think that retention is actually some like, oh, you need to build this additional feature. To improve retention, you need to build that to improve retention but oftentimes you're already providing a product with an MVP that already has a value out there. And with our experiments, it's things that are so simple that they felt that. So there's little words that you see in your Chrome browser that says waiting for xxx extension. And then these things that they actually see 24 hours and they're using Chrome to things with when they are... So we can highlight on PDFs, for example, and basically Chrome default has a PDF browser. 

And a lot of them turn after they saw that their PDF browser was changed into hours. And so it was as simple as, okay, do we default opt into the Chrome design or do we opt into our design? And if we do it in our design, should we make it look as if it looks exactly like the Chrome PDF browser? And so these are things that are not additional features, but those are the things why people uninstall Chrome extension. If you think about yourself as, why did you write, why did you UN install something? Yeah. So there are different periods in time that we tested different things out. And then under that theme of the part down the funnel that we run experiments. 

Jeremy Au (24:55):So I'm just kind of curious for that experiment. What was your eventual decision for that? 

Michelle Chan (25:00): 

So for the PDF one, so we basically realized that people actually don't care if they are using our default PDF browser. And some people actually don't know the difference if we make it as if they haven't changed anything. So we basically called the PDF browser design into our own rendering design. And so that actually helped a lot. 

Jeremy Au (25:23): 

Wow. 

Michelle Chan (25:24): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (25:24):That must have been a fun experiment to see for sure. And so there you are, and then you decide to sell to the investor who bought you out, what was driving that decision? 

Michelle Chan (25:36): 

Yeah. So back then we were thinking of going the VC route and it was also a time before the COVID education area, the time period. And we were thinking about how to monetize it and what the market size in is all these things that were. Finally what we were thinking about, I think we were like first time founders with when we want to build something because we just want to build it. We want to build this product that people use that students love and that's all we care about. And so that was how we started it, but then it was a period when we were thinking whether we should go VC. And so back then we had raised an angel round and we basically had a conclusion that if it's going through the product value that we are currently bringing, it probably is not a multi-billion dollar business, even though there's no right or wrong answers to these things. 

And I'm pretty sure there might be exceptions. But basically if we are to make it a multi-billion dollar business, we will likely have to pivot it to something that is more monetizable. For example, law students and medical students have three times the retention of other types of students. And so we interviewed a lot of lawyers. We looked into different law corporations and also interviewed different people and realized that it's an entirely different product with all the legal, the compliance and everything, and yeah, with a lot of complications. And so back then we were thinking ourselves on how to go about it. And basically we also brainstormed it with other investors. And one of our impact investors mentioned that they really liked our product, and why don't I buy you guys and keep it as left out sell business and invest more on the team. And back then we felt that that was actually good for our users and also serving good for ourselves as well. And so yeah, we made that decision together. 

Jeremy Au (27:31): 

Wow. Okay. That's interesting decision because, yeah, you're local team building a global tool. Right. And it's interesting that you sold that at point because that's a lot of the decision there, but obviously respect your decision there. And then there you are, I guess you must have been. Yeah. You love Reforge as a result, right? Because that's all they talk about it. Brian Belfor, I know him from Boston and that's all he talks about, right? Retention, activation, virality, value. Did you listen to him a lot? Did you follow him during that time? How did you get into the reforged community? 

Michelle Chan (28:12): 

Yeah. I was just reading his blog posts and everything. So as a founder, I mean the typical saying that startup equals growth, I think that I felt that to the very core. And so that was why I was very interested in growth. 

Jeremy Au (28:27): 

It's kind of crazy that Brian in Boston was able to reach you in Hong Kong, which just goes to show that I think great content goes everywhere. I knew him because he visited a class at HBS, Harvard Business School to talk at our MBA class about entrepreneurial growth, which was an interesting class, at least for that an hour and a half, I believe. And it still blows my mind that someone across the world just knows who he is, right? 

Michelle Chan (28:56): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (28:57): 

But obviously he's scaled at the next level by building up Reforge and the capital was raised recently. I just want to kind of go to the next station and then you decide to join SCMP to follow someone that you respected and so forth. What was it like joining the SCMP?  So obviously we know that based out of Hong Kong, a great magazine in terms of the editorial piece. But so many newspapers around the world, there's this transition where the reader base may be going up due to like more and more reader, but the revenues are going down because historically, they relied on advertisers, right? Which are now going towards Google and Facebook. And I think more recently, the Singapore press holdings, the SCMP of Singapore basically kind of had to get nationalized and get a government bail lot because they weren't able to make the transition right because of their executive leadership team. So tell us more about what was it like joining a publishing company. 

