Blinkist co-founder Holger Seim hasn’t been sleeping well. But it’s not because of his business – the book-summarising startup that has won positive reviews from the likes of Forbes (“This may be the greatest app you download in 2018”) and The New York Times and which recently surpassed ten million registered users. No, it’s due to some happy news – the sleeplessness that comes with parenting a five-month-old baby. In terms of the business, he’s quick to assure me that everything’s running smoothly: “We have a team of really engaged employees, everyone believes in our product, we have happy customers. So long as your customers and your employees are happy and the business is growing, the rewards definitely balance out the challenges.”
Tech know-it-alls will tell you that Blinkist’s origin story is rooted in Berlin, the city the startup was founded in. But really, Blinkist goes back further than that – to the picturesque riverside town of Marburg, an hour north of Frankfurt, where Blinkist’s original four founders – Seim, Sebastian Klein (who left the company in 2015), Tobias Balling and Niklas Jansen – studied. This makes for a particularly neat origin story about a storytelling service – after all, none other than the Brothers Grimm also studied in the same town. After discovering their shared interest in entrepreneurship, the foursome started a student consultancy together because that was their area of interest back then. But after starting working and realising how little time they had left over to devote to reading and learning, they had a brainwave for a new project: what if you could summarise books in a way that meant you could work through your reading list 15 minutes at a time?
It’s not their only great idea. I’m struck by how unusual it feels to encounter a startup run by so many co-founders. Seim argues it’s more of an advantage than anything else: “If you’ve established a good relationship with your co-founders, then you have a good starting point and the other founders can take some of the weight off your shoulders. After all, they’re just as invested in the startup and just as engaged by it as you are.” For Seim, if the relationship is healthy, then multiple co-founders means a better work-life balance. But how do they align on a decision when they disagree? He explains that they have a “domain” system – he handles marketing, his co-founder Niklas is focused on the product and people, while as CTO Tobias takes care of everything related to code (what platforms they’re using, for example). This means that each co-founder gets the final say when it comes to an issue in their “domain.” Their other solution for handling problems is to promote a culture of discussion. Seim is eager to stress that consensus isn’t vital to him – what’s vital to him is that none of the founders should reach decisions alone. “It’s OK to disagree. What’s important to us is that there is a discussion beforehand and all perspectives are heard. We think this improves the chances of us reaching a good decision.”
For anyone hoping to replicate Blinkist’s multiple co-founder model, Heim has some words of advice. “Be brutally honest and open about tensions early on and make an active effort to solve them because if you don’t, it will eventually and inevitably be too late. And as in every good relationship, you need to work on things.”
One such relationship Blinkist nurtured in the early days was with hubraum. He describes how hubraum was initially an investor in the business and how, besides the early help of the financial investment, “they were really helpful in getting the word out initially by leveraging some of Deutsche Telekom’s efforts. They also assisted us by connecting Blinkist to mentors in the Berlin startup ecosystem.”
It’s led to an upwards trajectory that feels virtually unstoppable. Blinkist started focusing more on their international markets in the tail-end of 2018, when they hired an international growth team and hired country managers to start localising their marketing and business efforts. They’re now focusing more on English-speaking countries (UK, Canada, Australia) as well as markets where people are more disposed to reading in English(think: India, Singapore, Malaysia, the Nordics, the Netherlands). They’re also trying to make books available that reflect local interests – instead of just picking the bestsellers from The New York Times, for example, they’re “also checking what the UK bestseller list has to offer for British people.”
When you’re a success story, I point out, people usually want advice on how to replicate that success. So what would Seim advise people who want to found their own startups? “Don’t overthink things. Just get started. Even the biggest challenge can be broken down into smaller steps. Ultimately, you just need to start and take that first step and tackle problems when they arise.”
Blinkist In 15 Seconds
Blinkist was hubraum’s very first investment and to date, the only investment hubraum has ever made after nothing more than a single powerpoint presentation. These days, we only invest in more mature – though early stage – startups that already have a product and ideally, also their first customers.