From Great Idea to Succesful Startup: The Blinkist Story

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 12: Milestones

Hi Holger, could you introduce yourself to the Alpha Efficiency audience? Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got into the startup community?

I’m a 30-year old guy from Germany and one of the founders of Blinkist. I studied Business Administration in the beautiful town of Marburg and found my passion for entrepreneurship during my college time when I founded a student consultancy with some friends of mine and realized that it’s actually not that hard to start a business if you’ve got the right people and a good idea.

These same friends have been my partners when starting Blinkist. We all had worked in corporate jobs for almost 2 years, got tired of them, quit and found ourselves in Berlin, ready to start a new adventure.

How did you guys come to the idea of Blinkist? When did you first know you were onto a winning idea, and how did you go about developing it?

We came up with the idea for Blinkist when we joined the workforce and wanted to find a way to continue to read and learn, despite having significantly less leisure time. We realised that the majority of people were facing the same dilemma: A lack of time, and an information overload in everyday life that was making it difficult for them to learn effectively. At the same time, we saw people were increasingly using their smartphones as reading platforms, and that there was a lack of relevant knowledge and content specifically catered to these devices.

We knew from the start that the idea itself was very strong because almost everybody we had asked would like to read and learn more but just couldn’t find the time or motivation to do so. However, we also knew that it would become a challenge to find the right solution that really makes reading and learning effortless yet deep enough to compete with all the other attention-grabbers on mobile devices.

In order to develop the idea we took our own medicine: reading relevant non-fiction books and following their advice, especially the frameworks developed in The Lean Startup, Four Steps to the Epiphany and Business Model Generation. We started by testing different formats to summarize the key ideas from a non-fiction book in simple word documents, tested these formats with people from our target group and once we had a format that seemed to be working, we started developing an app around it.

What’s the productivity infrastructure that supports Blinkist? What communications and collaboration tools do you use?

We’re using Google Apps for Business (Gmail, Calendar, and Drive) and are big fans of Asana and HipChat.
HipChat keeps our email inboxes empty and our office silent because people can have quick discussions or get quick answers over there rather than writing emails or talking in the office all the time (and hence, defocusing everyone else).

Asana is our core collaboration tool. It helps us to organize our several projects and circles, discuss and solve questions and is our ‘trusted system’ when it comes to store next actions or ideas that we want to track or discuss at some point.

What tweak has to your working approach made the biggest difference for Blinkist in its early days?

Introducing office quiet hours in the mornings. Before our office would always be quite loud because people would shout across tables to get quick answers for a problem they were working on. This was very defocusing for everyone, so we introduced quiet hours before lunch and asked everyone to use HipChat for communication or meet in a different room to have longer discussions.

What was the best growth hack you’ve applied to grow your user base?

To be honest there is not one single growth hack that is really outstanding, it’s more a mix of a lot of things that helped us grow our user base. We apply a lot of different tactics from PR & Content Marketing over Paid Acqusition (e.g. through our Affiliate Program) to in-app referral mechanisms.

Since we’re a content company, one of our focus areas is Content Marketing, of course, and we continuously pitch articles like this one to big magazines and release a lot of stuff on our own digital magazine, Page 19, in order to attract more organic traffic.

In addition, we’ve got a well-working referral system which allows users to get free access beyond their free trial by referring us to their friends – this one has been working quite well for us so far, too!

Building a successful startup is a challenging experience, can you tell us how you’ve improved your personal productivity as a consequence of building Blinkist?

The biggest improvement I’ve made personally during my time at Blinkist was to learn to let go.

When you’re founding a startup, you have a strong vision and idea on where you want it to go – not only on a top-level but also when it comes to tiny details regarding the product, content or marketing activities. However, as the company grows, you have to let go of being involved in all decisions and accept that things are done differently than you would have done them. In the end, you hired people to do a certain job, and hence, you have to let them do their job. If you’ve hired well, they’re better than you in their particular field of expertise, anyway, so it’s OK to let go.

When I look back how I’ve dealt with this challenge 2 years ago, I’ve come a long way personally and am now much more capable of letting people do their things ‘their way’ which lets me sleep way better and gives me more focus for my areas of responsibility within our company.

Here at AlphaEfficiency we are a collaborative team across the different time zones. We are heavily reliant on the collaborative tools, and our readers are very fond of them as well. What is the collaborative solution that Blinkist team uses, that makes the biggest difference?

Definitely Asana. As I said before, Asana is so powerful for us and solves various problems. The most important one is that it serves as our ‘trusted system’ to store ideas, next actions, decisions and anything that we can’t process right away but don’t want to be lost, either.

I helps us to manage our projects efficiently, to not forget anything and gives every team member full transparency on each project so everyone can proactively contribute and support every project whenever they see fit.

And as a usual interview question here at Alpha Efficiency, we’d love to you to share your home screen.

My tab bar is focused on communications and surfing (Phone, WhatsApp, Mailbox, Safari).

When it comes to reading & content discovery, I frequently use Blinkist, Pocket and LinkedIn – all of them help me stay up to date and continuously learn something new or get some inspiration of what to read next.

Business-wise, I’m using Asana and HipChat on my mobile device when I’m on the go. In addition, I frequently check ZenDesk, which we’re using to manage our Customer Support tickets, in order to know quickly when something essential is not working at Blinkist.

Entertainment-wise I’m using Spotify and Sonos to get my daily dose of good vibes and Comunio – a German soccer management game that lets you play against your friends and is very addictive if you’re into soccer.

The rest of my apps (News, Social Media, Productivity, Travel) are grouped in folders because I don’t need to (or don’t want to) access them on a daily basis.

No need to explain Google Maps, Clock and Calendar I guess 😉

What’s your ultimate ambition for Blinkist, and how do you see yourselves achieving it?

We want to establish Blinkist as a global consumer brand for lifelong learning, via content and apps that fit into people’s daily routines.

There is a huge market for such a service because more and more reading and learing happens on mobile devices and there are only few services that really adapt content for such new consumption patterns, unlike a lot of players ,who just take the ‘old’ content and put it on a mobile device.

In order to achive this we’ll continue to improve our content and apps and find the right channels to grow our user base and generate more awareness for our service. There’s no magical formula to get there, just a lot of work and a little bit of luck, too 😉

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they’ve got a winning idea?

Find the right people you need to make the idea happen and just get started – it’s very not that hard to start a business and with the right people it usually doesn’t take long to develop a minimum viable product to attract your first customers and secure some seed funding to go further.

If you haven’t found the right co-founders yet: Don’t be afraid that someone might steal your idea, because finding the right people requires you to talk about your idea. Go out and sell your idea, get other people’s feedback, improve your idea and pitch and go out again. The more people know about your idea and the more people like it, the more they will talk about it to their friends and at some point someone will come back to you and introduce you to the perfect co-founder.

Thanks for talking to Alpha Efficiency Magazine!