Founder and owner of The Thaiger (https://thethaiger.com), Tim Newton has lead the development of Thailand's leading English-language digital media outlet since 2016.
10 years in Phuket. Arrived here with the hope of running an online business but with much better weather, beaches and mango shakes. Business went bad very quickly… long story. But started work with a local media company very quickly and got to learn the ropes of the Thai media vibe, the story-makers and the topics to avoid.What's your background in Phuket? How long have you lived here? Why do you like it?
Phuket is an excellent base but it’s certainly not for everyone. Expat life here is limited and quite cliquey. Formerly a tourist Mecca, and very international. Now wallowing in post-Covid woes that have been a fatal blow to the island’s tourism business. But it has fabulous beaches, a large range of restaurants, lots of international flights going in and out every day (well, not at the moment), and an hour away from Bangkok.
It’s hot all year round with a wet and dry season so you pretty much know what you’re going get, weather-wise, day to day.
Australia is a fantastic place to grow up and build a business. Well, it was for my first 50 years. Now, maybe things have changed a bit. But following 10 years in Thailand, and Phuket, I’m now sure I will be living here for the rest of my life. Running a successful media business in a foreign land was not necessarily planned. But here I am and I’m completely challenged and engaged, every day, running the business and living the life of an expat.
Isn't Australia a better place to live?
I can say, for sure, I will always be a proud Australian but now call Thailand my home.
Long story, short… Started in 2016 as an FM radio station in Phuket. Was very successful and bubbling along. Then was approached by a consortium buying the defunct Phuket Gazette, a newspaper and media company operating on the island for 23 years. So, suddenly, we had a website, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook AND an FM radio station. We quickly changed everything over to the Thaiger brand, turned the provincial brand into a national brand, had a lot of late nights. And it worked, beyond our wildest dreams. Within the first 12 months we’d grown 200,000 clicks a month on the website into 12 million. It’s cruised along since then, going up and down a bit, as we’ve tried new things - always trying new things - making lots of mistakes and finding a few things that worked.
When did you set up The Thaiger? How would you summarise it?
The Thaiger quickly morphed from being a traditional media company into a tech business, driven by the disruptions in the media business. We did our fair share of disruption and kept plunging forward whilst some of our peers were jumping up and down on the spot. Some of them are now gone.
Then Covid hit and we changed even more, invested more, hired more people and kept re-investing. For now we continue to grow, in the middle of a pandemic, a much more solid business than we could have possibly imagined.
When Thaiger started we were startup fancy-pants and thought we could run everything virtually and online. It all looks cool in the YouTube clips as young people click their way to their first million. In reality it simply doesn’t work unless you want to remain small. Once you start adding staff you simply have to be there, mentoring, coaching, assisting and nurturing the process. You can adjust things much more quickly when you’re there.
The Thaiger appears to be a virtual company; do you have an office or studio, or would you like one?
Online it would take 3 Zoom meetings and 16 emails to end up with a compromised just-ok solution. When you’re there you get the ideas whirring and the decisions made quickly.
We now have an office in Bangkok and Phuket. I float between the two. We have between 16-20 staff, mostly in house. We have a preference for in-house staff. We’ve proven, at least in our business, it simply works better. But, at the core of the entire business is a strong tech foundation that we know will defy any challenger ever trying to catch us.
The first thing to realise is that the technology is all there. The Thaiger didn’t invent the internet, or YouTube, or Facebook. But we use all these tools as part of our daily armoury. Gaming these platforms and digging deep into how to maximise the platforms is the key and takes the longest time. Otherwise the tools and toys we use are the same as everyone else. Let’s say we have more finely sharpened those tools into effective weapons and keep researching the best way we use them.
What technology has been most important for your business? In the same context, what technology do you think is going to be most important in the future?
There isn’t a single day when we don’t try something new. We’re proud to say The Thaiger is an ever-evolving business and series of media platforms.
Whilst broadcast TV, radio and print media will have some sort of residual, and perhaps nostalgic, use into the near future, the digital horse has already bolted and the advantages, revenue returns and opportunities in the digital world are already proven and keep expanding. I’m bored of any conversations that say the future of the media is in old media. It’s just not.
Revenue streams… well, that’s the bottomline and where media has been bleeding for the past 2 decades. We’ve tried a few things, shunning the banners and paid ads from local businesses. Even now 90% of our revenue is from programmatic advertising on our website, YouTube, App (an odd hit!) and other bits and pieces. We’ve only recently started to approach local direct advertisers but, like other aspects of the media, they too have moved on.
Do you have one dominant source of revenue? What revenue source would you prefer?
Our immediate growth stream will be focussed on re-purposing media content for platforms other than the website. Like smart media were moving from their newspapers to websites 15 years ago, now the smart media are moving off their website platforms into newer options. Wherever the users/readers/viewers are going, we’re pushing media down the pipe to them. A big part of that is video.
I wake up screaming at 3am every day wondering if the news will stop and no one will want to read the news. The crux of our business is reliable, fast, consumable news updates. Of course I quickly realise that there WILL be news today, and the next. Then I wake up again at 5.30am to start a new day realising that I’m the luckiest bugger in the world and look forward to strolling into the offices and doing some more disruption.
As a digital media company, what keeps you awake at night?
Quietly, and don’t tell anyone, I really despise the comments sections on our platforms. This is something old media didn’t have to worry about… it was a 1-way street. Now it’s a 2-way conversation and the engagement can be brutal. Handling it is an ongoing task. It’s also mostly depressing and not for the faint hearted. You don’t get to see all the stuff we delete!
Well, the principal is good. At some stage the island, and the rest of Thailand, needs to re-open to travellers. And there isn’t a tourist destination in the world that doesn’t have to confront the same challenge. The situation is acute on Phuket because 95% of the revenue comes from tourists and tourism.
We are in the middle of a pandemic and Phuket is in a unique position not just within Thailand but also in the sense that it is pioneering quarantine travel. What do you see as the most successful components of the "Sandbox" and what do you think could be improved?
But the roll out was botched with the needs of the hospitality and tourism industry in a no-win dance with the public health imperatives. The government’s tourism tzars made impossible promises that could never be met and gave false hope to local Phuketians who deserved a more realistic outlook. But, to everyone’s credit, they did open up on July 1 and it’s been mildly successful, if you want to measure arrivals alone. For me the measure of success will be when the shops and tours re-open and locals can get back to work. Outside a few of the bigger hotels and monied families, that simply hasn’t happened yet.
We ended up being the bad boys and doing daily fact-checks of some of the outrageous promises made. We don’t like doing it but I believe people appreciated our honesty at a time when Phuket needed blunt answers rather than fairy tales.
Of course, behind the numbers is a lot of investment, mistakes, pain and sweat. Unless you bought a few Bitcoins 10 years ago, the best way to build a successful business is still by hard work and tough decisions. I'm lucky to have some very talented and difficult people around me who challenge me daily and force me to rethink the way a modern media company should perform. It’s those debates and difficult conversations that has led to our dynamics.
You have built a significant media business in a short space of time. What is your advice to young media entrepreneurs who are starting out?
And make sure you employ people that are smarter than you. I’m glad to say I am the dumbest person in the office.
Whilst I am still the ‘face’ of The Thaiger that will change a lot over the next 12 months because I can’t sell a business if I AM the business. So, advice for new entrepreneurs, make sure you are willing to make lots of mistakes, get up early, 7 days a week, work your guts out and believe that your brand is worth fighting for, 24 hours a day.
Thank you, Tim!
Tim Newton was interviewed by James Patrick for Lightspell.pro.
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