Product lessons from building our subscription service Extra Crunch

Subscription has been all the rage in media circles as the industry searches for new, sustainable business models. We’ve seen companies from infrastructure plays like Substack and Pico to brand verticals like Holloway and The Athletic receive venture funding, all with the goal of changing the economics of news, information and entertainment.
Every day, I get the fortune of talking with founders about their startups and writing about them on TechCrunch, but I’ve also been something of an intrapreneur myself, building out product in the form of TechCrunch’s membership service Extra Crunch as EC’s executive editor over the past two years.
This month, I am transitioning to work on new projects at TechCrunch, and my co-editor Eric Eldon is now going to lead the charge on Extra Crunch as executive editor working in tandem with our new EC senior editor Walter Thompson.
So given the changing of the editorial guard, I wanted to write down some thoughts about editorial product strategy as well as some of the hard-won lessons learned about what worked and what didn’t in building a subscription product in today’s media environment.

The art of building an editorial product strategy within constraints

Before we get into some lessons though, I want to talk about product strategy a little bit. Every startup needs a product strategy, and Extra Crunch was no exception. The difference is that we are fundamentally an editorial product, which means that instead of transforming lines of codes into functional software, we take ideas, interviews, research, and analysis and transform them into articles and other media that users (hopefully!) want to pay for.
Product strategy involves devising a plan within constraints, and TechCrunch was no exception.
The first constraint was that we were not starting from scratch. Unlike a startup, TechCrunch has been here for years and has a strong brand name in the startup community, millions of passionate readers, a successful advertising and events business, and an editorial org that knows how to be productive. We couldn’t just throw out the playbook that has worked for years in the pursuit of a new business model that was untested. And so from the beginning, we had to have an attitude of evolution rather than one of revolution.
Second, we had limited resources in terms of capital and talent. TechCrunch is not a venture-backed company with millions of dollars in funding waiting to be burned in our bank account. Instead, we are a successful, sustainable and sometimes ridiculously efficient media business owned by a telecom that rewards proven financial performance. So when we launched, I was the only dedicated editorial position for Extra Crunch, along with a smattering of freelancers. As we have proven our success since launch this past February, we have since expanded to three dedicated editorial positions for EC. Throughout, we’ve had to have a strategy that was careful about spending our resources.
Third, we had to design a strategy that encompassed the talents of our existing staff. TechCrunch has consistently avoided the “hire a bunch of people and then fire a bunch of people” waves that hit New York media companies again and again and again by relying on smart reporters who can adapt with the changing tides of media. Extra Crunch was no exception — we wanted to build a product that every one of our writers could contribute to.
Those were the constraints. On top of that, I had a couple of personal rules for the product.
First, I hate metered paywalls (i.e. any model that charges you after reading a set number of articles) with a fiery passion. It has never made sense to me that articles could be free for some people, paid for others, or that the article that tries to force a conversion could be a news brief and not one of the best articles a site has published. To optimize for conversions, you want to trigger a conversation around moving from free to paid at just the right time, and not because the article clock has ticked down to zero.
Second, I didn’t want any of our writers to be placed entirely behind the paywall. Everything in subscription (media or not) should be focused on guiding users through the conversion funnel. If a writer is entirely behind the paywall, how can anyone sample their work or start to engage with that voice?
Third and finally, we had to charge for the right kinds of content. People don’t pay for news. They don’t, they won’t, and every time we as an industry ask users to do so, we fail (minus maybe the NYT and WSJ). At TechCrunch, our startup news coverage drives a huge loyal following and is a major credibility point of pride for many early-stage founders. It’s not good business to put that core offering behind a paywall.
With all those constraints and rules in mind, what we ended up centering Extra Crunch on was solving the problems facing founders in building their startups. That included how to raise venture capital, recruit talent, grow, pay themselves, work with PR agencies, and much, much more. I was previously a VC, and so I essentially channeled all the questions my founders would ask me into articles that solved those problems. Since launch in February, we’ve published about 600 articles on these topics.

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