Michelle Chan (29:56): 

Basically back then, they moved to Times Square, and basically they have an amazing coworking space that looks like WeWork and then like five stories. We have our own internal bar where every Friday pre- COVID we can drink beer. Yeah. And so actually, even though there's like a thousand employees in the company, it felt as if it's a startup often. And there are people who are pretty fresh and young and super passionate about what they're doing. And so I really enjoyed the time there and the culture there with the new leadership actually supports a lot of innovation. And so I joined hackathons, other activities, events. I went to dragon boat together with my colleagues. And so, yeah, it's a fun time. 

Jeremy Au (30:44):And it feels like a startup, it's innovative, is it because of the acquisition or did it have that culture before the acquisition? 

Michelle Chan (30:55): 

I think it happened after acquisition and after a change in leadership. And basically back then, we had no branding, we had no values and all that. And the senior leadership set up all the basic foundations. Any tech company would set up. And that was when I think. Though I didn't join before, so I don't know too much about that, but at least the time that I joined, I felt that it was due to the recent change. 

Jeremy Au (31:21): 

Yeah. And what do you think, because SCMP really wasn't really read outside Hong Kong China for a long chunk of time, right? But now it's really seemed to have grown as leadership, at least in the Southeast Asia and beyond as well, right? As one of the few English language papers with Chinese journalists who are able to speak about China and Hong Kong. So could you tell us a little bit more about what were the things that you would focus on in terms of growth. Because you weren't tackling the right thing, you weren't tackling the publishing, you were there to improve growth, activation retention. So what was that like? 

Michelle Chan (32:07): 

Yeah. So when we arrived, there were no AB testing infrastructures and everything. And basically I followed, there's a bunch of really good articles from a guy from Pinterest called John. I'm not sure if I pronounced his name correctly. Basically, one of his articles outlined how he set up the Pinterest growth team, which is similar to an investment portfolio. So basically, depending on the stage in time when you're in the company. So back at SCMP, I set up around 50% of our efforts is based off of iterative experiments that basically improve conversion rates, engagement, retention, or whatever metric, 20 to 30%, et cetera. So that's the type of initiatives that we run, typically AB tests. And then other 10 to 20% is on setting up infrastructure, data analysis, processes, frameworks, and then the rest of the 30% is on big bets that's basically 10X, a certain part of growth, but is more risky. 

So that's roughly the whole different initiatives that we're doing, and for the of big bets. Because SCMP product is still the content, and content is written by 300 journalists who have to write articles every day, and each article has a shelf life of one to two days, often, that's the case. And so how can you actually ingrain in the system, the concept of growth? So we apply for internal company hackathon and got a mini award, which is this idea of turning articles. When the journalists write their articles in the internal tool, we extract the keywords from the articles and then attach SEO traffic in them to give them insights into what they should write or what they want to take reference. So that's one of the initiatives. And then another one, we applied for a Google news initiative challenge, and basically got an award grant or whatever you call it for a project that does somewhat like personalization. 

So for startups, that's probably very common, but for a news operation, that's super new for the whole entire industry. Because basically what happens is users and content often follow a power law where 80% of the users are super fly buyer or whatever you call it, who visit an article or read briefly over a month. And then 20% of the articles contribute to 80% of the traffic, et cetera. So how can you actually, from those 80% users, bring them down the entire engagement, retention, monetization funnel. And we have over 30 newsletters over five podcasts and a bunch of infographics. And so how can we give the right call to action to the right user? And basically we did some simple data analysis and cluster users into groups and give them different call to actions. 

Jeremy Au (35:06):Were you still reading Reforge during that time? 

Michelle Chan (35:13):Yeah. I was still reading Reforge and other stuff, and also reaching out to other PMs in growth. 

Jeremy Au (35:19): 

Wow. Okay. So you are thinking about all this stuff, but it's kind of an awkward position, right? Because it feels like Google is picking away the advertising from newspapers in terms of the advertising budget, right? But it's also giving users and new readers to SCMP, right? So what was that relationship like between all that? What was the perception of Google like from the insights of a publisher? 

Michelle Chan (35:49): 

Yeah. It's a love, hate relationship. Yeah. And also for Google, often users there's visit through AMP, which is like accelerated mobile pages. And oftentimes you can't really do too much out of it because it's a very lightweight webpage design that you can't really get a lot of data or other things. And so, yeah, it's definitely love, hate. 

Jeremy Au (36:15): 

So yeah. So it's a love, hate dynamic. And so how publishers think about it, right? Because a couple years experience and even more publishers in Southeast Asia are really feeling they pinch now, right? How do you think publishers should be thinking about improving how they operate and digitize? 

Michelle Chan (36:32): 

Yeah. The entire content industry is a system that begins with finding what types of content you should write about to the angle where the hook is or how you should approach it to producing the article. And then it's a complete loop, it's like a whole cycle. And so how, if you see this as a system, how can you do things within the system to actually pull different levers? So for example, mentioned before about breakout articles that actually a small percentage of articles bring the majority of the traffic. And if you can find any way to double that, that can bring a lot of impact. And also there are often different niche groups of different types of users who are interested in very niche content. And oftentimes those niche content may not appear as if they have a lot of users, but those are the types that actually the loyal users are reading. 

