Pando

Pando memberships: One year on

By Sarah Lacy and Paul Bradley Carr , written on June 22, 2016

From The Inside Baseball Desk

Exactly one year ago, we took a bold step. Pando moved from a primarily ad-supported model to a primarily subscriber-supported one.

You can read the full explanation here, but the short version is this: We didn’t want to go pure-paywall, because we think our reporting should be read by more than thousands of people who can afford $100 a year.

But, twelve months ago, two things were becoming clear:

1) Our reporting was increasingly an adversarial anomaly in an access journalism world. We’d had threats of pulling ad dollars from us before, called the bluff of those making the threat and still managed to survive. But one day our luck would run out: A major advertiser would cave to pressure (or would find themselves the subject of a negative story on Pando) and yank their spending with us.

2) Most of our advertising and sponsorship customers were newly public SAAS based businesses or ones hoping to go public. And some sort of correction was on the horizon. Our then-multi-million dollar a year ad business had grown year over year at a nice clip. But it was gonna get crushed in 2016.

We still have the same three revenue lines we’ve had since the beginning of Pando: Advertising, events, and subscribers. But we knew our heavy bet to emphasize the third was undoubtedly going to hurt the first. Our traffic would fall, even with the innovative unlock technology we’d bought along with NSFWCORP. And part of our commitment to subscribers was writing way fewer, better articles and publishing once a day. Even doing the same traffic per post, overall traffic would fall. That was just a reality.

So many companies have been in this position: Kill something that seems to be working now, but you know is going to stumble soon, and hope the new thing you replace it with works.

And make no mistake: We hadn’t raised any venture capital since 2013. We had no cushion. If it didn’t work, we’d be yet another content company that tried hard to do right by its readers and ultimately failed.

But it was the right thing to do for our business and our mission. As we wrote last June:

There’s an old mantra, often applied to social networks: If you’re not the customer, you’re the product. It was from that starting point -- that we should work, first and foremost, for readers not advertisers -- that we began considering how Pando should evolve.

Paul and I have always been willing to go out of business for the right reasons. But, fortunately, we didn’t have to.

A year later, we have close to (but not quite) 5,000 subscribers and almost seventy Pando Patrons. We’ve also spun off (or helped spin off) three podcasts into stand alone subscription vehicles with all of the money going to the individual contributors. Readers and listeners are directly paying Pando writers and contributors tens of thousands of dollars every month to keep doing what we do.

Meantime, unlocks have allowed us to still share our journalism to an audience several times larger than these subscribers, and sponsors like Braintree have allowed us to gift thousands of free memberships to groups that can’t afford them but value the reporting.

It’s not a bad life for a content startup. We write everyday, our words have a sizable impact, and thousands of the most interesting, successful and influential people in global business pay us $10 a month each as a result. Ad sales are doing fine, but we don’t live or die on them. They simply allow us to do more. We don’t have to worry about raising money from investors ever again. And unless thousands of you cancel at the same time (please don't do that) we won’t ever go under. We don’t have to play games with grabby headlines, volume, or Facebook hacks. We just try to do good work.

We still have challenges. We’ve had to reduce headcount more than we’d like. And senior employees remaining at the company (that means us) have taken sizeable pay cuts, which isn’t easy in San Francisco. Growth and getting more distribution are a huge challenge and frustration for us, as they are for most media companies.

We can’t afford to do nearly as much freelance and commissioning of major pieces like this as we’d like. And we have a lot of opportunities to grow and expand that our core business simply can’t fund. We’ve made a decision to push opportunities like that down the road, rather than fall back into the venture capital trap and lose control of our own destiny.

Still, here’s just a random sampling of the journalism, analysis and commentary we’ve published over the last year: 

A Holacracy of Dunces

"We got geeks": Inside Google's ugly war against the homeless in LA

Viva Disruption! How Uber outspent the casinos to buy Vegas

The truth about Uber in China

Oligarchy in the USA

What Twitter and Yahoo should do next

Airbnb’s political machine in San Francisco is lead by an opposition researcher that even Karl Rove admired

Peter Thiel can't intellectualize his way out of this: Only an asshole would support Donald Trump

Tim Cook is a smart CEO, so why would he do something this stupid?

None of those would have seen the light of day without subscribers. If you want more of it, there's an easy way to help: Subscribe to Pando now. Now that we’re profitable (barely!) every additional dollar of subscription goes to funding more journalism.

The beauty is if you work in tech or finance, you can probably expense your $10 a month subscription. In San Francisco, that’s cheaper than the company buying you one sandwich a month. (Especially if it’s delivered via Postmates.)

The first three months after our launch last year, we got a flood of annual subscriptions right off the bat from people who believed in us. We’ll always be grateful in particular for those and our Pando Patrons, but also for every single person who has subscribed since.

Thank you!