True to the motto “Great ideas in small packages”, the Berlin start-up Blinkist summarizes the key texts of non-fiction books into 15-minute audio books. The library currently contains more than 3,000 non-fiction books in 27 categories. Each month 40 more are added – and the response from customers is impressive. To date, 10 million people worldwide use Blinkist’s services, and the number is increasing every month.
Holger Seim, Co-Founder Blinkist, in an interview with Innovation Origins
How did you come up with the idea of founding your start-up?
We got the idea for Blinkist at the end of 2011. The four of us had been been working for a year and realized that we no longer had the time to read as much we did while we were studying because our jobs took up too much time. At the same time, more and more people were buying smartphones and consuming more content on the move. These ever-changing reading and user habits gave us the idea for Blinkist. At first, we produced the abridged works only as text, two years later, the audio production followed.
How does this summarizing of the books work? Freelancers? Journalists? Editors?
The books are summarized in several steps by freelance authors, then by editorial experts who check them for language and facts, finally, they are recorded and produced by professional speakers and our own audio team. Blinkist takes about 10 days from the abridged text to the audio version. An average of seven people are involved in the production of a title.
Who decides which books are included in the program?
At Blinkist, we have a German-language and an English-language editorial team. We also have a full-time curator who monitors the book market and bestseller lists on a daily basis. She keeps herself informed about new publications and ultimately decides which books should be included in our library. Not every non-fiction book is suitable for Blinkist (for example, it is difficult to abridge books which have a high proportion of pictures associated with key texts).
What makes Blinkist special compared to other audio books? Would you say that your books are for people who are too lazy to read “real” books?
Not at all. On the contrary: Our users are inquisitive and keen readers who want to actively integrate lifelong learning into their everyday lives. We see many users using Blinkist as an introduction to new titles and topics to find out which areas they want to explore further or if some of these provide more food for thought. However, there is one thing all users have in common: in addition to Blinkist, they also use other formats with which they are able to delve deeper into topics, such as non-fiction books or extended podcasts.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
A year and a half after starting the company, at the end of 2013, we were on the verge of insolvency because we had not managed to establish our business model quickly enough and could not generate enough revenue to cover our costs. Due to the still very shaky structure, it was a huge challenge to find new funds and investors and ultimately it took longer than planned.
One of the hardest moments at Blinkist was at the end of November 2013 when we had to tell our 10 employees that we could not pay their salaries in December and January, and that we could only pay them if the funding negotiations that we were in were to be successfully completed that January.
Of course, we are still “sparring” – but that is normal for a start-up! Especially in the pursuit of customers, strategic partners and investors ….
Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?
At that time, we felt as if we had failed and let down our employees. But we never thought about giving up – quite the contrary, we considered it our responsibility to get ourselves out of this situation.
In the end, we came out of this situation stronger than ever: all employees stayed on board and we became even closer to each other as a team. We, the founders, swore at the time that we would never again be so dependent on investor money and that the business would rather grow more slowly if that was called for.
And vice versa: What was the best moment for you when it came to founding the company? What are you most proud of?
The fact that we now employ 130 people from more than 40 countries, and that more than 10 million people have already used our product, still feels overwhelming.
In addition, there are many small moments that make me proud. One of those moments was a long time ago: I sat on the train from Düsseldorf to Berlin, and in Dortmund a man got on board, sat next to me, took out his smartphone and started reading Blinkist. Eventually, we talked for the rest of the train ride and it was great to hear from him how he uses Blinkist and how it helps him.
What can we look forward to in the years to come? What can we expect from you in the coming years?
New formats! We are currently playing around with the length of the titles because many customers are interested in more detailed formats. This summer, we are also introducing a new algorithm to the app which makes title suggestions even more intelligent and individualized. With currently more than 3,000 titles, this inconspicuous change will have a big influence on how our customers use Blinkist.
What is your vision: Where do you see your company in 5 years time and what is your ultimate goal?
Our long-term goal is to establish Blinkist as the leading global brand for lifelong learning. In five years, we will offer our customers even more content – thematically as well as in formats & scope – to meet various needs along the lifelong path of learning.
Founders: Holger Seim, Niklas Jansen, and Tobias Balling
Year of foundation: 2013
Financing: “Blinkist Premium” subscription for €12.99 per month or €79.99 per year. In May 2019, the company also received a five-digit euro investment from Insight Venture Partners, IBB Bet and e.ventures for the development of new markets.
Number of employees: 130 from more than 40 nations
Long Term Vision: Establish Blinkist as the leading global brand for lifelong learning.