And so the entire thing, if you see it as a system, there are different parts of it that you can change as if it's a product. And another thing to take note is how after you write the article, is there anything we can do to bring more traffic, bring more attention to the ones that are good? So for example, one of the things that we did, though it's like a mini task and mini thing that we did, which was basically just extracting all the articles out there and plugging it with understanding whether it's got posted onto our Facebook or not. And estimating from just simple data that, okay, this article is kind of increasing in traffic. And then we set an automatic alert to the digital team to basically give them as a reference on whether they should post it on Facebook. 

Jeremy Au (38:12):Any tips on how to make that flow better for the publisher. 

Michelle Chan (38:17): 

We try to do our best to not, because journalists have a journalistic integrity who other people would decide what they should write about and we completely respect that type of practice. And so oftentimes the thing we do is that we try to minimize the effort that they need to spend because they are very busy and how we can actually provide help to them during their busy work day. 

Jeremy Au (38:44): 

Yeah. So who else do you work with, right? So obviously you're leading the growth team, right? So could you explain what was your scope of work and who were the departments that you had to work with a lot? So I assume you had to work with the journalists, obviously, because he was receiving the content and using that as the testing grounds and everything, but what was your scope, I guess, versus other teams that were innovating in a company? 

Michelle Chan (39:09): 

Yeah. So growth team back then, when SCMP designed it, they wanted it to be, because there are different. If you read Reforge articles, they have a lot of articles about how you should set a growth team up and everything. And the one that we did was basically the growth person is under product, but then it's very cross collaboration. So if it's AB test and experiments, we have developers from our team to work on it. But if it's other initiatives, we cooperate with marketing, editorial technology. There's another internal tool team technology team back then, and then data of course, and all a strategy. And so it's very cost functional. And so basically, the whole thing is basically a process that sets up a system that can get everyone together, to work on different projects together and pitch them on top of the time that they have because oftentimes different departments have their own agenda and their own OKRs and everything. 

And different teams for us marketing owned new letters back then when I was there. And so basically you have to pitch to different teams to include certain initiatives that you initiated into their OKRs a little time before. And so it's working with a lot of people. 

Jeremy Au (40:30): 

Wow. I can imagine there's quite a lot of moving pieces. And obviously during all this time, you've been making a lot of decisions as a founder, making decisions as the leader of growth in SCMP. I'm wondering, you must have gone through some tough times as well, right? So could you share us maybe some tough times that you had and where you had to be brave? 

Michelle Chan (40:53): 

Yeah, for sure. Some tough times. So for example at SCMP, everyone's super passionate and oftentimes when you use working at a cross collaborative projects. Different departments have their own agenda, are often super busy, and so pitching them to get their buy-ins to do something together is often a relationship building and other things as well. You need a lot of empathy, you need to understand what they actually need. You need to figure out things that can reduce the time needed from them, and also some things that work together. And so, for example, I think for example, growth, a lot of times you need to work on data. Where for growth and data retention engagement and everything. It's a lot of work from the data team who often are... Data teams in companies are often people who always get requests from every single person. 

I want A, I want B, C, D, F, G, H, I, J. And so how can we work with the team to actually do something that requires a lot of effort and time? And oftentimes our projects require more complex things. And from the perspective of the news corporation, so like retention, LTV, and other types of data that requires a lot of energy and time. And compared to other metrics that other journalists benefit from in terms of the articles. And so that took us a while, that took us nine months. And basically, the things that we did was working with the building relationships, for sure. And then for me, I looked, there was an idea that I pitched, so I got a grant from Google and that was an idea that I really wanted to do. And basically I helped out with designing the pitch and everything. And basically after we got the grant, then we finally had the time, the money to pay for someone to work on the project together. And so that also brought things together. 

Jeremy Au (42:52):Wow. Thank you so much, Michelle. I really for appreciate you taking the time to come on the Brave Show and share about your experience. I want to really thank you for really saying amazing things, I really got to learn from you, obviously. I think the first part of you being a student founder and your excitement and your incredible bravery to choose, to found something, and give up on your offer to continue working in the states and really build a company with over half a million users from, like you said, over 50 countries and just all those crazy moments where you did that, where you figure out how to crash couches and visit America. So it's just an incredible personal journey that you had. 

And secondly, of course, thank you so much for a lot of the strong tips around like, retention, activation, monetization, virality, growth, especially in the context of Weaver, because I think most founders have that problem because there's so many things to handle, right? And so many things to prioritize, and I think you really gave some good insights there. And lastly, thank you so much for your insights actually on digital publishing slash traditional publishers and how they have to figure out how to compete in the honor era. And users leading the product growth team and your love for Reforge. And your ability to do AB testing and experimentation is incredibly inspiring, especially for someone like you. So you're a true rising star. 

Michelle Chan (44:26):Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation and thanks for bringing me here. 

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