Every 60 seconds, new numbers appear on the monitor hanging in the center of the office. New customers (a high number), lost customers (a very low number), a world map with dots (active users) – at Blinkist, they always know who is currently reading and where. Right now, 500,000 registered users in more than 150 countries. The start-up, which summarizes non-fiction books in short but dependable snippets, was launched by Holger Seim, 31, and three other co-founders in 2013.
Holger, let’s start with the most important, fundamental question: How do you squeeze a thick work of non-fiction into a piece of text that takes 15 minutes to read?
We always start with the key message. Then we provide arguments that support that key message. We try to explain everything using examples and metaphors – by just using as much visual language as possible. That helps the reader to retain information. Still, we always use what’s in the book. We highlight the most fascinating statements and examples and use them to build a structure that’s as understandable as possible. And we have to choose what we see as important and not important. That is, of course, subjective.
Do you have general guidelines for summarizing works in this way?
Our 80 or so freelance writers have a guide about what constitutes a typical “Blink” – that’s what we call our texts. In other words, what’s relevant and why, and how they can judge that as objectively as possible.
Why non-fiction books? After all, knowledge exists in many different formats.
A book quite simply has a very high value, an aura. People think to themselves: “I’d be as smart as all of these books if I could read them.” We are, of course, considering other types of media, too.
You could, in fact, simply act as a multimedia funnel for knowledge.
Our vision is for Blinkist to be a service for mobile learning. With the emphasis on mobile. If you look at the learning sector, you’ll see that the landscape is becoming increasingly digitalized. Take languages, for example. Back in the day, people used to do a language course at their adult education center, or bought cassettes and books. Today, there is an enormous digital market for service providers like Babbel or Duolingo. Anything that boosts your vocational skills or general knowledge is now becoming a category in its own right. And there is hardly anyone providing services for that right now. Sure, there are a lot of web-based options. But many of them don’t work on smartphones or tablets, or are unsuitable for the scenarios where people would actually use them. So we are the service where you can learn something new while you’re out and about.
Don’t you want to offer fiction as well?
There is no market for us in novels, because shortening them takes away from the excitement of the story. That would, at best, work for old doorstoppers, for classics that people don’t want to read all the way through.
So was there a certain Eureka moment when one of you had a thick book fall on his foot and you all thought: “There has to be another way of doing this”?
Sebastian, a co-founder who is now also responsible for content, has always read a lot of non-fiction and made notes as he went along. At some point he sent these notes to his friends so they would also benefit from what he was reading. They really liked it. So we thought: there must be people out there who would pay money for that. We started by summarizing 15 books and showing them to a small circle of people. We got good feedback. Which makes sense, as hardly anyone would ever say that they didn’t want to read anything or learn something new. And so the investors liked it, too.
What is the most important factor that ensures people really use a learning service like yours?
Even after condensing content, learning is and always will be a matter of will power. There is always something else that promises simpler gratification. The sense of satisfaction you get by having a quick look at Facebook feels more immediate and takes a lot less effort. Our challenge was this: it has to be easy to get started and the benefit has to come quickly. At Blinkist, it only takes a minute of reading to cover a whole chapter and learn something new. We could even gamify it and make it more interactive. Apart from that, we also know that audio is a lot easier for the users. Audio users consume 50% more content than users who only read.
Why is that?
There are simply more situations where people can listen to audio. During exercise or while driving. And you can leave it on in the background, pause it quickly, and then start listening again. You can’t do that with reading. More importantly, knowledge has to be relevant. It has to provide your life with some kind of benefit in an immediate way. The more useful the contents, the more likely people will keep going. Even if it simply gives people a great story to tell at the next party they go to. This light-bulb moment at having learnt something new is the best way to get your endorphins flowing.
How well can you personalize this experience?
We’re currently developing a recommendation engine, similar to the one at Amazon, that says: “If you like this book, then …” In the next step, for logins via Facebook or LinkedIn, we can take into account the data people have entered there. At best, we can provide the perfect recommendations without users ever noticing. We generally put a lot of emphasis on linking the channel and content. We’re not cramming in content just anywhere. Our customers receive content in the ideal form on every device.
A lot of publishers are skeptical at first. But they do listen to what we have to say. Only one publishing house accused us after a meeting of damaging their market. I always respond to that by saying: If you really think that a five-page summary can ruin a 200-page book, then why do you still publish those kinds of books?
Whole non-fiction books? A maximum of five a year. Preferably biographies. I simply need a human story.