Insight's Growth Gurus series showcases inspiring leaders from our portfolio of growth-stage software and internet companies. In this interview, Onsite talks to Holger Seim, Founder and CEO of Blinkist, a mobile app that distills the key insights of 2,000+ bestselling nonfiction books into powerful 15-minute snippets to read or listen to on a mobile device.
When you were young, growing up, were you an avid book reader?
One of the earliest books I remember reading was Tom Sawyer. I would read occasionally, but I was definitely not a bookworm. When I started University, there were some aspects of school I liked and some I didn’t. When I started to find my passion for business, I also developed a passion for reading non-fiction business books to learn more about it.
What was the inspiration behind building Blinkist?
My university friends and I started our first business together, a student consultancy to help local companies around town. We got a lot of students interested, acquired a lot of projects, and built an organization of more than 50 students. We realized that it’s a lot of fun to start something. Fast forward to post-graduation and we all got our own jobs. We realized it was much harder to find time to learn when you’re working all the time. At about this time, consuming content on smart phones really started to take off. We brought these two insights together and said, “Let’s create summaries of books and optimize it for mobile so that people can consume it and create new reading and learning habits.”
You mentioned your other co-founders. How did you come together? Were there separate visions at first?
We always had the same vision. What drove us when we started the student consultancy was to help people learn, and that’s the same for Blinkist. The vision has always been to build a leading destination for lifelong learners. There was a natural role separation based on our interests and skills and since we worked together previously, it worked well. Eventually, we discovered we weren’t aligned in everything in detail, but we learned over the years to have constructive conflict and align our visions.
Onsite Editor’s note: Niklas Jensen is co-founder and Managing Director, Tobias is CTO, while Holger Seim is CEO.
I listened to a talk that you recently gave where you advocated that subscription businesses should focus first on creating a sense of belonging and membership with their consumers. Do you mind sharing a little bit more about that, and the subscription business in general?
The message that I gave at that talk was quite aspirational. That's what we want Blinkist to be, it's not where we already are. When you’re a part of a community, you naturally tend to engage more. We try to be relatable, to be human, and showcase the humans behind Blinkist. We want people to feel that it's not just an anonymous service, but it's people who read books and love them. We also try to bring great customer stories to the surface, so people get inspired about how others are using Blinkist.
Do you have a favorite customer story?
There is a mother from New York who built a business while taking care of two young kids. Blinkist was perfect because she didn't have much time to read about how to build a business and overcome challenges, but our book summaries gave her the key insights she needed. It's nice to know that we empowered her get these insights, and that we were able to connect her with the right books to make a difference.
As you grew Blinkist, do you recall any key moments or challenges?
I think we maybe started two years too early. Digital subscription models weren’t that big back in 2012. Every investor we talked to said, “I don’t know if people are going to subscribe to that because people are cautious of subscriptions. It’s a content business, not a tech business, so how do you scale that?” Our first round of funding wasn’t difficult, because we could pitch the idea and people resonated with it. However, once we got started and needed another seed round it was difficult to validate. We had to tell a team of 12 people in late 2013 that we had to let them go to avoid bankruptcy. For people who wanted to stay, we made an agreement that we’d pay them after another round of funding. People decided to fight, and two months later we closed an additional round. We learned our lessons in 2012 and 2013. 2014 was the year things really started to move in the right direction.
What do you think it was about that time period that allowed you to be successful?
A lot of different things. Offering audio versions of our Blinkist summaries created an engaged audience who was willing to pay. We simplified our business model by decreasing the variety of subscription types. We learned how to make the most of digital marketing and built additional experience and confidence to invest more in marketing. Organizationally, we found a more stable structure to start scaling effectively.
When did Insight Partners come into the picture?
We raised our Series A at the end of 2015. Then at the end of 2016, one year after series A, we got in touch with Insight and closed in January 2017. That was for the Series B.
For other entrepreneurs out there, what advice would you give them to really leverage an investor?
It really depends on the investor. We've had investors that have always been investors, and sometimes investors have been operators before. If you talk to an investor who has been an operator, that person can give you a lot of direct advice based on their own experience. If you have an investor who hasn't been an operator, they don't have that knowledge and experience firsthand, but can put you in touch with the right people. We leverage our investors by telling them what's on our mind, what works, what we're struggling with. All these details empower them to make the right connections for us. One of our board members from Insight Partners is Thilo Semmelbauer. He has been an operator, so he can introduce us to a lot of great partners, but he also has a lot of knowledge and experience you can ask about firsthand.
As you've now grown the company for a number of years, what are you most excited about? What's your North Star?
Our purpose is to inspire people to keep learning. There’s a universal need, and I don’t see a brand that’s tackling this problem comprehensively. We’ve built a huge testimony. Not only do we have the right ideas, but the right people to deliver value to customers. We’re working on some really exciting initiatives that we’re going to launch in January and February of 2020. There’s a lot of opportunity ahead of us.
Fire Round Questions
What is your favorite book and favorite Blinkist summary?
Mindset by Carol S. Dweck.
What author would you choose to write your biography?
Michael Lewis because I love his style and all of his books. My life is not as interesting and exciting as the stories he usually writes about, but he could probably give it a more interesting spin.