Online communities in Pakistan first started sprouting up in the early 2000s as the country gradually opened its doors to high-speed broadband services.
These communities took the shape of forums where users came together to share movies, games, software and discuss the latest tech trends. Soon there were lively debates and discussions with many of the members organising offline meetups and events.
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Whilst internet service providers encouraged the growth of these forums, there was an inherent problem. Most of the games and software that people shared were pirated. The authorities initially turned a blind eye but as these forums became more popular, with thousands of members, the problem was soon impossible to ignore.
“It was in April 2004 when the original Worldcall community forum got shut down due to the use of pirated software,” explains Abdullah Saad, CEO of WCCFtech. “So three or four of us, including myself, pooled in money and decided to buy the licenses to keep it going.”
WCCFtech is now a technology blog that publishes information related to gaming hardware, mobile, PC trends, and software. It boasts approximately 15 million monthly visitors with a community of over 35,000 registered members. But its origins were far more humble.
“We hosted our first forums out of a server in my house but that got shut down after an unexpected spurt of traffic,” recalls Abdullah. “We shifted to international hosting after a few months. By the end of 2005 had a healthy community of about 5,000 members discussing everything from politics to technology and current affairs.”
“We likened ourselves to VR Zone,” he says, name-checking a popular blog out of Singapore.
Despite the site’s steady traction, the founders found it tough to monetise the traffic and barely had the resources to keep it functional. To pay for things like hosting and licensing costs the team would hold an annual fundraising event. Abdullah, who was a student in Singapore at the time, spotted the cash up front and would be paid back after the proceeds from the event came through.
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He knew this wasn’t a sustainable model but didn’t know what else to do either.
The site’s first break came when one of the members of the founding team nabbed a job at Asus. The tech giant offered a few gadgets for review purposes which the team gleefully accepted.
“Asus really liked our reviews and asked us to do more,” outlines Abdullah. “But the site was still on shared hosting. A hundred people would show up at one time and it would shut down. Every second month we would shut down due to lack of resources.”
To help turn it into a serious business, some of the founders pooled in more money hoping to turn it into a data-driven publishing powerhouse. Abdullah was hired as an engineering resource, looking after things like site performance and user experience. A team of writers was also hired to help drive more traffic.
But the problems persisted. Some ill-advised decisions led to most of the cash being spent in the quest for a new front end. There was no coherent strategy in place for marketing, content, PR, or community management. Gradually the founders started to leave; most had found steady, well-paying jobs and weren’t willing to keep pumping in resources for little return.
“By early 2009 there were just a couple of us left and we were posting just for the sake of posting. It was all very amateurish as we had no idea how to run things,” explains Abdullah.
WCCFtech plodded along till 2011 focusing mainly on hardware reviews and news about Japanese games. It was attracting about 400,000 monthly page views but earned, on average, only US$100 every month as the traffic wasn’t properly monetised.
“My partner wanted to shut down the website as it was literally draining all our money,” says Abdullah.
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Abdullah’s partner now decided to leave as well to concentrate on other things. But rather than shutting down, Abdullah chose to not give up on all these years of efforts.
“I took over all operations including finance, marketing, and content and radically shifted strategy. I fired half the team, looked into business analytics, saw what was working and what wasn’t. Due to our prior focus on Japanese games we were getting a lot of traffic from Japan but not monetising it optimally,” he recalls.
Abdullah says he had to implement some radical policies in order to get the team behind his vision for the site. One of his best writers refused to implement a new content strategy so he was promptly fired. Employee headcount costs reduced by 50 percent overall, giving the entrepreneur some breathing space in terms of finances as well as flexibility to pivot.
“I hired some expensive resources, some maverick writers,” laughs Abdullah. “The idea was for the rest of the team to learn from the mavericks, to help them enhance their skills and expand the range of their abilities.”
The mavericks ended up leaving the company after a few months but their effect was invaluable. They galvanised the remaining team members into improving the quality of their writing as well as frequency of publishing.
Leading from the front
Abdullah says he had to lead by example so he became a writer too. On average he published 20 posts every day, writing between 10 to 15 thousand words daily, seven days a week.
“I published on Sundays too. I don’t take any days off. I take a month of vacation every year but no other holidays throughout the year. I had to do this to show others that it can be done.”
Fortunately for him, the writers responded positively. Abdullah says the community noticed the better content coming from WCCFtech and began engaging with it far more than before.
Within a year traffic rose from 400,000 page views to 1 million.
Better monetisation strategies meant that Abdullah now had the financial flexibility to hire writers from across the world. He did just that, roping in bloggers based in Europe and the US.
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But even as WCCFtech scaled, Abdullah explains not many global tech firms took them seriously. They wouldn’t always get the latest gizmos for reviews, and important news announcements were not exclusively given to them.
“So we made our own sources, relied on our community. We now have sources in China, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia. In some cases we have sources inside big tech firms too,” he explains.
As a result of these sources, the site often announced developments before they got on the radar of bigger Western blogs. Tech firms like NVIDIA and Intel found that they were now too big to ignore.
Make something people want
The majority of WCCFtech’s traffic is direct. Other top sources are referrals and SEO, with Reddit driving a fair percentage. An almost negligible part comes from the likes of Facebook and Twitter, which is pleasantly surprising for a news and reviews site.
“By March 2015 we had built a reputation. We are the top 50th most commented on blog in the world. We are ahead of Business Insider, Ars Technica etc. It’s not just the traffic, it’s the community we built around the product,” says Abdullah.
And he’s certainly not joking. Some of the popular posts on WCCFtech have almost 5,000 comments each. Even average posts have north of a thousand comments. That indicates a thriving, engaged community which would certainly be the envy of other publishers.
Abdullah claims one of the major factors that has helped the site grow is the fact that the team is spread out all over the globe. That allows for better monitoring of news and constant updates to the website so that readers in different time zones are well-served.
By relying on a remote team, Abdullah says he hasn’t had to burn cash for snazzy offices and the dozens of overheads that come with them. This gives him financial muscle to pay his employees better, give them excellent perks and incentives, and also send them on trips to cover conferences.
“It has saved us a lot of costs.”
“If you’re able to run your office in a decentralised manner, it’s going to save you a lot. You can actually help your own employees,” he says.
But at the same time he’s been very careful to maintain the quality of his team. To remain consistent and not compromise on editorial principles, he’s had to be stringent on hiring.
“Because of our consistency, the ones who didn’t want to work were gradually weeded out and only the most passionate writers, the ones who really cared for the site remained,” he explains. “Even after all these years I’ve never stopped the hiring and firing bit. One thing I’ve made sure is that I bring in more guys who are passionate versus those guys who are in it just for the money.”
As for his guidelines in building a community, Abdullah says it is imperative to maintain freedom of expression. Moderators do not allow threats or violent comments but generally don’t get in the way otherwise. “We don’t take sides, that has helped us,” he smiles.
The community has helped WCCFtech grow as well. They’ve been a powerful resource for news tips and suggestions and also helped editors understand what kind of content they would like to read.
Abdullah’s plans for the next three to four years?
“I want to beat The Verge by then. If we can continue growing, I see no reason why we can’t take the site to 60, 70 million page views per month,” he says. “We weren’t even part of the competition just two years ago. There’s nothing they’re doing right now which we can’t do better.”
This article originally appeared on Tech in Asia