Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

On growing niche media: Insights from AgriBriefing CEO Rory Brown

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Rory Brown, co-founder and CEO of AgriBriefing, speaks about building a niche B2B business, the issues with finance in media, Agribriefing’s acquisition strategy, and keeping an entrepreneurial spirit alive as a larger company.

In the news roundup the team takes a look at the welcome trend of new climate change verticals, have a discussion about the death of Quibi, and Time’s new children-focused subscription. With apologies to Elton John.

See the full transcript here, or highlights below:

The starting point for Briefing Media

We saw if we could build a series of vertical online communities, and gather engagement, then there were many ways of monetizing that, and we’ve done that throughout our careers at various jobs.

But the premise was to say, let’s build a site with personality, something that isn’t dry. Let’s hire a lead editor to gather and sort of corral the troops and gather information for that vertical sector that helped them do their job better. But let’s not do it in the old fashioned way of hiring a graduate out of journalism school and giving them a beat and staffing up a whole team. Let’s think about a different way of doing this.

So how can we apply technology to help us in that area? And how can we really build personality-led media sites?

Spotting an opportunity with Farmers Guardian

This isn’t part of a master plan. This was an opportunistic purchase. So Neil and I had been discussing with UBM for a while the fact that they were getting out of their traditional trade publishing assets, and trying to promote themselves as an events and exhibitions company. We were given a roster of a whole load of things they were looking to sell, and asked if we were interested in any of them.

And we just came across Farmers Guardian, a sort of classic story of an unloved sort of ‘ginger-haired stepchild’ of a large media firm, sitting out in Preston, that was a pretty great brand. My grandparents were readers of it, been going for 170 years. And yet it was unloved.

Financing media businesses

I think the wider picture about how media companies blame finance for going wrong, nine times out of 10, that’s not actually the issue. The issue was that someone came up with a shit business model, managed to convince a whole load of people with money that they invented something new, got ridiculous finance off the back of fanciful projections about where that business was going, and then surprisingly, all those chickens came home to roost and everyone walked away with their tail between their legs and huge losses.

So often, finance gets the blame for actually what are really bad decisions by media owners who have badly thought out business models, which usually focus on one form of revenue stream. And suddenly, surprise, surprise, that revenue stream falls over, and the whole thing unravels.

In our case, we had a plan, we took it to a wide range of different investors, we were very choosy about who we chose, who understood that plan, and who backed that plan. And then our job was to execute on that plan, and to make sure that we did it well, and that we communicated properly, and that we weren’t building projections that were just totally made up.

Everything was grounded on reality, and if anything, whenever we presented our plan, we would always err on the side of caution rather than being too adventurous, so that we knew the things that we were in control of, and that we were – I supposed to use a Neil sailing analogy – we were plotting our own course, and not suddenly vulnerable to a change of wind direction.

Developing an acquisition strategy

Obviously, there’s only two ways you can really grow the businesses, it’s organically or going out and buying things and having a larger strategy. Now that we’ve decided that agriculture and agribusiness is the sector that we work in, we work in a relatively limited pool of available acquisition targets.

So our first job is to go and identify them, and to set the parameters around the type of business that we want to buy, and the type of business that we think we would be good owners of, and that would integrate well with the rest of the business.

We spend a lot of money on that. We hire professional research firms, we hire corporate development people; I spend a huge amount of my time personally going out and networking with other people who operate in our sector, talking to people about the information services and data services that they use amongst our customers. What do they value?

Running a small business vs a larger business

People sometimes ask me, whether it’s easier or harder running a big business or a small business, and in lots of ways, it’s easier.

So if we roll back to the old days that you and I remember of the Media Briefing, my house was on the line every day. I remortgaged my house, I was every now and again, having to delve into my bank account to pay a supplier or pay people’s wages or whatever else… In one way you relish the fact of coming out of corporate life and being your own boss, but it’s a scary place to be as well.

So now we have multiple revenue streams, we have about 60% of our revenue is high value enterprise recurring subscription revenue, which just allows you to relax a little better in terms of what you’re doing with very high renewal rates, and you can take longer term bets, and you can take gambles on new products, and you can invest in good people and all of those things.

But what you want to do is try and avoid becoming the big bureaucracy that you left in your corporate life, so to keep that sort of entrepreneurial and start up spirit going.