June 1, 2017

Rafat Ali doesn’t want to be boring.

Who can blame him? With media companies sprouting up and withering away at a frantic pace, there’s no substitute for surprising and delighting readers who have a nearly unlimited supply of alternatives to consider. That’s why Ali, the founder and CEO of the travel media company Skift, can’t abide sitting still.

“People in the industry say that Skift is a sexy travel media brand,” Ali said. “A lot of them want to be associated with us because we’re cool. The problem with being cool is, you could become uncool at some point. So my job is to figure out how not to lose that relevance.”

That’s why Skift, which was founded in 2012 with roughly $400,000 in seed funding, is beginning to tinker with several new ideas: Expanding to cover the business of dining out, launching a documentary series, producing an ink-and-paper book and providing early access to its stories in an attempt to lure subscribers.

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Undergirding this experimentation is Ali’s hope that Skift, which now counts 40 employees in New York, San Francisco, London and Berlin, could eventually become the primary outlet for companies that specialize in travel, dining and high-end retail — a coveted audience for advertisers, but one fought over by a host of other publications.

It’s unclear yet whether Skift will develop these coverage niches into standalone verticals or build them under the ambit of the main brand, Ali said. The company, which covers travel from both a consumer and a business standpoint through free stories, newsletters, paid research and semi-annual conferences, could do either.

“Between travel, food and retail, pretty much all of disposable income is spent, from a leisure perspective.” Ali said. “If we can build a business information company that spans the majority of people’s disposable income, that’s a powerful company to build. But that’s a long-term plan for now.”

Short term, the company is focused on shoring up its biggest money spinners and trying out new ideas on the side, Ali said. Skift will cross the eight-figure revenue mark next year through a combination of branded content, conferences and subscriptions to its $1,795 per year research service, Ali said. It’s foregoing new venture funding for now and focusing on sustaining gradual, profitable growth.

The new projects — the documentary series, the book and the new bonus for subscribers — are designed to help readers view “the world of travel in a fresh way at all times,” said Ali, who made a name for himself as the founder of the tech and media site paidContent, which was purchased by The Guardian in 2008.

Skift is planning to produce the documentaries, about one per quarter, using the name “Skift Lens,” Ali said. The production will be handled on a contract basis, and global travel will be the overarching focus, Ali said.

The book, which will commemorate Skift’s five-year anniversary, will likely be released sometime early in the fall and focus on business, Ali said. Skift will sell copies of the book, which was inspired in part by the publishing operations of Monocle magazine.

And the early access feature is aimed at Skift obsessives who need one more incentive to spring for the company’s $1,795 annual subscription fee. Launched earlier this year, the feature allows subscribers to read the stories as much as 14 hours before they’re published in the company’s morning newsletter. It’s “a great thing for our salespeople to use as an additional push to close sales,” Ali said.

“There’s a dark period where nobody gets the stories for as much as 12 or 14 hours,” Ali said. “Because we’ve stepped away from chasing the tail of news, we’re focusing on big original stories. But those big, original stories are ready a lot earlier than when they’re published. So why not give that benefit to the people who pay us a whole bunch of money?”

Also in the works at Skift: A mobile app that will allow the company to send push notifications, a pending move to a larger New York office and growing coverage on the business of dining out. The company has purchased a weekly newsletter, Chefs+Tech, which it plans to expand into daily coverage. Skift’s co-founder, Jason Clampet, is now focused on overseeing the company’s editorial expansion, Ali said.

Ali says he’s open to the idea of eventually selling the company if a good offer comes along, but he’s not wedded to the idea. During an interview, he quoted a line from “Finish Big,” a book that describes how entrepreneurs have exited their businesses while preserving their underlying mission.

“You should build a business today as if you will own it forever but could sell it tomorrow,” he said.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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